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Born to be Wild?


We planned to leave early but at first light it was blowing a gale and lashing with rain – going back to bed seemed a better option. I phoned Tom who was quite unperturbed saying, “Lets go, it might be different down there.” And it was.

Tom is my son-in-law and a warden at the RSPB’s Ynys-hir nature reserve, which is about 15 minutes drive from here. Along with my eldest son Owen we had planned a trip to look for lesser spotted woodpeckers, one of Ynys-hir’s star birds.  On the drive there we encounter dramatic flooding where the high tide has met overnight rain pouring down the Dyfi from the hills above. A train teetered uncertainly towards Aberystwyth along an embankment through the flooded fields – it felt like Armageddon. But when we pull into the sheltered car park all is tranquil: the wind had dropped, the rain ceased and the birds are singing.

At Ynys-hir, above the bog-land and grazing marshes of the Dyfi estuary, are a series of wooded and rocky ridges where the oak trees are distinctively twisted, as if from the effort of clinging to the bedrock. Arthur Rackham could have drawn this rumpled and mysterious terrain. The woodland is extensive, which is just what lesser spotted woodpeckers like. I had always assumed these sparrow-sized birds were out there somewhere and doing fine, but recently conservationists have realised that their numbers are much diminished. There may only be about 2000 pairs remaining in the UK, although nobody is really sure. The difficulty is that these small birds are very elusive: occupying a territory of perhaps 500 hectares they cling to twigs and upper branches, picking through the moss and bark for small invertebrates. This makes cold searching for ‘lesser spots’ a needle in a haystack sort of business. Tom tells me of a man he knows who has been trying to see one for 14 years, so far without success. Apparently your best chance is to hear them calling or drumming in the early spring – which is why we are here.

photo: Tom Kistruck

More in hope than expectation we ramble around these beautiful woods for an hour or two, peering and listening intently, but we don’t get a whisper. In truth, apart from ensuring a good supply of standing dead wood (don’t tidy up), there is not much conservation managers can do for lesser spotted woodpeckers. This is a bird that is out there somewhere living as it always has, whether or not we understand the reasons for its decline.

To compensate for our lack of success with the woodpeckers Tom offers to take us out onto the grazing marshes in his pick-up; this is a part of the reserve the public don’t usually get to, so we jump at the chance. The contrast after the muffled woods is dramatic: this land is three-quarters sky and straight-line flat. Gateposts are landscape features here. Tom (a proud Suffolk man) is clearly in his element in this bleak expanse and I tease him that he has somehow found a corner of East Anglia for himself amongst the Welsh hills. Flocks of golden plover, teal and lapwing swirl around us and we get a distant glimpse of the rare of Greenland white-fronted geese which overwinter here. A fine male merlin sits neat and lethal on a fencepost for us to drool over.

photo: Tom Kistruck

Apart from the wintering wildfowl and waders the main interest for the RSPB on these grasslands is the breeding lapwings. This was a common, and much loved, farmland bird until 40 years ago; it still shocks me to realise that in Wales they are now largely confined to about half a dozen nature reserves like this one. The causes of their demise are complex but revolve around changes in agriculture, both arable and pastoral, and an increase in predators, particularly crows and foxes. Lapwings like it damp to ensure a supply of invertebrate prey, so an intricate network of ditches, sluices and pipes have been installed here to redistribute the rainwater to where it is needed – the complexities of which Tom seems to carry in his head. Lapwings don’t like clumps of rushes: rather than hide from predators they prefer a clear view of what’s coming. So as well as getting the grazing levels right Tom treats the ubiquitous rushes with a herbicide, using a tractor powered weed-wipe. The biggest threat of all to lapwing breeding success is predation of eggs and chicks by foxes and crows. To deter the foxes a six-foot high fence, dug into the ground at the bottom and electrified at the top, surrounds this area of grazing land. A fence like this costs tens of thousands of pounds. Remote camera traps have shown foxes patrolling around the fence, searching for any weakness. Tom tells me he once saw a fox tossing lapwing chicks in the air like beanbags; he loses sleep over the thought of one getting in during the breeding season. Crows are perhaps an even bigger problem: there is no way to keep them out. Systematic culling of foxes and crows is often integral to managing breeding lapwing populations these days – although not currently at Ynys-hir.

