Daniel Greenwood

The river is all I can hear

In July 2015 I volunteered with the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) to help with the harvesting of wildflower seeds from hay meadows and other species-rich grasslands. The Magnificent Meadows project is partnered nationally between the AONB, the Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife and the RSPB. I was helping Conservation Officer Eleanor Reast and volunteer Will Bowers. Since 1945, 97% of British wildflower meadows (hay meadows, water meadows, chalk and limestone grassland) have been lost. There are many reasons for this and there are a number of projects to raise awareness and physically restore this near-obliterated habitat. The loss has been catastrophic for invertebrate populations, namely the bees which are popular whilst their misunderstood habitat continues to decline. I don’t mean honeybees specifically, they play an important role in pollination but the biggest and most concerning losses are to bumblebees, with some of the rare species now confined to coastal meadows and grasslands. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust estimates that bees provide £560million to the UK economy through pollinating high value crops. But bumblebees are only a fraction of British species: there are around 250 species, 32% of which are threatened with extinction. Solitary bees make up much of the numbers here, with an amazing array of species having taken to different niches and areas of our landscape, giving us mining, mason and leaf cutter bees. Wildflower-rich meadows, along with woods, should be the fulcrum of support for our rural wildlife, instead the former has been near-destroyed and millions of pounds are now rightly being invested in their regeneration. At the same time government continues to build on remaining rich grasslands and open up more areas for fracking.

The AONB is vast and the job of Eleanor and her colleagues is not a simple one. The project aims to work with local landowners both to collect seed from their meadows but also to re-seed new grasslands where the soil conditions are suitable. Flower-rich grasslands are generally nutrient poor, this means that they haven’t been fertilised with chemicals or dung (also human excrement as I learned in the Cotswolds). This is vital because if the soil is too nutrient-rich, dominant species like nettle, bramble and hogweed will begin to overtake. Species-rich grasslands are often also rich in waxcap fungi. However, according to George Peterken, the nitrogen emitted into the atmosphere by car engines and through aviation is leading to rainfall that is actually fertilising grasslands and reducing the range of fungi as well as wildflowers. Orchids are impacted here as some species have intricate, symbiotic relationships with fungi, and the loss of fungi can therefore impact the meadow ecosystem in subtle ways.

Harvesting the meadows required a Land Rover to drag the seed harvester around the landscape and a trailer to get the thing out there. I spent most of my time trying to sift the collected seed of knapweed, yellow rattle, orchids and scabious, or else trying to photograph insects.

We were visited by BBC Countryfile’s Ellie Harrison, who is also the President of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. Ellie is helping with the Magnificent Meadows project and was keen to see, first hand, how the work was going. Seeing Ellie driving the vehicle, though only briefly, through the field made me think of how meadows challenge our notion of the ‘natural’. They are man-made habitats which have been around in their current form for at least 6000 years, when the Neolithic farming revolution reached its nadir or height, depending on your viewpoint. Much of the meadows and farmland we have today will once have been covered by wildwood, a habitat of nature’s own making that is lost to us in Britain thanks to thousands of years of deforestation by humans. Peterken suggests that meadows originated from woodland glades that once would have been kept open by aurochs (wild cows), deer and other large grazing animals. Something close to these old wildwood meadows are wood meadows still found in Estonia and Sweden.

The seed had to be emptied onto the blue tarpaulin which was then sifted out using the homemade wooden frames and wire sieves. There was a lot of insect by-catch, most commonly grasshoppers and crickets, unfortunately losing one leg most of the time, and a few dead meadow brown and marbled white butterflies, and silver-y moths. Don’t be upset though as these are common species in the Cotswolds which will, in the long term, be able to increase in number when the meadows diversify over a wider area of the AONB.

The meadows were generally ‘over’ but there was still a lot of insect life. I think this is a stripe-winged grasshopper.

Bumblebees were busy and looking worn from their summer work. This ‘rather faded’ common carder bee was on common knapweed.

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There were a number of wildflowers still in bloom, like this white variation of greater knapweed.

