Daniel Greenwood

The river is all I can hear

Mutěnice fish ponds

South Moravia, Czech Republic, July

I’m standing in the street waiting for Moravian ornithologist Karel Šimeček. From here I can see a serin on a TV aerial across the road, and from over the houses I hear a golden oriole releasing a few phrases of its fluty, unmistakable music into the morning air. In the road is a dead animal, a common sight, and an indicator of just how much wildlife there is here. Another common image, especially on the roads leading out of town, is squashed hedgehogs. In England we barely have dead ones anymore. A car pulls up on the other side of the road and out steps Karel, binoculars round his neck, eye pieces covered by grey duct tape. He crosses the road, making sure not to be run down like a hedgehog. He shakes my hand and turns to the squashed animal in the road:

‘Turdus philomelos,’ he says.

A song thrush, my favourite bird. We get into Karel’s silver Peugeot estate with Radiohead’s Kid A on the stereo, a welcome reminder of home, and we set off. The roads are mostly empty but then it is 8:30am on a Sunday morning. I ask Karel about his interest in wildlife.

‘I became interested in birds as a boy when my mother bought me a book,’ he says. ‘I have been watching birds for more than thirty years. But there are not as many as there used to be, when I look at my notes I can see that there are less birds now.’

Why is that?

‘Different reasons. Agriculture is very important but it is probably the main reason,’ he says.

I was astonished to see how large the fields were in South Moravia. My host is conservationist Zuzana Veverkova, and she told me that the average field size is 500 hectares, meaning that small-scale, sustainable farming is impossible. Young people cannot find a way in other than through inheritance. And there are reasons why farms are so large: inspired by Stalin’s collectivisation of Russia’s agriculture, the Czech communists did the same, forcing farmers off their land and into prison if they refused. Today you have the corporate farming practice with monocultures of what Karel calls ‘the yellow evils’ of wheat, corn, sunflower and rapeseed. In some places, there are miles of these plants and nothing else.

But back to birds. I’ve never seen a goshawk and have read they are one of the most common raptors in the Czech Republic:

‘They are at 20% of what they were when I started,’ says Karel. ‘They are hunted and poisoned by people who think that anything with a curved bill and talons should be killed.’

‘Do you know the hunters?’ I ask.

‘Yes, I know them, and there is no reason for their killing of these birds.’

‘And are goshawks protected by law?’

‘Of course.’

We pass out through the fields, a pine wood on the horizon.

‘A few friends and I managed to get the pine forest protected as a nature reserve,’ says Karel.

That was not enough to save its most unique resident. 20 years ago it was home to more than twenty singing male ortolan buntings. Today there are none. Karel laments this fact as we take a swerve in the road, our passage halted by a pair of white storks treading through a field. Karel reverses and I photograph these graceful birds. They watch us, too, turning away and moving further into the pasture.

White stork

Arriving at Mutěnice fish ponds we stand on the rickety wooden footbridge where the River Kyjovka dams, the water splitting off into the ponds. Leaves cover the surface, a red admiral arriving to bask on the enforced stillness. Karel points to a stand of dead poplar trees on the other side of the river.

‘That’s the beaver’s work,’ he says.

They’ve been here for thirty years. About five years ago the manager of the ponds attempted to eradicate them, but he failed and so the beavers remain. They arrived here from Austria from the Morava, the river that gives this district its name, running the border with Austria and reaching the Danube in Slovakia. When they first appeared here one beaver was captured and interred in the local zoo. It escaped within 24 hours and returned to the fish ponds.

Turning to step off the footbridge, over a few missing slats, Karel glimpses a kingfisher as it lands on a rock in the Kyjovka. I lift the camera to it but can’t switch it on in time to get the shot. Off it goes, electric blue bolt into the willowy shadows of the river. And as we trample through the long grass alongside the river Karel picks out the calls of young kingfishers and a perch that bears the signs of the birds, no leaves, just bare and worn.

One abiding memory of these ponds will be the stench of the water. It’s nasty. More than once Karel has stopped and pointed at the water’s edge and said, ‘this is not water, this is coffee.’ It’s brown, frothy and pungent so not far off. We continue along the Kyjovka, the large pond on our left meeting the path which we’ve already passed down this morning. Karel has seen something up high in the hazy summer sky:

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘White tailed sea eagle.’

