Category Archives: Wildlife and Nature

1937: The Clouds of War (3)

Imagine that it is the height of a glorious summer, in southern Derbyshire in 1937. My Dad, Fred Knifton is only 14. One day, with his friends, Jonty Brearley, Bernard Swift and John Varty, he sets off to cycle through the Anglo-Saxon village of Hartshorne, to explore the old Stone Age trackway of Green Lane. By the time they get there, it is the late afternoon of a glorious summer’s day.

Last time, we saw the arrival of PC Bstard on his bike who forbids the four Boy Scouts to camp on common land at the side of a public footpath several miles from the nearest house. Sadly the boys did not rise up and drive off this sad servant of the bourgeoisie but instead promised that they would leave before nightfall.

Their brightly burning campfire gleamed in the dusk:fire

The boys, still filled with their spirit of youthful adventure, sat happily around the dancing flames. They roasted the sausages they had brought wrapped in grease proof paper in their saddle bags:

imagesR7PN9JPS

They toasted bread which was nothing like the bread we are told to enjoy nowadays. They made cups of scalding hot tea. And then, as night grew so dark that they could hardly see either each other or the bats which flickered through the invisible branches of the barely visible trees, they packed up all their things into the panniers on their bicycles.  Slowly but purposefully they cycled back under the stars through the warm summer darkness to the continuing years of their lives.

Fred was to say many times afterwards, that all four of those happy boys went off to the Second World War, but only two were destined to survive that awful conflict. Bernard Swift and himself.

John Varty was killed in 1943 in Tunisia, fighting ferociously against Germans who claimed every single sand dune as their own.  Corporal Varty is buried somewhere out there. Somewhere on the road to Teboursouk. Somewhere where his mother and father never had the money to go. Somewhere where nobody with any sense would dare nowadays to go. A country where only the dead are beyond killing:

Jonty Brealey was killed on June 27th 1944, in some long forgotten episode in the aftermath of D-Day. He was buried, along with more than 4,000 others, in Bayeux Cemetery in Normandy. He died to liberate France but for the first 25 years of his life, I can’t imagine that he had ever seen a Frenchman. Or a German come to that.

When I was a little boy in the 1950s, my Granny and Grandad lived two houses up the road from the Brealeys.  Jonty’s father, whose first name was Alf, was by now an old man. He spent all of the day leaning over his front gate, saying hello to passers by and keeping his eyes open for people coming down the hill from the main bus stop on High Street. I thought as a child that he was looking for anybody who might come past, but I now realise as a man, that he was waiting patiently for just one special person who, alas, would never come.

 

 

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1937: The Clouds of War (2)

Last time, it was the height of summer, in southern Derbyshire in 1937. My Dad, Fred Knifton was only 14. One day, with his friends, Jonty Brearley, Bernard Swift and John Varty, he set off to cycle through the Anglo-Saxon village of Hartshorne, to explore the old Stone Age trackway of Green Lane. By the time they got there, it was the late afternoon on a glorious summer’s day.

Even in the 1970s, this was an isolated country area, far, far away from the hustle and bustle of so-called civilisation. In the late 1930s, it must have been even quieter. Nothing except for the gentle humming of the bees, the whirr of the swallows’ wings, the buzzing of the grasshoppers and colourful butterflies fluttering by. A very peaceful, idyllic and rural place indeed. The boys duly set up their canvas tent, taking care to position all of the many guy ropes carefully. They followed their Boy Scout training and carefully cut a piece of turf from the grass at the side of the track, before they started their camp fire.

The_Hadrian's_Wall_Path_follows_a_'green_lane

It was a warm, calm, summer’s evening. Bats scythed through the still warm air. Large white and grey moths fluttered where butterflies had fluttered during the day. There was one bright star. Or was it a planet? Then a second star. And then a third. The night grew darker. The stars formed into patterns. The Plough. The Milky Way. Sparks flew up from the fire and disappeared into the darkness:

fire

I once saw a poster which said:

“Everything is going so well. Everything is perfect. But don’t worry. Some bstard will come along and spoil it.”