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It was not entirely possible to gather seed every day. We tried to harvest at Leckhampton Hill, a site with very rich and beautiful limestone grassland. Only minutes after arriving and bringing the mower on site, a torrential downpour hit and the grassland become impossible to harvest. We had to return, seedless. I took the chance to look for insects and found a gathering of longhorn moths, Nemophora metallica. I like this little punk of a micro-moth, it looks quite tiger-like to me. I’ve had to invest in the Field Guide to the Micro-moths of Great Britain and Ireland to acquaint myself with them.

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The seed had to be spread out in the barn after harvesting. Will and I (mostly Will, whose practical skills were, for a 21-year-old, amazing and embarrassing) raked out the seed onto tarpaulins. Will diligently turned the seed so that it would stay cool. If it got too warm and mound-like it would effectively begin to compost and decompose.

Here you can see the most sought-after seed, that of yellow rattle, a wildflower which is parasitic on the roots of grasses and so can help other less dominant, nectar-rich species to move in. Eleanor said that you only need a single yellow rattle seedling to establish for the plant to take hold in a meadow. Of course the conditions have to be right, this is a plant that likes calcium-rich limestone grassland like meadows being protected and enhanced in the AONB.

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When the seed was ready it was the job of Eleanor and volunteer Will (and me) to hand-sow the seeds, carrying them from point to point in dumpy-sacks. It was a real challenge to get it right and it will take years for the plants to establish. It’s a project that needs patience as much as it needs meadows to harvest.

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My final day of harvesting took place in Tewkesbury, an area of rolling hills with hay meadows and arable land lined by trees and hedges in the valley. The weather was warm and dry and therefore perfect for harvesting. We harvested from a slither of the hillside which was designated as a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) but was in fact somewhat ‘rank’, meaning it was not so floristically diverse and instead was clogged with grasses. I did, however, find some wonderful (for spider-lovers) and a little horrifying (for bee-lovers) insect-life.

Capsid bugs are a large family of insects with 229 species, known as the Miridae, but they’re quite easy to encounter if you have a macro lens for your camera or some other form of magnification. This capsid bug was traversing the stamens of knapweed.

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The SSSI was edged by a line of trees and dense bramble. Hidden away in the bramble was this funnel-web spider that Will found. It had created a tunnel (or funnel) from which it could prey on insects. There were plenty of potential meals to be had.

A lot has been said about the importance of meadows for bees and butterflies. Bees are also important for the other creatures that prey on them. I watched this spider wrapping a solitary bee in its silk. The bee fought to try and free itself, but the strength of the webbing is not something that can be broken by a solitary bee. It was unpleasant to watch but also fascinating. You can be sure this is a scene that has been occurring for centuries in the meadows of the Cotswolds, with balances maintained within the ecological network by predators like these grassland-dwelling spiders. Nature’s beauty is indeed subjective. Don’t confuse this, though, its full-scale importance to us cannot be put in material or capitalist terms.

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Away from the harvesting there were a few signs of good government policy in action. Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) is a boring-sounding scheme which is being undertaken in different forms across the EU where farmers and other landowners receive funding from government to seed wildflower-rich margins, plant woodland, reintroduce grazing to ailing grasslands and replace lost hedgerow. This field had sidings of oxeye daisy, poppy, cornflower and a range of other native wildflowers which have been lost from British farmland in the past 60 years. Sadly, at the same time the Tories caved in to unrelenting corporate and National Farmer’s Union pressure to allow bee-killing pesticides once more, flouting an EU ban.

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Another national meadow project is Prince Charles’s Coronation Meadows scheme in partnership with the Wildlife Trusts and Plantlife. The heir to the throne loves the place so much he hung out with Eleanor in July. As for me, I got the chance to visit one near Morton-in-marsh. It was mostly covered by greater burnet, a member of the rose family that likes wet meadows and margins. The flowers were not at their full pomp in July, though the gentle spots of burnet and devil’s-bit scabious pointed to the richness of the meadow, the orchids having flowered and gone.

There were lots of insects feeding on the still flowering burnet, like this hoverfly, a member of the Sphaerophoria family.

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And this male red-tailed bumblebee was working hard on this greater burnet flower. He had a fine yellow-beard.

