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

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Running Hare - The Secret Life of Farmland

I’ve just finished reading The Running Hare – The Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel. He was the winner of the Thwaites Wainwright Prize in 2015 for his beautifully written nature book, Meadowland (see blog post dated 2016).

This thought provoking and insightful book is a close-up and intimate study of the plants and animals that live in and under plough land. The book is also delightfully illustrated by Micaela Alcaino.

It is a history of the field, the story of landscape, people who ploughed the field, their lives, language, religion and food.  It is also a story of loss – the quiet fields and countryside which no longer sing with the sound of birdsong and the animals once abundant in the fields and hedges now gone. In a poignant sentence, early on in the book, he writes ‘we are all to blame, farmer, supermarket, politician, me and you.’ A sad reflection of our time and a warning for the future that we need to act now, if, he says ‘we want the birds back’.  

With this in mind, he wanted to plough and husband a conventionally farmed arable field in the old-fashioned, chemical-free way – and make it into a traditional wheatfield.  He hoped to bring back the flowers and wildlife that have almost disappeared from British ploughfields, like corncockle, corn marigold, cornflower, grey partridges, quail, harvest mice (and my favourite) hares.

He eventually finds a four-acre arable field called ‘Flinders’, which he can only have for one year. In January, he ships in some of his sheep to eat the kale that is in the field, and so the process begins. Finally, in March he ploughs ‘Flinders’ with his tractor – The Little Grey Fergie. He notes how difficult it is and sees why the ploughman was called the king of labourers.

Over the month’s he sows the wildflowers he has bought, and watches as wildlife returns to the field. The hares reappear and soon enough leverets arrive. Flinders gradually becomes full of colour and life, while the nearby landscape (in contrast) remains as monotone in summer as it is in winter.

In July Flinders is full of bees buzzing amongst the mass of poppies, corn marigold, corn chamomile, cornflowers and self-seeded indigo wild pansies and scarlet pimpernel. It’s a sad fact that twenty-three species of bees and flower-visiting wasps have become extinct in the last 160 years.

In late August, he is ready to harvest – he notes nature only gives a couple of days between the crop that is ideally ripe, and one that is deteriorating.

He uses an Alvan reaper-binder that never falters, never seizes, and leaves a perfect sheaf every time. They are left in a row, making stacking them into a ‘stook’ easier. There are 880 sheaves in total. They are put in ‘stooks’ of six sheaves leaning upright against each other in a tunnel – so the rain runs off them but the sand and wind will catch them. In doing this the ‘weed’ in the crop will die off. He then decides to have a go at hand threshing, for some homemade bread, so buys a flail – an ancient instrument to part the grain from the husk. He manages to collect three full bags.

At the end of the year, after the entire process is complete, he remarks that…one field, just one field made a difference – wildlife thrived on Flinders for the year and the wildflowers and wheatfield were both a success. If we had a thousand fields...

Wednesday, 29 March 2017


We recently visited the beautiful county of Norfolk, on the North West corner of East Anglia.  We stayed near the Wash, which is one of the largest estuaries in the UK and includes mud flats, lagoons and salt marshes.

The area is a wonderful wildlife haven for nature lovers – it’s recognised as being an important area for a variety of bird species, including pink-footed geese, shelduck, oystercatcher, lapwing, curlew, sanderling, dunlin and turnstone; and it has the largest colony of common seals in the UK – 7% of the UK population.

It’s also the location of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Snettisham Reserve, which is famous for two spectacular bird displays: the flight of thousands of waders during the highest of tides and the dawn flight of pink-footed geese leaving their winter roosts.

The beaches are spectacular, especially Brancaster with its miles of golden sands and the long sweeping beach at the historic and beautiful Wells-next-the-Sea with its sand dunes, pine woodland and coloured beach huts. While we were walking on the beach their we were lucky enough to see a small group of seals with their pups on the shoreline – a truly magical moment.

On the eastern side of the Wash there are low chalk cliffs and the famous stratum of red chalk at the delightful town of Hunstanton. The town is mentioned in the Domesday Book and its motto is ‘it is our pleasure to please others.’ It is the only east coast resort that faces west across the Wash and has spectacular sunsets – which is probably why the locals call it Sunny Hunny.

On the beach at Hunstanton we explored the rock pools for crabs, collected shells and watched the wading birds on the shoreline. I was particularly pleased to see curlews and oystercatchers for the first time. There is even a shipwreck (part of the metal hull survives) on the beach, a trawler called the Sheraton, which was used as a patrol vessel in World War 2 and wrecked in 1947.

Finally, King John of England is said to have lost his crown jewels at the Wash in 1216. Apparently, the horse-drawn wagons moved too slowly on the incoming tide and some were lost. Stories vary as to whether they were really lost – but it’s an interesting historical tale all the same!

Friday, 9 December 2016


Did you know the snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is a member of the daffodil family. It is often abundant in woods, hedges, stream-sides and churchyards in late winter. Evidence suggests that it is an ancient introduction frequently associated with both pagan and christian sites and is the symbolic flower of the feast of Candlemas.

