New Leaves

This year I am dedicating a lot of my time to something I have wanted to do for many years: write a novel. I often write fictional scenes and enjoy creating characters and I wanted to set myself the enormous challenge of extending those elements into a book. I’ve read that while many authors swear by detailed outlines and believe that spontaneity is recipe for disaster, others encourage new writers to see where their imagination takes them. I’m trying the latter technique. I have a protagonist and several themes I would like to focus on, but so far my plot is far from finalised. The following is a passage I’ve written as a scene-setter that introduces both the location and my leading lady. 

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The snow fell heavier than it had in a hundred years. There was no wind – the land lay still, muffled under six inches of brilliant white. Evergreens buckled beneath the weight of their silvery coats. Even the river had succumbed to winter; it lay motionless beneath a slab of ice, arranged in a winding, serpentine fashion between hills and mountains. It was late February – there was just over a month left of the winter that spanned half the year, but the coldest season still had a firm grip over the land. In March, the climbing temperatures would start to melt the snow into large freshwater pools and reawaken sleeping giants eager for the salmon run in July.

Halfway up a sprawling larch tree perched a teenage girl. She was small for her age, but agile and nimble. With her back pressed against the trunk, she had the perfect vantage point over the land. Before her the forest sprawled as far as the eye could see. Thousands of trees stood beneath snow and ice, their skeletal branches brittle in the cold.

Vanya’s breath rose from her lungs in icy shards, tumbling from her mouth in clouds of grey mist that swirled upwards into the sky. An eagle cried far away, her voice transported many miles over the sleeping land. Vanya had lived in the taiga forest her entire life, but gazed upon its sweeping scenery with the same wonder as the first time she saw it. It was a paradise of silver beauty. The silence was so thick she could feel it, heavy and palpable in the air. It was an anticipative silence that made the hairs on her neck stand on end. There was change in that silence – something new just beyond the horizon.

Despite her thick furs, Vanya soon began to feel the cold as the sun weakened. While she still had the light to see, she descended from her tree, scrabbling down the trunk with impressive confidence before dropping the last six feet to the soft ground. She padded down the hill, sinking into the snow with each step. Behind her lay a long trail of boot prints, already softened at the edges by fresh flakes. Frost clung to her eyelashes, brushing her cheeks with cold strokes and fringing her vision with a white vignette. Snow rustled in the folds of her coat and crunched beneath her feet. If undisturbed, the snow would fall and rest in utter silence. Only when it was touched did it begin to whisper and crackle. In the heavy air, the sounds were deafening.

When she reached a dense thicket of pine trees, Vanya slowed her pace and gazed skywards, scouring the canopy for birds. Snow clogged the gaps in the branches, concealing all manner of wild creatures. A sudden commotion cut through the silence like a knife. Vanya’s eyes flicked to the sound, freezing on the spot as a flurry of fine powder drifted down. The branch trembled, sending more snow to tumble from within its stiff needles. In moments the raid was over and the culprit emerged at the trunk. It was a young male sable, perhaps from last year’s litter, with dark brown fur and a splash of dusky orange on his neck. A small, carnivorous mammal, the sable belonged to the marten family. The animal cascaded deftly down the tree with agile limbs and keen claws.

Landing with a soft thud on the forest floor, he immediately looked up at Vanya, who had sunk down onto her knees to watch. The sable was clutching a stolen egg in his mouth, razor sharp teeth sunk into the shell for a better grip. Confidently, he trotted over to Vanya, dropped the egg and began sniffing her coat. Vanya extended a hand to the animal, noting the way his sleek fur rippled with each movement. The sable studied the girl’s face briefly before clambering onto the open hand, his nose twitching furiously. Vanya ran the backs of her fingers along his fur, delighting in its buttery softness. After a few more moments in her hands, she set the animal back down onto the snow, where he snatched up his egg. With a brief backward glance, the sable lolloped away to cache his prize.