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I’d like to thank Eleanor and Will for all they taught me about meadow restoration and the laws of the Cotswolds. Eleanor and her colleagues obviously work incredibly hard out there trying to improve the landscape for future generations of people and wildlife. It is no simple task but hopefully it will make a big difference in decades to come meaning more bees, butterflies and beautiful, vital wildflowers.

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Swanscombe Marshes, August 2015

The Swanscombe marshes are threatened by an impending planning application by London Paramount. They want to build a theme park on this vast wildlife haven. Is that really the best use of wild land when wildlife is in severe decline in Britain? I don’t think it is. I visited Swanscombe in March and have written this poem. There is a petition by a locally-led campaign to save the marshes, please sign it if you like what you see here.

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Swanscombe has a number of different habitats: reedbed, brownfield, hedgerow, woodland, farmland and species rich brownfield grassland.

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The grasslands along Black Duck Marsh are covered by wild carrot, birds-foot-trefoil, kidney vetch, red clover and a number of other nectar rich plants. This has attracted a number of interesting insects which have seen flower rich meadows and waysides disappear over the past 50 years. The insect above is an ichneumon wasp, one of over 2000 species in Great Britain.

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It’s unusual to see early bumblebee around in August, but here one was, feeding on hawkweed oxtongue, a weedy plant that provides a great deal of nourishment for invertebrates at this time of year.

Turnip sawfly

Turnip sawflies were seen across many of the flower heads of wild carrot, a common plant at Swanscombe. Sawflies are lesser known pollinators related to bees and wasps.

Painted lady

Sited alongside the Thames, it was not surprising to find a few migrant butterflies. There were a number of clouded yellow (too quick and unsettled for me to photograph) and this painted lady. It was fresh and may well be readying for its amazing journey south through Europe to North Africa where its parents had set off on their journey in the spring. How they can find their way back is not yet known to science.

On the southern slope of the rocky bank that runs through Black Duck Marsh, lucerne grew in large clumps. Even on a grey and breezy day there were a number of butterflies there. This, however, is a day-flying moth, the latticed heath.

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There were patches of kidney vetch growing along the rocks of the Black Duck Marsh bank, and we wondered if small blue, a very rare butterfly in Britain that relies on the plant, could be present. We didn’t see a small blue but I did find this common frog hopper, the insect responsible for what I knew as a child to be ‘cuckoo spit’.

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Common blues were flying low in the grass, possibly laying eggs on birds-foot-trefoil.

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The breeze made macro photography very tricky, but I tried to make the most of the grey sky, wild carrot and lacewing feeding on its flowers.

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Sitting on the bank of Black Duck Marsh we were visited by this stunning hornet mimic hoverfly, Volucella inanis. This insect is in the family Volucella, a group of hoverflies which mimic bees and other Hymenoptera (bees and wasps) in order to deter predators and instead fool them into thinking they’re a threat.

Brownfield is a poorly understood habitat, it is also in the firing line as the housing crisis intensifies in the south of England through lack of affordable housing and poor planning in central London (I’m referring to the luxury accommodation, property banking boom), to name but a few symptoms. As for its importance to wildlife, willow tit is a severely declining bird in England but is now seemingly favouring brownfield over ancient or more established, secondary woodland. Brownfields are often so rich because, like Swanscombe, they are free of pesticides and are left to establish of their own accord. Many brownfields are more precious and indeed green than parts of the Green Belt, a measure ordained to protect open space. They’re also pointers to the feeding opportunities that non-native species like the above white melilot can offer to native insects like bees, a group of insects that offer £560million to the UK economy through pollination (Bumblebee Conservation Trust).

The Channel Tunnel could be heard as it raced underneath our feet. The above photo is the largest spread of birds-foot-trefoil I have ever seen, all growing on the spoil from the original development of the tunnel. Again, brownfield habitats can be some of the richest in Britain. This area would be lost to the development.

There were a number of pathways cutting through the marshes, like this buddleia byway.

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My single memory from visiting Swanscombe Marshes in August will be the colour of the grasslands, the yellow of the trefoil, the white of the carrot and purple and blues of the lucerne. Please sign the petition to raise awareness about this unique and diverse wild place. There is time to make a difference and Save Swanscombe.