On this occasion the idyll was interrupted by the arrival of the local police constable on his bicycle. In later years, Fred was to wonder just why he was up there a thousand miles from the nearest police station and three light years from the nearest house. Had they stumbled upon his still? Did he have a secret girlfriend? Or a secret boyfriend? Did he like following teenage boys out to isolated areas?

Anyway, he sportingly told the four boys that despite their status as Boy Scouts and Ovaltineys they would not, under any circumstances whatsoever, be allowed to camp there overnight, as there were many, many important laws and many, many important byelaws which completely forbade such evildoing.

He sportingly told the four boys too, that they could finish their meal, just this once, before they left and went home and did not ever come back there ever again, even as old men. If they did, they would finish up in the galleys.

Will they refuse to obey him? Will they rise up and slay this bourgeois lickspittle?

We’ll see next time.

 

 

 

 

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1937: The Clouds of War (1)

What must have been among the most magical moments in my father, Fred’s, long and eventful life, came one day, or rather one evening, around 1937. In a long golden English summer, he and three of his childhood friends decided to use their knowledge from the Wolf Cubs and the Boy Scouts and to go off camping. Those three other boys were Jonty Brearley, Bernard Swift and John Varty. Here’s my Dad, with his bicycle. Behind him, there is nothing but fields. Nowadays, there is nothing but houses:

AG with bike 1930 8

The boys all went by bicycle down Hartshorne Lane, into the village of Hartshorne itself, past the Georgian coaching inn and the haunted old Elizabethan house. Look for the camouflaged orange arrow which points at Fred’s house. The boys rode into the top right hand corner of the map, towards the church with a square tower:

journey 1

They cycled resolutely past the old Saxon church of St Peter:

Hartshorne_Church_web

Then they took the road westwards out towards Repton. The next orange arrow on the map below points to Hartshorne Church.

Repton, off to the west, was the village where, in the winter of 873-874 AD, the Danish Great Heathen Army, led by the reputedly nine feet tall Ivar the Boneless, spent a few months resting up and slaughtering the locals:

Fred and the boys ignored these ruffians, though, and they turned off to the north, the top right corner of the map, towards the villages of Ticknall and Foremarke, home of Fred’s ancestors from the days of the Stuarts:

journey 2

At the very top of the hill, though, by now high up on the horizon, they turned yet again, eastwards along the yellow-marked Coal Lane, before they turned for the last time into Green Lane, indicated by the orange arrow. They followed this grassy track for a good distance until it joined the steep orangey road towards Pistern Hills:

journey 3

Just look how many features on this map refer either to types of tree, the shape of the landscape or the name of a long forgotten landowner.

Just before the road junction, they put their bikes in the hedge and made camp.

journey 5

Green Lane, originally, formed part of an ancient trackway, dating back perhaps to Stone Age times. I don’t have a photograph, but this is what it would have looked like in that more countrified era:

green 1xxxxxxx

No insecticides then, or petrol powered machines to cut back the homes of the bee, the butterfly and the wood mouse:

green-lane-narrowing-11xxxxxxxxxxxxx

In a word, it was a countryside paradise. We’ll see who plays the part of the Serpent next time.

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The Peregrine : the Fastest Creature in Victorian Nottinghamshire (2)

Last time I was talking about Joseph Whitaker and the many times he saw Peregrines in Nottinghamshire. Here is the great man:

He isn’t the only overweight old bloke with excess facial hair to have seen Peregrines in action, though.

Very early one morning in Cornwall, I once watched a Peregrine chasing a Herring Gull. The latter was so scared that it landed and walked across to stand right next to me, like somebody queuing for the bus at a bus stop.  When the falcon flew away, the gull departed a few seconds later, in the opposite direction.

