Today is the winter solstice. The darkest and shortest day of the year is the perfect time to look back at one of my fondest summer macro memories. It might also cheer some of you to see photos of sunnier, warmer times, teeming with wildlife.
In August 2016 my friend Peter Beckenham and I travelled to South Moravia in Czechia. This trip was completed by train, with a route of London-Brussels, Brussels-Cologne, Cologne-Prague sleeper, Prague-Brno and back. I really recommend this (maybe not right now) as a much better way to travel than flying. You see more, go to more interesting places and reduce your environmental impact.
For macro photography I was using a Nikon D750 and Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens. Most of the photos seen here were taken at f11.
Moravia is home to varied landscapes, rivers, wetlands, mountains and woodlands. It of course suffers from the vagaries of intensive agriculture, particularly because of the impacts of the Soviet Union. But its protected landscape system is strong and there are many committed environmentalists who spend much of their free time recording species and promoting and educating people about nature.
The reason I know about these meadows is purely because of local ecologist, conservationist and educator Zuzana Veverkova. Zuzka has taught me so much about European nature, landscapes and cultural heritage. All the thanks here go to her.
The meadow is at the end of a street in the Kyjovka valley. It is surrounded by woodlands, largely managed for forestry and intensive arable farms. Zuzka works to enhance the landscape by advising on the creation of meadows, orchards and other sustainable landscape models which will provide habitat for the rich biodiversity of the area.
You didn’t have to be in a meadow to find diverse invertebrate life. In Zuzka’s post box (attached to an external wall of the house) a colony of European paper wasps had built a nest. They are ready to sting you, so I observed from a distance. They were feeding on umbellifers in the slither of garden in front of the house. We don’t have this species in Britain.
Another species of wasp, but instead an ichneumon (probably a Gasteruption species) was foraging on the flowers.
The wasp action didn’t end there. A red sand wasp had burrows in the soil. I’ve mainly seen this type of wasp on heathlands in the UK. They’re rare because of their dependence on a single habitat type, one of which, in heathlands, has seen a lot lost to forestry and development in the UK.
It was pretty incredible to see that the wasp had caught a honey bee as prey and was leaving it to one side while it went about its business.
The meadow itself, where the ‘garden’ insects are likely to have been visiting on longer foraging trips, was not far away. Here is my friend Peter Beckenham pretending he lives in the meadow. Pete is a bird-nerd and he had plenty to find in this area. He heard a common rosefinch calling in the trees in the distance, a species I haven’t seen yet.
When Zuzka introduced us to the meadows, she immediately found something cool for us to see. This is a European praying mantis. I feel like the mantis could be mistaken for a puppet master here, directing the movements of Zuzka’s hand. They do of course have some sinister behaviour anyway.
The meadows were kitted out with flowers, matching some of the most diverse grasslands Britain has to show, if not more so. Of course continental Europe has far richer grasslands than Britain due to geological processes, connectivity with a wider landmass and probably climactic reasons. We have also ploughed up 97% of ancient grasslands in the Britain. But this wasn’t even a nature reserve. In the UK people fight campaigns over much less diverse habitats, which is still very important.
We visited in August, so there was some quite mild weather which meant the insects were less active. That is perfect for taking photos because the animals are slow and usually perched somewhere helpful. This is a cricket.
On a flower stem this cricket was poised, its wing casings apparent here in their translucent green.
It was very easy to miss this long-horn moth, having attached itself to the sepals of this scabious flower. These are day-flying moths, which include some very beautiful species.
An ermine moth was nectaring on this umbellifer. They look like dalmatians.
I felt sorry for this shieldbug with a red spider mite attached to its head. iNaturalist suggests this is a species in the Carpocoris family.
Nearby was a green shieldbug hiding away in the florets of field cow wheat. I love the colours in this photo and it’s definitely one I consider a ‘portfolio’ image.
One morning in the meadow, after a night of rain, I found hundreds of small blue butterflies perched in grass heads. A Czech user on iNaturalist suggested this is silver-studded blue. I find some blue butterflies really difficult to identify. This image conveys the beauty of a macro lens: a sharp, thin field of view, with a dreamy blur of green in the background.