See more at the campaign page for Save Swanscombe Marshes

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Csik lo-res-6

In April 2015 along with my hiking pal Eddie Chapman I travelled to Romania from London by train via Germany and Hungary. We had agreed two years ago to do this trip, something I had suggested after reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the woods and the water where the 18-year-old Fermor documents part of his experience of walking from Rotterdam to Istanbul. That was between 1933-35 before the collapse of the old European order with the World Wars and before the eventual shift to communism. Fermor’s Romania was still a thriving rural culture of haymaking and rivers flowing free. What we saw was different, communism having ended and Romania now a member of the European Union, capitalism stretching its tentacles into the farthest reaches of this vast nation with its mounds of plastic waste and the invasive plant species which thrive in a free market, globalised economy. But we still saw elderly people digging their own fields each day, hay ricks in back gardens and plenty of horses ploughing fields and transporting people around. We visited on the back of a sudden cold snap and so it was still winter, nevertheless we saw some wonderful wildlife and landscapes. We are very grateful to Barbara KnowlesRóbert Biró and Laci Demeter for showing us more of the Csík mountains and teaching us about the local culture and ecology. I also would not have known about this region without the work of Nigel Spring and EuCAN who run conservation trips to that part of Transylvania.

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We entered Romania by train from Debrecen, passing through to Cluj-Napoca. The manager of our guest house in the Hortobágy in Hungary had told us instead that Cluj is Kolozsvár, and is in fact a Hungarian city. This was of course not the first time we had heard about the issues between the two nations after the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 that saw the dissolution of the Kingdom of Hungary and two thirds of Hungarian territory passed to Romania. The Hungarian argument is that Magyar people have been present in what is now Romania for over 1000 years which gives them ownership (of course even that is a simplification on my part). Romanians point to Dacian settlement 1850 years ago, before the Hungarians were present in Transylvania. This is covered in greater detail by Walking the woods and the water, a book by Nick Hunt about retracing Fermor’s route to see what had changed in 2011.

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The journey across the border was not what we had expected. The detritus of the failed communist system was plain to see with vast areas of industrial land and infrastructure abandoned. I like what nature can do with these ‘wastelands’ but to see people still having to live in and around these places was a shock. This, allied with the amount of rubbish strewn through what would have been species-rich farm and meadowland, was disturbing and added to the toll of the long distance travel we had undertaken. I will never forget the sight of people having to live in tents of rubbish, with plastic nailed to pieces of timber to keep them dry. The argument for good housing for all struck home here.

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In Cluj I have never seen such sickly street trees with branches hacked to bits and choked by the wires that thread the streets together. Cluj as a city was best viewed from Cetățuia Hill where you can see the sensitive design of the Cluj-Napoca football stadium and the Apuseni Mountains in the distance, the city itself is a melange of capitalist-era hotels, communist apartment buildings and centuries-old architecture preserved in the old town. We had wanted to get into the Apuseni Mountains, famous for the skeletons of cave bears which were discovered in the 1980s, having become extinct 30,000 years ago when much of Europe was covered by ice.

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Our next destination was the Carpathian basin in eastern Transylvania, an area known as the Csík (Hungarian) mountains. The area is accessible by train from Brașov to Miercurea Ciuc (Romanian). The region is strongly Hungarian in culture and the city of Miercurea Ciuc is known in Hungarian as Csíkszereda. I had been in touch with conservationist Barbara Knowles who, through her project The Barbara Knowles Fund, was supporting local farmers in managing the mountain hay meadows in the region, some of which are the richest in Europe. Prince Charles has recently visited to highlight the importance of these habitats.

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Barbara put us in touch with Laci (pronounced Lot-see) Demeter, a local farmer and ecologist who owns a few hay meadows and acts as a local guide for the region. Laci was brilliant, with a great sense of humour. He knew all the birds and plant names in English as well as Hungarian and taught us a few of them in his native tongue. Marsh marigold, a buttercup that grows in damp ground and brooks is known as ‘stork’s messenger’ in Hungarian because its flowering in April indicates the arrival of the bird and the spring.