To anyone else, this behaviour was unheard of. Sables, like many mustelids, could be notoriously aggressive towards humans, especially when food or kits were involved. Vanya was an exception to the rule. Since birth, she had truly understood animals. They were not stupid or cruel, like humans, but sensitive and respectful. Vanya saw no reason not to behave equally, and in response any animal she interacted with was fascinated by her. They sensed goodness in her; a quality that they had learned was absent in most humans. Instead of fearing her, they immediately trusted her.

Vanya studied the sable’s prints in the snow. In less than a minute, the snow obscured the impressions the tiny pads had made. In five minutes, they had disappeared completely. Her interaction with a wild sable might never have happened. Vanya was alone, and yet surrounded with life.

A Charm of Bramblings


With the bitter cold of winter often come unexpected and welcome surprises. Two years ago, flocks of waxwings graced us with their presence as they passed through from Scandinavia. The following year, hawfinches could be seen crunching hard seeds with their formidable bills. In 2019, it seems to be bramblings that are turning heads as they gather en masse across the UK. While they have been known to breed in Scotland in previous years, this is very rare. However, bramblings often visit the UK during the winter months, with this year being no exception.

At a quick glance, bramblings could easily be mistaken for a male chaffinch; these birds are of the same size and have very similar colouration, if a little more diluted than our more common garden inhabitants. Both male and female bramblings have an attractive orange blush on their sides and a white belly. In summer, males have black markings on their head. Bramblings can be found in beech woodland and close to other wooded areas, often joining flocks of chaffinches to look for food. Like many finches, bramblings prefer seed, so providing a good seed mix could attract them into gardens. There are several collective nouns for finches, including a “charm”, “company” and “trembling”. I couldn’t find a specific term for a gathering of bramblings, but as the birds themselves are so charming to look at, a “charm” seems appropriate.

It is thought that the reason behind this year’s explosion of bramblings is beech mast, or fruit, that falls from the trees, dispersing seeds for the birds to eat. If the beech mast fails in European countries such as Scandinavia, species including bramblings will move south and west in vast flocks to find more food. While impressive gatherings of five hundred bramblings can currently be seen in areas of the UK, earlier in January there was a flock of around five million in Slovenia. This number of birds could seem difficult to comprehend, but even that pales in comparison to the flock seen in Switzerland in the winter of 1951, which was up to 70 million strong.

As with all winter visitors, the bramblings’ time here could be short. Despite the plummeting temperatures, wrap up warm and head outside to find some of these beautiful finches. For more information on wildlife winter sightings, check out the BBC Winterwatch page. I for one would love to see a charm of bramblings before the winter wanes.

Bike Ride in the Woods

Another visit to one of my favourite wildlife places: Watchtree Nature Reserve. Zahrah and I hired bikes and set off through the reserve, taking a leisurely ride away from the hubbub of the café and car park to the quieter open fields and woodland.

The lake was fairly busy. A pair of Mute Swans and their two cygnets glided silently to and fro in one corner, shaking heads and rustling feathers. The youngsters were almost fully grown, their juvenile grey foliage blending to pristine adult white. When one stretched his wings, bright white armpits showed. Elsewhere on the lake, three Tufted Ducks were feeding, golden eyes blinking as they came up for air. A lone Little Grebe dived under the water and popped up again several metres away. As agile as a fish, the tiny bird curled its body and slipped silently beneath the surface.

Suddenly, as I was scanning the feeders for any birds joining the Tree Sparrows already tucking into the feast, my eye caught on a brown shape nestled amongst the grass. From my vantage point on the top storey of the hide I could see the Brown Hare perfectly as it chewed, hunkered down. I called in a hushed whisper to Zahrah, who’d been watching the pond from the bottom level, and she darted up to see.