Far from being a wilderness, the meadow was on the edge of a municipal part of a village that was growing, but slowly. I spent my final morning of that trip taking photos in the meadow. What you can’t see in this image are swallows flying low across the top of the sward. A special memory! Then again, they were eating my subjects…
The light was low over the Arun valley. To the south the Sussex coast was a band of grey concrete, the horizon between sky and sea broken only by the pale sticks of the offshore wind farms. The Isle of Wight rested out at sea to the west like a great sleeping sloth.
In September 2017 I visited the White Carpathians on the Czech side of the Czech-Slovak border. The White Carpathians hold wood pasture meadows with the highest plant diversity on Earth per square metre. This is a landscape heavily impacted by people but may be fairly close to the pre-human ‘wildernesses’ of Europe. Here conservation efforts have yielded great success in preserving part of a once international wildlife corridor.
The White Carpathians, Czechia (a.k.a Czech Rep.), September 2017
The sun beats down on the village of Vápenky and in the trees high winds blow off from over the White Carpathians. The sky is a deep, summer blue but in the orchards the colours of autumn are appearing. The meadows are dry and grain-coloured, red apples and green pears drop into the cropped grass.
We follow the forestry road through tall beech woods that stand like the framework of a cathedral incomplete. The wind lashes them but some stillness rests in the opening low between the silver-grey trunks. The limestone quarry track bends up and over into a clearing where the forestry machines have deeply rutted the road. They have also cleared the trees but for one long, thin beech that stands alone, its bark bleached by the sun.
The landscape of a recently deforested area is shocking, wreckage. But this industry is one of the most important in the whole of Czechia. Many lives are sustained by it. Still, I wish we could find a way for horses to still remain an integral part – something I’ve seen in Romania – and that its culture was not so macho, chauvinist and driven by putting profit above good ecological stewardship.
The clearing of trees has opened up views of the valley, showing forested mountains and peach rooftops. For a country that is nowhere near as pious as neighbours Poland and Germany, each village or town has it church, climbing above all else.
We are looking for a nature reserve called Porážky but our map failed to show the road we were taking some time ago. We speak to a Czech woman heading down a track with freshly picked parasol mushrooms in her hand. She points us back up the trackway, fingernails cut and painted indigo, her hair dyed reddish-brown.
The end of forestry land is always marked by a boost in tree diversity. Here hornbeam, a tree of no forestry value, grows. So too hazel, oak and small-leaved lime – the Czech national tree. These are all species of the pre-industrial forestry age, wildwood species of great use to human hand and hearth, but not the modern machine.
Light breaks through the edging of broadleaved wood to reveal grasslands and the sky atop the hill. Again the wind gusts. Reaching its top we enter Porážky, the protected area of wood pasture we had hoped to find. The landscape is cropped grass and single oaks. You would have not the slightest idea that these are the richest meadows on earth.
They are a man-made and exploited habitat, but they are the truest symbol of harmony between people and nature. In fact, they may even be closer to what the pre-human woodland landscape of Europe was like, due to the cropping of large, roaming groups of wild grazing animals we have now made extinct. ‘Rewilding’ in its purest or most puritanical form wants that world back.
The White Carpathians are the lowest lying, most westerly extent of the Carpathians massif, stretching east to Romania where they reach their zenith. It is a landscape that holds great mystery, wildness and fascinating human cultures. What a life it could be to travel back and forth across the range, witnessing its wildlife and spending time with the people making a living from its soils, woods and meadows.
Eddie, my hiking companion, and I, have been to their furthest point, and there, too, are found meadows of great diversity. In Romania ancient traditions are dying out as people move to cities – what contrarily is thought to be the driving force behind the return of wolf, bear and other megafauna – the rewilder’s dream. In the White Carpathians conservation initiatives have led to the protection of the meadows and their continued management.
Two days ago we visited the headquarters of the Bílé Karpaty protected landscape area or CHKO in Veselí nad Moravou where we learned that one of the great successes for the organisation has been the return of orchards to the landscape. Vast tracts of this landscape have been returned from arable farming to species-rich grassland, righting wrongs of the post-war Soviet era. Fruit trees have returned because they offer something in return to local people – fruit.
Here in Moravia the Czechs have achieved great things. Grasslands are the most threatened habitat in the world, due to intensive agriculture, afforestation and development, and they have succeeded in both conserving what remains and bringing it back in other areas.
I have recently taken an interest in the Twitter account of Tibor Hartel, an ecologist in Romania whose work includes the mapping of ancient wood pasture. Unlike Czechia, Romanian wood pasture is poorly protected and local groups and individuals must act independently to save these amazing places often, it would seem, without government help. Imagine that this landscape once ran across the Carpathians, from Moravia, through the Ukraine, to Transylvania in the eastern corner of Europe. Even Prince Charles has taken an interest.