Lapwings would be more or less extinct in Wales if it wasn’t for the kind of  dedicated, intensive management that is being done at Ynys-hir: expensive, time consuming work that raises dilemmas about the use of chemicals, killing predators, and enclosing wild birds with fencing. In truth there isn’t much different between this fence and those at safari parks or Whipsnade zoo. But if we want to keep the beautiful and evocative ‘peewit’ sound of breeding lapwings tumbling through the sky then these are the lengths we have to go to, at least for now.

The contrast between these two declining birds could not be greater: the lesser spotted woodpeckers are in a more or less natural environment and largely beyond our reach, whilst the lapwings are close to being farmed. In our drastically modified countryside it is sometimes hard to know what ‘wild’ means anymore.







One More Turning


Gaia House Retreat Centre, Devon: At 8am the world is almost monochrome and gripped with cold, frost rimming every leaf. Gaunt trees, some decked with mistletoe, rear up in front of me like something from the Deep. The only dabs of colour are orange berries on the withered remains of wild irises dotted along the roadside. The sky is a not-yet-blue colour but yellowing in the East – probably the sun is up on the coast. A too-close blackbird is turning leaves, pausing only to give me the eye. It feels as though life is hanging on, waiting for the earth to turn another couple of degrees, then the blessed warmth will quicken blood and flood through tissue enabling the day long search for sustenance to start in earnest.



A cockerel in the valley sounds tinny and uncertain in the cold air. There is scattered applause from wood pigeons breaking cover. I am touched by a notice the folk on the corner have posted ‘To all who pass by…. wishing you good health, joy and blessings for 2017’.

The frost is not gone from the lawn until midday, despite three hours of weak sunshine. I circle the mottled trunk of the ancient plane tree which, like the aging body of an artist’s model, is slipping slowly into recline. Bunches of daffodil shoots poking two inches above the ground are like speed traps for unwary meditators. There is a flurry of bird calls now: nuthatch, goldfinch, robin, bullfinch and the distant laugh of a green woodpecker.


West Ogwell church, which is painted cream, otherwise looks plain and dependable; the sort of church that has pinned the English countryside together for centuries. Unused, a little damp and peeling, it still has has beautiful wooden box pews like something out of Thomas Hardy. The churchyard is ringed with horse chestnut, beech, evergreen oak and a cranky old hornbeam that is leaning perilously over the graves. On the headstones are solid English names like Bishop, Taylor and Gilbert. Several low granite enclosures are where nuns from the old convent were buried, sometimes six together without mounds, just discreet names on the curb stone: Sister Gladys, Edna, Maud, Dora and so on – names from my grandmother’s generation – modest women who gave their lives to God.


The afternoon is fading, Dartmoor reduced to a rusty smudge on the horizon, a couple of ragged tors still visible. By four o’clock the cold and darkness are closing in for the long night, and by eight the fog is as thick as smoke. In the bushes blackbirds are sounding the alarm – these conditions will prise open any weakness.

So to New Year’s Eve and we are sitting around a fire in the woods in companionable silence, a circle of flame-lit faces – some smiling others pensive. Tawny Owls are calling love to one another amongst the trees. We cast our regrets, hopes and aspirations into the flames and the sparks tower up, each one brilliant and brief in the endless stream. I feel in good company with Messrs Taylor and Bishop, Sister Edna and the rest as I enjoy my moment in the light.









No People No Significance?


It was Annie Dillard, the American writer, who said “no people, no significance” meaning, I think, that it is only we who can perceive significance. There is another way to look at it – that human presence in a landscape can add significance for us. I was reflecting on this whilst reading back over some notes I made on Bardsey Island this summer. I pulled out the following from a day in July:

Sitting in the sun against the wall of our cottage I tuned in to what I could hear: melodramatic wailing from seals, all ‘woe is me for I am a lost soul’; a smart male stonechat on the fence opposite has a ‘chack-chack’ call like beach pebbles colliding, interspersed with rusty squeaks – with his orange breast stuck out and feet apart he looks like an amiable grocer passing the time of day; piping oystercatchers – they sound so brainless; the textured throaty bleat of a ewe, just twice, is laden with context for me – Wales, hill-country, home; glassy twittering of meadow pipits along with the soft intimate calls between linnets is the common tongue here, the daily gossip; and behind everything is the surging hiss of the sea and felt-sound of grass shifting in the breeze.

