30 days wild, 20

It’s pretty much the wintriest of birds, the Barnacle Goose.

It comes to the UK and Ireland from one of three main populations (the far northern Russian archipelago Novaya Zemlya, the Norwegian island of Svalbard, or Greenland) and settles in Western Scotland, Ireland and also the Netherlands between about October and March. One of those vast, extraordinary migrations that boggle the mind briefly and make us point and stare and think. For a while, at least. From cold bleak and blasted shore to colder bleaker and more blasted shore.

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It certainly confused observers a thousand years ago, who, so bewildered by the birds’ sudden appearance in the winter months and their complete vanishing act in Spring, wondered where they went and how they came to be. The common conviction was that they sprang from barnacles, fully formed, while overseas, and returned to us as adults.

They’re one of the Branta or black geese species. There are others that may be more familiar, Canada Geese and Brent Geese; the Brent Goose, a similar and similarly behaved bird, even hangs on to the latin name Branta bernicla.

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All of which is very interesting, but why on earth, the day before midsummer, did I see four of them walking across a Bedfordshire meadow, incongruously muttering to themselves as they sauntered along under a cloud of grass pollen? I saw some last summer too, behind my office, sat in a field of beets helping themselves to the fresh leaves. They stayed for weeks.

Well, perhaps less romantic than springing shockingly from barnacles stuck to leisure craft along the Nene (an extraordinary notion in itself), it seems there is a small but thriving feral population. It’s possible I suppose that they may have been wild birds that had become lost and stayed here, but more likely they were escapees. Bold and distinctive, Barnacle Geese are pretty popular with waterfowl collectors. Google them, if that’s your thing: they usually fetch £50-£100 a pair.

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30 days wild, 19

It seems there are dog roses everywhere. Today, they were lavish, raging along the hedgerow and spilling over onto the grass verges.

They’re full of insects, hoverflies for the most part, but leaning over and looking into the flowers’ delicate pink and white bowls, I could hear a darker sinister mass behind the leaves, the thorny shadows buzzing and heaving with sharp stingy life.

It’s an obvious contrast, the beauty, the fierce hooks beneath the leaves. Dog roses, briar roses, eglantine if you like, are a good symbol for romantic allusion. The Brothers Grimm called their version of Sleeping Beauty Dornröschen, the “little briar rose”. It’s a part of the story that makes it into Disney’s 1959 cartoon (the rest mostly follows Perrault’s La Belle au Bois dormant), where the exiled Princess is given the alias Briar Rose to protect her from the vengeful Maleficent.

Into the forest she goes, surrounded by the birds and cutesy animals. And there, Disney too goes back to nature. The association dropped into place as soon as I looked into the briars, and multiple watchings and rewatchings that my girls made me sit through suddenly made sense. And I smiled like a fool for the rest of my walk.

30 days wild, 18

And in all my urging to embrace the wild I witter on. I walked around Wicken Fen today, and its gloom, its thousand layers of grey and green worked on me.

Here.

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30 days wild, 17

The last few days have taken a bite out of me; we’ve seen one tragedy overseas added to by another here on our own streets and I skipped a beat, quite honestly. I was overtaken.

I could not comprehend why, when surrounded by the wondrous, the beautiful and the ecstatically inexplicable – the sheer joy of happy bafflement – why barriers and division would inspire anyone.

How can it be, when all the enrapturing cacophony of Nature is just one step removed from the safe and the clinical, when the Wild sits splendidly just past our grasp, just…there, why would anyone decide instead to look inwardly and construct – in the place of curiosity and excitement – fear and distrust?

OK, look. Listen.

A Song Thrush, this evening, sat on the roof of the house. I was out of the car and halfway up the path before I saw him. Well, heard him. His head back and a trill pouring out of him. Hardy got it right. The bird, he said, “Had chosen thus to fling his soul / Upon the growing gloom.” Fling his soul. That’s great, isn’t it?

And it was just what he was doing. Unleashing himself into the evening, and for what reason? Hardy didn’t know.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessèd Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Why was he singing? I don’t know. I don’t know.