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We volunteered with Laci to remove some of the Norway spruce brash from the meadows so they could grow uninhibited in the coming months. Laci drove us into the mountains where snow still lay on the ground and butterbur and cowslip were the only plants coming into flower. The Carpathians were still shaking off winter. We saw nutcracker, raven and heard buzzards calling from overhead.

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In the valley below a group of men were working on constructing a small shelter for cheese-making in the summer months as part of a local common land cooperative. They were all being paid. How much could Britain benefit both ecologically, socially and economically from similar initiatives? The short-sighted, profit-driven focus of modern politics means we are unlikely to find out. At least Prince Charles is interested.

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We were invited for lunch with the workers and feasted on a pork stew with bread and the most common Hungarian ingredient – paprika. There was also enough beer for everyone, plus some watered-down pálinka. The sun was so intense even at this time of year that we had to inch our way into the shade while the Magyars sat comfortably in full sun.

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In the afternoon Laci took us to the top of one of the mountains, a gentle climb to overlook the unfolding peaks of the Carpathian basin. The meadows were still brown and wintry, snow melting under the sun’s rays. Laci pointed out the snuffling of wild boar and rolled their chocolate-like poo in his fingertips. He showed us the small dips in the ground which were evidence of the old style of felling trees – cut the roots in the soil and let the wind blow the tree over, leaving a space where the root plate used to be. It was thrilling to finally be in the Carpathians, a mountain range I had longed to see.

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On our second trip out with Laci we drove to a quarry that was a good site for eagle owl and where our esteemed guide knew they bred. We passed fields being ploughed by horses, a throwback to a bygone age in much of Europe.

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At the quarry I was distracted by the range of plants, particularly the anemones, and the above endemic to Transylvania, Anemone hepatica transylvanica. On the way here, in Bavaria, I had seen Anemone hepatica, a beautiful purple anemone and was very happy to be introduced to this special plant.

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That was not the only anemone growing in the quarry. The most famous and common, wood anemone (Anemone nemerosa), which I know well from the ancient woods of south London, was also present. This is a plant that struggles in the woods around where I live because of trampling and disturbance but in this part of Transylvania it grew in the old quarry with little to disturb it.

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There were signs of mammalian life in the quarry. Fires had been set in the quarry’s depths, with broken televisions and other detritus of the modern age. There was also detritus of another kind, with this possible bear or wolf scat. It was a pleasure to speculate on what might have passed through here, in both senses of the word.

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We rounded the quarry edge in silence, Eddie and Laci did, anyway. I sent down rock after rock as we made our way to the point where the eagle owls breed. Laci had been enticing us to overcome our apprehension about entering into this place by collecting a bouquet of feathers, not least this owl feather above. As we sat on the ledge where the birds roost, an eagle owl flew across the far side of the amphitheatre and out of view. Eddie missed it. He remained silent thereafter.

Csik lo-res-16There was also evidence of owl prey. Laci gathered together the remnant plumage of raven and buzzard. The size of the prey of this owl is astounding.

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Satisfied with our visit to the quarry, Laci drove us to one of his favourite sites, a 10-12,000 year old pond created during the last glacial period. Laci had bought pieces of land around the pond to try and protect it. Some farmers had been filling it with rubbish and trying to drain it for agriculture. It was a treasure trove of biodiversity, with the moor frog its most colourful species, turning blue in breeding season.

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Laci perched on the small mounds of sod dotted throughout the pond and fished out a great crested newt as he tried to collect a sample of fairy shrimp to show to us. It was in its breeding gear, a beautiful animal that is rare in England but common across Britain to the point of Asia. Its protection measures in Britain are famous for their severity and the ensuing failure to prosecute for any breach.

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We said goodbye to Laci, Barbara, our host Magda and the small village of Pauleni-Ciuc (Romanian), its centuries old spruce barns and horses. Now it was time to travel south to Brașov and then to Sinaia in the Carpathians proper.

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We arrived in Sinaia excited by the ascent of the railway into mountains that would eventually reach more than 2000m. We stepped into the tourist office in search of a map. The attendant thought we were idiots, rightly so: ‘The hiking season doesn’t start for another 60 days, do you have the right equipment? I shouldn’t really give you this map.’ His English was impressive, his scolding even more so. We whimpered and said something about how we wouldn’t do anything stupid.