 Nils (my grandson) found a little owl in Nant Valley. It yelled at us from a hole in a gorse bush, then advanced to a nearer fence post and then one nearer still – a ball of fluffed out indignation. Its lemon yellow bill and irises framed large black pupils, which stared relentlessly at us, furious at the intrusion. I presume it had a brood nearby as it continued to harass us until we were 100 m away.

 A runner from the bird observatory passed by with a panic message “Basking shark if you are quick”. I ran and arrived puffing heavily, just in time to get a glimpse through the telescope of two sharp black fins (dorsal and tail) cutting through the water. I thought of them as ‘ominous’ despite other-time images of gentle plankton gulping creatures.

 Ambling back along the track I admired the wayside flowers: cats-ear, bartsia, bell heather in magenta cushions, yarrow, knapweed, silverweed of the purest yellow. Gorse seeds were popping loudly in the heat.

 The moon was rising as we watched, lifting above the shoulder of the mountain. It was huge, a day off full, and silver – a priceless glittering coin. As we turned away we saw the ‘Bardsey bat’ – a lone pipistrelle that has taken up residence recently, probably in one of the buildings.

 In the early hours thee was the mother and father of all light shows in the western sky: sheet lightning bursting out every few seconds from all round the purple sky, sometimes underscored by the precision strikes of forked lightning. The strange thing was that it was largely silent, just the odd roll of thunder – the rain came later. The planet was flexing its muscles and the vastness of it made human concerns seem puny. At dawn the moon was poised low over the sea, butter yellow now with a golden trail stretching from horizon to shore across a flat-calm sea.


A sense of harmony, between humankind and nature is deeply satisfying to people sensitised to such things; even more satisfying for some than untouched nature. The latter often evokes awe whereas the former comes with a sense of well being. Stone walls, smoke from a chimney or grazing cattle can add something to a landscape. On Bardsey visitors often remark upon this sense of harmony for, although it is a nature reserve, it doesn’t feel quite like one because it is also a place where people live and work, farm, fish for a living and holiday, which means buildings, boats, livestock and so on. There are, of course, all sorts of constraints, frustrations, hard graft and tolerances that go in to making this work – which is a whole other story. Sitting in the sunshine on the terrace of the bird observatory next morning I jotted down some of the factors that help produce this harmony for visitors to the island:


You are hard pushed to spend any money here.

Children can be safely feral.

Nobody knows the time.

You must walk everywhere – there are no cars.  

No Internet, phone signal, TV or even electric light.

There is nothing to do, but everything to grab your attention.

 This place has a tousled unkempt look, which is a complement to all who care for it. The breeze ruffles the blonde grass and carries the sweet summer fragrance of lady’s bedstraw. The hiss of the sea is the islands tinnitus. Bardsey is much more than the sum of its parts – a mystery that is well worth attending too.


It seems to me that although these experiences are about bearing witness, ‘recording significance’ Annie Dillard might say, they have at their heart a good deal about people interacting with nature. If I try to imagine Bardsey without the farming, fishing, birdwatchers, holiday folk and the marks they have made over the centuries it seems empty, somehow less significant.



Bearing Witness


 We approached on one of those single-track roads that are so narrow and obscure you can’t quite believe they are public. The next leg of our journey was squelching along a boggy footpath, flanked on one side by steep woodland with lofty oaks and thickets of holly, and on the other flat estuarine pastures squared off with stone walls. Mossy old oaks and twisted thorns and crabs – a few hard, green apples still clinging to the leafless branches – lined the path, suggesting it had been here for a long time. We had been tipped off about this place and it felt like a secret.


