Monday, 26 January 2015

The canal water is crisp sky, floating factory logos and double-headed ducks swimming. Briers are tangled tight around the security fence, frozen stiff and pale, becoming perches for Robins and foraging lines for Blackbirds. The towpath puddles cracked underfoot. A low branch mugged me for my hat. The sky clouds over, early morning light dulls and Moorhens bail out of the hawthorn bushes I walk past, crash landing in the canal. The mirror is broken; the water turns green and grey. The towpath bends towards the four lanes of traffic and the train track. Through the trees, the lit-up high street logos of a suburban retail park.
I am not in a park. But I have fields and trees and the crunch of ice in the grass and mud. In the foreground four old oaks survive in the fields, gnarled and proud amongst scrub laced with footpaths. The paths are heavily-used. Lager cans strewn like fallen fruit that won’t rot. Dogs walk their owner. I find a pair of Little Owls perched with their backs to me, dappled pale on grey plumage merging into grey twigs and white sky. Frowning anyway, the white M shape on the back of their necks creating a 'false face’ in a state of ever-fierceness. Then a yellow eye gets glanced in my direction, with disdain. Electrifying the gloom.

I want to melt away at that precise moment. It is an urge that comes over me, when looking for owls; when every cracking twig, or kicked pebble seems amplified, exaggerated to comic levels of clumsiness. I want to disappear in bushes and watch the owl unobserved. Instead it converts its disdainful glare into flight at one sudden, inelegant and human movement.

Back by the canal it started to snow. Droplets, then a flurry, then a blizzard. A Cormorant, frosty-headed with hormones, dives for fish.

This is the unofficial countryside. Where pylons poke out from woods, where the undeveloped and unmanaged corners are closer to the spirit of nature than many too too tidied nature reserves. It may be unofficial, but it’s not counterfeit. Encounters with wildlife seem more genuine, less predictable, wilder even, in these neglected corners. The Little Owls in this suburb of London symbolise it wonderfully. A 19th century introduction by Thomas Powys, the fourth Baron of Lilford and an eminent Victorian ornithologist, they spread throughout Britain filling its hitherto vacant ecological niche. They can be found throughout the countryside, where ever there is a landscape of open fields and undisturbed farm buildings or an oak tree’s maze of branches.
Can be found. I haven’t seen one well in the countryside for a couple of years now. Not because of a dramatic decline, but because they’re so discreet they mostly go unseen. I should’ve been looking closer to home. What the Little Owl is then is the unofficial owl, the discreet exotic; the perfect inhabitant of the countryside that exists where it shouldn’t. And why old trees, such as the four oaks between the canal and the retail park need protecting as rigourously as any oak in any pristine part of the official countryside.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Hoar frost forms as a sub-zero dew, on bitter still nights under the stars. It is the architecture of temperature and moisture: a crystalline fragment of frozen water like glassy barbed wire. On fenland afternoons when the blue sky lies about the temperature, the hoar clings on to the links between the boardwalk slats, out of the sun and beyond the reach of errant footsteps. Breath still condenses around our faces. The track away from the boardwalk is thinly iced and deeply puddled. We turn back with the ice cracking around our feet above puddles deeper than our boots. Between the reeds and the lode runs a thicket of hawthorn and tangled guelder rose bushes. A mob of Fieldfares descends from the clear sky on to them, as unruly and noisy as drunks at closing time, squabbling over the best of the pale red berries.
The fens. A landscape made by man. The extent of green and brown and water may deceive but the spirit level horizon and ruler straight lodes remind you that this was once below sea level. It is a landscape you can put a precise date upon. Wicken Fen is also precisely datable: from 1899 when the first patch of land was bought and set aside as one of the first nature reserves in Britain. Fenland is a young habitat too, requiring constant management to ensure it doesn't dry out or succeed into scrub or woodland. The sea of reeds in front is a landscape that is kept permanently young, younger than its 115 years. 

The sea of reeds gently sways in the slightest of breezes. Spider silk shines against the light, joining reed head to reed head. I shiver. I've been coming here since a child and I have no warm memories of the place. I have memories of seeing my first Barn Owl on a family walk down the lode, wellies ankle deep in snow. It was spotted first by my mum, flying towards us. She thought it perhaps was a swan at first. I've been here in summer and still felt a distinct chill sweeping over the landscape. I can hardly picture it in anything other than winter; half-frozen in still tranquility, full of the empty space and silence I crave.

The sun turned golden and lit up the reeds.

The tranquility lasts just a moment until the next step flushes a Blackbird with clanging alarm notes. The sun disappeared. A Hen Harrier drifted down a ditch. A young male. Young: the brown-streaked underparts were suffused with a golden freshness; male because the wings were glazed with a greyish-blue tinge. It is a bird that carries its own sense of drama. There are no underwhelming Hen Harriers, being physically imposing and the rarest raptor to breed in England. Winter in the fens offers them relief: easy pickings along the fields and lodes, safe roosting in the middle of undisturbed marshes. In summer they head to upland moors where — with the habitat for 300 pairs — four nested this year. Tagged chicks vanish. Adults get their legs crushed in illegal traps. Meanwhile an adult male joined the young male out over the marsh. The adult's blue-grey plumage appeared as ghostly as its effortless movements in the cold light.

A blood-orange sun sinks out of the cloud, flares briefly and drops below the horizon. A clean air sunset. A Barn Owl quarters slowly into the gathering night