Shortly after May 1, 1920, Mr Frank Hind,  one of the leading members of the Nottingham Natural Science Field Club wrote:

“A very large bird was circling high up in the sky over Gedling. From its manner of circling, and flight and the great height, I can think of no bird but the Peregrine Falcon as likely to be the one seen.”

peregrineflying

The following account was published in the Nottingham Evening Post of April 14th, 1976:

“The pigeons in the Old Market Square in Nottingham had better watch out. For a bird of prey has been spotted on top of the nearby Council House. And it’s thought his taste for city life might be due to the prospect of a convenient meal of pigeon.
A spokesman for the Trent Valley Birdwatchers said the bird had not been positively identified but it could be a Peregrine Falcon. It was disturbed by one of the club members who was carrying out repairs to the Council House.”

pery grin1

Nowadays,  of course, this scenario is an everyday one. I wrote about the peregrines on the Newton Building of Trent University in an article entitled:

Jer Falcon. one shot at Park Hall by Mr Shelton. Now in my collection

There are live webcams of city dwelling peregrines across most of the developed world including Derby.

And Norwich

And Mississauga

And Etobicoke

The camera at Phoenix in Arizona is of very good quality:

If you get bored, go to Bowling Green in Ohio.

or Kitchener in southern Ontario in Canada.

Peregrines are pretty much the same the whole world over. They breed in every continent except one.

If you get tired of travelling the world, you could always use the webcam on the Newton Building here in Nottingham.

One of my favourite webcams though, is one that shows lots of brightly coloured American birds, and another where you can try to see the Loch Ness Monster.

Good luck  with that one.

 

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A Twitch to Kent : Day Three

I am on a weekend minibus trip to Kent in an effort to see rare birds which have been blown off course on their migration. So far we have managed to see a Glossy Ibis and an Isabelline Shrike.

Sunday, October 16th, 1988.

There is still no Richard’s Pipit, so as a total last resort, we start looking around for our own birds. As a strategy, it is totally ludicrous. We find a male Brambling on some recently ploughed fields:

Brambling%20male zzzzzzzz

Then we meet one of the wardens who is wandering around looking for all the world like a refugee from Woodstock. He asks says if we’d like to see something really impressive. I personally don’t want to go into the bushes with him, but everybody else does. It turns out to be a second male Brambling that he has just caught in the nets, and to be fair, it is a very beautiful bird indeed, in far better plumage than any other Brambling that I have ever seen:

Male-brambling-on-a-tree-trunk xxxxxx
We spend half an hour in some other bushes looking in vain for a Firecrest, the smallest bird normally encountered in the wild in England. It is a very rare bird in our own county of Nottinghamshire:

c608px-Mad-Firecrest-B

We are just beginning to lose interest when suddenly someone runs up and shouts that there is an Olive-backed Pipit at the Observatory. It has been caught in their nets within the last half hour and has been taken inside the building to be weighed, measured, and then ticked off. The wardens  have promised to keep the bird in a nice comfortable bag until everyone has got there to see it released.
Nevertheless, I just have to run. I might be fat, but when I have to move I can. It’s a little bit
like a hippopotamus on its way to the water hole, not elegant but very effective, at least up to a range of 100 yards or so. I just manage to avoid a heart attack, by jogging the last bit fairly sedately:

0361-South-Luangwa-Mfuwe

There is a good crowd of people there already. I go into the office to watch the bird being weighed and measured. All I manage to see through the crowd of people, though, is the back of the bird’s head, emerging incongruously between two of the fingers of the warden holding it. Does that qualify for a tick?
It’s a bit like saying you’ve seen Bruce Willis just by seeing the top of his bald head in the middle of a crowd of security men.