Our view opened out onto the side of the estuary: coffee coloured water swirling slowly towards the sea; on the opposite bank chrome yellow birches flared like burning torches amongst the quiet russet of the oaks. Under our feet the tightly grazed riverbank gave way to a long straight quay built from rough-hewn blocks of stone. It was this we had come to see. Nowadays the river is shallow and ribbed with banks of silt but 150 years ago the Dwyryd was navigable and a flotilla of small boats tied up here. They came to carry the slate from the great quarries above Blaenau Ffestiniog and Croesor – North Wales was roofing most of the world back then. Before the railway came slate was brought down to the coast by horse and cart and loaded on to the little boats, which sailed out to ocean-going ships off Porthmadog, for onward transport to the developing and cities of Europe and North America. All that is long gone now but this forgotten quay is a reminder of those busy and more prosperous times.


The quay is cut every ten yards or so with flights of steps down to the water at each loading point: many boats must have moored here at busy times. Along the top of the quay are rough stone posts three or four feet high – capstans for tying up the boats. On one of the steps my grandson, Nils, finds otter prints in the skim of sand left by the tide, and better still, near the top of the steps, there are several spraints (droppings). Some naturalists say these have a distinctive smell like jasmine tea, which is helpful for identification, and today, for the first time, I get it – the musty/peppery scent does smell like some kind of exotic tea. Pottering along the quayside I am struck by the quiet details of nature: lichen encrusting the stones in yellow and grey patches; three tiny fungi quivering in the breeze, their tops turned up like bottle caps; ivy flowers covering a fallen hawthorn attract a smudge of small flies to their late nectar. There is a deep sense of harmony between this old industrial site and its natural surroundings. In its day I suppose it would have seemed modern, even brutal, but now, disused and forgotten, it seems to enhance this lovely estuary.


All of this is beautifully caught in an exhibition of art works by Marged Pendrell at Plas Brondanw, which is not far from here. The exhibition is called ‘Flotilla’; its centrepiece a host of little boats, which specifically reference the trade in sea-going slate. The works are made from found objects and materials including slate, copper, lead, wood, sand and peat – the very ‘stuff’ of North Wales. Marged has a refined sense of the interplay between natural and man-made elements, combined with a magpie’s eye for collecting and rearranging natural objects so that they become more than the sum of their parts – metaphors for life’s processes. The whole exhibition chimed with the sense of ‘rightness’ that I had at the quayside. Even Plas Brondanw itself is an exercise in unexpected harmony, its turquoise and gold wrought-iron complementing beautifully, if counter intuitively, the backdrop of the mountains.


I accept that such things are a matter of perception and taste but perhaps it is the ‘job’ of humankind to strive to give voice, in whatever way we can, to the beauty and intricate complexity of the world we are born into. Looked at from a whole-earth, Gaia perspective we are the ‘component’ that has the reasoning, imagination and language which enables the planet to see its self in the mirror and glory in what is. As the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling put it: “uniquely in us, nature opens her eyes and sees she exists”.


For exhibition details:

Mouldy Mushrooms


These conifer plantations are so lifeless: a thick cushion of needles muffles the ground and the trees seem dead until halfway up – a brown on brown world. Just off the path a scatter of white blobs like screwed up tissues catches my eye. I fear the worst, but coming closer realise that they are some kind of life. Holding on to my hat and crawling through the prickly twigs I am confronted by something very strange: fifteen or so mushrooms, of a poisonous species known as The Sickener, are erupting in a delicate halo of white mould which appears to be digesting the very mushroom it is growing on – a fungus consuming a fungus. When I went back to check on them a week or so later they had vanished, slurped out of existence; presumably all that remained were the mould spores, which I was probably inhaling.


Fungi can seem very strange, neither plant nor animal, they are found almost everywhere and are very numerous (12,000 species in Britain – and counting), yet they remain elusive and oddly out of mind. In fact they are essential to us in many ways: helping to digest our food, make bread, brew beer, manufacture antibiotics and a lot more besides. Fungi are also responsible for 90% of decomposition, without them we would be knee deep in dead leaves, and dead bodies. Most of those involved in such processes are microscopic moulds or yeasts, rather than the mushrooms that appear so mysteriously in our autumn woods and fields. Some of those are conspicuous like the Shaggy Inkcap or Puffballs but they are only the fruiting bodies, like apples on a tree, of an intricate web of underground threads (hyphae), which constitute the fungal organism itself.