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Our first hike was the only one that seemed accessible from Sinaia. We crossed through the railway station, literally across the tracks, over a bridge and through a pack of feral dogs (whose bark is far worse than their bite, by the way, we grew to appreciate them) and into the beech and spruce woods crowded by the snow-capped Carpathians. Entering into the mountains we were immediately met by signs warning us of the presence of bears.

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We got a good whiff of bear as we made our way up into the mountains, reminding us of our true place in the food chain. Homo sapiens has, through our cognitive revolution and technological march, excelled to the top of the table in one respect but the fear of large predators presented Eddie and I with a different feeling. It was frightening and exhilarating to find the bear prints congealing in the mud. We were reminded of our fragility as animals but I felt a sense of calm from the fact that, for once, I knew my place. We couldn’t be expected to deal with a bear.

Carpathians lo-res-19There were signs of them everywhere. We didn’t dare open our salami.

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The principle timbers of the Carpathian woodlands were beech and Norway spruce (the tree of choice in the Csík region), with some sycamore and hazel. We encountered these horses dragging beech trunks down from the alpine woods to a little camp guarded by angry dogs. The whooping calls of the woodsmen alerted us to their presence.

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Though we were in a truly wild landscape regarding large fauna, the rivers were in a sorry state. Many of the rivers around Sinaia, and indeed much of Romania, were concreted and dammed, some choked with plastic waste, others with logs caught on the lip of the concrete. These rivers were clearly once great but were now tamed, throttled by man.

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Away from the rivers and woodsmen we hiked for hours in complete solitude with only the company of jay and nutcracker, an eerie silence pervading at higher levels beyond the sound of our boots scuffing rocks and boulders as we scrambled.

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At the top of Mount Compatu a line of tracks was visible in the snow. Were these the footprints of wolf? There was absolutely no chance of encountering a wolf, but the fear simmered all the same.

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Whatever four-legged animal had left those prints, it was the closest we could get to the wild heart of the Carpathians. To walk in a landscape with signs of wolf, bear, boar and more was a dream realised.

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We left Romania exhausted by travel but with fond memories of the Hungarian region where we had spent time in the mountains and villages with local people. April is the wrong time to go for those who want to experience wildflower meadows and spring birds. It’s also the most dangerous time to encounter bears if cubs are present. Thankfully we only got a whiff. Romania and Transylvania has a great deal of bad press in Britain, mainly because of xenaphobic political positioning in the past few years from right-wingers (Boris Johnson) and liberals (Nick Clegg) alike and a book written by an Irishman over a century ago. In reality Romania is a massive, complicated country which cannot be generalised over and has no vampires. It is a place of great natural and cultural riches but also urban poverty and decline. Whether Hungarian or Romanian, its landscapes are species rich, wild and vast, its people welcoming and good humoured. Please support wildlife conservation and the people who enact it in this wonderful country.

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Painted lady, London, August 2015

Fifteen minutes in the garden or a green space (or brown space) is all that’s needed to complete the Big Butterfly Count. My fifteen minutes were sumptuous. Not only did a painted lady remain for far longer than the allotted time, but a common blue appeared for the first time ever in my garden. This was the second new sighting locally in two days. Patrick Barkham has written that a hot August will help them. Do have a go, you’d be amazed at what you might see. You have until the end of August. Hanging around buddleia is advisable if you’re competitive.

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Colts foot growing at Swanscombe Marsh

The concrete and riverside
flip flop driftwood and rope
harrier haunting a level of reeds
some policeman of phragmites
of seedy beards that bend and shiver
to the breathing Thames

and its godlike pylon
with chickweed toenails
and ravens for lice.

It’s an icon of a time
when England created
for an age when
she will but consume.

