Have you seen a stag beetle in London recently? You’d be surprised

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Growing up in Lewisham as a kid, the sight of a stag beetle on the pavement was not unusual. You can see where insects get the name ‘mini-beasts’ when you look at this particular creature: its huge mandibles give it a sense of outward aggression, as if it’s constantly spoiling for a fight. When you witness a stag flying around the impression is of a veritable thug who’s had too much to drink. But stag beetles are perfectly harmless and have, like much of Britain’s wildlife, suffered immense declines since the Second World War. Why is this? Stag beetles are dependent on rotting wood in woodland habitats. The suburban sprawl of the post-war period saw extensive loss of habitat, ancient woods were felled and grubbed out and the ensuing countryside tidy-up has been so damaging to our wildlife, particularly for our bees and butterflies. But, funnily enough, London is a great place to find stag beetles, particularly Lewisham and Southwark. In the past week I’ve seen three male stag beetles, two of them in flight looking for a mate and one dead on a doorstep. The heavy rain and summer break-outs have created good opportunities to view male stags flying around, as windy and wet weather is unsuitable for a cruising stag dude. London Wildlife Trust has launched a campaign to map the distribution of stag beetles in the city, and people have been sending in their sightings in the hundreds. It seems there’s a real affection for this mini-monster amongst Londoners, it’s ignited people’s interest in wildlife, rekindling memories of childhood, when stags were more common (and, apparently, treated very unfairly!). It’s also interesting a new-wave of wildlife watchers who can take the lead on protecting this precious species in the decades to come.

What can you do to help stag beetles after you’ve let London Wildlife Trust know about your sighting? If you have a garden, allow a wild fringe to evolve and create deadwood piles near trees to mimic a woodland habitat. If you have a tree that’s dead or been felled, let the part of the wood or at least the stump remain there. It’s all about keeping things messy. It’s a good idea to keep your cat in from dusk onwards, when the beetles are likely to be roaming. If you don’t own a garden why not join a local Friends of group for a park or nature reserve and help to create stag beetle habitat, or set an area aside for them in your community garden. Stags beetles need our help, and by finding out where they are today we can help to protect and promote them for the foreseeable future.

More information:

People’s Trust for Protection of Endangered Species (PTES)

London Wildlife Trust

BBC Nature

Set: Broadwater Lake

Broadwater Lake is situated in the Mid-Colne Valley a Sight of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), the lake is managed by Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust. This is one of a number of nature reserves in England which is set to be developed for High Speed Rail 2. For more information please follow this link to the Wildlife Trusts’ website.

The cranes aren’t flying

March 2012 631

– Lakenheath Fen, Suffolk, March 2012

We’re standing on the raised bank overlooking Lakenheath’s reedbeds. It’s a warm, clear day but cooling gusts of wind disturb the peace, ushering us away from the viewpoint. On calmer days bearded tits move across the tops of the reeds, today they’ll be down in the cover. We pass a rigid poplar plantation famed for its golden orioles which breed here in spring, what is perhaps the only nesting site in the United Kingdom. The trees grow out of swamp and some of them have collapsed, the soil clinging to the upturned roots making the poplars look like toy soldiers left supine by a child’s swooping palm. The trees have sent suckers out along the horizontal trunk meaning a new layer of woodland is growing from the body of one of the fallen, a new understory naturally occurring from a man-made habitat.

The cover of the plantation lessens the wind somewhat, a green woodpecker yaffles from the cover of the trees. Along the bank are anthills home to yellow meadow ant. I’m with David Norfolk, a friend and expert ornithologist, and he tells me these are rare. The hills could be hundreds of years old. ‘They wouldn’t exist in today’s farmland,’ he says. ‘A tractor will destroy them’. He takes a small chunk of the mound and golden-coloured ants move busily across the grey soil held in his fingertips. On the other side of the bank a blue river runs away to where the sun is going, a flock of oystercatchers pass, chattering as they fly against the flow. On the riverbank near to us pristine white feathers are strewn like discarded quills around the skeleton of a mute swan. David has seen it before: ‘That’ll be a fox kill.’