I do know somebody who actually ticked Golden Oriole based only on the top of the bird’s head visible over the edge of the domed nest, emerging only as the wind rocked the whole precarious structure:

nest Golden_Oriole_(Oriolvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

Surely this, though, is unique in its desperation.  Let’s hope so. A real Golden Oriole is a bird well worth seeing in its entirety:

male oriolre

After a token ten minutes’ delay, the warden brings the Olive-backed Pipit onto the area of grass in front of his office, removes it from the bag, and holds it up to the fully assembled multitude to look at and photograph.
Not a particularly spectacular bird, even if it is a very rare one. It’s a lot drabber than I imagined and doesn’t as far as I am concerned, have a lot of olive on the back. It’s a rich rather brown colour, with heavy streaking and spotting underneath:

OBP
Unfortunately, I forget that there is an important black spot behind the eye which is a diagnostic feature and which I should be looking for. Never mind. It can’t be that obvious anyway, or else I would have noticed it.
Certainly, in the subsequent photographs of the bird that I buy, this feature is not outstanding by any stretch of the imagination:

OBPPPPPPPPPPP

After ten minutes or so of being paraded around like a sporting trophy, the pipit is taken to a nearby field and released. It disappears into the adjacent wood like a bullet from a gun. It seems pleased to exchange its fifteen minutes of fame for the chance to get back to the serious business of looking for insects on the floor of the forest.

Nowadays, Olive-backed Pipit is not really a very rare bird in England. A couple of years or so after this, I managed to see a much more obliging bird, in the woods near the beach at Holkham in north Norfolk. This individual had never seen human beings before, and, if you stood absolutely still, was happy to approach you very closely. Indeed, as I leaned against a handy tree, it actually came so near to my feet that my binoculars would not focus on it.

 

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A Twitch to Kent : Day Two

In a previous article, I told the story of going down to Kent in a minibus in an effort to see rare birds, or, at the very least, some different species to those in Nottinghamshire. On the Friday, we saw a Glossy Ibis:

gloucsglossyibis

Saturday, October 15th, 1988.

“Next day sees us up at the crack of dawn, to look for the Mediterranean Gulls that are supposed to frequent nearby Copt Point. This is reputed to be a very good place for them, with up to 40 or 50 of them at the right time of year. It should be easy. Black-headed Gull bad:

BHG Mediterranean Gull good:

Med%20Gull%20Sa

We are out on the promenade at the first light of dawn, but we don’t succeed in finding any. We dofind a Yellow-legged Herring Gull. The clue is in the name:

ylhg xxxxxxx

There is a juvenile Kittiwake too:

kitti xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Apart from these moderately interesting finds, we are totally unable to find our quarry.

This is not in actual fact totally surprising, because, as it emerges in conversation at breakfast, we were not even at the correct place.

I suppose in retrospect that the bay were looking at was not a great candidate to be called Copt Point, but as strangers we knew no better, and we were given no directions. We should have been about half a mile further north of where we were, so we all go there first thing after breakfast. I am a little embarrassed . I have never failed to find a major landmark before.
We spend half an hour here, and soon find the Mediterranean Gulls. There are about six of them, mostly in winter plumage, sitting out on the rocks near the sewage outlet, about 50 yards from the beach. There are hundreds, if not thousands of Black-headed Gulls, but the Mediterranean Gulls stand out quite well, with their more thickset appearance, and their all white wing tips. Black-headed Gull bad. Mediterranean Gull good:

difficult to pick out

They are still relatively boring though. This will not be the main bird for the day, thank goodness, because we have had a tremendously lucky break. After trying to convince everyone yesterday that it might be a good idea to drive to Dorset to see the Isabelline Shrike, we find out that a second bird has been found at Sandwich Bay, just a few miles up the road from where we are, and adjoining the famous golf course.
We scurry over there in the minibus, everybody greedily totting up another potential tick on their life list.
Everybody is so excited . Isabelline Shrike will be a tick for everybody. There is a Richard’s Pipit there too, which will be another tick for me and a good few others:

rich pipt

There is a Yellow-browed Warbler, which will be a third tick for quite a few people. Everything looks good:

