Monday, 29 May 2017

Bloomin' Things

(The cows would need a stronger adjective)

The dreaded 'Rhodies' are now out, feeling about as unwelcome as the white Zimbabweans who share the nickname. The flowers provide another excuse for those who know a little to feel patronising about those who know even less. It's even common to hear people who only rarely step onto semi-natural sites to condemn the Rhododendrum ponticum snobbishly as something only ignorant people of the lower orders could possibly enjoy looking at. Its 'blowsy' flowers are only fit for, well, the assorted terrain in parts of Asia. And various mythological horrors have been associated with it to discourage planting and cultivating. We've been told that it is poisonous to insects, or its pollen is poisonous. There is some evidence that honey made by bees from its flowers can be toxic in various degrees to humans. And there are many people who consider that it should have no place in this country - as an alien invader. Certainly not much grows under it and it's pretty persistent when it gets established. But the idea that it damages biodiversity because insects keep away from it may be exaggerated.

The gorgeous hybrid dwarf Rhododendron in my garden is actually the single favourite of all the visiting bumble bees (and the competion from nearby shrubs is rather fierce).

Another plant now at its best is one of my favourites, the Cow Parsley.

Given only a slightly more prepossessing name it would surely have figured in many classic lyric poems in English verse anthologies. Its habit of white-lining the edges of paths and tracks shows an endearing regard for the needs of walkers in gloomy conditions.

Golden Host

Wandering along the other day, pretty lonely, lonely as a cloud as it happens, I saw this.

Now it's not yet been finally established but the evidence is growing, literally, that when Wordsworth wrote Daffodils he actually meant Buttercups. After all they are much more golden than the larger flowers and in some people's view, mine anyway, the flowers are more beautifully formed. All it needs is an EngLit student looking for a PhD subject a guaranteed slot on the Today programme on Radio 4 etc.

Even so the Meadow Buttercup is a lovely flower another specimen unfairly tainted by its association as a garden weed.

May Concert Party - a Review

Spring is always in a hurry.  The peak season for dawn chorus birdsong is not long and the best things soon go. The birds have been very good to us this May. The best experience comes when many species are singing at the same time in an eruption of complexity making identification sometimes difficult; but then should we care? - enjoyment does not depend on certainties or statistics. Complexity is important as with the greatest music. The prominent singers are better for the presence of ever changing accompaniments each strand of which is worth listening to in its own right.

This year the loudest and most distinctive birds have typically been Song Thrush, Blackbird, Blackcap and Chaffinch. The last one is always very persistent and even irritating with his rattly song sometimes obscuring more lyrical and delicate songsfrom other birds. The Song Thrush can sound like an exotic calling bird from tropical regions. Its habit of repeating its phrases, which may have been copied from other birds, somehow goes well with the blooms of Rhodedendrum ponticum. Picture and sounds not out of place in the Himalayas, perhaps?

By contrast the Blackbird's song seems characteristically native; and this has been a good May for those of us who spend our winters yearning for the time when his song will be heard again. Partly it's those long pauses followed by unhurried, mellow phrases; and we always forgive the squawks he can't resist throwing in at the end. If we can find somewhere with no mechanical sounds with several of them singing territorially spaced out across a largely natural landscape the experience is incomparable.

This short snatch is more close up.

It's fascinating to hear these two birds singing close to each other. Here the recording favours the Thrush - a reflection of his more assertive song - but the Blackbird refuses to give way and keeps to his admirable laid back, more melodic and creative song.

I can't recall another year with so many Blackcaps singing in the woods. He is another bird whose loudness belies his size. But he's also more than that because both musical ideas and timbre are well above the norm even for warblers. As we've walked through the woods around daybreak the last week we've rarely been out of earshot of Blackcaps, with the occasional Garden Warbler and Wood Warbler too and many, many Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs.

Robins are plentiful of course, and an amusing observation repeated an incident from previous years. A Robin was heard singing not far from a Blackcap: his voice seemed to change, becoming more fruity as if to say "anything you can do".

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Now Down Here - Aren't We So Lucky?