Walking through Porážky it has the feel of an English parkland, the single oaks dotted amongst the green. I first visited here in 2014, hiking over the meadows with Libor Ambrozek, the former Czech Environment Minister and then head of the White Carpathians protected landscape area, or CHKO. I was blown away, the sheer abundance of orchids and the fact of its singular richness. In May 2014 a storm blew in and we were drenched in the open pasture. Today the wind overwhelms and the sun bears down, the glare intense.
Jays pass almost every few seconds, back and forth to stash acorns. They are in the process of ‘scatter-hoarding’, the act of burying acorns in places that may well one day grow into the new oak trees of this landscape. These are birds in an autumn-pique. Beyond them buzzards soar but the wind deters the smaller species. In the grasslands clouded yellow butterflies feed on knapweeds and dandelions, red admirals bolt from the dark plantations. We find a single aspen, its trunk crooked, whipped north by decades of strong winds. Half its canopy shows red in its leaves.
To many this kind of landscape is at odds with the contemporary ethic of rewilding, or ‘allowing land to return to its natural state’. If that were to happen here many species would become extinct. One plant clinging on, Pedicularis exaltata, a species of lousewort, is only found in this area away from other localities in Belarus, Ukraine and Romania. Its presence suggests a once-continuous wood pasture landscape across the Carpathians between the Czech-Slovak border and eastern Romania. It can’t be seen today as it flowers in spring and summer. Instead the ground is dotted with meadow saffron, a pink crocus.
The wood pasture as it looks today was created and ‘refined’ thousands of years ago by people clearing woodland – likely of oak, ash, hornbeam and hazel – to allow their domesticated cattle and goats and Mesopotamian sheep to graze. At least that is the common understanding, for could the presence of large, roaming groups of wild horses, bison, elk and other herbivores have meant a landscape more open than the idea of coast-to-coast closed canopy woodland? Compared with today’s measure, the deforestation work of our species was sustainable deforestation due to the population sparsity, moving a possibly more dense wildwood to something more open in places.
The current management and conservation of wood pasture relates to the belief that habitats which are species-rich are the ones which are most important and valuable. But they need to be maintained. If their management involves local people, provides sustenance and perhaps employment, it will work, especially in a place like Czechia. This may lack the perceived poetry of rewilding, but its practicality brings results: the continued existence of the world’s most important wildflower meadows and all the other chains of life which depend on them.
With thanks to my travel companion Eddie Chapman, friend and guardian Zuzana Veverkova, Ivana Jongepierova and everyone at the CHKO office.
In September 2017 I visited the Pálava Hills in south-eastern Czechia, close to the border with Austria. Beginning at the Archeopark Museum in Pavlov, where an exhibition of some of the most important Paleolithic finds ever were on show, and finishing in the town of Mikulov, I try to capture the world of our hunter gatherer ancestors, the Gravettians.
I take the road up towards Děvin, a hill where Děvičky, a ruined 13th century castle faces out towards Austria. From the surrounding vineyards sounds the booming of gas cannisters designed to deter flocking starlings from eating the grapes fruiting at this time of year. A church stands in the heart of Pavlov, and a small murmuration of starlings swoops and morphs in search of a perch. The faux-shotgun fire is working. I pause at a bench overlooking Dolní Věstonice, and north of this a village now flooded after the damming of the river Dyje. Long before the flooding, some 30,000 years ago, a tribe of people known as the Gravettians kept watch from the hills with small encampments and fires. When herds of reindeer and roaming mammoths entered the valley they lit fires to signal that the time to hunt had arrived.
Down in the village of Pavlov the Archeo Park Museum protrudes from the grass bank like fragments of chalk, perhaps an attempt to reflect what’s kept inside – some of the most revealing human artefacts ever to be found. In this area of the Czech Republic, now known as Czechia, evidence has been found to show that hunter gatherers, the Gravettians, lived in these hills approximately 30,000 years ago, disappearing when a climactic cooling took place 8,000 years later.