photo: Gethin Elias

Many of our woodland trees have an interdependent relationship with certain fungi whose hyphae wrap around the root hairs of the tree and supply them with nutrients; trees are not very good at obtaining these for themselves. In return the trees supply the fungi with the sugars they are not able to make because they lack photosynthesis. The intricate web of hyphae in a wood is vast: it has been estimated that one-kilogram of woodland soil contains 200 kilometres of fungal thread. Without these unseen partnerships there would be no woodland.


photo: Owen Elias

Fungi provide wonderful examples of the intricacy and interdependence of living systems. We rarely think of them but couldn’t get by without them. So next time you are digesting a big meal or turning over your compost heap give thanks for fungi – for without their bit of mould you would not last long and your remains would be with us for very much longer.



Rewilding Sussex


 Sir Charles Burrell must have a lot of nerve. I recently went on ‘safari’ at his Knepp Castle ancestral estate in Sussex and the place is seriously neglected. In fact it looks as though he has walked away, shut the door and thrown away the key.

This 3500-acre estate was, until 15 years ago, a mixed arable and dairy farm on the Wealden clay, an hour south of London. However it was only turning a profit two years in ten; that clay, it seems, is difficult to farm being a slippery mess in the wet, and bone hard when it is dry. Charlie Burrell (as he prefers to be called) had always been interested in wildlife so, inspired by a visit to the Dutch rewilding project at Oostvaardersplassen, he decided to try something similar at Knepp. He removed all the internal boundaries on the estate, introduced longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, fallow and red deer and Tamworth pigs – as proxy species for our original wild herbivores – and let them loose to feed and roam as they pleased across 2500 acres. On the face of it that was a pretty crazy thing to do with an estate your family had been farming for hundreds of years. I take my hat off to him, not just for nerve but also vision.


I grew up with the notion that the original vegetated landscape of Britain, pretty well everywhere below 2000 feet, was high forest – a kind of majestic Mirkwood with an overarching canopy of big trees. Then about 20 years ago, the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera challenged this model, suggesting that it had underestimated the effect of the large wild herbivores that were common at that time – cattle, horses, deer, pigs and beaver – plus their attendant predators – wolves, lynx and bear. He postulated that the interaction between these animals and their environment would have created something more akin to savannah or parkland with clumps of trees, thickets of scrub and areas of grassland dotted with individual trees. Not all ecologists agree with him and in truth we don’t really know what the original ‘wildwood’ looked like before humans started clearing it 8000 years ago. Finding out is part of what Knepp is about; they call it “process led conservation”.

What confronted me amongst the fine old estate oaks was a mess of sprawling hedges 30 feet wide at the base, big blocks of sallow and large open areas dotted with patches of bramble and scrub – some of which sheltered young oaks from the browsing animals, just as Frans Vera predicted. This landscape is prompted, manipulated and sculpted by cattle, horses, deer and pigs. Some of it is low grade habitat at present, particularly the overgrown fields covered in ragwort and fleabane; but to everyone’s surprise populations of some nationally declining species such as turtle dove, nightingale, cuckoo and purple emperor butterfly are increasing at Knepp. What this landscape has, in effect, is lots of woodland-edge, which would have been plentiful in Vera’s vision of the ‘wildwood’. This may account for these increases, and why so much of our wildlife seems to thrive in the ‘edge’ habitats that have become scarce in intensively farmed landscapes.


Looking at it I was struck by how big it seemed – 2500 acres of unfenced land in lowland England is substantial. To my eye it looked like a transitional landscape on its way to something else and clearly it is still on the move, but perhaps not towards continuous woodland. The staff at Knepp just don’t know and are willing to sit on their hands and wait to find out. One thing has become clear: some areas are, unpredictably, developing differently from others, there is a continuity of process but outcome is unforeseen. It seems that the changing landscape has personality, is wilful. A dynamic process has been let loose by the very act of not acting; the mice have indeed come out to play.

There are many limitations to comparing this project with a truly wild ecosystem, one of which is the absence of large predators to limit the populations of introduced herbivores. There is just not enough room for them at Knepp, and anyway lynx and wolves might be a stretch too far for the neighbours in Sussex. So the estate has to accept the responsibility of being the apex predator and cull them. Animal welfare apart, what is “overgrazing” and “too many” are fascinating questions in a project that claims to have no desired (or undesired?) outcome. How will they react if the numbers of purple emperors or turtle doves start to go down? Hold their nerve and do nothing, I hope.


