Stranglers on the shore

20180404_070742The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men.

T S Eliot makes it sound so beautiful, and so poignant, here by the relentless sea. Indeed it is but, increasingly, it is more than a repository of discarded and lost fishing tackle with a tale to tell: it is a world of plastic and the enduring legacy of umpteen needless purchases which have woven themselves into our environment, abusing it and threatening the wildlife in myriad ways.

20180329_071300Recent reports came in from the National Trust warden on the Isle of May about spotting near the coast a seal enmeshed in rope. It is not surprising at all. More extraordinary is that we see so few of the effects of the polluted sea upon the creatures within it, caught up in the twine and the balloon ribbons, choked by the plastic toys, applicators and multi-coloured nurdles.  For we, who are among the first on the shore each day, witness an ever-increasing quantity and range of stuff cast up along the shore. We are no longer surprised by what we find. Sad to say, dead guillemots defeated by the recent storms seem normal and utterly acceptable by comparison.

20180404_071211Some jetsam is more troubling than other stuff and the sheer20180404_070917 variety can be utterly baffling. Recently a shipment of fine wooden planks was cast up on the north east and Scottish coast; this chemical toilet probably came from a boat, and we took it for a boiler cover until we gained a closer look. Nothing would surprise us.

20180401_072118However, the shipwrecked oddities which once had meaning and real purpose in everyday life are part and parcel of the big weather events, are to some extent expected and, of course, are usually easily removed. Not so the blanket of plastic rubbish of all kinds which is simply enmeshed in the seaweed and dune grass. The rubbish is ubiquitous and the task of eliminating it as a threat both to wildlife and the aesthetic enjoyment of our coast is obviously Sisyphean. Several of the morning dog walkers routinely collect what they can, bringing bags for the purpose as their dogs gambol and amuse themselves nearby. It is, of course, a hopeless task but as they say, every little helps. And today, reports in the Times suggest that since the charge on single-use plastic bags was levied in British shops, there are indeed fewer in the sea around us.

Now that the holiday season is about to begin, to what there is already will be added the additional throw-aways of the tourists: the barbecues, the full nappies, the plastic water bottles, the buckets and spades, the bags full of dog pooh – so carelessly discarded. After the BBC broadcast David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II this winter, the population of these islands responded with horror when they saw the effect of plastics in the world’s oceans. Perhaps the corner is beginning to be turned. Let us hope that what we undertake really does begin to make a difference.

To learn more about nurdles, go to: https://www.nurdlehunt.org.uk/

To read about the Isle of May in David Steel’s blog, go to: https://isleofmaynnr.wordpress.com/author/davidsteel2015/

 

 

Ashes to ashes

20170817_065708Today, mouldywarp came home with us: a real first, this. We found this perfect little velvety creature, plump but perished, upside-down on the path which leads down from the dunes this morning and – instead of leaving him to the crows – we brought him home to give him the burial he deserves. Around here – as in most country areas –  mouldywarp is considered a proper pest, and there are numerous specialists who have dedicated their lives to eradicating the little diggers from the farmers’ land. In all the grassland we visit, mole activity is extensive and persistent: there must be thousands of them round here. But we love them wholeheartedly, for their individuality, beauty and resilience and, of course, those seriously majestic hands.

20170817_065610 (2)This little chap was unmarked, so perhaps he had had a heart attack. We found him lying on his back, his strong feet outstretched, as though he had been knocked backwards by shock, but he may have had a fight with another, if their tunnel territories overlapped – if, in other words, he’d run into an unwelcome stranger. If so, it was a bloodless encounter but one from which he had come out worse. In his teeth was a blade of grass; was this his last mouthful on earth? If so, it was an ironic one for this ‘revisionist of all things green’, as Wyatt Prunty puts it in his wonderful poem.

20170817_100543We brought him home carefully carried in a fresh yellow pooh bag, then bedecked his own little grave with what flowers we could find: bright pink hydrangeas and the last of the cream roses by the pond, which illuminated him like a light bulb in the brilliant morning sun. With a prayer we placed him near the other special creatures at the bottom of the garden: the seagull youngster who fell from the roof and little Hammy Jo amongst them, Uncle Johnny overseeing everything in his benign, all-seeing way.