Marsh harrier attacking white-tailed eagle

Marsh harrier attacking white-tailed eagle

Through the binoculars I see a huge animal beating its great wings, with primary feathers so long they look like fingers that could dictate some deep, magical changes to the world below. But no animal is safe or indeed at peace for long on Earth. Karel has seen alongside the eagle a marsh harrier attacking it, and moments later another appears. I set my camera and start clicking. The eagle looks overdressed in its Gogolian greatcoat of brown feathers, its white head and neck protruding out from under, yellow talons dangling out below like down-turned coat hangers. The marsh harrier strikes again and again, forcing the eagle away from the sky above the huge pond and towards the trees, until the battle is over and all three have left my field of vision.

‘We had no idea that the eagles were here,’ Karel says. ‘A Swedish hunter had a permit to hunt in the forest and when he was leaving he said, “I see that you have eagles nesting in the forest”. Our response was, “we didn’t know that!”.’

We tread the path already taken, a dead bat splayed on the ground, its deathly grin drawn wide and rotting. It’s our waymarker. A small van rolls along the track, a Czech man with short black hair and ski-glasses steps out, handing Karel a metal tag that reads ‘Budapest’. They discuss something and then say goodbye, the man getting back into the car and driving away. The ring is from a young cormorant that was shot the other day. It had been ringed by ornithologists in Hungary and died here at Mutěnice. This seems familiar to Karel:

‘The migration patterns of cormorants are well known,’ he says.

This is an extract from an upcoming collection, Travels in South Moravia

Links:

Karel’s website

Conservation in South Moravia

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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I’m really pleased to say that you can now buy my poetry booklet I am living with the animals at Rye Books in East Dulwich, London. Rye Books is an independent bookshop run by Alastair, a brilliant bookseller with, from my experience, a particularly good understanding of natural history and nature writing literature.

They also run excellent talks and book events, most recently a book signing by local filmmaker Richard Ayoade.

Rye Books

45 Upland Road

London

SE22 9EF

www.ryebooks.co.uk

https://twitter.com/Rye_Books

Daniel

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Six-spot burnet moth

Farthing Downs, London, July 2014

We leave the chalky, wooded hollow and appear in an ocean of field scabious. The sun setting in the west catches the pale, lilac petals of these daisies. In the other meadows across on New Hill and in Happy Valley greater knapweed has begun to flower, that deep purple gives me the sense of summer’s final movements, splayed florets that say: this is it. The meadows, too, abound with the motorised flight of burnet moths that were not here two weeks ago. Many of them are mating, one pursued by a pair of skippers unwilling to share a flowerhead. I wonder, what harm could a butterfly do a moth? Anthropomorphism excused, their quarrel does have the feel of a playground spat. That landscape is behind us now as we return along the crown of Farthing Downs. The sky is split in half to the west, smears of rain hurrying our return to the urban landscape. The liquid song of the skylark pours from the sky and we search for its shape. After giving in and then locating it I see it some forty-feet up in the sky. My companion can’t quite believe how clearly its song comes yet from so high. We stand, our exit delayed, the two forces of incoming weather and skylark display gluing us to the soft turf of Farthing Downs.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Poetry book

WP_20141011_003

I am living with the animals

I am living with the animals is my first collection of poems, self-published in October 2014. It is 34 pages long and has 21 poems in it.

The poems were thought of and written whilst in places as far apart as urban south London, the mountains of northern Spain, the highlands of Scotland and the Norfolk and Dorset countryside. It was started in 2011.

Nature is everywhere in our lives and is intrinsically linked to our own well-being and existence. I hope you like nature more after reading some of these.

The cover illustration is by Henrietta MacPhee

To buy a copy in the UK for £3.50 (inc. P&P), click here.

To buy a copy in continental Europe for £4.90 (inc. P&P) click here.

Thank you,
Daniel

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Daneway Banks

Daneway Banks, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, Cotswolds, July 2014