Marshland—
you will be deleted.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2015

Swanscombe Marshes is threatened by an impending planning application from London Paramount to turn the area into a theme park. This could have devastating consequences ecologically. Please have a look at the following links:

Petition to Save Swanscombe
Save Swanscombe Marshes website

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Bearded tit at Hortobágy-Halasató

In April 2015 my good friend Eddie Chapman and I visited the Hortobágy in the Great Hungarian Plain, a Unesco World Heritage Site designated as ‘an exceptional surviving example of a cultural landscape constituted by a pastoral society’. Hortobágy is a small town in the heart of the Hortobágy National Park, three hours east of Budapest by train and a little bit to the west of Debrecen. The area is a magnet for wildlife enthusiasts and we were visiting on our way to Romania by train. The main focus of our visit, being without a car and dependent on public transport, was the fishpond complex known as Hortobágy-Halastó (Halastó meaning ‘fishponds’ in Hungarian). Halastó was ‘dripping’ with birdlife. This vast area of water was cut through with a single gauge railway (which we never used) and a mile-long, single file footpath. We saw a long-eared owl sleeping in a bird box, six eagles in the sky at once, marsh harrier at every turn and many other wonderful species. In the town, storks cavorted in front gardens and battled for prominence on streetlamp platforms placed there to support the storks. I had wanted to visit the region for several years after reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1934 account in Between the Woods and the Water, as the teenage Fermor travelled from Rotterdam to Instanbul on foot. To see this area of land over ground hid none of Europe’s failings: people living in rubbish, vast areas of land devastated by extractive industries, huge infrastructure projects half built and deserted, rivers channelled, concreted and their banks denuded, and more rubbish, so much rubbish. But we met wonderful people who invited us into their homes and villages and guided us around the lands they call their own. The wildlife we encountered, for an early spring visit, was incredible. I recommend the excellent Crossbill Guide for anyone visiting.

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The Great Hungarian Plain or ‘Puszta’ is known for its flatness. The phrase Puszta was created after the Magyar (Hungarian) population was decimated in the 1200s by Mongol invasion and then the black death. It refers to the emptiness of the landscape after those devastating events. The Magyars settled in the Great Plain at the end of the 800s and they are seen as the founders of the land we now know as Hungary.

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230-140 million years ago the Plain was covered by the Tethys Sea, which is described as ‘the mother’ of the Mediterranean. Later, the Pannonian Sea was created with the formation of the Alps and Carpathian mountains surrounding it. The eventual draining of water from the landscape led to a unique mixture of soils, namely loess and clay, the former created when glaciers grind down underlying bedrock. As a student I read Anton Chekhov’s The Steppe and other stories and fell for these endless landscapes and the people (in Chekhov’s case Russian) who had to live from them. Chekhov didn’t miss their wildlife though, his short story The Steppe reveals its hidden life, death and beguiling beauty. As in Chekhov, first impressions of the Great Plain give the sense of a deserted landscape. In reality it was alive with wildlife: white stork, buzzard, roe deer, corn bunting, butterflies, wildflowers, boxing hare, red fox. These were only the things we could see. We missed the steppe tarantula and ground squirrels.

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In the town of Hortobágy white storks were a common sight. They arrive in spring from their wintering grounds in Africa, building their famously large nests on platforms erected to support them. We saw tens of white stork in the town itself, some seen at dusk walking around in front gardens, sometimes in very small spaces. From a distance they looked like people, blurred either by heatlines or crepuscular light. We noticed that house sparrows were building nests of their own underneath the mass of twigs put together by the stork. There was tension between the storks with a number attempting to intrude upon the scene pictured above. The birds are silent but for a bill ‘clacking’ gesture, evidently territorial.

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Yellow wagtail is a spring migrant to Europe which is in severe decline in Britain. There were a good number of them on the Plain. Being bright yellow with a grey head, it’s easy to mistake the more urban and common grey wagtail for this bird.

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The only way for us to get around was to travel by train, the only time that we were really able to mix with local people. For the untrained, Hungarian is a pretty inaccessible language, with no relation to Latin or Western languages, it descends (or ascends) from Finnish. We tried our best but could only really master egészségedre (‘to your health’ or ‘cheers’) after a week in Hungary. The railways were typically post-war Communist, pumping out black fumes and chuntering along. But they were always on time and provided a lifeline for people who had no other means of transport. No one gets around on horseback like they did when Patrick Leigh Fermor visited in the early 20th century, when ‘carts drawn by horses and oxen easily outnumbered the motor cars’ (p.44).

