Mary Tant’s Nature Blog

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The Witness — Mary Tant's latest classic-crime novel in the Rossington series — was published at the end of March. Here, she writes about her love of wildlife and wild places.

June 2014

Sunday 1 June 2014

Tall feathery grasses waved on the hill fort rampart, casting a filmy veil over the flowers that grew beneath. Pyramidal orchids, palely pink and sturdy like bucolic Saxon maidens, towered over the small but vivid Madonna blue spikes of chalk milkwort. Also small but vivid, like mischievous Celtic girls, some of the earlier inhabitants of this ridge, was the bright magenta of Early Purple orchids.

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Monday 2 June 2014

Two white heads just showed through the long grass. The lambs lay quietly in the shade of a hawthorn, its fading flowers faintly tinting the tree with pink. Beyond them the slope of the downs fell away without any more cover, shimmering green in the heat, and a cuckoo called, twice, the notes ringing out through the still air.

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Tuesday 3 June 2014

A spattering of raindrops pocked the surface of the canal, and a light breeze shivered the length of its surface. Just ahead of me a rippling arrowhead spread from one bank to another, created by the small furry creature swimming at its apex.

A little further on another water rat created the same effect. But instead of disappearing under the overhanging plants of the opposite bank this one scrambled up into a willow, one of whose branches had partially cracked away from the main trunk to dip into the water.

Time after time the water rat scampered up one of the branches to peel off a leaf. Each time she took her prize to a perch low down on the branch, just above the level of the water to chew it there. Until the last time, when she clenched it between her teeth and swam with it into the cover of the bank.

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Wednesday 4 June 2014

The small brown hummocks just bulge out of the long grass on the roadside. At first glance they seem to be isolated molehills. It’s only the sun that betrays them, shining through their translucent ears. These stick up like strange plants through the stems, as the baby rabbits, grazing perilously close to the road.

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Thursday 5 June 2014

Hardly a creature stirs in the silence, which is only broken by the soft patter of light rain on the canal. As this clears a dipping flight of long tailed tits weaves in a straggling line between the branches of the willows on the far bank.

A moorhen putters out of cover across the water, trailed by a tiny black chick. The mother returns to it, berthing closely alongside it like a cargo boat against a small tug. Both remain close as the mother steers them back to the cover of the bank.

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Friday 6 June 2014

The verges have suddenly lost their attractive billows of Queen Anne’s Lace as I drive west. Now the growth has become straggly, less visually appealing, although the developing seeds are attracting clusters of finches.

Stonehenge stands starkly grey among the lush greenness, heralded by a field of gold, where long-stemmed buttercups grow in profusion. Sheep dot the view, like clouds against a green sky.

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Saturday 7 June 2014

The white calf sucked calmly on his mother’s udder. She, coal black, turned her head to stare from her huge liquid eyes as I slowed to watch the pair, standing plonk in the middle of the road, relatively secure as they have right of way here on Dartmoor.

And the foals have begun to arrive too. Two mares grazed right on the verge, with a young colt just behind them, skittering away nervously as I passed by, then returning cautiously to stare at me, this strange creature the like of which he had perhaps not seen before.

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Sunday 8 June 2014

The pedestrian lane runs down between steep ridged pastures and wooded banks. It follows a stream that goes down to the river Tavy and thence once led on into Plymouth, the route taken by the monks of the nearby abbey. The walls around their old enclave are thick with the creamy spires of navelwort, growing taller here than I’ve ever seen them. They stretch towards the sky like the foxgloves that grow in thick clumps, their purple colouring striking amongst the green trees in the woodland. The valerian links the two flowers, growing on the walls like the navelwort, purple like the foxgloves. But it sprawls in more luxurious abandon, spreading outwards and upwards.

And in the distance a solitary cuckoo calls, once, twice, and then falls silent.

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Monday 9 June 2014

A swallow swooped into the gloom of the stable through the open half door, then almost immediately back out again with a blur of dark blue wings. Two pairs are building here, and another two pairs in the hayloft above.

The high granite wall that encloses the nearby vegetable garden attracts them during the day. Not just to feed on insects as I first thought, but to wriggle for a few seconds in the dust at the foot of the wall before lifting high into the air again.

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Tuesday 10 June 2014

The black birds are barely visible in the shadows. A pair of them perch briefly at the foot of the narrow slit window in the huge old barn at the abbey, before they slip through it one by one.

