Monday, 15 April 2013

Cu Ru

A warm, if blustery spring day. Walking in woods we came across a macabre reminder that our pastoral  notions are only part of the picture of country living. Half a dozen foxes, several squirrels, magpies and crows hanging dead from branches of trees, no doubt snared, shot or poisoned. A gamekeeper probably. Sitting a bit heavily on me, although there's no good reason for it. Culling wild animals is a necessary and legitimate part of land management, I know, but it just all seems a bit gothic.

I think it's partly that it is foxes. Lots of books I enjoyed as a child (such as 'Vulpina', 'Fantastic Mr Fox' and 'The Hounds of the Morrigan') featured foxes as central protagonists, and often as clever, resourceful and loyal. So I guess the emotional attachment engendered by that leads to some sort of moral qualm on my part which is absent for other creatures. Certainly the squirrels didn't quite have the same effect...I guess they have worse PR...

Herons Above in Swell Wood

After a conversation with *Gary (*Bird watching friend who, only yesterday, saw a hoopoe), I used the  wonderful after-work daylight to seek out the Swell Wood RSPB reserve near Langport where there is a heronry. I have never seen heron's on their nests and was imagining a waterside tree top with 5 or 6 nests, a combination of rookery meets 'lost world' pit of the pterodactyls perhaps. Apparently, according to the hide posters,  this is one of the 10 largest heronry's in the UK with often over 100 nests. I had not imagined that there would be so many and the 77 nests currently occupied were remarkably hidden in the tree tops but with the leaves yet to bud, in this cold start, the canopy of sticks was clearly scattered with herons sitting, perching and squawking. The first thing that I became aware of, as I approached the hide in the middle of the wood, was in-fact the noise, a combination of clattering beaks and raucous calling that reminded me of busy wildfowl centres and parrot enclosures. As I sat on my own, looking into the setting sun at the silhouetted branches and birds, the noise and bawdy interaction was consistent. There were birds flying from branch to branch, birds facing off or conversing on nests, crouched on tree branches, flaring their head crests and striding precariously, with their huge wings outstretched, tottering from thin branch to branch.

It was actually quite like a rookery with the the large sticky nests punctuating the canopy of high tree branches and birds noisily calling from one lofty position to another. I was surprised at how far we were from the water but I suppose only a mile or so, from the rivers Tone and Fivehead further down the valley, and the rather elevated position perhaps allows the herons clear site out over the farmland and a clear flight path into the nesting canopies. The wood itself was also full of grey squirrels and a multitude of small birds and woodpeckers and it was familiar and enjoyable just to sit calmly in amongst the trees but with the ever present squawking and with the large birds occasionally flying amongst the trees it also felt quite unfamiliar. I don't think I've ever seen more than 3 herons together, or ever sitting in trees, and I certainly didn't expect to see the nesting area shared by little egrets. Exciting to see new interesting things so close to home and I'm sure I'll be back regularly, perhaps early in the morning next time with the children and when the sun is behind me.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The first swallows return, hurrah.

End of the Easter break with the children frantically charging around the garden making the most of these last days of freedom. Fun outside yesterday making bird boxes from my collection of old planks in a garden surely just about to blossum and many single large dopey bumble bees gaining strength in the intermittent sunshine. I've been spending the evenings planning new artwork between marking student essays and also catching up on thank-you artwork for friends. (*Beneath, postcards for Oliver and Ann who have given me skulls in recent weeks.)

It feels very un spring-like this morning however, with horizontal rain hammering on our hoods as we cheered the under 8 football teams as they played their matches in Taunton. But, but - high above us, and blustered by the wind, we watched the first two returning swallows that I have seen grimly making their way south hoping for warmer weather.

Friday, 12 April 2013


I was down in London recently and with a bit of time on my hands in the City, I popped into one of my favourite places there, Bunhill Fields burial ground on City Rd.

One of my inspirations, William Blake (my musical projects Nobodaddy is named after a poem of his), is buried there, as is Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan. As with a lot of urban graveyards, it is a green oasis, and this has been enhanced by this rather impressive Hibernaculum. It provides a range of habitats for dormant insects and is part of a project that placed 5 architect and engineer designed hibernacula across green spaces in London.

Any garden could easily be enhanced by a version - some old bricks, planks, pallets, twigs, pine cones, grass cuttings, paper etc could be put together to make a simple insect hibernaculum, or look at the RSPB advice on building one for amphibians and reptiles.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

At last!

Finally, a proper spring day. After the persistent north-easterly of recent weeks has kept us shivering, huddled indoors and thinking winter would last forever, today suddenly the wind dropped and the sun shone. Maybe in any other April we would still have called it cold but relative to what we have had, today felt like a perfect mild spring day.