Up there it's not enough to be sheepwrecked; for the last week or so the agri-environment regime in the grassy wasteland has had to be supplemented with a strong dose of cow-blighting. Now the crop&crappers have come down to the so-called "heathland" partition  of what the managers choose to call a 'nature reserve'. As we all know by now,  the site is only dressed up with that and other imaginative designations to help it qualify for the aforementioned agri-environment schemes and their handsome fundings. What they call it with the miserable beasts that have to accompany it serve no useful purpose not even achieving what was originally claimed. I remember a poor effort being made at a meeting trying to persuade us apparently ignorant townies why it was so important for the land to have cows on it (otherwise they implied it would self-destruct). A slide was projected showing a cow chewing on some birch leaves. What heroes.

The facts do not need presentation. We can see for ourselves. Sheep and cows are boring and dirty and they turn natural beauty into something unnattractive and often insalubrious. Only those who cannot see will dispute that. The wilful blindness is evident in various strenuous efforts made and occasionally seen on BBC programmes. Sponsored by farming and game industry organisations people travel the usual talks circuits to promote the view that a landscape without sheep and cattle would be an utter disaster. The same happens with grouse and other game birds. Pheasants are aliens and Grouse another boring birds carrying a heavy responsibility for the scenic tedium of our uplands.

Meanwhile, as the bovine visitors take over, heads down cropping and crapping the grass, our natural wild deer are browsing among the fresh leaves of Birch and Rowan.

They are beautifully clean, unintrusive and they have a lively alert air not seen on farm animals. One young stag is particularly frisky. And their coats have shed the excess winter layers revealing why they are called red deer.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Back Again

Each day there's new evidence that Spring races ahead, measured by wayside flowers coming into bloom. In the sweeter ground near the noisy road it's like welcoming returning old friends:

Crosswort seems everywhere.

Unwelcome in the garden but here in freedom it is allowed to be stately, the common Plantain.

Sanicle is growing low here. Used to be prescribed infused in a glass of wine as a cure for the runs.

Searching for Tranquillity

Many years ago when quietness and tranquillity were commonplace we didn't think to put a great value on it. It was simply the norm. Only when you lose something do you realise what a treasure it was. People growing up today and even those who were children 30 years ago have no expectation of tranquillity except perhaps to know that the surrounding environmental noise gets more pronounced each year.

Tranquillity accepts only natural sounds which includes wind and water, birdsong and other wildlife calls but excludes all man-made sound so it's absolutely not pure silence; that would be eerie. To experience something like genuine tranquillity I sometimes walk before dawn and these short clips were recorded on Blacka about 4.40 am. (The vision is completely incidental.)

  • In fact what we hear is a dawn chorus, one of the most fascinating wildlife experiences of the year. Trying to pick out the individual bird species can be teasing.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017


A 900th anniversary is as good an excuse for a visit as any especially as it concerns the single most worthwhile feature to look out for in the views from Blacka.

Every so often the lighting is just what we need for a view of Lincoln and its amazing cathedral. My visit yesterday was partly motivated by a desire to find out more about what happened in 1217 but who needs a reason to go again to one of the greatest buildings in the country?

The Battle of Lincoln is rarely heard of but it could hardly have been more important in the history of England and its monarchy coming at a time when the barons were all for ditching English kings after the dreadful King John. His child king successor Henry III was threatened with being overthrown by the barons' choice Louis of France. In stepped Henry's remarkable 70 year old knight-champion William Marshal who saved the day. The picture above shows the space before the cathedral between it and the castle gate, where the fighting took place, before the losing side were driven unceremoniously down Steep Hill. More information here and elsewhere when searched for online.

A recent Radio 4 programme in the In Our Time series tells you all most people might want to know.

The coming weekend and during the summer there are special events in the town and its castle close by the cathedral.

Last time I visited the west facade of the cathedral was under wraps and scaffolding so it's good to see it cleaned and uncluttered. And the interior is a wonder with arches and pillars creating intricate patterns along with fan vaults an angel gallery and much more.