In the cool dim interior the roof soars high above, the space to receive the abbey’s tithes is enormous, and in the gloom at the foot of a window embrasure is one of the nests the jackdaws build here. This one has already hosted a couple of broods of babies. The latest are now large fledglings, parked outside under shrubs in the garden.

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Wednesday 11 June 2014

The air in this Devon valley is filled with swallows this evening, swirling below a layer of crinkled cotton-wool clouds that almost masks the Madonna blue of the sky. As I sit out in the cottage garden watching them above the sloping slate roofs of the abbey’s barns and outbuildings they are the only birds in the sky.

But a blackbird sits on top of a telegraph pole just above the garden wall, sending the throbbing notes of his song far over the meadow where chickens peck among the beehives. Only occasionally does he break off his song to chase away an intruder, so the evening is rich with his music.

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Thursday 12 June 2014

A pair of swallows dart out of the open window in one of the ox barns in the abbey's farmyard. They have a half-built nest on the ceiling inside.

When I peer in to look at it a tiny bat takes flight, swooping round the room before returning to its roost. It hangs upside down from the ceiling, half the size of my palm, its wing hooks firmly attached to the plaster, as it chitters crossly at me.

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Friday 13 June 2014

A pair of young blackbirds squatted on top of the mossy granite wall near the abbey, their adult plumage developing over their baby fluff, their tail feathers just emerging. Parked there by their parents, they observed us as we passed, curious but not at all alarmed.

Robin youngsters seem to be all over the place, in the garden, beside the paths, along the woodland walks. The familiar robin shape is immediately identifiable, but the breast is speckled, coffee on cream. Two visit the cottage garden, but neither tolerates the other, one chasing the second away. If these are siblings they’ve quickly learned to protect their own space.

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Saturday 14 June 2014

Foals lay on their sides on close-cropped moorland grass, baking in the warmth as their mothers grazed nearby. Black-faced sheep colonised shady patches of the road, a line of them lying in the gloom under a long hawthorn hedge, unwittingly living dangerously. A pair of black and white belted Galloway cows guarded a bridge on the road to the high moor, scratching their backsides slowly against the granite blocks.

Crossing Dartmoor in the burning sunshine was like entering a nursery rhyme induced by the heat. Foals asleep on the grass, cows on the bridge, sheep in the shade…

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Sunday 15 June 2014

Wide swathes of white ox-eye daisies shiver on the roadside banks as I drive away from Devon. Rather like the rippling tresses of a nature goddess, perhaps the mate of the Green Man, which surround her pink and cream complexion – provided by a profusion of valerian and meadowsweet.

Further on, the daisies still linger on the roadside, like stray curls, but the flowers have given way to long feathery grasses and a more monochrome greenery.

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Monday 16 June 2014

Ewes have taken their lambs into the shade of a hawthorn bush on the steeply ridged downland slope. Below them, on the verge of the lane, feathery grasses throw a light veil over a small spread of Early Purple orchids and thick mats of marjoram.

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Tuesday 17 June 2014

Something living squirmed in the compost as I pulled dead plants out of an old hanging basket. As I paused in my work to look more closely I saw movement all through the basket. I had disturbed bees, large amber-bottomed bumblebees who were dazedly opening their gauzy wings and shifting slowly in their foetal positions.

Hastily I covered them back up and left the basket alone. But as I worked later on various pots, refilling them from a bag of compost, there were more slight stirrings and I found I was disturbing buff-bottomed bees inside the bag. So that was the end of my replanting session. I moved to dead-heading roses instead, sure of not uncovering bees there.

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Wednesday 18 June 2014

Bertie, my back garden male blackbird, has suddenly remembered me and my uses. I have been away more than normal this year, and when I have been back he hasn’t spared me a glance. Today he appeared by the back door, accepting his mealworms with his usual speed. Shortly afterwards he was back, waiting for more.

When he flew up to the shed roof with some a large baby emerged from the berberis and rushed towards him. He stood with beak gaping open, larger than his father, as Bertie stuffed the mealworms into him.

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Thursday 19 June 2014

A slight movement in the bushes caught my eye. Then the little bird fluttered across the open ride on the common, landing clumsily in a stand of foxgloves. It rested there motionless for a few seconds as I looked at it more closely, then moved quickly back into the hawthorn behind the foxgloves. It was a young wren, recently emerged from its nest, finding its way about the new world it found itself in. And I suspected the sudden bursts of movement in the bushes and long grasses were signs of its siblings and their progress.

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Friday 20 June 2014

A moorhen scuttled up the side of the grassy slope above the pond, keeping close to the tree line. She was jet black, so much darker than the shade she walked in, her colour only flashing into prominence when she came out into the bright sunlight. Two fluffy chicks scurried along behind her, almost as deep in colour as their mother, but less glossy.

