The weather in November is unpredictable. It started with gales and heavy rain; after the storm, as I walked through Sayer’s Croft and Canfold Wood, I was thinking of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner when he complains, ‘Water, water, everywhere,’ for it seemed that rainwater had found out every crevice, ditch and channel to run down. The marshy area near Sayers Croft Farm had been transformed into a small lake and the adjacent fields were flooded. There are many moles in the field and I wondered what happened to them when their tunnels are saturated by heavy rain. We know that moles dig deeper tunnels in the winter because the warmer soil lower down means that worms are still plentiful and also the moles find protection from freezing temperatures. There has, however, been little research, as far as I can tell, on what they do when their tunnels are flooded. The only mention of this in Kenneth Mellanby’s monograph on moles states that they find other drier tunnels. In the heavy clay of Ewhurst waterlogging must be a perennial problem and yet it does not deter a large population of these animals flourishing in the region.
The woodland has a dank feel with the sound of water dripping from the decaying leaves, which have now lost their lustre, and as I cross Sayers Croft near the Iron Age hut I can hear the sound of the stream in full flow. When I get to the footbridge Coneyhurst Gill is a torrent, with several tributary streams that are not usually evident, flowing into it. The footpath is now boggy and much harder to walk along; as winter comes in I realise that the walking is going to get tougher and on this day there is little evidence of wildlife.
Later in the month we take the same walk; this time the weather is mild and sunny, it is hard to believe it is mid-November. In the field behind the allotments the birds are singing the intoxicating, out-of-season chorale of spring and the blackbirds and robins are particularly melodious. They are no doubt as confused about climate change as we humans are.
This confusion has had noticeable effects on plant life as well. I have seen hazel catkins in hedgerows and by the pond near Cobbetts Farm alder catkins were growing. Catkins, according to my flower guides, are not meant to appear until late winter or early spring. The wildflowers also want to make an unseasonal appearance, I saw blackberry blossom, hedge parsley in flower on the wayside, meadow thistle and cats ears both in pasture-land. Any gardener will tell you that they still have roses budding and flowering, as well as many other plants extending well beyond their usual season.
Looking at the way in which writers of the past describe November is salutary. Here is what Thomas Hood, who lived from 1799-1845, had to say of this month:
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,Thomas Hood
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds!
A dismal time without life. The other day I watched a huge bumblebee gathering nectar, happily, from a winter honeysuckle and giving the lie to Hood’s gloomy vision. And yet it is a register of the changes that two hundred years have wrought. More recently Walter de la Mare’s poem Autumn, published in 1906 paints a similar picture:
There is wind where the rose was;
Cold rain where sweet grass was;
And clouds like sheep
Stream o’er the steep
Grey skies where the lark was.
Nought gold where your hair was;
Nought warm where your hand was;
But phantom, forlorn,
Beneath the thorn,
Your ghost where your face was.
Sad winds where your voice was;Walter de la Mare
Tears, tears where my heart was;
And ever with me,
Child, ever with me
Silence, where hope was.
Walter de la Mare uses pathetic fallacy to link the doleful landscape of autumn to his own personal grief and the month becomes at one with his sense of loss and emotional emptiness.
Despite this poetic gloom there is much to celebrate at this time of year. Dusk in November has its own beauty as the light begins to dim in late afternoon in a melancholy magic. I walked up Hilly Field by Lower Breache Wood and from the top had a view across woods and fields which were bathed in luminous light as the mist gathered in cold air pockets; on the distant horizon the South Downs were fading shadows. The way the landscape transformed itself was like a Rowland Hilder watercolour; Hilder was very popular when I was young and excelled at portraying wintry scenes, capturing a particular ‘slant of light’ as Emily Dickinson memorably described it. As I watched this strange melding of land and sky I also noticed a huge flock of wood pigeons flying over the woodland, returning home to roost and accompanied by another large flock of jackdaws also finding trees to spend the night in, This feeling of homecoming in the last light of the day had something ineffable but oddly comforting about it.
