Nature Notes: Village Voices 2023
A selection of ‘Nature Notes’ from the local monthly magazine, Village Voices, describing the seasonal changes and wildlife in and around Shingle Street on the Suffolk coast.
Village Voices Nature Note: Trees of Character
Birdwatchers often talk of identifying a bird at a distance just by its ‘jizz’, its characteristic outline and behaviour. We can all do this with people, too – you can recognise a friend or family member a long way off, just by their profile and the way they walk. Most trees have a very distinctive outline as well. When I was a child my parents tried to distract me on what then seemed to me interminable car journeys by playing a game of counting the different trees we could identify on the way. Once you got your eye in it was easier than you might think and we’d usually get quite a good tally in the ten miles or so before I asked, ‘Are we nearly there yet?’. Try it next time you drive children to Woodbridge or Ipswich, as a green alternative to electronic toys.
Anyway, once you know the common trees any strangers start to stand out and I’ve seen some unusual tree species this month. One was in a scruffy churchyard with some Yews and Ash and it flummoxed me at first. But when I got close I could see some of last year’s leaves and shrivelled brown fruits on the ground and I noticed the smooth trunk was peeling away in chequered plates. Ah, Chequers, the old country name for a fine but now rare native British tree, the Wild Service.
We also visited the Gainsborough Gallery in Sudbury last month, which has a charming little garden at the back, once a herb garden or a domestic orchard, I guess. They have a trio there of ancient trees of great distinction – a large spreading Mulberry, propping itself up with twisted limbs bent down to the ground like elbows; a quince, famous in classical times for its ‘golden apples’, which make superb quince jelly (perfect with cheeses); and thirdly a Medlar, the fruit that famously goes rotten almost before it is ripe, but is delicious if you can catch it just right. None of these three is native to Britain, but they are now long-established residents and add great character to our treescapes.
My final encounter was the best, though. I unexpectedly came across a magnificent tree standing almost alone in a field near Butley. And this time I did recognise it straightaway. It had a very characteristic tilt to it and deep corrugations in the corky bark. A Black Poplar, once common in East Anglia and a familiar sight in Constable’s paintings, but now endangered following the drainage of our water meadows for ‘development’. I couldn’t resist it. I gave it a hug.
Village Voices Nature Note: a Confusion of Seasons
The exciting thing about this time of year is that one keeps seeing the ‘first’ of various things for the year: the first butterfly (usually a floppy yellow brimstone butterfly gliding along a hedge), the first chiffchaff (freshly in from Africa), the first frog spawn (in your garden pond – you should have one if you don’t already), the first bumblebees, the first shoots of green on the hawthorn, the first cowslips in the banks, and so on. I still feel a jolt of adrenaline when each of these appears again, a reassurance, as the poet Ted Hughes put it, ‘that the world’s still working’. More than just a reassurance, though. It’s a joyful sense that the dark days of winter are soon to be replaced by light, warmth and growth. A feeling of abundance and renewal. Who wouldn’t feel the emotional sap rising at such a time?
But it’s getting more complicated, like the rest of life. This ‘spring’ we had the first sticky buds on the chestnuts in January, and the first aconites out in December; there’s been a chiffchaff flitting around all winter; and I’ve just seen my first brimstone, like a floating piece of detached sunlight. Isn’t this good news? It can’t be bad to enjoy the pleasures of spring a month or two earlier, can it? But suppose we are losing the familiar distinctions between the seasons altogether? These are deeply ingrained in our history and culture, and give us our bearings in the natural world. I wouldn’t want a bland, uniform climate in which the cycles of growth and rebirth had been flattened out, even if it was a bit more comfortable.
We’ve got used to this kind of thing in our eating habits, of course. You can now eat fresh raspberries all the year round. And you can buy exotic fruits like avocados at any supermarket or corner store. I don’t suppose I had ever eaten an avocado until I was 30, and if you had asked me as a boy what the word ‘Avocado’ meant I might have guessed at some sort of Church prayer or Mexican board game; but at this rate we may one day see avocados growing in our own back-gardens.