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Saturday 21 June 2014

The weeping willow hung heavily over the lake, its drooping branches limply skimming the water. The surface was dull with fallen pollen, but still the dark shapes just beneath it were visible in the sunlight. Huge carp, they stayed quite still as they basked in the heat, keeping a safe distance from each other, as if they had been strategically placed pieces on a gaming board.

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Sunday 22 June 2014

It was a tableau of white against green. Common bedstraw spread across the lower grass, climbing the stems of pale flowering dog roses. Ox-eye daisies starred the longer grass, panicles of cow parsley towered over everything else. In this hot sultry weather, without even a breath of wind, the only movement along the entire stretch of roadside bank came from the fluttering flight of marbled white butterflies.

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Monday 23 June 2014

Wheat fields stretch out below the downs, green against the darker shapes of the hedgerows. In the far distance, below the hazy hills on the horizon, a brilliant patch of scarlet glows. It’s shape changes daily as the poppies flower and die.

It’s as if a giant Persian carpet hangs from a hedgerow loom, with an unseen weaver working the pattern, unpicking, redoing, creating a dazzling design.

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Tuesday 24 June 2014

The tadpoles in my garden pond have stayed for a long time in this stage, fat, black and round with long wriggling tails. Given the loss of pots and plants from the depths due to my puppy’s liking for fishing, I’ve started to scatter mealworms on the pond to increase the tadpoles’ food options.

After a slow start, after a few days there’s now a swirling commotion in the water as soon as the mealworms touch the surface. The dried mealworms begin to move as if restored to life when the tadpoles begin to nibble at them and by evening there is not a trace of them. So I’m watching the tadpoles closely, hoping to see little legs emerging beside the tails so that I will soon have some tiny frogs.

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Wednesday 25 June 2014

The leaves of the willow curved above the branch, creating a proscenium arch for the little scene as I glanced through the garden room window. A little pale sparrow fledgling sat there, gently fluttering his wings. One parent arrived to face him, so the little beak opened automatically, waiting for the proffered food to be pushed in.

It all took less than a minute, then the birds had flown and the scene was done.

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Thursday 26 June 2014

It was still quite light, even though it was nearly midnight. At first, from a distance, I thought it was a fox whose darker shape I saw against the bushes as I drove under over-arching trees. These created a high tunnel, hiding the fields and woods beyond, eerily lit by the car’s headlights.

The creature was undisturbed as the car approached and I dipped the lights, slowing and finally stopping. I saw it was a very young fallow deer fawn, its furry back very dark.

She was quite unconcerned by the car and continued to browse as I watched. Her slender mother wore a much lighter coat as she nibbled leaves on the other side of the lane. At last the mother skipped across to her youngster and both of them disappeared from sight into the trees.

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Friday 27 June 2014

A group of little sparrows sat on the circular rim of my birdbath from Dartmoor. They watched as one stepped forward to literally test the water, slowly progressing to fluttering his wings and splashing droplets around. At last, convinced it was safe, his siblings joined him until the water sprayed up all around them.

I’m not seeing great clusters of sparrows in either my front or back garden at the moment. Both areas have small family groups, separate ones as far as I can tell.

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Saturday 28 June 2014

Three meadow brown butterflies spiralled purposefully upwards in a shaft of sunlight that pierced the beech canopy. Their wings flashed into colour and out of it again, catching the light, as each participant wove through a brief dance.

Finally one flittered away and the other two rose higher and closer before they too passed out of my sight.

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Sunday 29 June 2014July14%20004

The bright sunshine bleached the colour from the gravel towpath and the short grass beside it. The small fields of long grass looked bleached, the brightness of their wild flowers passed into the browns and creams of seed heads.

But there was still vivid colour under the glare of the sun, between the heavy green overhanging leaves of the trees. The scalloped orange wings of a comma butterfly were bright as it spread them on the path. The patches of purple loosestrife gleamed defiantly against their subdued backdrop as they stretched their tall stems higher and higher.

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Monday 30 June 2014

A wide lagoon spread out at the start of the river backwater beside the canal, concealed by trees and bushes except from one vantage point.


Here there was a glimpse of its still green waters lying motionless in the sunshine.July14%20003



The far end of it was covered with a layer of lily pads, studded with small globes of opening yellow flowers.


They concealed the water that lay beyond, connecting both banks of the river, almost making it seem as if there was solid land beyond the lagoon.


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