We’re alerted to a faint, hoarse bird call wafting from beyond the poplars where a swathe of reeds stand for perhaps 200m all the way around. We stand to face the reeds and the wood beyond where trees have collapsed, fieldfares pass through on migration north on their return to Scandinavia. We hear it again, the muffled, bugling call of a crane. I have longed to see or hear these birds, Russian symbols of peace in the aftermath of Hitler and Stalin’s tyranny. The poet Anna Akhmatova described hearing cranes as she lay in her sickbed, the birds fleeing the dry autumnal fields after the harvest. Our cranes are not forthcoming but David is convinced they’re here. I’m prepared to wait until dark.

A group of men in their sixties arrive and we point out the vague sound of the crane, but they look in the opposite direction, instead to the sun setting over the lake. I suggest to another man that the cranes can be heard, he complains that he needs to sit down. ‘That’s a dog barking,’ he retorts. Bearded tits are pinging in the reeds, a water rail is squealing like a pig. We follow the path back to the start. The bugling goes on, it has to be cranes. But the beardies are closer and closer and even louder now. ‘Watch for their flight between the reeds,’ David says.And here they go, the pale brown flash and long tail, something I’ve never seen before. From behind us a crane calls clearly into the lilac sky.

F16s tear up the sunset with their apocalyptic thunder, a train careers along the bank next to us, the two carriages a little pathetic-looking and exposed in this vast open space. The lights shine inside, juxtaposed against the light dying down around us. The sun is stuck behind a strip of cloud and its colour cannot be revealed, jackdaws are roosting noisily in the poplar plantation, the green woodpecker continues its laughing fit, escaping its perch in an undulating flight overhead. The water rail is squealing still, a kingfisher bolts around a swoop of reeds. Two giant birds appear from the path we’ve just taken, grey and white. It has to be! Two cranes, flying together, approaching us on the bank, moving across. They are within a stone’s throw… but the joy evaporates. They’re swans and it’s a trick of the light.

Hit the road, muntjac

Foulden Common, Norfolk, March 2012

I walk the road from Oxborough, scanning the verges for unusual flowers. At times I am rewarded by small blasts of sweet violet, little white flowers which have been used down the centuries for their perfume and act as indicators of ancient woodland, particularly here in eastern England. But there’s no woodland anymore, just these elliptical patches of tiny flowers showing what might once have been here. The sudden end of the farmland is marked by a Scot’s pine, its bark fissured by wire that’s now part of the tree’s anatomy. Foulden Common opens up, a field of dry grass and mole hills, a wintry wood of birch and oak. A hare scarpers.

I sit beneath an oak tree riddled with dead branches and living lichens, a reedbed and crack willow behind me. Immediately I’m alerted to a large animal amongst the reeds, its fur dark brown, it turns its head towards me and disappears. I’m looking out at the fields, divided from the common by a fence and wire. Pheasants are calling back and forth from the wood behind me, its metallic call reverberating, to the field ahead. Gunshots boom, deep and bassy with a final, rippling crack, the pheasant screaming in the wake of the artillery. Overhead, military jets run drills from a nearby airbase and I am reminded of accounts of the Iraq war by civilians, the terrifying sound which hinted at what was to come. It takes over everything: the rooks and woodpigeons fly off in the distance, the robin singing in the scrub is silenced, a red breast moving, beak opening and closing as it sings into the machine’s roar. But it doesn’t last and the occasional gunshots resume, the soothing song of a yellowhammer coming over and over underneath. The release from the barrage makes me want to sleep, like being released from a grip, the yellow bunting luring me further with its repeated phrase, and so I give in.