30 days wild, 15

“Great clouds along Pacific skies,” Rupert Brooke’s distillation of the fen heavens – slap in the middle of taking potshots at the good folk of several Cambridgeshire villages – is pretty perfect. With nothing to break the straight lines, few distractions from the landscape to draw the eye away, wild days out on the “hideous fen of huge bigness” are almost always about the vast skies.


We do good skies out here.

Today, all week really, it has been chaotically mixed. Strange weather for mid-June; April weather, really. And the clouds have rushed across like a lid being lifted and replaced time and again.

Outside work, a front rolled in that seemed suddenly serious, threatening and fierce. People rushed to their cars. Fat drops started but came to nothing. The traffic backed up along the Madingley road under swift carbon grey darkness. Supreme indifference, Richard Yates called it. Isn’t that great? The supreme indifference of the clouds.


Along the fen I stopped and watched as the gloom and shadows and clattering falls of magnesium white light fell over the fields and glared at the huddled silhouetted villages. Wild, indeed.

30 days wild, 14

I’m always up early. Even now, the peak of the year, I’m up and about before the sunrise. Work and brain contribute to that. Still, it has its benefits.

Notwithstanding that special light before the sun breaks clear, or the perfect peace of the place, or the birdsong uncomplicated by anything else; notwithstanding my tiredness or resentment for a cosy bed left, no, none of that.

But, there are little dramas everywhere. It’s usually Jackdaws, out on the fen road, pecking at roadkill and squabbling over the tiniest morsels. Or dozens of great fat Woodpigeons studiously scouring the verges before the commute disturbs.

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Today it was Kestrels, one two three of them, rather glumly sat on the telegraph poles or wires, all looking down at the ground. They seemed pretty miserable, as if they’d misread the alarm and were waiting for the world to wake up and join them.

They’re looking down for a reason, of course, and not because they’re fed up. They can see in the ultraviolet range and are able to pick up mouse and vole urine trails – the urine absorbs ultraviolet light and so, there you go, a map of vole commutes. These three were simply sorting out their morning’s work before committing to a bit of hovering.

Smarter than me at that hour, that’s for sure.

30 days wild, 13

A touch of Albinoni in the background might not go amiss here.

You see, I have a confession.

A little while ago, in a pleasant enough but franchisey pub (I shall conveniently forget just where), I’m afraid I dropped a book off the shelves and into my bag. I finished my pint. I had another. And carefully and deliberately I walked out.

Am I bad person? There are worse things, but oh. I’m boringly prohibited about that sort of thing. And yet, you know. It was, well, I thought it was a bookshelf not expected to be anything other than vaguely acknowledged as fitting the aesthetic of the place. Distressed tables, scripted trite homilies stenciled to the wall, and oh look a bookcase…nice. Pause for breath. Now, Thai crab cakes and a sweet chili sauce? Or shall we go for the whitebait?

Well, OK, perhaps a wee bit self righteous. I picked probably every one off those shelves and I’m afraid I had a right old rootle around. I expect I looked a proper tool, but books are meant to be read, aren’t they?

Lost between two larger volumes, a slim, small red spine. It was David Lack’s The Life of the Robin. Shamefully, I’d never heard of it before, but you see something like that and you’re going to turn around, take your seat and read it. And I did. And it’s tremendous, but so tremendous was it it suddenly caused me some disquietude. I’m justifying, I know, but chances were this book might never be read again. It would just sit there, glimpsed and overlooked, maybe the background in Facebook group photos, a sliver of red pixels unknown and unknowable. And then what if the brewery decide there’s a style change and a design team comes in and then where? Glossed over? Forgotten? Chucked out? And, books are meant to be read, aren’t they?

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Well, this one is. It’s a delight from start to finish. Crafted and pieced together as a labour of love it follows the lives of dozens of Robins in a small corner of Devon. Lack was a schoolmaster in a local public school and made hundreds of observations of Robins in his time there in the 1930s. Working for the Army during the war, he pieced his notes together – some of which had been published as academic papers – and endeavoured to present them as popular biology. This he achieved in 1943 when The Life of the Robin was published to great acclaim. It’s still a classic today, and a new imprint has just been published.

It is dedicated, wonderfully, to “all those robins that patiently bore my rings and permitted my intrusions into the intimacies of their lives.”

He packs a world of the tiny, the minute, the picked-over and considered into 200 pages. Song, territory, pairing, mating, nesting, raising, fledging, the lot. He brings in Shakespeare and folklore, Blake and the bible. He draws maps of territories and documents the soap opera battles and indiscretions of his little charges. Lack is good company, throughout. Facts fall from the pages but, pointedly, he admits he cannot know everything.

A bird’s happiness is unobservable and the question “Is a bird happy?” is impossible to answer and perhaps meaningless…Into the world of the Robin we cannot penetrate.

There’s nothing dry or dull here, which may surprise given the book’s age. In fact much of it is genuinely captivating. I had no idea, for instance, that for hundreds of years it was believed Robins, if they saw someone had perished in the forest, would begin to bury the body, starting with leaves on the eyes. That companionable perch on the garden spade, our insistence on them being the nation’s favourite bird, it runs deep indeed. In the last few days since reading it properly, it’s drifted back often into my mind. It’s clear, taking in the happiness and keen eye that went in to constructing it, that Lack wants us to look at Robins (“My Robins” he calls the first chapter) afresh and to wonder at them as much as he does.

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30 days wild, 12

A frustrating day, wild-wise, caught indoors with kids revising and a roast planned. But the feeders were primed and I was keeping a weather eye out for visitors. 

I’m a huge fan of the commonplace and the mundane. I love me a Sparrow or a Rook. Blackbirds and Blue Tits, always welcome. And on my little patch there is narrative a-plenty to keep me happy.

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The Great Tits, who sadly abandoned their nest, are still around. Maybe they’re trying another site, I hope so.

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There’s a pair of Collared Doves, too, who simply must be nesting close by because they’re always here, so close you could throw a handkerchief over them both. They are forever in get-a room mode.

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And the Dunnock, who never stops. He picks up all the stuff everyone drops (Greenfinches are dreadful eaters, have you seen the mess they make?) and just quietly gets on with it. He’s my favourite. A man who is tired of Dunnocks, is tired of life.

And if you don’t create back stories for your regular garden visitors what are you waiting for?

30 days wild, 11

A third of the way through the #30DaysWild project, and beyond going outside and doing what we call Having A Look Around, I’ve offered very little in the way of practical things to do that would get you involved with The Wild.

So, in a break from all the warbling on (don’t worry, straight back to that tomorrow) I thought I’d share something I did last year that might actually be of some use. 

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Solitary bees live, well, on their own, as opposed to in hives or social groups. They’re often quite short-lived, sometimes just a matter of weeks available to nest, meet a mate and produce baby bees. The worrying problems faced by pollinators are well-documented by better qualified (well, qualified) commentators, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to give them a helping hand. So, bee houses.

  • Garden cane sawn into short lengths, then hollowed out or left with that dried pulpy stuff (I left a mixture of broad and narrow tubes)
  • some corrugated card
  • some bubble wrap
  • twine
  • plant pots

I tied the lengths of cane together and then did it again, properly this time, so that it was super tight. The structures will expand and contract so you need to be sure they won’t slide about and fall apart. Then I wrapped the bundle in corrugated card and a layer of bubbles before jamming it hard into a plant pot.

You string them up in trees, or shrubs, nicely out of the way, and at a very slight openings-downward angle so the rain can’t get in.

And that’s it. Make a few, and sit back. If you’re lucky, bees, and maybe in the winter other hibernating tiny creatures will find them. Good luck!

30 days wild, 10

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Cuckoo spit everywhere. By which I mean there is cuckoo spit, everywhere.

It’s a secretion that appears on plants to hide the tiny developing form of the Froghopper nymph. Froghoppers are little beetles that have sucking mouth parts to extract sap; more remarkably they can leap – proportionally – far more impressively than fleas [insert Eiffel Tower factoid here].

So they consume and then scarper quickly. And in that spirit, here’s a poem

I’m really not one for our politicians
Their snake oil makes an unappetising broth.
It reminds me of cuckoo spit emissions
Where a small pale insect lives inside the froth.