My winter Snowdrop Haiku:

Sturdy, sweet scented
Galanthophiles delight
The winter gala

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Private Life of an English Field - Meadowland

I’ve recently read this beautiful book by the writer and farmer, John Lewis-Stempel. It won the Wainwright Prize for 2015.

The book is about the passing months and seasons of an ancient meadow (on the edge of Wales) with all its wildlife. It brought back memories of my own carefree childhood, growing up in an English country village in the 1970’s. Days were spent playing in haystacked fields during the long, lazy days of summer and down country lanes, where hedgerows were bursting with blackberries, in the autumn.

To quote John Lewis-Stempel “it’s the sort of field where, as you step in, you breathe out.” A mountain river runs along the eastern edge of the field and two oaks, with elephant trunk thick roots (around 700 years old) remain as evidence of when the land was wooded. A kingfisher flies along the river, never deviating from its course, a small copse is home to foxes, a pair of ravens roost in nearby trees, rabbits graze near their warrens and the old boar badger (with his dragging back leg) patrols his territory. 

One year he decides to let the meadow ‘go’, instead of moving livestock around in it. As a result, in late June the meadow is bursting with wildflowers and he realises that, once upon a time, it would have been a hay meadow. Sadly, 97% of traditional meadows have now disappeared due to intensively managed farmland.

When it is ready to be mown, he decides to do it the old fashioned way – with a scythe. However, he notices the curlew and meadow pipit are still on their nests, and so as not to disturb them, he mows around them – leaving them ‘afloat’ on their own meadow islands.

On one beautiful Midsummer Eve he goes for a walk on the farm and his three horses and donkey surround him like a merry-go-round. For a few moments he wonders what they are doing – then the donkey and one of the horses tug at his sleeve and he realises they are playing and want him to join in!

To sum it up, it’s one of those books that you remember long after you have finished reading it – and probably like me you will want to read it again and again. So, if you just read one nature book this year, make it this one. You won’t be disappointed, I promise!

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

If you go down to the wood today...

My husband and I went for a walk in our local wood a few weeks ago. It was a beautiful day and as we were walking along, enjoying the sunshine, something about the wood felt different to me. At first I wasn’t sure what it was, then I realised that for the first time it actually felt and looked like a ‘real’ wood.  

We’ve been visiting the wood for several years now, since we became members of the Woodland Trust. Part of our membership package included having a tree dedicated to us. So one autumn morning we packed up our binoculars and camera and set out to try and find ‘our new tree’.  Windmill Piece wood was established by The Woodland Trust as a ‘Millennium wood’ so at the time the trees were just saplings with many less than six feet tall.  

Over the years we’ve seen the wood gradually ‘growing up’ and maturing through the changing seasons. In the early years we noticed some of the saplings died over the harsh winter months and then as the remaining ones continued to grow the trees were regularly thinned out to make more space for them.  And a few years ago “ridings” were made that run through the middle of the wood adding a further stage to its development.  

Today, many of those young saplings are now over 30 feet tall and provide a shady woodland canopy beneath their leafy branches. And on either side of one of the “ridings” the trees branches are so long they form a natural archway as they lean over and shake hands with their neighbours.  

I don’t think it’s just us that has noticed this difference either - so has the ‘wild world’.  On recent visits we’ve seen a green woodpecker foraging on the ground for food a pair of Red Kites circling over the woodland canopy and heard Sky Larks singing in the field on the edge of the wood. 

Recently as a member of Butterfly Conservation we went to the wood for a picnic and to do their Annual Butterfly Count. The count only last fifteen minutes and amazingly during that brief amount of time I recorded eleven types of butterflies – Large White, Small White, Green Veined White, Marbled White, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Speckled Wood, Painted Lady and Small Tortoiseshell.

Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough to entice us back to the wood during the autumn months, it now provides us with blackberries for our apple and blackberry pies and sloe’s for our winter tipple of sloe gin.

Finally, to quote the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds recent advert - if you create a home for nature...nature will come.


Friday, 3 October 2014

The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn

Over the last few years there has been a renaissance in nature writing and, as such, an abundance of excellent books to read. As a result I’ve been unable to pass a bookshop over the last few months without popping in and seeing what they have on their shelves to tantalise my senses.

One of my favourites, which I read this summer, is the rather wonderfully titled ‘The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn’, written by one of the UK’s greatest nature writers, Richard Mabey. He is the author of some thirty books, including the beautifully written and thought provoking ‘Nature Cure’ which was shortlisted for the Whitbread, Ondaatje and Ackerley Awards.

‘The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn’ is a pocket sized A5 book of six short essays which explore how our sensory responses (sight, taste, smell, touch and sound) influence our interactions with and attitudes towards nature. His aim when writing this book was, in his own words, “to attempt to marry up the Romantics view of the world with the meticulousness of the scientist.”