I wake and the boredom has lessened, the endless trudge of hedgerow and arable land is distant, the lack of people is not so peculiar now. I feel the quiet throb of lichens, the bark against my back and the sun touching my face, the black eyes of an animal which thinks I’m still sleeping, a small, dog-like mammal with a head like a wood mouse. We hold eye-contact and it dithers, moving behind the collapsed willow and into the reeds. And then it begins. A volley of harsh, bark-like shouts fired from the cover – is it going to attack? The voice is intense, hostile. It’s unnerving. ‘Alright,’ I shout. ‘Alright!’ I put my camera and map away and head back to the road, the monotony of walking returns. The muntjac has shifted me from the Common.

Panic in the ancient woodland

Dorset, April 2011

The track was churned up by tractor wheels, giving the appearance of an industrial thoroughfare. The trees were mostly beech, with the odd oak or ash in places. They were not yet in leaf, but on the cusp. On the verges wild primrose had bloomed and swathes of wood anemone grew where light fed the woodland floor. Beyond the ride, greyish flowers were appearing from the thin green sleeves of bluebell leaves. In patches common dog-violets showed their petals and heart-shaped leaves. The wood anemones, bluebells, wild primrose and violets all indicated that the woodland had been here, in part, for over 400 years. In Dorset, only wood anemone is indicative of ancient woodland. Though wild primrose, common dog-violet and bluebells would qualify the wood as ancient in the South-East of England, here in the South-West it was not necessarily proof. But wood anemone signifies ancientness. Beech is the final stage of woodland, and so the wood appeared to me to be especially old. Wood anemone is a slow grower, it increases its range by no more than six-feet a century. The tractor’s movement through the wood may have benefitted the primroses, its wheels carrying their seeds to hedgerows in distant fields.

The track reached a plateau, swooping down and around a dense plantation of larch and other coniferous trees. No light reached the woodland floor, nothing could be seen beyond or between the trunks, merely needles and intense shade. No anemones, no violets. But this was a blip in the wood, the musty conifers likely planted for timber in a clearing came to an end. The spread of bluebells and beech returned. It was here that a big, moving, breathing blotch entered my peripheral vision. It was an animal, too tall to be a dog but that was my instinctive response. This flickering feeling is known as ‘fight-of-flight’, an adrenaline surge caused by the brain sensing that you are in danger. The brain then sends a command for adrenaline to be released into the bloodstream. Your senses are tunnelled. Leap the nearest fence or suffer the consequences. This natural pinch of adrenaline didn’t last. The fluffy white ‘tush’ of the animal engaged my senses. It was a roe deer. This doe got one whiff of a fragrant human and darted out of sight. The encounter was over within seconds. She had looked at me as she would once have witnessed her original predator, the wolf, a species long absent from Britain. In one of the trees a badger-viewing platform had been constructed. I climbed up and looked out across the dulled wood. The bluebells remained in their nearly state, spindly lichens hung from the bare branches of oaks like small, bluish wigs caught as their minor bearers escaped. In the gap of the sky untouched by twigs, the broad wingspan of a buzzard passed across. I clambered down and happened upon a neat den made from hazel poles and covered with brown ferns. To the side was an overgrown hazel coppice in need of cutting, with arms stretching out from the wide base. The ground underneath was coated with bluebells gradually lifting their heads to flower. Inside the den the leaves of the plant were flattened and brown hairs were scattered. A resting deer had stopped here.

There was a left-turning out of the wood marked by a rusted oil drum. The trees came to a sudden end and a field of grass exploded into a vista of deep, silent green. The roe deer stood in the tramlines leading over and down to an undulating expanse of the same. It watched me and continued sniffing around without much concern for a time, before galloping away as I took a few steps in its direction. I turned from the green field and gazed upon the woodland’s sudden end: a border of trees, a ditch and then the dirt of the farmland. A rabbit flinched in the low scrub by the ditch. The monoculture of the crop covered the scene for perhaps a mile over the hill and far away. In the wood, wildflowers of great variety grew, badgers slept through the day in their sett, birds of prey surveyed the glades and clearings while deer ambled along, sometimes stopping to rest in a man-made den. I turned my back to the farmland and sky and entered the wood once more.