And it's not just us that have hidden indoors, there has been a marked absence of my favourite insects, the bumblebees. Last year, I had seen all 6 of the common British Bumblebee species in Norfolk by the end of February (5 of them in our garden on a single day) whereas this year, apart from a single Bombus terrestris in London in February I have not seen any.

Yesterday I undertook my monthly Beewalk on behalf of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and was delighted to see a couple of queens of different species (Bombus pratorum and Bombus terrestris) foraging for suitable nest sites by flying close to the ground and exploring holes and other possible nesting opportunities. The good thing for them is that the cold weather that has kept them from doing this earlier in the year has also delayed the flowering of their normal early sources of pollen and nectar that they will need to get the strength to establish their new nests. Daffodils, crocuses and red dead nettles are now primed for pollinators to exploit their offerings...and of course in return facilitate their own propagation.

Towards the end of the transect I also came across a queen and a couple of workers of another species Bombus Pascuorum  (Common Carder Bee) which I had thought was one of the later awakening species. But given that she had already managed to establish a nest and breed workers, this queen  had clearly been active for at least a couple of weeks.

So that is all good news - the cycles of life start again, although I must admit I was getting slightly worried that last year's poor summer and therefore foraging opportunities combined with this never-ending winter meant that the bees were never coming back!

A Complete Fox Skeleton ?

At children's Saturday football, a few weeks ago, Dave informed me that he has been watching a dead fox decompose under a hedge over the last year as he walks his dog through the fields and that now it was reduced to a skeleton and was I interested, was I interested ??

We met up at his house and I went with him to see if we could collect all of the bones, as I still intend to try to reconstruct full skeletons of the common wild animals - fox, badger, rabbit etc. I have buried many and tried to do this before but there are always bones missing and as I rooted about under the hedge picking up the fox bones it became clear that I would be very lucky to find all of the pieces. I do currently have a badger buried in the vegetable garden and, cunningly, wrapped in thin wire mesh to stop little animals stealing bones underground. The fox skeleton was largely intact but once you start using a penknife to dig out toe bones you quickly realise that the chances of collecting the many miniscule metatarsals are very slim. Then just when you think you have everything you find a vertibra a few feet away and begin to wonder if other pieces have also absconded in the beaks of crows or the mouths of rats. The challenge is comparable to taking all of the pieces of an airfix kit off their boards and, before gluing anything together, tossing the lot into a flowerbed and then looking for everything a few months later. I think that the only way to get all of the bones is to rot a complete specimen down in a dustbin of cold water until it becomes soft and the bones fall away. Cold water maceration is a well known and effective technique but it takes a year or so and smells a bit so the next challenge is to find a place to site the dustbin, offers anyone ??

CSI Somerset - Regarding the fox, the body had fallen about 100yrds from the A39 and I think it was probably hit by a car. On close inspection there was a significant fracture of the femur, snapping off the ball at the head of the bone and an impact fracture to the back of the skull. These injuries would fit with a collision with the front of a moving car and the fatally injured animal probably stumbled into the field and then settled beneath the hedge, and now it's in a bag in my shed.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

First Butterflies in the spring sunshine.

Beautiful day back in Somerset, bright spring sunshine and the children charging about outside making dens with the guinea pigs and rabbit. Ironically as I planted out buddleia cuttings, for the wildlife garden we are starting at college, I saw my first brimstone butterfly flying fast about the garden looking for spring flowers. I saw another three over the course of the day and also the first rather dopey tortoiseshell sitting on a plant in the back garden. Then in the late afternoon I also saw a honey bee out foraging and clearly briefly confused by the colourful drawings on the gardening box my son got for Christmas.

The insects are clearly beginning to come out to look for food to build up their strength and after a long cold spring their colourful lively return is very welcome.

Thursday, 4 April 2013


 Grytviken - Wikipedia 'the station closed in December 1966, by which time the whale stocks were so low that their continued exploitation was unviable. Even now, the shore around Grytviken is littered with whale bones and the rusting remains of whale oil processing plants and abandoned whaling ships.'

I have been working on a sculpture about whaling. Exploring the contradictory emotions associated with the nostalgia for the age of sail and of distant beautiful lands and of course the brutal horror of an industry that nearly drove these most emotive and extraordinary creatures from the face of the earth. I have always been fascinated by scrimshaw and the sperm whale teeth I have seen in museums engraved with pictures of ships and locations, etched be seamen working on the whaling ships out of Nantucket and Whitby. Having recently been kindly given some sperm whale teeth by a friend I have cast porcelain copies into which I have then drawn scrimshaw images of the abandoned whaling ships and buildings in the derelict Grytviken whaling yards on South Georgia. The imagined wooden ship, coated in copper and oxidised, suggestive of the earlier years of the industry, a ghost ship, a relic of an industry now itself the victim of extinction. ( *Apart from the Japanese 'scientific'  fleet of course !)