Autumn is making its presence felt by the Kennet & Avon. Leaves are increasingly tinted yellow or brown at the tips. Of summer, all that remains are the skeletal frames of hogweed and burdock, long since gone to seed. That and the rich legacy of fruit its energies leave behind, whether blackberries and haws or the newly expanded long-tailed tit family passing noisily from bush to bush. Summer does put up pockets of resistance: a few hogweeds are on their second flowering. The sun remains warm, animating the plentiful larger insects which remain active to feed on those blooms or a pungent ivy patch. Particularly where this autumn sun hits a bramble bank, the gentle chirps of dark bush crickets are also very evident. They sound not unlike the edges of a stack of paper being rapidly flicked; often several will call back and forth in busy bursts of communal song. To me this has become an essential part of the October soundscape.
Despite the continued abundance of thermopiles, the year’s slide toward midwinter feels well underway. Descending a short muddy slope to the banks of the gravel pit, I feel it acutely: even an hour and a half before sunset the shade has a frosty chill. The sun is already low and the rafts of coots, great-crested grebes and lesser black-backed gulls out on the water are stark in this light, whites dazzling, blacks and greys almost iridescent. By contrast, the kingfisher that shoots low and close across the water is seen only as a sleek, purposeful dart, colours entirely muted. I track it with my binoculars and almost don’t see the grebe which pops up like a cork even closer to the bank. It’s clutching a small red-finned fish, which it deftly flicks through 90 degrees before swallowing it with a single gulp. My rebirth as a birder was on the banks of lakes such as this, some autumns ago, so to spend just a few happy minutes in the company of wintering waterfowl is a bit like coming home.
In a lane between perfectly ordinary stretches of countryside we found a sliver of forgotten ground. A footpath bounded on either side by overgrowth: burdock, shoulder high nettles, hogweed and a few hemlock plants growing half as high again as I am. The rank green teemed with wonderful common insects, among them an orange dotted moth that feeds on hogweed seeds, a female stag beetle and the wondrous Heterotoma planicornis, a plant bug with a blue sheen, bright green legs and absurdly chunky ever-waving antennae.
As enchanting as the hedgerow was, we were in search of a nature reserve. Hurley Chalk Pit, to be precise, one of BBOWTs* smallest. It’s the merest fragment of chalk grassland, a suggestion of what could spread across this landscape. Whilst most of the surrounding land is either intensive pasture, product of much management, or beech woodland, product of very little current management at all, the careful intervention of a few dedicated people ensures this place persists as a wonderful paradox: wholly the product of human intervention – first chalk extraction, now conservation work – but possessing a beauty that is wholly, improbably wild.
It feels as though we need both kinds of wild: the common and exuberant that bursts forth at every opportunity, as in the overgrown lanes and untended field corners, and the rare and delicate that is all too easy to snuff out. Much of the current debate in conservation is about seeking to find and maintain the ‘correct’ balance of these visions of nature. Is there a third way? Can we have dynamic, ever-changing places, largely left to their own devices that boast an abundance of common species and give refuge to species that are declining or extinguished elsewhere? Well, I’ve just got back Knepp: perhaps I found some answers!
Hurley Chalk Pit
Hurley Chalk Pit
Meanwhile, amidst the turmoil and news headlines, there’s another England. Think this is a country bereft of untamed and unchecked wilderness? Think again. But think smaller. Picture a railway embankment, the bulk of it lost under brambles, tall grasses bent and brown with the sun, the track ablaze with flaming pink willowherb. Picture a quiet corner of an otherwise busy university campus, an unmown woodland clearing turned hogweed forest. Each flower-head is a seething metropolis of cumin-seed sized black beetles, visited now and again by bumblebees or fat hoverflies that mimic the bees’ drone and pollen-tangled fur coats.
These are the places that have given me hope this past week. Not nature reserves, with their visitor’s car-parks, rarefied atmosphere and pressure to see something rare or unusual. Not ‘true’ wilderness with its illusion of complete human abandonment. Just peaceful, nothingy spaces, popularly known as edgelands in the annals of contemporary nature writing, dismissed elsewhere as weed patches. Close to our homes yet with a spirit that seems beamed in from another dimension, these tiny oases are in many ways the frontlines of day-to-day nature conservation.
For whilst the prospect of a closely monitored wolf somewhere out there – lurking amongst arguments over the latest conservation fad or buzzword* – might prompt excitement, or fear, isn’t the hogweed patch next door more urgent, more crucial to our everyday wildness? It’s a practical vision, too, or so I like to think. The seeds of hope really are sown in all corners of our countryside, our villages, our towns and cities, insubstantial as they seem. They just need a bit of space and time to grow: even the most perfect wild orchid starts out as nothing more than a speck of dust.
Forgotten wild on the fringes of the Great Western mainline near Twyford in Berkshire, electrification works in progress
Cheilosia illustrata, a bee mimicing hoverfly fairly that’s fairly common on hogweed
Hogweed jungle in Whiteknights Park, the University of Reading’s main campus
A single common spotted orchid on the University of Reading campus: small sign of wild hope
*For effect I sound more dismissive of the rewilding debate than is fair: for thoughtful commentary on what exactly rewilding may or may not be, and why that may not be the right question anyway, see Peter Cooper’s blog. I’m going to return to this subject soon.