Young people can teach us oldies a lot, particularly when it comes to technology. Ben, Jessica’s boyfriend, has been staying with us during lockdown; he is a keen and excellent wildlife photographer and he has a lot of equipment, the value of this to the naturalist I am beginning to recognise. Ben has a drone and has flown it over the woods a few times: it gives you a buzzard’s eye view of Ewhurst and it is fascinating to see the world afresh. His pictures of the woods, taken in autumn, show the lovely range of tints that you would expect but what caught my attention was the presence of a number of silvery-white wraiths standing like ghosts among the other trees. I recognised that these mournful spirits were dying ash trees and it put the whole problem of this disease in a new perspective. It will leave our woods depleted and, as with the disappearance of Elm trees, have a profound influence on the English landscape for years to come.
There are happier things that equipment can expose. Another twilight trip saw Ben and I, armed with a camera trap, going to the Badger Wood at Gull’s Isle. Again the autumn sun touched the pine trees with a golden red glow as we walked down the path from the Shere Road. It is possible to see further into the woodland at this time of year and I noticed that there is a stile, much forsaken, crossing a hedge into the field north of the path. There must have been a footpath here at some point but all trace of it is lost and there was nothing to mark it on my map. We got to the Badger Wood just after four o’clock, when it was still light enough to see. From an observer’s point of view there are advantages in winter since badger movement begins much earlier, so you can go out and still get back in time for tea.
The camera trap is an ingenious device which is activated by movement, as animals pass it will begin filming. The plan was to set it up near a likely sett and leave it overnight. One badger hole, just off the path, showed evidence of use as the track to it was clear of debris and there were paw marks printed in the soil. Badgers are tidy creatures and regularly clean out their burrows and deposit the waste away from the sett; in this they differ from foxes who have latrines close to the hole and who are less fussy when it comes to house-keeping. It is often easy to tell where foxes are living as nettles grow well in the urea enriched soil and therefore are often found near fox-holes. We spent some time deliberating where best to position the camera. It has to be strapped around a tree trunk and you need to gauge the direction the animals are going to move when they leave the sett. In many ways it is hit and miss. The animals are not disturbed by the camera and Ben said that he’d had film of an inquisitive animal sniffing it last year. The camera was switched on and then we left.
The Tawny Owl had started hooting as we had a look at the outlier sett and the light was rapidly fading by the time we left the wood. We had hoped we might be lucky enough to see an early rising badger but there was no joy.
Next morning Ben went to collect the camera: he discovered that the camera had stayed on, rather than only responding to animal movement so he had hours of footage to look through. Bingo! Badgers emerging from the sett very shortly after we had left, we had only missed them by about thirty minutes. There were four in total. At first they snuffled about in the leaves, looking for food and then slowly started moving further from home. We had shots of a mature badger going past the camera, on the path and they stayed around for quite a while before sauntering off. It is all very exciting. Later on in the evening a fox wandered past the camera and it is rather special to observe animals in their natural habitats, completely unaware that they are being watched.
Early in the month our garden was visited by Bramblings, Chaffinches, a Nuthatch and a Tree Creeper. There was a noticeable increase in birds of all types, Starlings and Goldfinches becoming numerous after the summer dip. I thought the Brambling might presage winter flocks coming in and that this bird might be a pioneer; however, I haven’t seen any more and so it was something of a false alarm. I did have another surprise one morning, a Ring-necked Parakeet was on the feeder. An unmistakeable lurid green bird with a bright red bill, which I had not seen in our garden for many years. These tropical birds have been amazingly successful colonisers in England and can be observed in London parks and suburban areas in large flocks. Indeed, to some they are a nuisance, being noisy and fond of fruit. They were first seen in the wild back in 1969; whether these birds had escaped from captivity or were deliberately released is not known. They seem to survive our winters, which is strange in a bird which is native to India and Africa. I did hear that somebody else had seen one in Ewhurst recently and it would be good to know if other gardens have been visited. Maybe they have come here to settle; they would certainly add a touch of the exotic to our fauna.
If you would like to see some of Ben’s films just follow the links below: