Monday, 31 October 2011

In the midst of life is death...

I thought Halloween would be a good chance to challenge Dunc for gruesome posts. Out walking in woods over the weekends, we came across this bizarre, Blair-Witcheseque spectacle.

The fact that both squirrels lay dead together would not seem to be coincidence; as it was clearly a well-managed wood, with coppiced areas and hallmarks of game-breeding I suspect they were killed deliberately by the gamekeeper (shot? poisoned?). Looking closer I could see that their putrefying flesh was alive with invertebrates, such as this Sexton beetle (Nicrophorus vespilloides or similar although you can't beat its common name!) This was no surprise, but it did get me thinking about the way in which the microcosm of the dead squirrel echoed the larger environment in which it lay, with man steering the cycle of life and death to his own ends, in this case woodland management for game rearing, ultimately to facilitate another round of managed killing. There is no avoidance  of the fact that as once as a species we became farmers, we put ourselves in this position of managing the cycle of life and death, and this is writ large in our landscapes. The beauty of estate woodlands, gently rolling arable fields, even the grazed uplands of the North are the result of position as master of all we survey, destroying and creating in equal measure. I do not judge, only noting that surely 'sustainability' can only come when that cycle is balanced between both? In this woodland this balance is more or less achieved (we could quibble about an excess of gamebirds...) as it is in the local fields with wide margins and deep hedgerows, but I suspect that this is increasingly the exception, as modern agribusiness drives us more towards the role of destroyer. I am not sure what the answer is, other than to consider how our own consumption patterns drive this process. I believe that the Gaia theory posits that man as part of a wider system must ultimately be subject to the corrective effect that will re-strike the balance. We will become the squirrel, the world, the wood, and sextons take us all - Happy Halloween!

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Hibernation Information

My daughter Alice is putting me to shame with her autumn artwork.

See above - 'Hibernation Information Sheet' that she compiled with her cousin Sophie and her poem, that she is going to post to the young RSPB magazine although no birds actually feature in the otherwise excellent prose. I am however busy dragging my creative heels as I try to resolve more crayfish and bone cases for an upcoming exhibition. Gary, birding friend, says there are lots of bitterns down at Ham Wall at the moment so I am going to contrive an important reason why we all need to go for a walk there later today, well that's the plan anyway.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Long Eared Bats

In conversation with my brother Dougal it became clear that there might be bats in the outside boiler shed at my Mum's house in Norfolk as he'd seen one flying about last time he went in there. Hopeful that we might be able to again see them at close quarters we sneaked out to look, armed with a torch and camera. Opening the door of the boiler shed we didn't initially see any bats but then Dougal spotted three roosting on the wall above the door. Two were gripping on the rough block wall and one was hanging from the ceiling and all were looking at us, surprized by our intrusion. Not wanting to disturb them I held my camera firmly against the wall to get a few quick shots but within a minute of so two of the bats had dropped from the wall, flown around the shed and crawled out under the eves where they have clearly found a way in and out under the tiles. I read recently that the Long Eared bats have such long ears, not as I had thought to 'hear' moths more easily, but so that they can communicate with each other more stealthily and use quieter echo-location squeaks so that the moths can't hear them approaching. We left them to their roost and will keep an eye over them coming months in the hope that numbers develop as other bats discover this warm retreat and the cold of winter begins to bite.

The Long-eared bat.
Family: Vespertilionidae
Plecotus auritus

Monday, 24 October 2011

The right place...

We have been enjoying some beautiful sunsets over recent evenings. The wan sun shining low through trees and bracken has lit up the meadows and fields around us with a thick, autumnal glow. I went out to film this a couple of nights ago, and as I set up my camera, I was blessed with one of those moments for which one cannot plan. A familiar shade flew directly across the path of my lens, so quickly and quietly that I had to play the footage back to check whether it was indeed what my instinct said, a barn owl. I have slowed it down a little so that it can be seen more clearly in this footage, and added some suitably crepuscular music (the beginning of our track 'The Birds' from the 2010 album we recorded with Niamh Cavlan). I could not have set this up any better, with the light providing a perfect silhouette for this magnificent predator as it set off for a night's vole-hunting in the long grass that abounds in the adjoining meadows. It was definitely luck, but I suppose the more one puts oneself in the position to capture such moments, the more 'lucky' one becomes!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

A couple of Greats and a small Murmeration

Really nice family weekend with Chris and the children staying with us, sunny and autumnal. Gary pointed out the call of the Greater Spotted Woodpecker on Saturday at football club in the park and on Sunday I saw one fly past as I took the boys down to the bird reserve. At Shapwick Heath we watched a Great Egret being mobbed by two angry herons, the Egret was slightly larger than the herons but slightly gangly and not as street-wize so after a few scuffles it stood rather forlornly in the deeper water away from the reeds. Watched gatekeeper butterflies and the last of the red admirals flitting about in the sunshine between the trees on the way to Noah's hide and watched people arriving to watch the first of the autumn starling murmerations. The birds are now gathering again in the reed beds after the summer away and numbering in the tens of thousands, if I head the RSPB lady correctly, and the spectacle and the numbers will now climb into the winter. Great to watch the first gangs of birds flying in towards their roosts over the house as we returned home.

Monday, 10 October 2011

We spent Saturday mapping local habitats with the South Yare Wildlife Group around our parish of Ashby St Mary. Understanding the diversity of habitats allows us to get a sense of how well (or not) local wildlife is provided with food, shelter and sustenance. As part of the exercise we were looking at significant trees, and it was pointed out that the name of the village is derived from the Ash trees that grew around the village. Not many remain but at almost the highest point of the parish stands this large and ancient ash. It seems to have been pollarded in the past, but has grown unchecked on the edge of an arable field for years, adjacent to a footpath I walk regularly. I had never considered the origin of the village name, nor its relation to topography. To do so is to be drawn into consideration of longer timescales than our habitual immediacy and short-termism.

In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien conjured the Ents, walking trees that considered the other creatures of Middle Earth to be always in a dreadful rush. One of them explains that 'real names tell you the story of things they belong to in my language'. As I consider this venerable tree, I realise that this is true in our world as well. Taking a moment longer than usual to look, to see, to think, the world reveals so much more my normal rush hither and thither allows.

So what about Ashcott?

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Copper coating insects in the sun

Alexander has been collecting many of the red admiral butterfly wings from the grass under the pear trees where they lie like colourful scraps of paper, abandoned and fading. He has also sellotaped them in a pattern onto a sheet of paper and inspired me to do the same in my sketchbook. I started coating my dead insects in copper powder today and having learnt that if I corrode them whilst pinned the pins themselves rust away so now I am tying them to thread and suspending them in jars. I plan to copper coat all of the dead insects I have found this year and although I am then oxidising the coating, this cases and mummifies the specimens and renders them more permanent and unified as a collection.

A beautiful day, apparently the third hottest of the year and quite extraordinarily sunny for October and after lunch we all went to Bath and collected my artwork at the end of the 'wunderkammer' exhibition.