It's also a reminder of how much the stonemasons and wood carvers of those days were influenced by natural forms. You can't look far before coming across foliage and animal inspired items. The choir stalls with their misericords are especially fine. And the east window is stunning.


The Cuckoo on Blacka has always been one of the easiest birds to find. He gives away his presence in his own way and can usually be found flying from tree to tree. But this year he's playing hard to get.

The recording below is of a rather nice Blackbird and the Cuckoo can just be heard at the start.

Sunday, 21 May 2017


Plenty to do for this Whitethroat.

The Cuckoo heard yesterday must be busy elsewhere. Even a very early start failed to help find him.

Saturday, 20 May 2017


A cuckoo has finally arrived. No pictures yet and the only recording was spoiled by aircraft overhead.

Friday, 19 May 2017


Not many people are able or willing to get into the woods in the minutes around sunrise. The link shows some of what they miss. Much of the appeal comes from the low angled sunlight.

Cause for Celebration

The singing in the trees says that the rainfall is much appreciated.

Back to the greenness that is traditional for May (though not for that one in the news rattling on about stables). As well as singing the Willow Warblers were admiring the Birch catkins.

Blackbirds and Thrushes too were happy.

(Also celebrating were the slugs who had discovered my recently planted lettuces.)

Still no cuckoos and some suggestion not many have been heard in the district.

Perhaps we should also celebrate that SWT finally gor the message about mountains in the car park.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Two Kinds of Perfection

Individually and collectively Bluebell scores highly.

Each well formed flower spike has many perfect blooms.

The blue haze in good woodland created by hundreds is a unique spectacle, best seen when Blackbirds are singing close by.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Rain Boosted

A day of rain has proved a fillip to some of the common wild flowers. They've relished the change after a long dry spell and are keen to show at their best.

The Cow Parsley is one of my favourites with its delicate flowers and leaves and its habit of lining paths and lanes with white. Lower down on Hathersage Road where the strimmers have kept off there are already white margins with Hawthorn and Rowan helping out above.

Buttercup is loving the wet. This perfect specimen reminds us that it is only its commonness that keeps it from being more valued.

While the flowers of Wood Sorrel are just clinging on past their peak time, the leaves are enjoying the rain.

But heavy raindrops don't suit all and the reaction of Dandelion is different.


Recently mentioned has been the great 'we are custodians of the countryside' pitch mostly heard from the least responsible of farmers, gamekeepers and sundry landowners who need to be bribed with our money to stop them wrecking the land and its wildlife irreversibly.

There's a rich source of material for those looking for land-related bullshit and you can find it in all sorts of places, some fo them unexpected. Even Private Eye has its own antediluvian farming column written by 'Bio-Waste Spreader'. You might think it's a spoof appearing where it does, but you would be wrong: this is meant to be one of the serious parts of the Eye, though in this case what he has to say is something of a joke, just in fact a repetition of the standard agri-bullshit regularly put out by parts of the industry to bamboozle the less well-informed public.

He is complaining that a part of the Northern Pennines Area is to be used for military training meaning sheep farming will no longer be carried on there.

He refers to this 'area of outstanding natural beauty'; this was always a misnomer - area of outstanding bleak remoteness, maybe. That's almost conceded when he refers to the 'stark landscape' though it should have been a signal to question whether artificially exploited starkness can ever be described as beautiful. As we've seen on Blacka it's not just bracken and bramble that come when you stop exploiting the land but trees too and that means eventually more woodland and a variety of wildlife that relishes more natural conditions. And we know what his preferred style of landscape looks like: just look at Blacka's sheep enclosure. It's the old story again. Those who manage can't bear to think that nature can ever manage itself. As if it ever did.


Farmers proclaim to the naive that they are custodians of the countryside. In similar vein we might think of SWT as custodians of the car park. It was already small and often inadequate before they dumped this here three months ago.

Space taken up has further been reduced by the lake at the side; a lot of dry weather is needed for it to dry up.

Birds versus Traffic

Whatever the reason, birds have chosen to make this part of Blacka their own. They have been bravely defending their proprietorial rights against onslaughts from the modern world in a way I've not observed before. They deserve our unqualified admiration. Close by is the car park (or what remains of it) and the main Hathersage Road, the chosen route for those who daily export the last bits of what used to be the Peak District National Park.