Figures stalk this tumbling chunk of meadowland. Severe expressions are worn: eyes drawn to-and-fro, either side of the gently worn path. But all they see are the scattered clouds of marbled whites. This is where the wild thyme grows, creeping along the turf, appearing in small spreads on the miniature hillocks of ants. And here you have the reason for all the skulking souls, though some boast of their sightings as they lay flat on their bellies in wildflowers, with camera lenses mounted by donut-shaped flashes large enough to save a life at sea. The wild thyme is the food plant of the large blue butterfly, once extinct but now successfully reintroduced from Swedish stock, this insect depends on the work of red ants taking its pupa into their nests as one of their own. The large blue pupa will then eat the other ant grubs it’s lodging with, eventually destroying the entire colony. To find something that was once extinct is, to many, to contend with the immortal. We haven’t seen it, instead we hear stories of large blues sunning themselves beside gate posts ‘just fifteen minutes ago’. We also hear of the creature’s phased movement, down the hill with the sun’s heat. We meet a softly spoken man making his fifth visit in search of the ghost. He identifies the yellow spike of flowers that is agrimony. He suggests we look it up in my friend’s wildflower guide (one which I tossed, jokingly, into the air out of faux-botanical disgust some minutes ago). There’s much more to see: clustered bellflower, common centaury, yellow wort, pyramidal orchid, lady’s bedstraw (which we shamefully contended ourselves with as golden rod), the simple colours of bird’s-foot-trefoil, and edibles like marjoram and salad burnet.

Marbled white

Rain comes and we leave these meadows of lost souls, leading up into Dorvel Wood. There is that change, the sudden loss of colour, all has become green and brown – leaf and leaf litter. The wood flowers appease the loss of butterflies – the underlying stench of wild garlic, the sight of violets, wood spurge, wood melick and no desire for the unusual. No man can be found here lying in mud and puddle to capture a photograph he can later sell on. But the ash leaves, crinkled, brown – is this ash dieback disease, the greatest threat to British wildlife since Owen Paterson? This was a moment I had expected but had somehow felt to be too far away. The canopy leaves are curling and dying, too. Is this the end for the common ash? We ponder it and tread out of Dorvel Wood, into the beating and blazing meadows of Sapperton.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Click through for full album

Farthing Downs and New Hill, London, June 2014

In the towns swallowed by London’s urban lurch, summer is flowering knotweed, rosebay willowherb and lupins, all non-native, all bold and blooming along Victorian railway sidings. At Farthing Downs summer strikes out in meadows of yellow rattle, dropwort, field scabious, hawkbit, ribwort plantain and sheeps sorrel. The first meadow browns, ringlets and small heaths take flight, the latter locked in a pair, mating, flying as one away from my lens. Stopping to take in these grassy Downs, the sheer number of butterflies is clear.

But the birds have not retired just yet. I hear a cry from the blue sky and see a buzzard tucking in its wings and bombing towards Coulsdon. This is the first I’ve seen here, and its arrowing for London is without doubt. This is now officially the most common bird of prey in the UK. I also hear the songs of linnet, song thrush and chiffchaff. Spring and summer have clashed in a frenzy of yellow, green and the common blue butterfly. On New Hill pyramidal orchids cascade across the slope, the leaves of spring cowslips now tucked in under the shade of orchids, rough hawkbit and yellow rattle. The bed of marjoram bounces, its fragrance only felt when touched with the fingers. On the other hillside jackdaws flock with two sheep grazing, their medieval world clattering along with their calls, like bullets ricocheting. The sheep go about their tasting, the meadows purpler still.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Farthing Downs

Farthing Downs, London, May 2014

I sit on a path new and slight, pressed into the grasses. Last year I sat in a spot close by under the shade of ash trees watching a willow warbler make return visits to a nest down in the brambles. Now the brink of a small copse of trees has gone, the bird, perhaps returning, may have decided this was no longer a place to raise young. In the absence of willow warblers, brimstone butterflies, perhaps reaching double figures, mark the new space of downland that has been reopened from the folds of trees. The piles of logs and branches stacked in the iron beds are still here, yet to be burned or hedged. I like that slowness, that I can come back some months later and no one has felt too pushed to tidy the place up.

FD may blog-1

A male and female brimstone fly together and then fall down amongst the twigs and low, woody brambles. I’m interested to see what they’re doing so I get up and have a look. They’re mating, bodies bent round, facing away from each other. They part. High in the sky, against the blue and its herring and lesser black-backed gulls circling on thermals, a huge flock. I wonder why, I wonder what for. Down here with me the female brimstone is again on the wing, met by a band of battling males. They pass her and are turned immediately onto her, each forgetting their quarrel and targeting the paler female. This is the perfect reflection of the adult butterfly’s life: the males seek as many females as they can; the female, having mated, defends herself from latecomers as she strives to find the right plant for egg-laying.

FD may blog-2

The males attack her, but she breaks free, up into the sky. She is not free of them. The four males cloud her, their colours so close as they gain height that all sense of defence has disappeared into a neon waltz. They go up, up and over my head to the world of gulls and warm air rising.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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