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These days, moleskin means either a kind of cotton fabric or an expensive type of notebook, but in the old days when it was fashionable Kemo Sabe’s forebears would sometimes have worked with the real thing. Thank heavens those days are past! We have returned our fossorial friend to the darkness he knows and prefers. We ask the Great Spirit to accept his tiny soul, which in its last day on earth gave us all such special joy. Wyatt Prunty’s poem, which we love, captures so well so much about this beautiful little mammal, and you can read it in full here:  https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/mole

 

 

 

 

 

Once by men and angels

20170801_061033Yesterday morning – and a damp and increasingly unpleasant morning it was –  we found a new best thing on the beach. There it lay, on the tide-line, no one about the see it and no one had been there before us, only the ancient castle walls which rose up in the distance behind it. We sniffed its well-proportioned body, noting its arrival, but otherwise respectfully moved on without disturbing it or making a fuss. Not since we found the squid some years ago has there been anything like our octopus, a perfect specimen thoughtfully blended into his sandy surroundings. These are the passings that we mourn whenever they are brought to our attention, through tiny windows into a bigger world of creation of  which we are only dimly aware: the great North Sea, with its chilly secrets and quiet deaths. Why this little fellow died and was cast ashore – so perfect and so peerless – remain a mystery, but we are grateful for the joy of coming upon him first and bearing witness to his life.

20170801_0611061.jpgWhereas zoologists celebrate the octopus’ ingenuity and unique intelligence, unfortunately in poetic terms they are more likely to be fodder for the infant, the matter of limericks about multiple legs and arms, seemingly lacking the gravitas of the giant squid, immortalised so powerfully in  Tennyson’s poem. Octopus  – of which of course there are numerous species, ranging from tiny to terrible – live for only a couple of years at most and as incarceration in an aquarium is stressful and life-shortening they aren’t readily found in them, though Brighton Aquarium once was graced by the presence of a lovely Giant Pacific Octopus of considerable distinction. Kemo Sabe will always recall the moment in the darkness when, eyes adjusting to the light, she became aware of the presence of this eminence grise in what had previously appeared to be empty tank. Like some alien balloon, adhering to the back wall of its glass home, it seemed reluctant to relax in its surroundings, pondering on the loss of the serendipity in the open sea. Lowering, yet endearing, in its kittenish vulnerability, it has stuck with us, as it were. Our Brighton friend’s time is long up by now, of course, as has that of the little one we chanced upon who, like the kraken, once by men and angels to be seen,/ In roaring . . . shall rise and on the surface die. Though there would have been no roaring at his demise, there did come the moment when mutability was insufficient and all else failed. And thus we found him, first along the shore.

Each shining hour improved

20160803_063436Plenty of ups and downs this week, and plentiful holidaymakers to witness them. Weather-wise, we’ve had a bit of everything (including this magnificent double rainbow early one morning – immediately followed by the torrential rain which drenched us all over the three miles home), and for the next few days more extreme tides than usual, crowding everything – including the rubbish – into a smaller portion of the shore.

20160805_064548We Dickens Dogs are out and about very early, or so others remark; we see things others may well miss, like Johnny Heron perching quaintly on Monk’s House, gazing thoughtfully in the direction of the wood which houses the heronry where he was born. Usually we see him on nearby Greenhill Rocks, peering hopefully at the fishy bits and pieces coming in with the tide. His reflective demeanour, as he gazes across the meadow with its waterfowl, way beneath him and the other side of the road, indicates a personality pondering on something bigger than the next meal. Well, this is my domain, it seems to say; I must make the best of it.