Today it was mainly a solo effort by the resident Song Thrush but two days back the sound was extraordinary with the Thrush joined by Blackbird, Chaffinch, Blackcap and several others hard to identify against the roar of rush hour traffic. Nowhere else on Blacka I know do they sing as loudly.

My preferred birdsong experience is not this. I wish to hear birds unchallenged in the calm resonant acoustic of tranquil woodland. But this was something else.

What symbolism do have here? The front line where nature battles the ruthless face of the modern economy?

Questions and More Questions

Now how should I respond to this?

.......... After first asking what SWT has done for wildlife - apart that is from putting barbed wire around it, devastating it with sheep and cattle grazing and setting the chainsaws onto it?

Monday, 15 May 2017

Beat Music

These woods have not hosted a woodpecker in recent years. This year his drumming has been constant. 

Not enough to drown out the sound of the illicit rave on a Friday night and Saturday morning not long ago. The ravers will not have heard him, nor any other bird, being deaf to anything not over-amplified.

On a Hill Far Away

It's a bit over 50 miles by road to Lincoln with its superb cathedral and takes an hour and a half. The distance may be ten miles less in a direct line. In perfect conditions we can see it quite clearly with the naked eye, but we rarely get that early in the morning. The main reason is that we're looking into the main source of light to the east.

This Monday morning cloud and a weather change were spreading from the west gradually darkening the skies overhead.

The hazy forerunner of this had already reached Lincoln reducing visibility but the outline of the cathedral, conveniently occupying a hilltop in otherwise flat land, was still unmistakeable. Those who want a better chance of seeing Lincoln  clearly from Blacka should try a bright breezy day in the late afternoon

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Multi Sensory Experience


Snatch it while you still can. The elements of joyous wildness that still exist on Blacka are there to celebrate and we should do so before the philistines with their grants and power tools destroy all. Soon it will be just a memory.

In autumn like some others I flirt with the idea that these two magical seasons are somehow equal in appeal but really there's no contest. Spring is about rebirth and that should always trump graceful decline, lovely though that can be. Also autumn's appeal is largely visual while spring's also got sounds some of them exquisite like the sudden arrival of certain bird species. It's not too much to claim that it's a multi sensory season.

I wonder if it's a problem whether many people are unable to fully appreciate the wonders of spring in these more natural surroundings in that they are surrounded in their streets by more artificially induced over-dressed garden shrubs specially imported to produce an early and gaudy new season effect. Is the palate so over exposed to colourfully forced novelty that what we have here fails to register as it should?

Friday, 12 May 2017

The 9-Year-Old Test

One of the measures of value in a place for me has always been what I would have thought of it as a 9 year old.

This woodland passes the test with flying colours. It has life and mystery and secrets guaranteed to captivate a child. And these features are not static but change with the seasons. Today we didn't need the sun we had yesterday. New leaves added perspective as well as colour. Many birds sang and there was always promise of others.

And ground level is astonishing as bilberry shrubs get higher each year providing plenty of cover for birds and mammals - and children.

Management Horrors

Somebody once said they're the managers we love to hate. I don't accept that. There's no pleasure or satisfaction in it. It's genuinely upsetting to see and experience the rotten decision making, poor policy formation and incompetence on the ground in a place we love. Worst of all is the damage they do to the cause of conservation which at its best ought to be something we can respect even if we disagree with some aspects. Sadly it's rarely even that good and here they don't even try to earn respect.

Shortly they will be bringing back cows to Blacka, a shamefully anti-wildlife practice justified by absurd dogma. They already have sheep on one section, approximately one third of the whole Blacka site; and let's be clear: farm animals have no place on land that has been set aside for nature and wildlife, that's called a 'nature reserve'. If you don't trust nature itself to determine the look of a site, to accept at least that as a default position, with maybe some rare exceptions to be publicly scrutinised, then you are simply not a wildlife conservationist; you are in fact just another farmer, possibly congratulating yourself for  avoiding some of the worst practices of intensive agriculture, but still a farmer all the same.