The items on show in the exhibition include a copy of the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. This sculpture is of a woman with large, elongated breasts and wide hips. Its meaning is unknown but it suggests some ritualistic celebration of the female form and fertility. There are many such small sculptures to have been found but more often broken into pieces, possibly smashed as part of a ritual. The Venus was found almost complete. Yet more intriguing is the presence of a fingerprint said to be that of a child between the age of 7 and 15. Was this a gift in mourning from a father or family member to a child after the death of their mother?
Whatever the explanation is, a ceramics culture appears well ingrained in the world of the Gravettians, something unknown until the discoveries were made here in Moravia. The exhibition, lodged deep at the foot of the Pálava Hills, brings to life the human history of this Carpathian outcrop. Here I learned about the megafauna that both predated and sustained the human tribes in what will have been a cold and unforgiving landscape, one that has much changed from that of the Paleolithic hunter gatherers. In Dolní Věstonice, flooded after the damming of the Dyje, only the village church remains above water on a small island, along with the skeletal remains of trees that drowned with the intentional flood. Red-footed falcons, ospreys and other birds of prey are said to perch on those dead branches. To look out from this point is to see an industrialised landscape of crops and vineyards.
The Gravettian hunter gatherers used wood for specific purposes, and they had the ability to prepare flints and stones for weapons. The use of wood suggests an understanding of woodland management, at least how trees will grow and which species is most useful for a specific task. The permanent settlements of the Gravettians were constructed from timber. Ash and hazel were surely the preferred material for a spear, if they did indeed grow in the area at that time, as they produce straight and flexible poles unlikely to snap upon impact, therefore able to be picked up and chucked again. Both can be split by the flints and other sharp tools they had with ease, similar to their use in making early wooden hay rakes. As for stones or flints, the Pálava Hills are part of the Carpathian massif, formed in the Mesozoic, no more than 250 million-years-ago, from the residue of the oceans that once washed here. Limestone is simple to quarry, as a sedimentary rock it is younger and subtler that igneous or metamorphic rocks. But the colder conditions of the time would have made that difficult, therefore the animals they hunted would have been crucial in all the resources they provided.
The river Dyje runs south of Pálava, joining with the Morava at the border of Czechia, Slovakia and Austria. These two great European rivers are tributaries of perhaps the greatest, the Danube. It is thought that the first Homo sapiens to enter Europe 42,000-years-ago did so by following the Danube and its floodplain. It was rich in resources: water, wood from floodplain forests, fish and meat, rocks and stone, and pelts from animals present in its riparian margins. This behaviour has resulted in the creation of many European cities along major rivers, my home city of London and the Thames being a fine example. The Dyje’s braided channels and meanders are where the Gravettians based in the Pálava Hills found their flints and stones for tools, weapons and crafts. Here they found fish and beavers for pelts. Thankfully beavers are still in the area, despite the attempts of local Moravian fishpond owners to eradicate them.
Into the woods
The first break from the town is into Děvin’s woods, where a steep track worn by feet and running water swerves through multi-trunked trees: small-leaved lime, elm, hornbeam, ash. These are old coppice stools, trees once cut down, their wood harvested for firewood or some other need. Now they are overgrown. These woods hold plants that are not found in many other places, including rare bellflowers, and birds such as black woodpecker, hawfinch and golden oriole. The woods will not have been the same 30,000-years-ago when the Gravettians lived here, so much colder was the climate and closer the northern European glaciers. At this time Middle England remained under ice.
Worse still for the vulnerable hunter gatherers, wolves and lions would all have hunted from the cover of woods and the caves held within. But wolves were a key prey for hunter gatherers in Pálava, with their bones commonly found near former settlements. The Gravettians lived in tepee-like tents made from wolf and other animal skins and pelts, meaning that hunting was a crucial part of their lifestyle. Mammoths would have been the key prey in housing a tribe because of their size and the rich bounty of materials that could come from them. Other megafauna included arctic fox, woolly rhinoceros – a species which beggars belief – elk, reindeer, horse, deer, ibex, chamois and maybe bison. Now only the red fox, chamois, ibex, deer and wolf remain from this array of wonderful animals. Wolves inhabit Czechia, Slovakia, Poland and are moving into Germany, Belgium and even the Netherlands.
Reaching the light beyond the woods I take the choice of a lower route with more cover. This rain is the thin, fast-falling, soak-you-through kind. The path is pale with the calcium of the chalk. The slopes from the hilltop are dotted with scraggy scrub, some are charming little oaks, a species once more common in Czechia, before a move to German forestry ethics of pine and spruce took hold. Ironically these are the trees that will have sprouted from this rocky outcrop some 30,000-years-ago.
