I am envious of people who have hedgehogs visiting their gardens; it is a very long time since we saw one in our garden and despite offering every inducement to them, including a rather cosy hedgehog house and a passageway in our fence, we have drawn a blank. I have a friend who boasts about the variety of birds that visit her garden and I find myself drawn into a fruitless competition with her: ”Red Kites always visit my garden and eat the meat I leave out for them”
“I had a jay on the bird-table yesterday.” and so it goes on. Why do we become so possessive when it comes to wildlife and why are we obsessed with scarce and infrequent visitors? Many years ago Mapledrakes Road briefly became home to a flock of redpolls, attracted to berries on a large bush. It was an impressive sight but what struck me was the equal descent of twitchers, armed with immense telephoto lenses, binoculars and sound recording equipment. Word had got out and for a couple of days we were famous; we even made the local news. I love to see people enjoying nature and I am happy when there is concern for the natural world but I confess I am dubious about “tick-box ornithologists”. I recall visiting an RSPB Reserve last year and there was some excitement in the hide as a Marsh Harrier had been spotted. The bird was some distance away and one of the bird-watchers allowed me to look at it through his very powerful telescope and it was very exciting to observe this rare and majestic bird in close-up. Another twitcher came into the hide, fully kitted, and the owner of the telescope asked him if he’d like to take a look. He replied that he’d ‘already got that one earlier in the month.’
I like to see rare birds and animals, to find uncommon plants but I am equally happy to observe and study creatures and plants that most of us take for granted. I have also learnt that the common species in one area may be rare sights elsewhere. A classic example of this is the case of the Great Crested Newt, an emblem of ecological notoriety, it is a protected species and has been used in exalted circles to demonstrate how building can be impeded by wildlife. It is thus very fortunate that this amphibian is not uncommon in ponds in Ewhurst and when we do conservation work in the local ponds we have to be very careful not to disturb the newts. There are garden ponds in the area which can boast of them in the spring and early summer. By contrast the saying ‘as common as a sparrow’ has no meaning to us, living in Mapledrakes Close; disappointingly, we are lucky if we see one in a season. I have found this puzzling as the House Sparrow is abundant elsewhere in the village, becoming more common nearer to the centre of the village, where I hear their cheerful chirruping and see well established colonies. For some reason there is a territorial line beyond which they are loathe to go. As a naturalist it is interesting to recognise the idiosyncrasies of territory and to try to understand them; this is not always easy though. House Sparrow numbers are in serious decline, alarmingly the RSPB estimates that there was a 71% fall in the UK population between 1970 and 2008. There are several reasons for this and in rural areas it may be to do with the change in farming practice; many farmland birds relied on seed spillage for autumn and spring food sources and today sophisticated machinery ensures that such uneconomic waste is minimised. This has had a profound impact on seed-eating birds. It does not explain why urban and suburban sparrows’ numbers have plummeted and there are presently academic studies trying to establish what is going on. The sad fact is that a bird I once took for granted does not brighten the lives of most people in our day. One note of optimism has to be added, the number of people who are feeding the birds with seed, suet and peanuts has risen and this is certainly helping many species recuperate.
Each year environmental conditions seem to favour certain species, whether they are plants or animals. This year, for example, I have noticed a very large number of Meadow Brown butterflies. This insect is not rare but the fields up to now have seen what can only be described as a glut of them. The long dry summer favours butterflies and increasing the amount of agricultural land set aside as meadow will both be beneficial to the breeding success of this species, as the caterpillars feed on a variety of grasses including, fescues, bents and meadow grasses. The UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme recorded a 38% rise in annual abundance in 2019 and I should imagine that this figure will be equalled or exceeded this year. This butterfly is quite hardy, as I saw one flying on a very damp day while walking across a field near Yard Farm.
Another butterfly that has fared well this year is the Marbled White. A butterfly book I use, printed in 1968, describes this species as ‘locally common’ and in the past I rarely saw them. Now they seem to flourish and the monitoring scheme records a 66% rise in the annual abundance. I have observed them in several different locations around the village and, often, in large numbers. Confusingly, they are members of the Brown family and thus are related to the Meadow Brown and not the Cabbage White. The female has the odd habit of dropping her eggs from the air, rather than fixing them to the food plant, either Cat’s-tail grass or Sheep’s Fescue.
Many of our native butterflies are in decline; a story being woefully repeated across wildlife as a whole. There are many reasons that we no longer see the masses of Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks, Red Admirals, Commas and Cabbage Whites in our gardens, fields and hedgerows but the one common denominator determining this decline is man. In my walks I have seen Peacocks, Red Admirals; I have spotted Speckled Woods fluttering in woodland glades and Small Skippers navigating paths along the edge of fields but the heydays of the Buddleia bush in the garden being covered in myriad insects is long gone. Yet, butterflies have always reminded us of the ephemerality of life, as Emily Dickinson reveals in her poem ‘From Cocoon Forth a Butterfly:’
Her pretty parasol be seenEmily Dickinson
Contracting in a field
Where men made hay-
Till sundown crept-a steady tide-
And men that made the hay-
And afternoon-and butterfly-
Extinguished-in the sea-
Each dash represents both time passing and time irrevocably gone: she punctuates the finality of all with that word, ‘Extinguished’.
Where do we go? I ask that question as I watch great waves of Jackdaws flying south just before sunset. There must be a hundred birds darkening the sky and on a mission. The simplest explanation is that they are returning to roost after a day’s foraging but this is strange as we have a large Jackdaw colony resident just behind our house and these birds are not headed there. There are many things in nature we do not understand and the behaviour of animals may not always be explained; it is what make natural history endlessly fascinating. I was recently struck by the words of the philosopher Jack Smart: ‘That anything should exist at all does seem to me a matter for the deepest awe.’ Holding onto that sense of awe is what awareness of nature is all about.
There is good news for Ewhurst; Hedgehogs are returning. They have been seen in gardens in The Glebe and kind people have been feeding them. My jealousy may turn to joy if we get one coming to us. Hedgehogs are one of the most familiar of our British mammals. Children are introduced to them through such classic tales as ‘The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’ by Beatrix Potter and many of us will remember putting out food for them in the evening. In fact their nocturnal habits prevent us from seeing them easily and it is only with radio tracking that scientists have been able to piece together information about their life-cycles.
Lots of myths have grown up around the hedgehog; there was a long-held belief, dating back over a thousand years, that hedgehogs collected fruit and carried it away on their spines. You can see medieval pictures showing the animals adorned with apples, grapes and other wild fruit. The idea is a strange one, especially as hedgehogs are not vegans. Another legend, which has led to persecution in the past, is that they suck the teats of cows for milk. It is true that hedgehogs enjoy milk but it seems unlikely that the opportunity for them to attach themselves to a cow would arise, though some farmers have claimed to see this happening. If we can dismiss these to the world of fantasy, there is one unique behaviour which has been observed, though not fully explained; this is the habit of self-annointing. The hedgehog will salivate while chewing a whole range of materials and then contorts its body and spits the spittle over its back. At times the animal will reach a frenzy of excitement and even appear to be having a fit. Self annointing was first observed in 1912 and given this name by the hedgehog specialist Maurice Burton in the fifties. Many explanations have been put forward but the most feasible is that it is a kind of scent-marking, a way of telling othe animals that the individual is in its territory. As Paul Muldoon says in his poem ‘Hedgehog’, ‘The hedgehog/Shares its secret with no one.’
Now that toxic slug pellets are banned, we may all be able to watch and share the world of the hedgehog again.