20160804_120742In the front garden, those who would wish to see what is there must get a lot closer to the glorious white hebe, now in full flower. This is the sparrows’ favourite resort, a capacious and welcoming labyrinth of branches and cover for them throughout the year; a reliable resting place both day and night. During the months when the days darken quickly, the 20160719_175917bush glows with twinkling, tiny, blue lights – as though the winter chill is singing out for joy. In August, though, the hebe is completely covered with long, white spikes over which all kinds of bees, solitary bumble bee species as well as honey bees, buzz with joy as they sip their fill of nectar. If you look closely, insects of all sizes are visible, too – verily down to Alexander Beetle – drawn to the intoxicating perfume of this generous and ebullient shrub. Everywhere in the heathland beneath the castle there are wild flowers: copious supplies of thrift, harebells, lady’s bedstraw, bloody cranesbill, meadowsweet, silverweed and harebell. The insects thrive, thanks to nature’s bounty and, it has to be said, despite the ravages of careless visitors, too often blind to the wonders upon which they walk; too lazy to pick up after themselves.

 

 

‘Springwatch’? We’ve got everything right here!

20160524_065845We hear that BBC’s Springwatch is going to be filming on the Farne Islands again for the new series of this extraordinary live programme, shortly to be nightly on our screens. Whether it’s the puffins, gannets or guillemots – of whom there are currently thousands stinking out the islands with their guano – the Farnes have no shortage of wonderful bird life during the breeding season with which to delight the audience, and that is without mentioning the seals whose inquisitive antics always draw the cameras.

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But on our own little beach trundle this morning it was all too obvious what wonders this area of Northumberland provides by way of a daily feast, the sea fret yielding gradually to intense sunlight upon the incoming tide which had even cast up a little pink sea monster, beautifully disposed upon the sands.

20160524_065220On a less glamorous, more everyday level, as May deepens into the lushness of June, everything around us on our daily perambulations seems remarkable. The heath behind the dunes and everyone’s gardens never look lovelier than now: birds never more songful; creatures  – great and small – never busier. Skylarks abound, and always do, but summer warbling visitors of all kinds are singing away from every type of bush. We have lost the curlews inland for now but above us the swallows dart and the martins chirrup. The dunes are drilled full of sand martin holes and the terns fight each other, over what we cannot know.

20160524_065933On the stone wall which separates his haunt from the hares running amok in the neighbouring field of winter barley, father pheasant patrols in the early morning mist. Fearlessly, he addresses the crow who comes too close to his family concealed nearby. Every year it is the same.

20160524_071804On the beach, near the horrid pool, the lumbering and much-loved toads have reappeared, mated and now – encouraged by the sun – their tiny offspring have wriggled into life, thousands of them 20160507_072124dancing for joy in their brackish backwater, straining for growth even as the water  – such as there is – recedes. How remarkable that year after year the parents return to find this little pool – a stone’s throw from the sea – retaining enough rain water (the only pool for more than a mile) to give their progeny a chance.

All that without even mentioning our nesting gulls! Finding the spikes a very acceptable sprung interior for the wads of dried vegetation they’ve pushed between them, affording the couple what looks like a very comfortable bed, they are once again ensconced on the chimney stack, awaiting the birth of this year’s brood.  Up there they now contend daily with our jackdaw family, whose nest is in the rear chimney, laying down the law to them regarding when to approach. Come one, come all, I say.

 

More precious for their rarity

Pip 6.5.16Today we celebrate the tiny yellow flowers which have sprung up here and there upon the heathland where we walk come afternoon.  To some, ordinary and unremarkable because so commonplace in our literature; to others, precious because so rarely seen.  John Clare, that poet of nature, referred to them in this sonnet:
The dancing Cowslips come in pleasant hours;
Though seldom sung, they’re everybody’s flowers:
They hurry from the world, and leave the cold;
And all the meadows turn from green to gold:
The shepherd finds them where he went to play,
And wears a nosegay in his mouth all day:
The maiden finds them in the pleasant grove,
And puts them in her bosom with her love;
She loves the ladysmocks: and just beyond
The water blobs close to the meadow-pond.
I’ve often gone — about where blackthorns stood —
And got the Bedlam-Cowslips in the wood;
Then found the blackbird’s nest, and noisy jay
And up and threw the Cowslips all away!