The grasslands the scraggy oaks stand in are muted and yellowed, but in season they are some of the richest around, with uncommon plants, many tied to these limestone hills, and a rich abundance of moths and butterflies. They are a rare habitat known as steppe grassland, a remnant of the open landscape that the Gravettians entered into. It’s likely that these meadows hold more species of butterfly than all the British species combined. The Gravettians of Pálava had problems with less colourful insects. They were known to use red dye to deter the mosquitos that plagued them here in the Dyje floodplain. Even today mosquitos are considered a major problem in the area, exacerbated by attempts to dam the river near the Austrian border.
These grasslands tell a further story of the Gravettians, one which says much about the world we live in today. Work by Italian archaeologists has led to the discovery of microscopic plant matter on rocks used in the form of a pestle and mortar. The Gravettians may have been grinding down grain or other plants to create pastes or other foodstuffs. This technique has a domestic hint to it, suggesting that the farming or Neolithic revolution of 4,000 BC was not the explosion it is sometimes said to be. Perhaps the Gravettians took with them from the Middle East and Africa an understanding of how to do more than forage, also to use certain plants to produce pastes and even soups.
Evidence suggests the role of the already present Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, is not completely recognised in how our own species adapted to life in Europe. There is evidence of hazelnuts being ground down into a paste by ‘British’ hunter gatherers to use on the move, a source of energy that suited their lifestyles. Our Paleolithic ancestors were not dim cave people banging their heads against the wall; their lives were short, their strength and fitness great, their understanding of natural resources far keener than the average person today. Who out there could ever hunt a wolf with hand tools?
Walking on, the path dips in and out of more coppiced woods, the stools extending in length and thus in age. Chlorophyll has already begun to fade from the leaves, creating a faint glimmer of yellow in the woods. It’s a welcome shift from the grey, misty day. I pass down into more woods where flocks of marsh or willow, great, blue and long-tailed tits join with nuthatches to feed in a rain-drenched glade. The rain falls hard and I sit under a picnic watching it pour down, the birds still flocking, calling, feeding. It’s a time to regret not getting the bus and instead confining yourself to a march over open hills, with the mist stealing away views.
Memories of sunnier times
In 2013 I woke up in a tent on an old farm and walked from Mikulov at dawn over the Pálava Hills, ending up at Dolní Věstonice. It was July and vital to begin at first light to avoid the highs of a Moravian summer. Hence the images used here don’t quite correlate to the reverse I experience now: rain and cold. In 2013 the hills were being tramped by families from Czechia, Poland, Austria and Slovakia enjoying summer holidays, today I am unlikely to see anyone at all before the villages and eventually the major town of Mikulov. Back then golden orioles sang from trees and colourful bee eaters lined up on telephone wires. Now these African migrant birds have returned south to avoid the European winter. There is a heavy sense of absence in this place.
On that sunny day in July 2013 the vista of Austria was clear, the end of Czechia marked by the reversion to thin strips of farmland and crops, white wind turbines spinning on the horizon. Mikulov castle stood clear against an Austrian tapestry of fields and small woods. The castle (‘zamek’ in Czech) itself has relevance to the Gravettian treasures found in Pálava. During the Nazi invasion of Czechia (1938-45) the fascists wanted to continue the work of the Czech archaeologists. Many of the artefacts were kept in Mikulov castle. During a battle to remove the Nazis from Pálava, the castle burned down and many important items were lost. Thankfully the Venus was being kept in Brno and survived the devastation. Never forget that war is about more than an atrocious loss of human life, it so an attempt to erase certain histories and cultures, even if it was not the desire of the Nazis on this occasion.
I pass over Stolová hora where horses graze against the desolate horizon. Mountains of cut scrub are piled alongside the path, cleared to allow the wildflowers and their co-dependent butterflies and other insects to remain. In July I saw crested-cow wheat and sparkling shows of stellarias in these meadows. Down from the hills once more, I walk alongside the road with sweeping views of endless monocultural crops, a throwback to Soviet collectivisation that has led to huge environmental difficulties: biodiversity loss, soil erosion and aquatic pollution from pesticide run-off. The average field in Czechia is 500hectares. Many come here to photograph the undulating fields and valleys of Moravia, known as ‘Moravian Tuscany’ in places.