Like any great nature writing book, not only does it reawaken the reader’s own innate passion for nature - it also leads them on new explorations and discoveries of the natural world. To whet your appetite here are just a few fascinating facts from the book:

The nineteenth century poet, John Clare, objected to the oppression of living things in the name of science. He was always excited to find new species of plant or insect but had no desire to kill the butterfly by sticking it on a cork board with a pin. Instead he would patiently watch it settle and then get nearer to it to see the powdered colour of its wings.

He also had a very visual take on the natural world and insisted that other organisms had perspectives too. On his walks, he would ‘drop down’ peering closely at the earth and scribble notes on old scraps of paper or seed packets.  In his poem ‘To the Snipe’ he pictures the snipe from its own point of view – and in doing so captures the boggy habitat of its home.

The American poet, Gary Snyder, in his essay ‘Unnatural Writing’ argues that ‘conventional natural history and science writing are “naively realistic” they unquestionably view nature from the perspective of the front-mounted bifocal human eye.’

Interestingly, in a kind of mirror image of John Clare’s swamp, it was only in the 1980s that a group of French biologists discovered (by looking at it from a different perspective: from above) that the top storey of the rainforest, thought to be seen previously as just a canopy for more important environmental business below, probably contains more than half of all earth’s plant and animal species!

Finally, did you know that the shower of rain on dry earth has a name? Its called ‘petrichor’ and it’s the perfumed essences from such things as flower petals, pollens and resins that are washed into the earth and then absorbed by porous stones and clay. When warm rain falls again this is released back into the air and rekindles our memories of these ingredients.

Natural smells are also all part of a complex messaging system between plant and plant and animal and plant. For example Mopane trees in Africa (a favourite food of elephants) send out a warning message to other trees that they are being browsed. However, elephants are wise to this trick and eat only a few leaves from each tree then move up wind to new trees. Colin Tudge wrote ‘we can’t hear the trees calling to each other, but the air is abuzz with their conversations none the less, conducted in vaporous chemistry.’

In his conclusion to this enthralling book, Richard Mabey, writes “how powerful our unassisted senses are when guided by our imagination and that science and technology can open up new perspectives, but that is our own gift to use these to change our ordinary point of view”.

So next time you go down to your local wood or park for a walk, or pop out into the garden to do some autumn pruning, remember to ‘tune in’ to all of your senses and see what a difference it makes – I know I will!



Sunday, 1 September 2013

Finca Son Jorbo, Mallorca – (A birders’ delight)

This summer we returned to the beautiful island of Mallorca for our annual holiday. We stayed at a traditional 17th century farmhouse in a rural location on the central plains. The converted farmhouse, which is run as an excellent bed & breakfast by the British owners, has lovely views over the local countryside and their 300 olive trees which are harvested annually by the two of them.

On the very first morning of our stay we woke up to the haunting sound of Red Kites singing in the surrounding countryside. During the long hot days and warm evenings that followed we continued to hear them but never managed to catch sight of any.

Eventually, we worked out that they were nesting in a small wood located just outside the grounds of the farmhouse. Each evening we took a stroll towards the wood hoping to see them - but the only ‘wildlife’ we encountered were the local rabbits scurrying about amongst the olive trees and dashing for cover when they saw us.

By the last day of the holiday we’d completely given up hope of seeing any – and then of course it happened!  At the time we were lounging around by the swimming pool when I glanced up at the clear blue sky - and there they were – two of them circling over our heads with their forked tails tilting as they steered themselves gracefully through the air.

Sitting on the terrace in the evenings we were often joined by a pair of Spotted Flycatchers perched sharp eyed and alert on the branch of a nearby tree. They are not the most exciting birds to look at with their grey-brown plumage, spotted crown and cream spots on their backs - but what they lack in the looks department they make up for in their aerial hunting displays.  With a burst of their rapid wing beats they would fly off their perch – gracefully twisting and turning in mid air to catch the plentiful supply of insects. This would continue until dusk when they would fly off across the olive fields and disappear into the night sky.

But by far the biggest surprise of the holiday was seeing the exotic and beautiful Hoopoe. I’ve never seen a Hoopoe before, but remember watching an episode of the BBC’s Springwatch this year where they showed one that had landed in the UK by mistake during migration.

At first I couldn’t identify them – all I could see were birds the size of a Mistle Thrush with a pinkish-brown body hopping around the olive trees. However, over the next few days as I caught sight of some under the dabbled shade of the trees I noticed the flamboyant fan-shaped crest on the top of their head’s and ‘bingo’, realised they were Hoopoes.  

These gorgeous looking birds are found in open cultivated and uncultivated areas in eastern and southern Europe. They feed on the ground: probing and picking with their slim, slightly curved bill for insects and grubs. They often nest in trees or walls and have one brood each year in April-July, laying 5-8 eggs.

Oh, and apparently they only raise their fan-shaped crest when they are agitated or excited - so maybe, at the time, they were busy raising their young and sensed someone snooping around in the undergrowth!