tYBW

As we arrive, we see a crowd looking very intently indeed at a closely cropped meadow, just the place for a Richard’s Pipit.
We rush past them all, after checking with someone that the pipit is still there.
This is a major mistake, but we are all overwhelmed by the desire to go off and see the Isabelline Shrike, which is a much rarer bird. It is quite a walk, just the distance to get the adrenaline flowing.
When we arrive, there’s quite a crowd, all standing on the opposite side of the railway track, looking back into the overgrown hedge which runs alongside the rails. Suddenly a train arrives and the great whooshing noise as it goes past persuades the shrike to move out of the foliage and to perch out in the open:

isabellineshrike cdrfvgxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

It is a rather bland bird, completely buffy brown, with the beginnings of a hooked beak, and the most obvious feature of all, a fairly bright red tail. It is clearly nothing like a Red-backed shrike, and I can understand why the two new species have been split from the one old one.
Now we go back for the Richard’s Pipit, only to find that the people there were all looking at what was in fact a Common Redstart, not a particularly rare species at a migration spot like this:Common_redstart_female

Nevertheless, we give it an hour or so for the pipit, looking around the neighbouring fields where the warden says that the bird has been seen over the past few days. No luck, I’m afraid. Now the day just degenerates into rumour and counter rumour. We hear that Trumpeter Finch has been seen and heard flying over, but we dismiss that out of hand:

trumpeter

Little do we know that we are just a couple of hours from the discovery of what, at the time, was a very rare bird indeed.

Nowadays, almost thirty years later, Isabelline Shrike has been split into three different species. One is called Turkestan Shrike, the second is Daurian Shrike and the third is Chinese Shrike. The bird we saw at Sandwich was one of the most frequently encountered  types in England at the time, and I think nowadays, it would have been listed as a Daurian Shrike. I used to get very hot under the collar about things like that when I was younger. But now,  I realise that it’s just somebody who wants a couple more ticks than they would have got in 1988.

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Reintroducing wolves to England? Not a problem (6)

When people suggest that it would be impossible to introduce a wolf pack to the English countryside, they should be aware of the following story. The usual belief is that:

“The Gray Wolf canis lupus has been extinct in England since 1486, in Scotland since 1743 and in Ireland since about 1770.”

Something strange happened though, in Epping Forest in the late nineteenth century.  Mention of it comes from Beatrix Potter in her Journal from 1881 to 1897:

“Several years ago a gentleman let loose three prairie wolves in Epping Forest. These animals have increased in numbers, and are perfectly wild and shy”.

potter

Talking about what a potential problem the breeding of the American Mink in England might be, in New Scientist for January 18th 1962, Harry V Thompson, Ministry of Agriculture Field Research Station, Worplesdon wrote:

.
“Tales of escaped coyotes canis latrans or prairie wolves in Epping Forest in the late nineteenth century may come to mind …”

In Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology, George M. Eberhart stated:

“A few Coyote cubs canis latrans are said to have been introduced around 1881 in Epping Forest, Essex, England.”

crypto

A slightly longer version occurs in some documents from Regent’s Park Zoo dating from July 19th, 1884. Here, the animals are said to have been coyotes:

” Some short time since a gentleman called upon me at the gardens and offered to present to the Society an animal that he believed to be a prairie wolf. He mentioned some particulars concerning its history that caused me not at once to accept his offer, fearing that the animal might prove to be a useless mongrel. At the same time I asked his address, and promised to call and see the animal.