At Klentnice a bus sweeps by: wet and muddy I trundle on. Cyclists ride in the opposite direction towards Pavlov, the leader speaking English in guiding tones to two Australian friends who listen closely. In 2013 I noted viper’s bugloss, poppies, thistles, knapweeds, scabiouses tended by red tailed bumblebees and painted ladies. ‘The colours of the living strike against the black, crumbling tarmac edge’, said the notes. Not today.
Before turning up onto Turold, the final hill of this three peak challenge, I stop to photograph a small-leaved lime tree lodged between houses and parked cars. It is a natural monument, even located on the Czech map service I’m using on my phone. These trees are commonly planted across eastern and central Europe. They are the linden tree, one of the first to colonise after the most recent glacial period 14,000-years-ago. The small-leaved lime is the Czech national tree. The Gravettians would have had a use for this tree, perhaps eating its leaves and making tea from its flowers.
The path curves around Turold, with a view of the hills I have just walked, stretching away in the rain beyond vineyards. Turold is a series of limestone outcrops heavily wooded and cut internally by networks of caves. The rock faces are where the eagle owl nests, Europe’s largest, a beast that preys on birds as big as buzzards and ravens. The caves contain colonies of lesser-horseshoe bats, one of Europe’s most threatened species. Of course, all this is only clear because of information boards, for which a visitor should be grateful. Perhaps the best information of all comes from the edge of Turold and the beginning of Mikulov. Here stands a wooden shelter selling refreshments, it’s a bat bar. Faded laminated photographs are stapled to the wooden panels showing images of inside the caves and bats roosting. Sadly, the bat bar is hibernating.
Of castles and campfires
Arriving back in Mikulov the question comes to mind: could those Paleolithic Gravettians ever have dreamed that a building as grand as Mikulov castle might stand here looking south towards the great river Danube? Living in tents of animal skin, carving small sculptures of rhinos, mammoths and images of deceased mothers and sisters, what futures did they dream of? The castle is grand, indeed, but it is not dissimilar to the hunter gatherers keeping watch from the hilltop – you only have to note the structure on each of these hills to realise that we share the same desire for protection from threats appearing on the horizon.
Distant the Gravettians may have been in time but in practice and creativity we are the same, but for the fact that their strength, stamina and practical skills are likely to have far outweighed our own today. We still carry their fears of insect bites, of megafauna that might hunt us, though we are without that very same megafauna, projecting those fears onto the closest thing we have, imagining that our countrysides are the domain of great unknown beasts.
The thing that I take from the knowledge of our ancient ancestors is a need to remember our origins, not in nationalities or ethnicity, but our place in nature. The Gravettians faced everyday difficulties which we do not, but there can be no doubt that we share the same need to create, to move freely, to use the resources we have wisely. The Gravettians are thought to have left Moravia because of climate change, exacerbated by the micro-climate of the Carpathians. They moved south for a time out of necessity but then came new generations who went on to establish our great European cities and institutions. These ancient people we patronise and know so little about, we are indebted to them.
South Moravia is a region of the Czech Republic that borders with Slovakia and Austria. I have visited on two occasions, in July 2013 and then the following April. The region gets its name from the Morava, one of Europe’s lesser known rivers, a tributary of the Danube. Over time it has been straightened for industry, though some of its natural meanders do still exist, I find its influence on the surrounding landscape to be fascinating both historically and ecologically. The impact of communism on the landscapes of Central and Eastern Europe are clear. Small fields were opened up and collected, taken under state control. The rivers were canalised and wetlands drained for agriculture. The similarities to post-war capitalism are strong: it was the case of two warring ideologies attempting to increase and establish their populations with similar technologies and agricultural industries. The advances in agriculture, sanitation and medicine meant that, despite hundreds of millions of deaths in the Second and First World Wars, the population of the earth tripled in the 20th century. The irrevocable ‘taming’ of continental and Eastern Europe’s natural landscapes, and loss of traditional management techniques which in fact sustained many of the richest habitats, was thought to be largely complete by the 1980s. That generalised view, however, does not give the full picture. Nature is adaptable and human perspectives change, as South Moravia’s landscapes show.