Another fascinating twist in this story is that Charlie Burrell has certainly not thrown away the key – the estate now regularly makes a profit. This has been achieved in various ways: renting out the farm cottages and redundant agricultural buildings; running a safari and camping enterprise and selling those culled animals as organic free-range meat at premium prices. Also expensive inputs such as fertilizer, herbicide, stock management, and farm machinery are no longer required. In fact Knepp is still a farm, if a rather eccentric one, which qualifies for a good deal of public money: £200,000 a year in Single Farm Payments alone we were told. I doubt they could survive without that, so Brexit is making them understandably nervous.


I hope this imaginative and courageous experiment can continue to thrive. Knepp Castle estate has come up with an innovative version of rewilding suited to lowland England which will be fascinating for naturalists and ecologists to watch unfold over the years. It is already a reservoir from which wildlife can colonise the surrounding countryside and a source of inspiration and research, as well as a haven of wildness for visitors in this very crowded corner of Europe.

‘A breath of fresh air for the spirit’ is what Charlie Burrell calls it.



Island Mothing


 We recently returned from our annual pilgrimage to Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli), which is a mile or so off the tip of the LLyn peninsula in North Wales. You can book accommodation there and have a holiday totally immersed in nature. The absence of cars, electricity and phone/internet connection relieve an unconscious tension, creating space that can be filled by the sound of the sea, brightness of the stars at night and a profusion of wild flowers, birds and insects. There is a simplicity and abundance to life here reminiscent of life in Britain 50-60 years ago.

One of the things that happen on Bardsey is moth trapping at the bird observatory. The trap is, in essence, a bright bulb (run off a car battery) suspended over a box filled with egg cartons. This is placed out at night and the moths are attracted to the light, dropping down unharmed to rest amongst the egg boxes. Each morning a group of us huddled round to see what has been caught overnight. Newcomers were hesitant and a bit mystified, peering into the crevices of the egg boxes as they were lifted out, marvelling at these unfamiliar insects. The observatory catches moths to record the numbers of each species day-to-day, year on year, so contributing to monitoring our wildlife populations. A less explicit reason is for the sheer wonder of examining close-up these otherwise unseen nocturnal creatures. Some of them like the garden tiger are big and brash, whilst others are paper thin and tremulous, seemingly too delicate to live.


My grandson Nils eagerly called out the name and numbers of each species with impressive accuracy; Mark, an assistant warden at the observatory, confirmed these with a nonchalant glance – expertise born of long practice. Moths have fascinating and sometimes eccentric English names, amongst those we caught were: the lackey, ingrailed clay, mottled beauty, july highflier, true lover’s knot, smoky wainscot and the scarce footman. I found myself imagining a Mills and Boon plot where the mottled beauty and scarce footman are bound together by a true lover’s knot – perhaps the lackey has a part in there somewhere?


Moths can occur in large numbers given the right conditions, as anyone who watched the recent Euro 2016 football final in Paris on television will have noticed; moths were everywhere, there must have been tens of thousands of them. Apparently the stadium lights had been left on all night creating, in effect, a gigantic moth trap. By the time the match kicked off the next day the place was crawling with moths, most of which were the silver Y, named after the distinctive shiny marks on its wings, which its scientific name Autographa gamma describe much more accurately. This is a migrant species that must have been passing north through Paris in very large numbers – some no doubt destined for the UK.  However events like this can be misleading as to the overall health of our moth populations. The Rothampstead Insect Survey, which has been trapping moths throughout the UK since 1968, has shown that overall abundance has decreased by 28% in that time and this rises to 40% in southern Britain. The spectacular black and white garden tiger, which has bright orange hind wings, has declined by as much as 92%; although it seems to be holding up on Bardsey – we caught 14 one night. The reasons for these declines are complex and multi-factorial but are overwhelmingly due, directly or indirectly, to human activity.

Silver Y, Great Orme, Sept 2007

photo: Janet Graham  

It seems sad that you now have to go to the ends of the (Welsh) Earth to get a glimpse of the wild abundance that was available to every country child not so long ago.