SWT's barbed wire horror has recently undergone minor inspection and some reinforcement leaving it looking more like a botched job than before.

 After spending enormous sums of public money on erecting a gargantuan barrier  to keep their sheep in (and I repeat no sheep should be here at all)  they still fail to plug gaps under gates, thereby allowing them to escape. This one was observed from a distance. Let's hope no lamb was with it as people walk dogs in this area.

Thursday, 11 May 2017


They're much later up here but I like to think better. Not a complete wash of colour, more modest than that. At their best very early morning with dappled sunlight. And the badgers enjoy.

Dawn Over Dore

A favourite village of students of homophones and alliteration.

Doubtless someone has called it "The Gateway to ...... "

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Dried Grey

 No wind dries more ruthlessly than an east wind. It's not supposed to be as dry as this in spring and walking into the east wind near dawn feels like a definition of heroism.

Some of the new exciting greenery has already suffered.

Paths look more grey than ever before, quite as different as under a ground frost.

It's a relief and a pleasure to turn into the charmed woodland I think of as a walled wild garden.

 The surrounding rhododendron may be unique in replicating the advantagest of a managed walled garden while delivering a particular kind of wildness.

That's never been understood by the managers who typically see that no good can ever come from the invasive shrub. Usually they would be right but wisdom comes when you understand that there can be exceptions to almost anything. After much persuasion they have made a concession in accepting that the shrubbery can partially stay on the west and north sides. But at this altitude in woodland it's the eastern blast that is most relentless, and each year we get at least one lengthy period when high pressure seems stuck in a position, well understood by residents of Bridlington etc.

Nevertheless this woodland has great appeal with many features that illustrate what rewilding has to offer. At the moment it also appeals to chain saw operatives who do not appreaciate this but value its proximity to the car park. Who wants a long walk back?

Thursday, 4 May 2017


It's the bigger picture that gets neglected when we struggle with the details. There's a desperate need for wildlife to have a home that's quite distinct from that of farmlife. That's what 'wild' should mean, a word that's too often shockingly abused. A useful way of looking at things and a corrective to some of the arrogance that's peculiar to humanity is to ask who or what belongs here? Once you start to manage and control a parcel of land you're in charge and can't easily see yourself as anything but indispensable, even if you only visit once a week; maybe you think ownership resides in you because you're paid to be 'responsible' and have certain powers. This is a curse of managerialism. But who or what has more right to be regarded as essential than the life that lives here 24 hours a day through all conditions?

It's a good idea when setting foot on natural and semi-natural land to clear our minds of all the jargon and terminology that goes with land management most of which has a political purpose of one kind or another. For me I like to think that ownership is for the residents.

The Robin and the Blackbird have their homes here and care nothing for words like biodiversity and habitats and others which are simply human constructs. Nothing beats direct experience of the land and wildlife. I'm aware that this sounds to some ears as anti-intellectual even philistine and that's not what's intended. We just need to freshen our experiences and cast aside, if only temporarily, the crude biodiversity statistics and jargon that increasingly seems to be the measure of value for the conservation industry workers we often see. But numbers tell a very limited story and I prefer to see the soul of a place differently, more directly.

Deer for example are so crucial to the soul of a place like Blacka yet to some managers the experience of them is inseparable from notions of 'carrying capacity' and vegetation management. It becomes, it would seem, impossible to appreciate real wildlife outside a mindset that's not much different to a livestock farmer's.

Large mammals on a semi natural landscape bring a place to life as nothing else quite can. They are here all the time. This morning was another bright May morning with the keenest of easterly winds testing our endurance so we knew where the local deer would not be. And they were unsurprisingly in a pleasantly sheltered but sunlit bit of woodland. It's now inconceivable that Blacka could be without deer just as without trees. But I sense that some in the conservation world would be untroubled by that, preoccupied as they are by bureaucratic biodiversity targets and action plans, forms to fill in and grants to apply for. How many people when they see the deer or the Robin put themselves in the position of these animals, out here in all conditions?

This is their home. We should respect that as their guests.