Accordingly, I went to Leytonstone and on my arrival I inquired for Mr. R. Payze, and found the gentleman who had so kindly offered the animal in question. He was very pleased to meet me, and introduced me to what I at once pronounced to be a veritable prairie wolf (Canis latrans). The history of this animal I give as near as possible in Mr. Payze’s words. In the month of May last year some men who were on their way to London with cartloads of hay told him, on their coming through some part of Epping Forest (” near Ongar,” is the locality given in some narratives), they had found or caught three fox cubs, and they had them in a sack tied to the tail of the cart:

Foret-cinglais1xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Believing them to be fox cubs, he bought one of them for a few shillings, and the men went on their way towards London. The animal was at that time so small that it could be put into a pint pot, and I have every reason to believe the following narrative will fully explain what otherwise would appear a mystery. Mr. Payze introduced me to Mr. Swan (who was formerly a servant to Colonel Howard), and he told me that some few years ago four cubs were brought to England in a ship belonging to Mr. J. R. Fletcher, of the Union Docks, and were turned loose (supposed to be fox cubs) in Ongar Wood, which adjoins Epping Forest. These cubs were brought home in a box and kept for a few days at Colonel Howard’s, Goldings, Loughton. They were then taken to Mr. Arkwright’s, formerly master of the Essex Hunt, and were turned out at Marl’s Farm, and the man Swan was present when they were turned out. I have also been informed that from time to time an animal, supposed to be a large gray fox, has been hunted, but never caught, always escaping into the forest.

single wolf

I think it highly probable that some of the same kind as the animal now in the gardens still exist in the forest, as this species of wolf is not much larger than a large male fox, and not having any scent like the fox, would not be likely to get killed by foxhounds or followed any great distance by them.”

The editor of  Land and Water magazine supplemented this account as follows :

” Subsequently, in company with Mr. Bartlett, we visited Epping Forest ; and from the inquiries made we have little doubt as to the fact of the animal in question having been born in the forest. Swan and other persons who have been acquainted with the forest for many years told us they well recollect the circumstance of the ‘strange animals from foreign parts’ being turned down, and we expect shortly to have further confirmatory evidence from others who were present on the occasion. When first born, the prairie wolf might readily be mistaken for a cub fox. Mr. Payze, who is a lover of animals, and has from time to time kept many tame foxes, was under the impression until quite
recently that ‘ Charlie,’ as the animal is called, was a fox.

foxes

As it developed, however, he noticed several points quite distinct from the common fox, and as, moreover, the animal (although quite quiet with his children) showed unmistakable snappish tendencies towards strangers, he decided to consult Mr. Bartlett, with the result that the superintendent declared that the creature was a Prairie Wolf canis latrans.
(This determination was not correct, see post.—Editor.”

Whatever the animals were, they seem to have persisted until the beginning of the 20th century. The previous article from the Regent’s Park Zoo was criticised for its naivety, Henry Foster sarcastically stating that “his dog was recently killed and proclaimed to be a wolf”.

wolves 2

On October 23rd 1884, however, Henry Ffennell, however, contradicted Mr Foster. Ffennell  had some connection with Regent’s Park and stated that

“the animal was definitely a wolf, bred and captured in the forest. It could be viewed at the gardens.”

A print of the “English Wolf” is widely available to buy on the Internet. It has this caption alongside it:

“Concerning the animal depicted in our engraving which has aroused much interest among naturalists and others, Mr AD Bartlett, the Superintendent of the Zoological Society’s Gardens , Regent’s Park, writes thus:-

.
“The prairie wolf now being exhibited in these gardens was presented by Mr K Payne, of Leytonstone, who says he bought the animal about a year ago. it was one of three that had been taken in Epping Forest by some farm labourers, Mr Payne believing at the time that it was a fox cub. Its subsequent growth, however, caused him to suspect that it was not a fox. As it became troublesome on account of its destructive habits, notwithstanding that it had been reared perfectly tame, he decided to get rid of it, and accordingly presented it to this Society. Inquiry is now being initiated with a view to ascertain, if possible, the manner in which the parents had been introduced into that part of the country. It is said that, some years ago, some foreign cubs, supposed to be foxes, were turned out in  the neighbourhood of Epping Forest.”

epping wolf print

No problem, then. Find a forest. Tell people your wolves are just Grey Foxes, and take it from there.

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