For How Much Longer?


 It’s a cool damp morning framed by bleating sheep and the smell of bracken. Plodding up the hillside I am looking for boot-marks in the boggy ground amongst the white flags of cotton grass. They should have gone this way a couple of hours before me.

Cresting the ridge the wind spits rain into my face, making my eyes water. I am relieved I had the good sense to put on plenty of layers, which didn’t really seem necessary when I left home. The cloud is lifting, thank goodness, so I am able to scan the huge expanse of moorland and bog spread out in front of me. I can’t see any sheep, or people, which is a bit worrying. I have come up here to watch one of my neighbours ‘gather’ the sheep from his mountain-land and take them down to the farm for shearing. He should be ahead of me somewhere. Eventually I spot some sheep on the drier ground about a mile away and, encouragingly, a few are in single file heading slowly downhill.

Gradually the sheep coalesce into lines, like milk trickling slowly into the bowl of dead ground behind the ridge to my right – then the place is empty again. Sitting in the heather, idly eating bilberries, I watch a kestrel slide out over the great expanse of bog, which is being swept by weak patches of sunlight. You might think this remote, wind-torn landscape is untouched, the very essence of wildness, but sheep have been sculpting it for hundreds of years. As the writer Roger Deakin put it so aptly “they keep the contours… clear, sharp and well defined, like balding picture-restorers constantly at work on every detail.” On a nearby crag I can see a single yellow flower of goldenrod clinging to the one place the sheep can’t reach; a whisper of what might be if the incessant nibbling were to cease.


After about an hour the sheep still haven’t reappeared so I begin retracing my steps in case they have got round behind me. Sure enough, a long line of ewes and lambs are snaking slowly across the hillside below me and bottlenecking at a gate. Up to my left a man with two dogs is slowly descending the hillside, whistling to the sheep, urging them forward. There is a cacophony of bleating as the ewes try to stay in touch with their lambs in the jostle. At the gate I meet my neighbour with his brother and grown-up son, plus eight sheep dogs. He explains to me that they have been taking it slowly, “if you don’t hurry them you will get the job done quicker in the end” – because the ewes are less likely to lose their lambs and go looking for them. These sheep are following a path of their own making over many generations and the men are in their grandfathers’ footsteps. These are the only paths here, ground into the hillside by the feet of countless sheep and attendant boots. Although the men have been walking for hours over rough terrain they are still moving easily, almost strolling through the bracken and across bogs. In full waterproofs and wellingtons (but bareheaded, surprisingly) they have the casual ease of people in their element. They have known sheep farming since they were boys and their expertise is palpable.

It is the continuity, the steadiness through time that strikes me. In a febrile week of politics following the Brexit vote, when our world seems in turmoil, it is reassuring to walk with these men following traditional rhythms and routes. Yet even here politics colour perception: no hill-farmer can stay in business these days without EU subsidies. For how much longer will sheep and men follow these paths at the edges of British agriculture?



Not Just a Load of Old Lentils


photo: Elen Elias

 Rounding the bend in the road we let out a collective ‘WOW’ for spread out below us was a view as beautiful as it was desolate. It looked more like Tibet than central Italy. Ringed by the snow-streaked mountains of the Sibillini National Park was a dead-flat high altitude plain known as the Piano Grande. Apart from some high level patches of beech forest, whose tender new leaves had been scorched brown by a late frost, there was not a bush or tree in sight. Standing there in the cool mountain air this place seemed empty and forgotten.

Motoring down into the valley two things were immediately striking: its flatness and the chirping of thousands of crickets. The plain was once a glacial lake which has left behind a soft alluvial soil, and the crickets, whose burrows were everywhere, were confined to it like frogs to a pond. This deep soil is highly fertile and for many years farmers have grown lentils here, which are famous in Umbria and named after the village at the far end of the valley – lenticchie di Castellucio. No artificial fertilisers or herbicides are used in their cultivation; whether by preference or regulation, I am not sure. This, plus the limey soil and mountain climate produces a fabulous display of wild flowers, which bloom in the fallow and harvested areas, as well amongst the crops. It was these that had brought us here.


