Mary Tant’s Nature Blog

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The Theme is Death — Mary Tant's new classic-crime novel in the Rossington series — was published in the Spring. Here, she writes about her love of wildlife and wild places.

September 2015

Tuesday 1 September 2015

A common reed spikePurple-red feathery common reed spikes have appeared along the canal bank, bright as bunting among the sunlit iris leaf spears.

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Wednesday 2 September 2015

A prolific sloe cropOut in the open beside the canal there are sloe bushes whose leaves have already dropped from the branches. This has left exposed the prolific crop of bloomed mauve berries, dangling thick as bunches of grapes.

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Thursday 3 September 2015

The fishermen stood or perched on stools at intervals along the bank of the canal. It was a competition and they waited in patient silence beside their extended fishing rods, occasionally reeling in their lines and renewing the bait from the squirming maggots in trays they kept near them.

I passed the last of them and within a minute saw an expanding circle on the water, then another and another until the surface was patterned with them. The fish were rising here in a way that would have tantalised the fishermen we’d passed.

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Friday 4 September 2015

A wood pigeon perched on a telegraph wire running across the village street. A twig was gripped in his beak, as if he were a tightrope walker balancing a pole. Opposite, as if watching the pigeon, another bird sat at the very end of the ridge of a thatched roof. At first, seeing the silhouette dark against the sky, I thought it was a straw bird. Then it moved, twisting its head around to adjust its wing feathers, just like a member of an audience adjusting their position when the action was becoming dull.

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Saturday 5 September 2015

A flock of birds flew across the open plain towards Stonehenge. It was a loose-knit block of birds flying at irregular intervals, the ones at the edges giving the shape a definitely ragged appearance. I guessed the birds were seagulls when I could only see their outlines, a guess that was confirmed as we drove onwards and saw occasional flashes of brilliant white among them. It’s the first time I’ve seen the birds flying like this. Normally they pass over in straggling arrow formations. I wondered if the long-gone priests of Stonehenge would have seen any significant portent in this unusual appearance.

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Sunday 6 September 2015

Dartmoor has been gilded since we were last here. The gorse is in full flower as we drive up from Bovey Tracey, with only patches of purple heather peeking through in places around Haytor. Widecombe church towerGoing down the steep hill into Widecombe the lichen on the pinnacles of the church tower picks up the colour of the gorse on the slopes of the moor.

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Monday 7 September 2015

The Black Hill in SeptemberThe back of Dartmoor’s Black Hill is patterned like a patchwork, with vivid rectangles of purple heather.

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Tuesday 8 September 2015

Dartmoor brook at WidecombeThe Dartmoor brook ran full and clear over its tumbling bed of golden pebbles, while nearby Dartmoor ponies grazed contentedly, oblivious to the sound of the nearby Widecombe Fair, and to the large number of people passing by.

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Wednesday 9 September 2015

A man strode towards his lane gateway on Dartmoor, a pail in his hand, a tightly packed group of sheep trotting eagerly at his heels. Outside, on the hill down into Widecombe, large black cows, possibly British Blues, and a couple of tiny calves meandered over the road. In the evening these cows are a greater hazard, looking like great dark shadows across the route, until suddenly they move, more often than not out further into the road rather than into the verge.

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Thursday 10 September 2015

View of Castle Drogo from moor heather and gorse

On the northern fringe of Dartmoor bleached grass waves around the flowering heather and bright gorse. Together they frame a view of the lower lands, showing the shrouded shape of Castle Drogo in the distance, still undergoing restoration.

Haytor from Hameldown Grass, heather and gorse

Looking south-east, they provide a splash of vivid colour in the view of Haytor. Directly south there’s the Webburn valley. And whichever route we take, there’s grass and heather and gorse to light our way, highlighting a channel in the track, tumbling over a dry stone wall protecting a plantation of firs.

Heather and gorse at Natsworthy

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Friday 11 September 2015

We climbed steeply up the grassy Dartmoor track that ran between the heather and gorse covered slopes below Honeybag tor. Just ahead of us a newborn foal struggled up onto long spindly legs and staggered to his mother’s side. She watched us carefully as we passed, and the other nearby horses kept a wary eye on us until we had climbed beyond them, panting heavily at the rate of our going.

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Saturday 12 September 2015

White-banded black Galloway cows circle the distant foot of Haytor, looking like surreal bumblebees. And sweeping up to the outcrop is the purple and yellow of flowering heather and gorse, all ready for them to dip into.

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Sunday 13 September 2015

Dartmoor miners' leat in bloomOne of the Dartmoor miners’ leats that runs down eastward from the ridge of Hameldown was brightly encrusted with flowering heather and gorse, vivid in the landscape of bleached grass.

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Monday 14 September 2015

The calf was furry, grey and white with big curious eyes. He came a little towards us, fascinated by Bryn, my young Border collie, as we watched the herd from the farm gate. Suddenly the calf took fright, jumping stiffly back to the protection of his mother’s side. Alerted and protective, other cows began to move up from the lower part of the field and Bryn and I moved on quickly.

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Tuesday 15 September 2015

They seem such an unlikely flock to find on Dartmoor. But every time I walk down a particular lane into the village serpentine necks that would do credit to an ostrich snake upwards, and heads turn towards us, eyes watching our passage intently. Dartmoor alpacasBut these heads and necks rise from woolly bodies that could be mistaken for large long legged sheep in lovely black or russet colours as well as cream. But these are alpacas, currently females with their youngsters. The male is on the opposite side of the lane, looking down just as intently from his vantage point in a high corner of his very own enclosure. And I’m not at all sure whether he’s watching us, or whether he’s keeping an eye on his females.