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Both Eddie and I were struck by the struggles of people in the places we visited. It was at times impossible to see the trip as a holiday, particularly because of what we saw from the windows of our train as it passed from Debrecen over the border into Romania. I like old buildings crumbling around and lament their loss from London (I know there is a housing crisis) and took a few photographs of some that were around the Halastó station.

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Having travelled in the Czech Republic and Poland, I’m not a big fan of what communism has done to the landscape. The former Soviet Union has also contributed greatly to global warming with its industrialisation of much of rural Europe. Its architectural merits are also lost on me. I’m not a fan of what modern capitalism is doing either, via agricultural intensification, oil and fracking. But agricultural intensification is something that communism welcomed with open arms, rounding up the smaller farms and destroying millions of hectares of natural grasslands, woods and rivers in the process. Today agricultural intensification is the biggest threat to the steppe grasslands of Europe and Asia, making them some of the most threatened habitats on earth.

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This was the door to the station building, now housing sparrows. I should say that dilapidated housing and other buildings do not mean people in the area are suffering or unhappy. Here people seemed perfectly content with life on the surface. No one was homeless and the National Park appeared to be offering good support to the local community through ecotourism.

Hortobagy blog pics-13 More charming for the outsider were the individual thatched cottages dotted across the landscape. The evidence of how inhospitable this landscape is for trees can be seen by the two here sheltering next to the cottage. Whether this was used to shelter livestock or dry hay is unclear to me.

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We arrived at the Halastó fishponds on foot. The reeds from 2014 were being cut and piled into these pyramids, neatly put in rows. The thatch from the cottage in the previous image will likely have come from the vast reedbeds of Halastó. The reedbeds supported an amazing array of birds, this even before the spring migrants had arrived.

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Marsh harriers could be seen at every corner of the landscape, flying low over the reedbeds in search of food. Upon leaving, we were shaking our heads at the sheer number of these birds of prey. We missed them when we’d left.

Hortobagy blog pics-19 Another bird of interest for us was the pygmy cormorant, relative of the great cormorant which I know from the River Thames in London, and most waterbodies, really. Seeing these birds perched on branches low in the reeds was like looking back into the prehistoric swamps of Europe.

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A line of dying trees at the edge of the fishponds were fitted with open bird boxes. The boxes were a form of social housing for kestrels, what I later found to be lesser kestrel (thanks to Nigel Spring for pointing this out to me), a separate species to the common kestrel we have in Britain. There were several more kestrels out of sight but my lens couldn’t quite capture the scene.

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Perhaps the biggest source of amusement for us was from this long-eared owl which was roosting in the same box three days running.

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Ever since reading the poems of Anna Akhmatova and the film The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957), I had wanted to see cranes. They are returning to England as a breeding bird for the first time in 400 years, once being a common species of marsh and fenland before their habitat was drained for agriculture. These birds were often eaten by royalty in England. The Latin name Grus grus points directly to the noise they make. These birds flew over our heads as we watched the kestrels and sleeping owl.

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For wildlife to be protected successfully in the long term there has to be some benefit for humans as well. Fishponds have been present in Eastern Europe since medieval times and were created for royalty. Today they have a much more wide ranging commercial value and there is conflict to be found between those who like to pull fish from the water and those who like to watch birds pull fish from the water. Here we happened upon workmen extracting fish from one pond into the back of a lorry.

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Climbing up one of the lookout posts, Eddie happened across six eagles flying on thermals over the fishponds. I managed to get this photo of what we think are mainly white tailed eagles with a possible lesser spotted eagle, though that may have been out of the picture. Later we saw a white tailed eagle sitting in the mudflats of a drained fishpond, taking to the air with deep wafts of wingbeats.

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The sunsets of the Puszta are famous. We encountered this scene on our first day walking back from the fishponds. At this point we were turning back and forth between the setting sun and a pristine red fox trotting along the edge of the path. Corn buntings flocked and roe deer attempted to escape our view with nothing but the blur of the horizon to disappear into.

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