Perpetual spring would actually mean no spring at all. No autumn either, perhaps the loveliest of seasons with its bitter-sweet associations. It was once all so simple in Genesis. ‘While the earth remaineth, seed-time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’ But if you read it carefully, that was both a promise and a warning.
Village Voices Nature Note: Songs of Love
It was Chaucer who gave St Valentine’s Day its romantic associations. In his poem, The Parliament of Fowles, he imagines all the birds coming together on February the 14th to declare their passions and choose their mates. Florists and card manufacturers have been grateful ever since. But hang on, why mid-February? Wouldn’t you expect the mating season to begin in Spring? Well, like all the best-loved British traditions the history is rather murky. Chaucer actually wrote his poem to celebrate a royal wedding on 3 May 1381 between Richard II and Anne of Bohemia and he borrowed the name of a minor Italian saint called Valentine whose feast was by chance celebrated on that day. It was only much later that all the lovey-dovey stuff was cheerfully transferred to the February date, which was itself originally an ancient Roman fertility festival that happened to coincide on the calendar with the death of a quite different saint also called Valentine.
Never mind, there is truth even in literal error. The birds really have started to sing in the early mornings now and for just the reasons Chaucer supposed. Two of the easiest songs to recognise in the February dawn chorus are those of the great tit and song thrush, each of which relies on repeating a few basic phrases loudly and often. The main great tit song is a ringing double note, which is usually represented as teacher-teacher, though they do also have a large repertoire of different calls (up to 80 variants have been separately counted). The song thrush, on the other hand, tends to sing in longer phrases like did-he-do-it, did-he-do-it; too-true, too-true. Or as another poet, Robert Browning, puts it:
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over
Lest you should think he could never recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
Bird songs are in fact getting both earlier and louder, for reasons Chaucer could never have foreseen over 600 years ago. Earlier, because of climate change, which has advanced the breeding season by some weeks for many birds. And louder, for the sad reason that traffic and other urban noise has now reached levels where courting great tits, for example, have to turn up the volume to press their suit if they live in towns rather than in the countryside. Moreover, some birds with softer and less penetrating voices are now quite unable to hold territories and nest successfully by motorways, even though there are suitable nesting-sites in all those bushes on the verges, because they simply cannot make themselves heard to prospective mates. Now that really is a fable for our time.
Village Voices Nature Note: a Good Start to the Year
What better way to start the New Year than a walk along the coastal path at Shingle Street. You might start something else new. You might start a hare. Since parts of the beach grassed over in the recent years we’ve been blessed with regular visits from these lovely loping creatures. They were always common in the fields at the back but you can often now put one up near the front of the houses and watch it streaking away in a trademark mazy run, zigzagging to confuse any potential pursuer. You can forget about any pursuit yourself, though. The scientific name of the hare is Lepus, which comes from the Latin Levipes meaning ‘light-footed’. And so they are. They have a top speed of about 50 mph and can jump ten feet in one bound. Unlike rabbits, they live their whole lives above ground, usually on open fields, so they depend on their rapid acceleration to escape natural predators like foxes and stoats. They also have eyes set so far back in their heads that they have almost 360-degree vision and can spot trouble a long way off. They’re about twice the size of rabbits and have those distinctive long ears, black at the tips and pink velvet inside.
What with climate change you may soon be seeing mad March hares dashing about in January, and you might even catch sight of a couple of them ‘boxing’. This isn’t, as you might suppose, an all-male event, but is more likely a female fending off an amorous male. They’ve long had a reputation for lechery. In classical times the hare was sacred to Aphrodite, goddess of erotic love, and the Roman author Pliny tells us that eating a hare could enhance your sexual attractiveness for nine days. Only nine days? Well, it’s another kind of start, I suppose. Anyway, there is some truth in the old folklore because hares are certainly very fertile. They have up to four litters a year and the females can even get pregnant again while they are still pregnant the first time around. But there’s a reason for that, too. The young leverets are born fully furred and with open eyes, but they are still very exposed and vulnerable at first and to avoid advertising their exact whereabouts the mother (the ‘jill’) only visits them once a day to feed them milk, usually in the evening. They remain easy prey, however, and there’s a very high mortality rate.
We used to be enjoined to ‘go to work on an egg’. I think ‘start a hare to start the year’ is as good a slogan.