Amongst the Heather

Recently I’ve begun helping my new friends Joan and her husband John with their exciting woodland restoration project. Once dominated by non-native Sitka spruce, the site now has a diverse range of trees including rowans, larches, oaks and wild cherries. As a result, it’s attracted plenty of wildlife from bumblebees to pine martens! So far I’ve been getting stuck in with rescuing trees, which involves cutting the plastic tubes off of saplings that have outgrown them. I was rewarded with a feast of wild raspberries and plenty of opportunities to photograph invertebrates and an outrageous fungus!

Joan pointed out the two types of heather, which on closer inspection couldn’t be more different. Bell heather (above left) is a rich pink colour and each flower is a fat, tubular bell. Ling heather is a much paler violet and its flowers have wider, skirt-like heads. The heather attracted plenty of insects – I spotted ladybirds, flies, bees and butterflies wafting around the purple sprays.

As I searched for any trees that may look a little large for their tubes, I happened to glance down at a sodden tree stump and noticed a huge stack of caterpillars! There were perhaps a dozen of them all wrapped around each other, sat out in the open for anyone to find. I quickly texted my friend Lucy, whose insect knowledge was far superior to mine, and she told me they were buff tip moth caterpillars. I’d never seen so many caterpillars together before and it was such a treat getting to photograph them.

Unfortunately after a couple of hours tree rescuing the midges made their presence a little too intense, so I headed back to the clearing where we’d left our bags. I could see a winding tendril of smoke from the fire John had started to make tea, but the sprawling mass of heather, bracken and saplings made it tricky to find a route there. Several times I was blocked off and it took me a comical amount of time to find the pressed footpath that I took on the way out. Just before I sat down to tea and posh biscuits, Joan pointed out an excellent nerd find: a stinkhorn fungus. I’d only seen one of these before and it hadn’t looked its best, but this one was looking fabulous. An excellent end to an afternoon’s rescuing!

New Visitors


Although I’m naturally quite an introverted person and love having time to myself, I’ve still struggled to adapt to the lockdown routine. I like to potter around outside for hours while I write or just watch the world go by, so it goes without saying that I’ve missed wildlife far more than the pub. Alerts have hit my local Facebook groups about ospreys just a few miles away from me and orcas (orcas!) further along the coast, but lockdown measures have kept me stuck in one spot.

Still, it’s a beautiful spot to be stuck in, and there have been some new visitors to my local patch over the past few weeks. Before the clocks went forward, the daily sightings always included goldeneyes, long-tailed ducks and red-breasted mergansers. Now, as the spring wildflowers emerge and the days grow longer, I’m seeing some new faces on the backshore.

Willow Warbler

When I arrived in Scotland I was told that May was the true start of the bottlenose dolphin season, but I’ve already been spotting dorsal fins on the water. I’ve had three different sightings so far, and on the second I managed to photograph some for the first time. Even from a distance and with most of their bodies submerged, it’s easy to see just how large these marine mammals are. In fact, the bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth are the largest and most northerly in the world.

Bottlenose Dolphin

As well as cetaceans, there’s been some avian excitement too. My absolute favourite birds have arrived in my patch: gannets! I glimpsed a white wingspan last week but wasn’t sure if it was just another herring gull, but since then I’ve had indisputable views of these vast and beautiful seabirds. As well as flyovers, I had the privilege of watching a dozen gannets diving for fish just offshore – twisting their bodies and tucking in their wings at the last moment before hitting the water like feathered torpedoes. I’ve always been drawn to gannets’ subtle plumage and dramatic facial markings and it’s been such a treat to watch them in my patch.


As I walk along the shore, I have the option of looking left to the ocean or right to dense clouds of gorse. As well as infusing the air with a beautiful coconut smell, the gorse provides excellent shelter for lots of different birds. Over the last week I’ve seen willow warblers, stonechats, linnets, skylarks, hooded crows, swallows, swifts and yellowhammers in just a small area. The charm of the gorse forest is that you never know what you’re going to spot and I’m almost always surprised by something.

Yellowhammer (male)
Stonechat (male)

Although I’m usually drawn towards birds and mammals, I can’t help but notice emerging insects as the temperature climbs. Just along from the town allotments I’ve seen bees, peacock and red admiral butterflies and green foliage that’s speckled with ladybirds.


It’s been difficult for us all to stay connected to the natural world during the lockdown, but seeing snippets of spring visitors on my daily walks has really lifted my mood. Nature never fails to make me feel better, and it’s during these challenging times that our time spent outdoors is the most important. Stay safe and stay wild everyone.

A Prickly Afternoon

I arrived at the Hornbeam Wood Hedgehog Sanctuary half an hour early just in case I got lost. They purposely don’t advertise their exact location online, as is often the way with small wildlife charities. Luckily, just as I was cruising along a rather featureless country lane and beginning to think I was in completely the wrong place, I saw a man in a van with “Hornbeam Wood Hedgehog Sanctuary” plastered on the side.

Hedgehogs are one of those creatures that have slipped through my radar for some reason. I’ve only seen a handful of live ones my whole life, and as they’re nocturnal and not particularly attention seeking, I didn’t know a great deal about them. So, when I saw an advert on the Hertfordshire Wildlife Trust website about learning more about hedgehogs at a sanctuary only a few miles from where I lived, I was keen for the opportunity.

Martin, the man in the van, is the only permanent person working at the sanctuary, and all as a volunteer. At peak times during the year, there can be as many as 80 hedgehogs at the site with six new patients a day, but usually there are around 40 animals, which is still a huge commitment. In the intensive care barn, where the hoglets and “pinkies” (hogs only a few days old) are kept, there are feedings every two hours. The majority of hedgehogs that arrive are dehydrated or injured by foxes, dogs or traps. If a back leg is injured, or even amputated, the animal can still be released. Equally, a hog that is blind in one eye can also return to the wild, but a completely blind animal requires an enclosed garden to keep them safe from predation.

Temperature is vitally important for hedgehogs. Hoglets cannot generate their own heat so will die if abandoned by or separated from their mother. Hibernation among adults is dependent on temperature and so the timing can vary year on year. Usually if the temperature falls to around 5°C they will find a secluded space, slow their breathing right down and curl up into their signature ball. A hedgehog’s quills, sometimes reaching as many as 7000 in number, are primarily used as defence, but they also provide a helping hand in ensnaring tangled leaves and wild materials around the hog as added insulation.

Martin showing us around “Hog Hotel”

Sadly, hedgehog numbers have declined rapidly in recent years, down 50% in rural areas and a third in towns and cities. There are now thought to be fewer than one million hedgehogs left in the UK. That may sound like a lot, but in the 1950s there were rough estimates of around 30 million individuals. The reasons for such a drastic drop are numerous, ranging from intensive farming methods that rotate fields more often, reduced hedgerows, pesticides and fewer water sources. That’s just in the countryside. In urban environments, hedgehogs are threatened by the use of slug pellets, abandoned plastic and an increase in impregnable fences and walls that prevent wandering hogs from passing through.

Of course, there are ways we can help. Providing jelly-based cat and dog food or dried food specifically for hedgehogs provides much-needed nutrition. Contrary to the once popular belief, hedgehogs should never be fed bread or milk as they are lactose intolerant and this would seriously harm them. Another important garden addition is access to water, especially as most of the rescue hogs Martin receives are dehydrated.

For more indirect help, make your garden a haven for insects by planting wildflowers and fruit trees, and the insectivorous hogs will have a more plentiful food supply. To prevent any casualties, install ramps in ponds to help a soggy hog clamber out – although they can float and swim well, they sometimes drown from exhaustion after getting stuck in the water. And finally, make sure to always check for hedgehogs in compost heaps and bonfires before using them. A simple nudge with a broomstick will stir a hedgehog and give them sufficient warning to leave, although with bonfires it is always best to rebuild them elsewhere before lighting.

As a wonderful end to a thoroughly informative talk, Martin showed us Hog Hotel where a lot of his patients were kept. We were allowed to meet one, Rock, up close and personal. Not quite adult size, Rock fit snugly in the cup of Martin’s gloved hand and pointed his twitching nose up at us.


As hedgehogs are naturally wary of exposing their vulnerable undersides, it’s difficult to sex them. Martin explained that the best way was to find a small dimple amongst their fur. If it is around halfway up the stomach, it is a male. If it is further back towards the rear, it is a female.

Rock explored his surroundings for a while, while Martin stood poised ready in case the hog made a mad dash across the table. Getting to see a live hedgehog so closely was such a privilege. As I watched Rock, I realised I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen one in the wild. Like many of our native British species, hedgehogs are in trouble and it’s so important that we help them in any way we can. People like Martin give up full days of their time. I know I can definitely give up five minutes to put trays of water and cat food in the garden.

If you find a sick or injured hedgehog, the first thing to do before intervening is to contact the British Hedgehog Preservation Society to get expert advice. 

This fantastic event was hosted by the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust. To find out about future events, visit their website.