The Google Earth view of the Morava’s natural meanders at Bzenec. A now vegetated oxbow lake can be seen in the ‘o’ shape next to the ‘S’ shape in the mid left-centre. The impact of post-war industry was felt across Europe’s waterways, though the damming of the Danube was to be undertaken most severely only by the 1990s. Many rivers lost their natural meanders, straightened to aid the passage of goods and people. The Morava is an excellent example of this change. The only remaining natural meanders of the Morava can be found on the edges of Bzenecka Doubrava, a pine plantation established on the river’s sandy edgelands. The sandy conditions were created by the Morava, the river having deposited sand throughout the landscape over thousands of years. When I visited in July 2013 the trees at the edges of the river were collapsing into the water as the sand slowly eroded the banks. This way new meanders could be formed if given the chance, the silting up of the edges thinning the watercourse and increasing the erosion on the opposite side through the increase in the pace of the water’s flow. It’s unlikely that the river will be given free reign, however, as the neighbouring plantation is of economic importance. Perhaps the river’s power will be too great in this case.
The river’s work has also given people the chance to exploit these vast deposits of sand. Very close to the river was a working mine. But nature has not lost out completely here, the sand was being mined by sand martins (Riparia riparia) which in turn were being hunted by hobbies (Falco subbuteo) and their nests excavated from above by foxes (Vulpes vulpes). The mined areas as seen in the image above were being replanted with broadleaved tree species.
I photographed the sand mine from Váté písky, a protected area known as ‘the Moravian Sahara’. Green lizards (Lacerta viridis), with their beautiful blue mouths and green-yellow bodies snuck out from pieces of deadwood to eat ants and have their picture taken.
My friend Karel Šimeček knows this landscape inside out. You would be forgiven for thinking the wildlife knew him just as well. He found a pine hawkmoth in the grasslands of Váté písky. Karel has campaigned for many years to protect this post-industrial landscape – the likes of which would be built on without much thought in the UK nowadays – and he has successfully achieved designations to protect habitats in Bzenecka Doubrava for nightjar (Caprimulgus Europaeus). This nocturnal, African migrant is threatened by the proposal for a new motorway through the area.
Váté písky is a protected landscape, and Karel, along with fellow Moravian conservation-supremo Zuzka Veverkova said that entomologists from all over the country would visit to study the invertebrates
In July the flowerheads of hare’s-foot clover (Trifolium arvense) were being fed upon by the eastern bath white butterfly (Pontia edusa)
The surrounding pine trees were crisscrossed by red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), jays (Garrulous glandarius) and golden orioles (Oriolus oriolus). The cacophony of the sand mine’s alarm, rupturing the almost pastoral peace of the Morava’s sandlands, drew a black woodpecker (Dryocopusmartius) across the horizon. It was the first I had ever seen, a giant bird in comparison to British woodpeckers
Returning the following spring, Karel took us to a former military site which had ‘returned to nature’. Here woodlark (Lullula arborea), whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) and golden oriole were found, along with many more insects
Karel sought out a flowering hawthorn tree that was teeming with insects: bright blue beetles, butterflies, bees, wasps and hornets all feasting on the mayflower’s goodness. Returning home to English hawthorns I could not help but see the sheer paucity of insects, compared with the Czech abundance of life in the same tree
Small copper butterflies (Lycaena phlaeas) were to be found on flowers across the old military site
The map butterfly (Araschnia levana) is another common species found in this part of South Moravia and even as far east as Japan. It’s not one that can be found in the UK
In general I would be trying to catch up with the last thing Karel had seen when he would call out to show me something new. He had burrowed into a small area of sand to uncover an ant-lion, the larvae of a species closely related to the lacewings (Neuroptera). The ant-lion hides in the sand and waits for the vibrations of an ant’s footsteps above, creating a vacuum in the sand’s centre and picking the insect off. Micro-stories hidden within sands shifted by the mighty Morava
In May Karel drove us along the edges of the straightened river and pointed out some of its remaining floodplain habitats. Tributaries had been canalised, lined by beds of Phragmites reeds. Other parts of the floodplain had been turned over to monoculture crops but good areas of willow wood pasture remained, much like some of the more attractive English rural parklands. These willow trees were the favoured nesting sites for great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor)
One thing I love about the Czech Republic is the rough edges of its municipalities. This ‘untidiness’ has been lost from much of England through compulsive use of herbicides on city and suburban streets and mowing. Beyond the fact that more spaces were allowed to rough up, the naturally greater diversity of plant species meant that beautiful insects were seen in all places. Alongside the Morava this common clubtail dragonfly (Gomphus vulgatissimus) perched in the full glare of the morning sun
We walked down to the river’s edge on a national Czech holiday (men at one of the local petrol stations were sat outside drinking beer at 8am, fair play) and kayakers were making their way along the river
As the Morava is a tributary of the Danube, it also has tributaries of its own. One of the larger towns outside Brno in South Moravia is Kyjov, home to the Kyjovka. Above is an image of the Kyjovka valley, the landscape redrawn by the flow of water and ice over thousands of years.