How few today can take these gorgeous blooms for granted, treating them so wantonly. The faery has more respect, knowing the worth of every living thing. We of the upper world – humans and dogs alike – gamble and gawp, tumbling over tussocks as our concentration falters (yes, Puck is still out there, playing tricks!). We look for pearls in everything we see but, as yet, have found none in those little florets. Here are one Fairy’s words, taken from that most jewel-like of plays:

cowslips 6.5.16Over hill, over dale,
    Thorough bush, thorough briar,
 Over park, over pale,
 Thorough flood, thorough fire.
 I do wander everywhere
 Swifter than the moon’s sphere.
 And I serve the fairy queen
 To dew her orbs upon the green.
 The cowslips tall her pensioners be.
 In their gold coats spots you see.
 Those be rubies, fairy favors.
 In those freckles live their savors.
 I must go seek some dewdrops here
 And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

Bats up belfries and chicks on chimneys

IMG00409-20140626-0650Peace and tranquility reigned very early yesterday morning on Bamburgh Beach, as we gazed out towards Inner Farne. We appreciate the privilege of putting our paws on the sand before anyone else; later in the day when the temperature reached an unlikely 84 Fahrenheit, the place was transformed and not for us.  We have never known the area so busy, despite the fact that there’s a month to go before the schools break up for the summer. Out on the islands, wildlife is bustling hither and yon: the now-famous Bridled Tern is still in residence, offering his charming profile for keen photographers who have come from all over the country to admire him. Guillemot babies, known as ‘jumplings’, as yet unable to fly, are busy throwing themselves into the sea by way of a first foray-forth. Puffins are everywhere, smiling broadly and flapping wildly as they fly over the boat trips.  This afternoon once the sky had darkened and wind arisen, in fairly choppy water over rocks near the shore, we saw a mother Eider duck bobbing up and down with two little ducklings. As buoyant as corks, they bravely negotiated the waves, keeping close to their attentive mother, though theirs was a worrying kind of independence.  The Mantalinis visit most days, but as yet we have seen no little ones; by contrast, generation upon generation of thrushes, robins, wood pigeons, sparrows and starlings several times a day muscle their way on to the feeders and bird tables, mothers and fathers sharing their precious little ones with us as they all snaffle up the seed.

IMG_1675Up on the roof, Peter, Paul and Mary are becoming more Falstaffian in girth by the day: amazing what nourishment is to be found in crab legs and cold chips! Relative darkness having prematurely fallen and a brisk wind darting drops of rain on the newly-watered garden, the triplets are currently a-bed, watched over by the parent on duty on that charming cowl no matter what time of night or day. Perhaps tomorrow will afford a jollier shot of our favourite family. Most of the roofs round here have their share of guano, courtesy of their respective resident gulls. Some try dissuading the birds with spikes but we are all thrilled that the gulls are unimpressed by such hostility. One of our chimneys, as every year, has jackdaws nesting within it (which can bring its own problems) but we enjoy the cackling of these little crows and knowing that their little ones will eventually join us in the garden we are thrilled to share with them. Yes, the window-cleaner cannot come too regularly at the moment, and the garden seats need washing nearly every day, but what a sad, clean world it would be without the swooping and whooping which characterises our lovely feathery brethren.

PSM_V07_D662_Common_english_batThere’s been much discussion in the British press this week about the damage being done by bats, who are protected, to the historic churches where they often live. Their droppings cover the floor and furniture, their urine scorches monuments and fabrics; the discovery of their very presence halts vital preservation work. Restorers and bat lovers are at war. It is ironic that these sweet little creatures, for whom we all have especially warm feelings as we watch them darting about as dusk falls every evening, should be so populous in buildings that humanity has, for the most part, abandoned, other than for academic interest. Surely, the Great Spirit welcomes them; perhaps they ponder, as do I, on the terrible destruction wrought in those very churches centuries ago and how much of beauty and significance was lost for ever because of the vanity of man, not because of the innocence of the tiny flying mouse.