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The hare was beautiful, with rich, brown streaked fur and piercing eyes. Its ears were pinned tightly to its nape, in an attempt to remain as inconspicuous as possible, but the creature was still brave enough to forage out of the cover of the long grass. We watched it for a few minutes, before it turned and hopped back into the grass. After waiting a while to see if it would re-emerge any closer, we accepted our hare was long gone.

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Leaving the lake behind, we looped around the reserve and cycled back through the woods. Once again, I was distracted by fungi, and Zahrah amused herself while I crawled around on the floor with my camera. Today, as always, there was plenty to see. A huge troop of Stump Puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme, the only British Lycoperdon to grow exclusively on wood) stood to attention on a fallen log, their portly bodies stood side by side.

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Stump Puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme) 

The delicate Candlesnuff fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon) stretched out of the wood, tiny black spindles dipped in white. Just as I had finally put away my camera and climbed back on the bike, I was greeted by three Shaggy Inkcaps (Coprinus comatus) stood on either side of the path like security guards. I hadn’t seen this fungus since autumn last year so it was a treat to photograph them again, and provided a satisfying end to our cycle in the woods.

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Candlesnuff (Xylaria hypoxylon) 

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Shaggy Inkcap (Coprinus comatus)

European Beavers

This week, I will be going on an expedition recce with Wild Intrigue to a Perthshire site, in the hope of studying European beavers. We’ve got loads of blogs to write and vlogs to film and I can’t wait to get back in the wild. I’ve loved my second year at uni and it’s been great to be so busy, but due to assignments and increasingly bad weather I’ve hardly been able to go on any walks to take photos.

So in preparation for my next exped, I wanted to find out a little more about the largest rodent in Europe, which I’m really hoping to photograph while we’re there. I didn’t know hardly anything about beavers, and due to their elusiveness it seems their lifestyle is largely a mystery.

Living by still or slow-flowing water with adjacent woodland, beavers are known as ‘ecosystem engineers’ for their river handiwork. By building their dams, they regulate the water level and alter its flow pattern, which ultimately reduces erosion, as well as providing an important store of water for plants and animals during droughts. By felling trees, beavers open up their forest habitat and create new, small-scale landscapes such as ponds and swamps.

Beavers were driven to extinction in Britain in the 16th century. For many years they were hunted for their valuable fur, but also for the secretions from a pair of musk glands beneath their tail, which the beavers use for marking their territories. The secretion (castorium), was sought after for traditional medicine and the manufacture of perfumes. Despite this persecution, beavers have since been successfully reintroduced to parts of Scotland and southern England.

Beavers have two layers of dense fur, a courser outer layer and a woolier under layer. Their hind feet are webbed and used to propel the body through water, while the front feet have opposable digits for gripping branches. Similar to crocodiles and hippopotami, the beaver’s sense organs are aligned in a row so that they can swim with their nostrils, eyes and ears raised above the water while keeping the rest of their body submerged.

A beaver’s tail is a multipurpose tool. Broad and covered with overlapping keratin scales, it’s used as a prop for balance when cutting trees, as a rudder during dives and an alarm signal when in distress, where the animal slaps it against the water. Fat reserves are stored in the tail and a counter-current arrangement of blood vessels enables an efficient heat exchange system, that can result in a 25% heat loss through the tail in summer and 2% in winter.

Entirely vegetarian, beavers are crepuscular, meaning they are mostly active at twilight. They can use their chisel-like incisors to gnaw through an 8cm wide tree in five minutes. In fact, they can carry on gnawing while submerged underwater by sealing the backs of their mouths with folds of skin. On dives they can close their nostrils and ears and cover their eyes with a nictitating (transparent) membrane.

So it turns out that beavers are fascinating creatures. Now that I’ve got myself acquainted with these industrious rodents, now I can only hope that I’ll get a glimpse of some this weekend.

 

 

Filming Red Squirrels

It’s been a mad couple of weeks, with my second year at uni finishing this week: three deadlines in four days. The last – and for me the most challenging – is a five minute documentary on anything we can think of. The vagueness could seem like a blessing, but when you have the whole world as your subject matter, it seems impossible to think of anything to fill five short minutes.