From afar the plain appeared only green with some distant bands of yellow but as we walked out on to it the flowers were all around our feet. On the drier ground were countless grape hyacinths, yellow and purple mountain pansies and deep blue gentians. Further out, where it was wetter, thousands of white narcissi mixed with yellow tulips, whose pointed petals were tipped with orange. Scattered amongst them were deep purple green-winged orchids. Standing in this sea of flowers, ringed by mountains with skylarks pouring out their song overhead felt like a version of heaven. Later in the short season this plain will be washed with deep reds and blues from the next round of flowers to be painted onto the valley floor. It is a rare thing to witness such wild profusion.




On the valley sides we could see two flocks of sheep being moved slowly forward by shepherds and their dogs. It seems remarkable that in twenty-first century Western Europe there are still shepherds following their flocks in that age old biblical way. The sheep were gradually converging on a narrow valley where a thoroughly modern solution to sustaining the ancient system of transhumance (moving to the mountains for seasonal grazing) was arranged: a section of hillside was enclosed by an electric fence to pen the sheep at night, two modern caravans for the shepherds and 4×4 vehicles to tow them completed a set-up that could easily be moved to another part of the valley for fresh grazing. I was particularly interested to see the dozen large Maremma dogs at the camp, as this breed, indigenous to central Italy, is kept to defend the flock at night from the attacks of wolves. The wolf population in Italy, as in many areas of Europe, has been increasing in recent years.


The hilltop village of Castellucio at the other end of the valley had a distinctly end-of-the-line, frontier feeling. Framed against the bare mountains the ancient buildings and tourist shacks looked more like Nepal than Western Europe. Local people told us they have 10 months of winter here; it had snowed two nights previously. The picturesque village, with narrow winding streets climbing up to the church has only eight remaining permanent residents, and some of those are here for obscure tax reasons apparently. The rest of the houses are holiday homes mostly used in the short summer season.



The Piano Grande seems a vivid example of our ever changing relationship with the land: rural depopulation as people leave for the towns, an increase in wolves as livestock farming declines, trekking and wildflowers as seasonal tourist attractions. I wonder how much longer sheep will be brought up here for the summer grazing? If that should stop perhaps spontaneous reforestation of the mountainsides will be next, and bears will follow.



Toads in a Hole



 Even in the spring sunshine this quarry gives me the creeps. A huge hole in the ground, its hacked-out walls still bare and dripping a hundred years on.

The sun is hot on my back for the first time this year; I feel overdressed in my winter gear. A peacock butterfly flits away from my casting shadow as I follow the rough path down to the bottom. A faint whiff of coconut from the flowering gorse is a comfort. With frightening suddenness a military jet roars low overhead and the noise, amplified in the bowl of the quarry, has me cowering and covering my ears.

Under a dripping overhang the height of a parish church, a five-foot high, black-mouthed tunnel disappears into the hillside – God knows where too. I try to imagine dragging slate out of that forbidding hole day after day. Somebody has been burning plastic rubbish near the entrance. The quarrymen wouldn’t have known what plastic was. A wren belting out his song from a sallow bush is pumped up to Pavarotti volume in here – which no doubt pleases him.

Amongst the bushes is a shallow pool that has all the charm of a large puddle on a construction site. Graffiti scratched by bored teenagers or besotted lovers decorates the slate blocks littered around it. The bottom of the pool is strewn with slate debris covered in algal slime. Nothing else grows there. Several pale brown newts wriggle away to hide under stones, as if shunning the light. I am puzzled by four perfectly synchronised brown marks twitching across the underwater rubble. Eventually it dawns on me that they are the shadows of depressions in the water’s surface made by a pond skater’s feet. These insects truly can walk on water.


In the water on the far side of the pool I find what brought me here: toads, dozens of them. Some are scrabbling for an amorous grip on overwhelmed females. Others are hanging motionless in the water, as if caught in amber for a thousand years. They seem oblivious of my presence. Lines of spawn criss-cross amongst them, like tape spelling out their DNA code. There are dead and half-dead ones drifting amongst them. Why do they come back to this God forsaken place each year to spawn? Yet somehow they match the quarry in their cold-bloodedness; mindless and blind to everything except reproduction in this hole in the ground. It is like some post-apocalyptic glimpse of what life might look like after we have gone.