The Kyjovka at Mutěnice
The Kyjovka is a special river for me because it has a very interesting story to tell. Its waters have been harnessed to make an area of fishponds in the village of Mutěnice, a few miles south of Kyjov. Karel introduced me to the fishponds, a wonderful place for birds but also for another animal, the beaver (Castor fiber). Beavers managed to return to South Moravia via the Morava from the Danube and then from the Morava to the Kyjovka. The story goes that the beavers began to cause problems for the owners of the fishponds by digging channels between the ponds and mixing up the fish stocks. The beaver is iconic for many conservationists because it alters the landscape in ways that benefit many species, even us. But for fishpond owners who wanted to keep fish separate, they were a problem. The owners captured the beavers and interred them in a local zoo. But the beavers escaped the night they were captured and returned to the fishponds. They are now well established
In May Karel pointed out channels of water flowing through the mudflats of the fishponds. There were other more direct channels created by beavers
The main worry for British landowners (who now have to accept that beavers are back) is the impact that the animals have through their natural tree-felling behaviour. Beavers have very sharp front teeth which are kept in good condition by the front bottom teeth which act to sharpen them as would a whetstone sharpen metal. Beavers create dams in rivers which slow the passage of water and prevent flooding in settlements further downstream. The dams also provide spawning grounds for fish and micro-habitats for invertebrates. They gnaw through the bark of poplar and willow, waiting for the moment when the tree will fall to escape. The light brought in – much like when we coppice woodland trees – nourishes the wild plants and herbs on the riverbank increasing the diversity of species and diversifying the habitat structure. The trees grow back from their bases and can live longer than many standards trees. Trees like willow collapse often anyway and the beaver is just speeding up the cycle of a natural process
The willows that did remain upright (and there were many) were being used by the penduline tit (Remiz pendulinus). This charming bird builds its nest from the beardy seeds of poplar, as well as old grasses. The timing of poplars producing seed and the nesting of this bird exemplify the beautifully serene symbiosis between birds and native trees, and the utter dependence on certain trees that many birds have. I had always wanted to see this bird and once again I had Karel to thank
Karel was not the only ornithologist at Mutěnice. A group of men had spent the night at the fishponds preparing for a public event on the morning that we came in April 2014. They were ringing birds using a mist net to try and raise awareness about wildlife in South Moravia. One of the birds caught was a common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos), it was soon let go, the bird zipping off towards the water
Reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) was one of the more common species to be caught in the nets, which cause no harm to the birds. In the woodland at the edges of the fishponds, nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos) sang and I managed to glimpse the shadow of one dropping down through the leaves. But the nightingale’s song was not the most dominant. The surface of the fishponds were pocked by the eyes of marsh frog (Pelophylax ridibundus), their calls were like nothing I had ever heard. They dominated the soundscape to the point that even the cuckoo struggled to break their dominance
On the edge of the fishponds is an area of woodland where black stork (Ciconia nigra) could be seen perched, overlooking the ponds. They are massive birds and, like their cousins the white stork (Ciconia ciconia), migrate to Europe in spring from Africa.
Karel knew an oak tree in the woods that was the favoured nesting place for a black stork. We wandered in through the light, grassy woodland in a fog of St. Mark’s fly (Bibio marci) and attendant mosquitoes. The stork did arrive but Karel did not want us to stay. A few months later Karel emailed to say that the black stork had raised young but it was eaten by a pine marten (Martes martes)
The woodland floor was rich in wildflowers, with Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) growing in mini-thickets
I looked out to the edge of the wood, the fishponds and its storks behind us. At the end of the track was the bright yellow of flowering oilseed rape and grey pylons. I thought of how suddenly this diverse habitat, with all its insects, flowers, trees and birds ended in pesticide-laden monoculture, of how quickly the land lost its vitality, its character. With my feet in the Morava’s sands, I thought of how much the river had done to change this landscape and how much people were changing it again. Nevertheless, in the woods, fishponds, the valleys and estuaries the story of the Morava and its wildlife is there to be told
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