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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Perhaps the biggest source of amusement for us was from this long-eared owl which was roosting in the same box three days running.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is a capsid bug, but I’m not sure whether it’s a common green capsid bug or a potato capsid bug. At first I thought it might be a shield bug but the head is completely different. Whichever one it is, it was on a privet bush in the garden, not doing very much.
I am walking the North Downs Way back to front, upside down and inside out. This is a view to Chevening House, where the British Foreign Secretary resides, currently Conservative Phillip Hammond. I’d rather be on foot.
Click through for my album of North Downs Way pictures on Flickr.
Entering onto the Downs, a group of teenagers are fixing their upturned bikes in the buttercups and silverweed. They spill out onto the lane, calling across to each other when a car comes past. It’s evening and the sun hits the mounds of anthills overgrown by birds-foot trefoil and speedwell. The glowing yellow and blue petals are a precursor to the summer yet to hit these chalky meadows, their flowers like a stash of forgotten jewels. From the strip of trees and bushes that separates Farthing Downs from New Hill, a flow of blackbird music runs, moving here and there as the wind tugs and carries their songs to different places. A red fox slips into the hedgerow. Song thrushes evade the wind with their daggers and trills. Up ahead, a pair of young women pose on the path, and only until a few paces ahead do I see the selfie-stick with their phone on the end. Disappearing off, knowing they aren’t alone, they throw a few more statuettes to their camera, before slinging hand bags back into the crooks of their arms. Skylarks call from up on high, one with its wings and bill working as if it all depended on that verse. In the hawthorns the linnets ping and pang, a green woodpecker lifts up from the turf and submerges itself in some oak scrub. The magpies tread through short tufts of meadowland coloured by buttercups and the hot red stems of salad burnet, still yet to leaf. Before me is Happy Valley, its wayfaring trees flowering in white spots on the hillside. Slipping off into the chalk hollow that will lead to Devilsden Wood, the defiant song thrush sings into the tunnel of hazel and yew, a master of this underworld. On the track before me is a light brown toad, sitting in the middle of the path. Like a baby it crawls towards me and nuzzles in against the side of my boot. I remove my foot and let it continue its journey into the undergrowth.
In Devilsden Wood I feel the first hints of the evening cooling, the sun having reddened my skin in the open land. The new, hardening green leaves of beech explode in the canopy where the light hits them, the few slithers of sky that can be seen between their branches leaves nicks of light along the trackway. A couple with their two sons walk with sticks, picking their way through the undergrowth to find new paths and treasure. The bluebells hum purple in the dark hazel coppices, brightened in part by the helmets of yellow archangel and splashes of stitchwort. The wood ends and the buttercup meadows of Happy Valley simmer at the break of trees. A man and a woman stroll the way I have come with butterfly nets in their hands, a happy day spent on the Downs, I am sure.
The route leads back into sun dappled bluebell woods swamped by bramble. Two dogs shoot past from behind a small mound and I’m taken by surprise. Meeting company in the dark wood I waste no time breaking out again into the valley. On the hill that will take me to Coulsdon Common, two lads are rolling down, swearing as their tumble takes a surprising turn. At the bottom of the hill waits a girl with hands on hips, as if deciding between them who she will choose when their race climaxes. The lad with long black hair and grunge hoodie lies on his back, raising himself up on his elbows. The girl jockeys him and lies back. They rest in the sun-draining valley like a pair of Siamese twins. I pass them and head towards Coulsdon Common, overtaking a man in his seventies:
‘Evening,’ I say.
‘Good evening, sir!’ he fires back, as if still in the military. He stops, casting his eyes across the flowering meadow to the scene of a white gazeebo in a garden where a PA system amplifies a ceremony of some sort. He is a lone figure on that track, wearing a cap and winter coat. On Coulsdon Common the goal posts gape in shade as the sun breaks through the branches, illuminating the grasses: cocks foot and meadow foxtail. It’s approaching eight o’clock and so I chunter on, passing Saturday evening strollers fresh from an afternoon in the Fox pub. A man drives a mower along the verges, a clutch of bluebells given a stay of execution around a fencepost. I drop down into Rydons Lane past houses with vast lawns dotted with wildflowers left over from their previous incarnation as meadowland or wood. The absurdity of suburbia strikes its note – carp ponds, seven cars, gates with intercoms. I leave on an incline swallowed by yew trees and bursting with chalk, a Labrador storming past me. A voice blurs with the tree dark.
‘He’s over here,’ I shout.
‘Oh, thanks mate,’ is the reply of a man in a white t-shirt, stranded amidst dogs mercury.
I walk through a familiar farm where women ride horses, a Jaguar parked close by. In winter these fields are boggied by the deep clefts of horse hooves, now they are sealed by the heat of a hot day’s sun. Crossing a stile I arrive in a field where a man smokes a cigarette at a pathway in from his house, evidently in need of some silence and peace, he does not see me. I follow the mowed path alongside a hedge of poplar suckers, beyond a dead oak and its dead ivy which has only collapsed in the past year. In need of a snack I sit on the grass and notice paths which I had not seen before. A young, fresh red fox bounds into view, skipping as if from something invisible to the human eye. It sees me and stops, staring, unsure of what I might do. But I’m only here to sit and chew a Tunnock’s Caramel. I watch it through my binoculars, its image framed by buttercups and hedges, a house at the field’s edge. Insects move in small clouds along the edge of the mower’s reach.
On Hayes Lane I dodge speeding cars and see that patches of wild garlic are being harvested with scissors, hollow stalks standing leafless on the verge. Their thoughtful foraging will make no dent in this robust lily, a plant flowering in profusion along the trackways from here to Canterbury in spring. At the entrance to Kenley Common a song thrush rises to a protruding branch, smashing a snail against the wood. It drops it and flies away. Taking a closer look I see the snail still curled up in its brittle, fractured home. The Common is not empty, the same spreads of buttercup full with human life. A man lies on his stomach in the flowers calling for his dog to run towards him, the remaining sunlight channelling straight down his lens. I look at the English oaks, swelling woods and distant wounds of chalk quarry and wonder what draws us so readily to gather professional images of our pets. With time on my mind I snatch a glimpse of the Caterham valley and head towards Whyteleafe, the remainder of the Common swamped in the shady wood pasture by cow parsley. The wood of mature ash and wayfaring trees are bright white, naked limbs in the twilight. At the end of my walk a poorly, urban fox cub nips into the road, pausing to watch me, like its healthier meadow counterpart, to see what I might do. I watch it disappear into the avenue of parked cars and take the pavement down to catch the next train home.
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?’
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.
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.’
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