After the racking of brains and chewing of fingernails, I decided to combine my project with my first visit to Eskrigg Reserve in Lockerbie. It was infamously known among Wildlife Media students for its resident red squirrels; I’d been meaning to go for the whole two years I’ve been living in Cumbria, and only now with a deadline looming did I decide to visit. I headed up the road mid morning and by late afternoon I was perched in front of the hide, sharing a small open clearing with four foraging red squirrels!

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Jim Rae, the Reserve Manager, is one of the nicest people I’ve met, and incredibly passionate about wildlife. Upon arrival he welcomed me like an old friend, giving me the tour of the reserve before settling down in the hide for the interview. He had prepared four typed pages of notes, and when I sat outside later to film the squirrels he brought me a nutcracker and a box of hazelnuts for me to feed them. I couldn’t believe, after only just seeing a wild red squirrel for the first time in Chesters two months ago, I was now spoilt for choice of animals to film.

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It is not difficult to see why people get so attached to these creatures. A lot smaller than the greys and with delightful little ear tufts, they bound across the grass like furry chestnut bullets – trying to keep them in frame was a nightmare. I’d get one in perfect focus as it paused to claim a nut, then it was off and I was filming empty grass again. I’d never been so challenged as a photographer, but their nippiness provided an excellent opportunity to test my reflexes.

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I could have stayed for hours, but I had a film to edit and countless clips to go through, 90% of which were squirrels. As of today I’m just making the finishing touches ready for the deadline on Friday. Eskrigg is a gem of a reserve, and somewhere I will definitely be revisiting over summer!

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Have a watch of the finished documentary here:

 

 

Hiding Under Toadstools

It had been way too long since Zahrah and I last went on an adventure, so on a grey, cloudy Friday morning we headed out to Kingmoor South and North nature reserves for a wander. The aim was to train our senses and become expert animal trackers. We had our hopes on finding owl pellets and maybe even the fabled “Beast of Cumbria” – I share George Monbiot’s rather pessimistic opinion on a black panther stalking sheep in the Lakes but that’s a whole other blog post.

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Common Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum)

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Frothy Porecrust (Oxyporus latemarginatus)

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Yellow Brain (Tremella mesenterica)

Sadly our adventure was pellet-less, but what we did find was a lot of fungi. I’ve been really interested in macro photography recently, and have subsequently been spending a lot more time crawling on the floor finding tiny things to photograph. I never realised quite how extraordinary fungi could be – so many shapes, sizes and colours. Like every naturalist I’d love to be a wild forager and have a nibble on the safe varieties, but after trying to name the ones I’d found I discovered it was dangerous territory. Take Morel (Morchella esculenta) for example, an egg-shaped cup fungus that apparently tastes wonderful. Then take its almost-twin, False Morel (Gyromitra esculenta), which can be fatal and even after careful preparation is believed to cause cancer. Nature is a cruel mistress indeed!

So we decided against finding a snack and stuck to taking photos of the fungi we found. Zahrah graciously held a branch up while I crawled underneath to photograph a group of Jelly Ears. I was mid shot when I heard “aw look at this little spider” over my head and regretted every decision I’d made getting to the Jelly Ears. The little critter was a harvestman (Opilione), and luckily he was only small so I was even brave enough to take a shot of him before he scuttled away.

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Harvestman (Opilione)

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Jelly Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae)

We ate our lunch on a bench nestled amongst the vast oak trees, the forest floor covered in a crunchy bed of orange and brown. It was eerily quiet, even for a forest landscape. I can’t wait for the spring when the air will be alive with birdsong again. Winter has its own magic, but it can’t be denied that spring is when nature truly shines.

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Brown Mottlegill (Panaeolina foenisecii)

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Candlesnuff Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon)