About Me

Hello and welcome to my nature writing blog. My name is Jill Stanton-Huxton and I am a freelance writer with a passion for the natural world. I am a volunteer and member of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), World Wildlife Fund, British Hedgehog Preservation Society, UK Butterfly Conservation, Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hosptial and BBONT (UK Wildlife Trusts). Please feel free to comment on my posts and if you’ve enjoyed your visit please come again! You can also find me on my facebook page: Nature Notes of a Country Girl. Best wishes, Jill

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Ancient Woodland

According to the UK based charity, The Woodland Trust, ancient woodland is defined as ‘land that has been continually wooded since at least 1600AD. From 1600AD, planting of woodland became more common, so woodland that pre-dates this is more likely to have grown up naturally. Some ancient woods may even link back to the original wildwood that covered the UK around 10,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age.’

Because these ancient woodlands have existed undisturbed for over 400 years they also have a unique range of plants and animals which make them our richest wildlife sites and home for more wildlife than any other landscape. And as if that wasn’t enough, they are also one of our most beautiful landscapes, carpeted with bluebells, wood anemones and celandines in the spring.

Sadly, at the moment, these unique and irreplaceable ecosystems have little protection. Current planning guidance claims to recognise the value of ancient woodland and biodiversity but leaves woods open to development with a caveat which allows trees to be lost if ‘the needs of the developer outweigh the loss of the woodland habitat.’

The Woodland Trust has fought more than 850 cases where ancient woodlands have been threatened; often by developers planning roads, houses and golf courses. Developers cite they are a small acreage at stake and offer to plant trees in another location as compensation without realising that these woodlands cannot be replaced.

At the moment the most debated about fight involving ancient woodland in the UK is High Speed 2 (HS2), with its proposed train route from London to Birmingham; if it goes ahead it will destroy twenty one ancient woodlands and have a dramatic impact on local wildlife. I’ve added my own voice to the protest (see below) in the form of a poem I wrote which has recently been published in the local paper:

They told us to look after our ancient woodland;
Four hundred years old, it cannot be replaced.

With its un-ploughed micro habitat
And complex ecosystem-

Its loss would displace species;
Species with nowhere else to go.

They told us to look after our ancient woodland;
To join up the wild spaces, create a wildlife corridor.

Then one day the bulldozers arrived,
Men in hard hats with mobile portaloos.

They didn’t notice how beautiful the oak, the beech, the ash looked
In the early morning sunshine.

They didn’t hear the cuckoo calling or the busy tapping of the
Lesser spotted woodpecker.

They cleaved the bluebells and replaced them with concrete and gravel.

The wildlife corridor became a railway corridor;
Blinkered trains now crash through the sterile landscape.

They told us to look after our ancient woodland;
It was 400 years old, and now it cannot be replaced.

For more information and to get involved visit The Woodland Trust website: www.woodlandtrust.org.uk

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Tramuntana Mountains

On a recent holiday to Mallorca we drove through the beautiful Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, which is now a protected UNESCO natural heritage site. The mountains run from the south west to the north east coast of the island and the landscape is a mixture of olive and almond trees, native Mediterranean holm-oak (good for making wine casks) and pine forests.  The coastline along it is typically rugged, with steep cliffs and small coves framing crystal clear turquoise waters.

Although we didn’t see any on our trip, (we were more interested in negotiating the hairpin bends at the time!) the mountains are home to the Black Vulture, one of the world’s largest flying birds. They soar majestically across the thermal up currents for hours on end with barely a beat of their impressive broad, square wings. Twenty years ago only a handful of pairs were known to exist on the island, but now thanks to the efforts of the Black Vulture Conservation Foundation the population has reached over one hundred individuals in total.

Not quite so impressive, but nevertheless I think still worth mentioning, are the goats, rabbits and sheep that graze on the mountain side, and the pine marten and weasels which scurry about their business amongst the pine forests.

After a lot of twisting and turning, we eventually ended up in the sleepy village of Valldemossa, hidden away in a peaceful valley. With its neatly terraced mountainside, traditional architecture and narrow cobbled streets festooned with festival bunting it was well worth the journey.

The musician, Frederick Chopin, and his lover the French novelist George Sands famously stayed in the village in the winter of 1838; they took up residency in one of the cells of the old Carthusian monastery. In her book, ‘A Winter in Majorca’, Sands writes about the beauty of the landscape and the natural surroundings:

“It lies in the lap of the mountains, the houses perch, like a cluster of sea-swallows nests in an almost inaccessible spot. It is one of those views which completely overwhelm one, for it leaves nothing to be desired and nothing to the imagination. All that a poet or painter might dream of, nature has created here".

Later in the day, as we headed north towards the port and old town of Soller and a tram ride through the orange and lemon groves, we promised ourselves that one day we would return to this poetic paradise.


Monday, 15 August 2011

Sand Martins at Abermawr

On a recent holiday in Pembrokeshire we visited the quiet and secluded beach at Abermawr, once earmarked by Brunel as a harbour and railway terminus to capture the Irish trade for the South Wales Railway. However, this didn’t happen and it’s now owned by the National Trust.

It’s a bit of a trek to get to - you have to cross a meadow and then walk through a wood (which has the most beautiful display of bluebells and primroses in the spring) before landing up on the beach.

When we finally reached it, we sat down for a while on the grassy bank to take in the view. With its high cliffs to the south, lower crumbling ones to the north and nearby marsh and woodland, it really was well worth the visit. At high tide the beach has a pebble bank, which apparently was thrown up by a great storm in 1859; at low tide it turns sandy, with occasional stumps and roots from a drowned forest (believed to date back to 6,000BC) poking through the surface.

As we watched some brave surfers bobbing up and down in the choppy water along the south cliffs, I noticed several Sand Martins darting towards the shores edge. Twisting and turning with their distinctive quick jerky movements, they flew backwards and forwards towards the marshland and the crumbling cliffs; which they’d probably nested in during the spring: they burrow into banks, quarries or cliffs, usually near water. 

I watched them for several minutes as they skimmed across the beach before settling for a few seconds on the sandy shoreline. After a short while several more joined them until I counted about twenty in total. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, feeding along the waters edge - the young ones no doubt practising their aerial acrobatics before their long migration to North Africa in the Autumn.

Later in the afternoon, as we headed back through the wood and across the meadow, I couldn’t help but think just how amazing these gregarious, tiny little birds really are. They are the smallest members of the Martin and Swallow family, weight just half an ounce, and travel 3,000 miles during their annual migration.

Very good news indeed then, that although their population has crashed twice in the last 50 years, (due to droughts in their wintering grounds) they have now recovered and are doing really well again.


Friday, 1 July 2011

Take a walk down 'Hedgehog Street'...

I had been hoping to see a hedgehog in the garden for a few months now; I would often hear them in the late evening or early morning munching on the food I leave out for them, but could never seem to catch a glimpse of one. Then, finally, on a recent moonlit evening my perseverance paid off and I managed to see one eating away happily, completely oblivious to my prying eyes.

While I sat watching him for several minutes I realised why these cute little spiny mammals were recently listed as the UK’s favourite wild animals; and also reminded of the special place they so often hold in our childhood memories with The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and ‘The Queen’s Croquet Ground’ in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Interestingly, it’s not just nowadays that hedgehogs have captured people’s imagination; in the first century, Pliny the Elder, wrote about them climbing apple trees, knocking the fruit down, and then rolling on the apples so they could impale them in their spines and carry them of to their burrows!

Unfortunately, not all the myths associated with them were so harmless though. In medieval Britain, farmers believed they stole milk from cows during the night; and in 1566, the Elizabethan parliament put a three pence bounty on their heads which lead to thousands of them being killed.

Today the plight of the hedgehog is not looking too good either, due to a number of different factors, one of which is habitat loss. Sadly, recent studies show that the hedgehog population has declined by 50% in parts of the UK in the last two decades. Part of the problem is that they can travel about a mile each night to gather food and find a mate and so they need to move between many gardens; so barriers, such as fences and walls, prevent movement around their home range and loss of habitat means that there is nowhere for them to forage or hibernate.

The good news is that The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) have recently got together to create an innovative  project called ‘Hedgehog Street’ to help combat this devastating decline. The project aims to recreate a mosaic of interconnected habitats in suburbia by enlisting volunteer ‘Hedgehog Champions’ in local neighbourhoods who can offer advice on the simple steps we can all take in our own gardens to help these endearing little animals. 

For further information see: http://www.hedgehogstreet.org/

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Long-tailed Tits

Walking in my local wood the other day, I heard the unmistakable high-pitched ‘tssirrp’ song of the Long-tailed Tit. On closer inspection, I found a small family group, with their distinctive pinkish-brown fluffy bodies, moving through the trees.

One of them, a juvenile (so not yet pink, but with grey-black cheeks) looked at me from the safety of his perch high up in the tree branches. Maybe, I was the first human he had come across; he didn’t seem that concerned - just a little inquisitive as he stared at me while other members of his family busied themselves around him.

It was a particularly lovely sight to see these cute little birds in this relatively young ‘Millennium Wood’, established by The Woodland Trust in 2000. The native broadleaf’s are now over thirty feet tall, and over the last few years it’s been noticeable that it’s now matured enough for the local wildlife to start moving in and setting up home.

Good news also then, that according to the RSPB 2011 Bird Survey (which says that small birds can be particularly badly affected by harsh winters), the Long-tailed Tit has bounced back with UK sightings now having increased by a third.

As this close knit family disappeared across the tree tops, I found myself hoping that they too would deem it worthy of setting up residency; so I can be lucky enough to see a lot more of these adorable little birds in the future.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Butterflies Need Our Help

It’s a sad fact that four species of butterfly once resident in the UK have become extinct over the last century; and two-thirds of our current species are in decline.  There are a variety of reasons for this: habitat destruction, changes in agricultural and forestry practices, urban expansion and the drainage of wetlands. And butterflies are not just a beautiful part of our natural heritage either; they also indicate the health of the environment, play a crucial role as pollinators and provide food for birds and wildlife.

According to the UK-based charity, Butterfly Conservation, there are a number of things we can do to help. In the UK our gardens cover over two million acres of land – that’s 15 million gardens, each of which can be a mini nature reserve.

So, to encourage butterflies into your garden think about doing some (or all) of the following:

  • Plant nectar rich flowers: Buddleia, Ice Plant, Lavender, Michaelmas Daisy, Oregano, Aubretia, Red Valerian, French Marigold, Hebe and Candytuft;

  • Adult butterflies lay eggs on the foodplant of their caterpillar, so make sure you cater for them too. If you have a vegetable patch grow nasturtiums to lure Large and Small White caterpillars away from your brassicas.  Stinging nettles (which can be grown in a container) are a favourite of both the Red Admiral and the Comma;

  • Environmentally friendly gardening can make a big difference, so cut down on your use of herbicides and pesticides – they kill butterflies, moths and many other pollinating insects, as well as ladybirds and spiders;

  • If you have the space, create a wildflower meadow. Sow a mixture of wildflower and grass seed on bare ground or let grasses that are already there grow and add wildflower plants.

Finally, how about getting involved! Every year thousands of people (including myself) record the butterflies they see; these ‘records’ are vital for conservation. For more info visit the recording and monitoring section of www.butterfly-conservation.org.

Nature Writing

When I set up this blog, I thought the obvious first step (before I started ‘blogging’ away) would be to have a look at the work of other nature writers; and not just my own personal favourites: Gilbert White, Richard Mabey, Simon Barnes and Mark Cocker.

 As well as finding a plethora of nature blogs I also came across some interesting articles on ‘what constitutes good nature writing’; my favourite was by Sir John Lister-Kaye, one of Scotland’s best-known naturalists and conservationists.

In his opinion good nature writing should be more than just an entertaining read. It should be informative, thought provoking, challenging of damaging Western values that are destructive of nature, philosophical and, at the same time, uplifting. A good nature writer, in his opinion, should inspire people to understand and respect wild nature.

This seems like a hefty task, especially with people having little spare time in today’s hectic world. But it’s essential. We need the natural world as much as it needs us. Simon Barnes sums it up succinctly ‘we are all wild, it’s just that civilisation keeps getting in the way.’     

The poet and visionary, William Blake wrote in one of his letters: ‘the tree which moves some to tears of joy in the eyes of others is just a green thing that stands in the way.’

I hope in my nature writing that I can help and inspire people to feel that joy and reconnect with the natural world.