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Wednesday 16 September 2015

Walking down the Dartmoor lane into the village I saw a flash of deep russet as a fox crept along the foot of a hedge and was just visible for an instant as it headed for deeper cover beyond the field.

Pausing later to look over a gate towards the church, the fields were empty of cattle who had recently been moved closer to the farmhouse. But in the scrubby stretch beyond them there was another touch of russet, this time from the solitary stag that grazed there, his antlers pale in the sunlight.

The lane itself has recently been the scene of a relay race, as first one young squirrel raced across it, then another and another, all evenly placed apart. Today one lay dead beside the hedge, having clearly misjudged its dash and paid a fatal price for its error.

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Thursday 17 September 2015

The kingfisher flashed backwards and forwards across the canal, resting for a brief second on either side in one of the willows, ash and hawthorn that lined the banks. He swiftly wove a bright pattern of turquoise over the water until he disappeared for a final time into the leaves screening a side channel. Waiting vainly for him to reappear it was an anti-climax when a wood pigeon lumbered out instead, huge and cumbersome in flight by comparison with the smaller swifter bird.

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Friday 18 September 2015

One thick column of ivy was alive with bees. I could hear their humming before I reached the ivy, and saw that they formed an ephemeral halo around the plant, buzzing in and out to land on newly opening flower heads.

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Saturday 19 September 2015

ToadstoolsIt was easy to see that there had been heavy rain recently. The pale toadstools still gleamed under the trees where they lined the path and clustered at the junction, but the gleam was muted as they were heavily spattered with flecks of leaf mould.

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Sunday 20 September 2015

Early morning mist wreathed the garden, covering the tops of the trees and turning it into a sheltered globe. As we drove westward the sun’s warmth gradually burned through the mist until the day brightened. Beside the road the European ash leaves are turning yellow, and varying shades of red tinge the elders, dogwoods and field maples.

Branching off onto a side road we passed a huge lake, its waters generally covered by a green scummy layer. But here and there ran a clear channel and two avian cousins were taking advantage of these. A bright white egret waded close to a taller grey heron as they worked their way along a bank.

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Monday 21 September 2015

As I walked through the garden with Bryn there were occasional unheralded thuds as apples fell to the ground from the laden trees. The ground beneath them was already laden with fallen fruit, part of a bumper crop.

Red Admiral on apple

And the fallen fruit is providing a feast. Crane-flies were there, wasps and a variety of flies. But most obvious were the red admirals, flitting from the apples to rest on the trunks of the trees. Every tree I saw in a row was hosting at least one butterfly.

Red Admiral on tree trunk

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Tuesday 22 September 2015

Reed mace

The lake at the entrance to the Cornish estate is edged at one corner by a thicket of reed mace, full of the long brown cigar-like heads that make the plant so distinctive.

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Wednesday 23 September 2015

The wooded Cornish ridges were hazed by early morning mist. The river valley was green, very green as the path wound down beneath the trees and between the ferns. Ferny woodland walkUnlike the bracken in the woodlands and heaths where we often walk, the ferns here grow more sparsely, their leaves spreading wide from individual bases, providing a decorative counterpoint along ridges, bridges and even the trees that grow out over the Helford.

Ferns and lichen on a tree trunk

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Thursday 24 September 2015

The high wind blew straight off the sea onto the cliffs of the Lizard Peninsula just south of Mullion Cove. Only an occasional crow braved the air, black against the blue sea below. The white blobs that flew up around us were globules of foam, whipped up high above the sea.

From time to time too there was spray, just reaching high enough to touch my face. The sudden showers of rain were heavier, stinging, but when they cleared there was nearly always a bright rainbow arc over the sea.

Rainbow at Mullion

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Friday 25 September 2015

A seal’s head bobbed out of the white wave crests at the foot of the southern cliff. Two more dark shapes surfing in the foam around rocks at the mouth of the Cornish bay were also seals, distinct from the floating masses of seaweed.

The creatures swam backwards and forwards, hidden for a while, then suddenly emerging some distance from their last sighting. As the tide reached its height more seals came in from the sea and the early arrivals moved towards the shore.

Cornish seals on the beach

They drifted in on the waves, scrambling up onto the sand, then being swept out again on another high wave. They rolled backwards and forwards on the sand, moved by the waves, until at last they were beached.

Cornish seals playing

But they hadn’t come ashore to rest. There was lots of interaction. A couple played vigorously, one seal scrambling across another and laying heavily still for a couple of minutes until it was thrust off. Another came to join in, and the first slipped away with a friend.

Beached Cornish seals at rest

Then they were all gone, slipping back into the sea, just as others emerged from it. They all went in and out frequently, like children playing at the seaside. And all the time there was the sound of their mournful booming call.

The sound followed me as I walked on around the headland, for there were more seals further out at sea. It seemed like a faint echo of the deep booming call that the nearby lighthouse sent out in bad weather.

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Saturday 26 September 2015

The lily pads tipped sideways in the wind, the mink brown lower half flipping through the water, so that it looked as though a shoal of miniature sharks had invaded the Cornish lake.

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Sunday 27 September 2015

Cornish wheat field

Crows are busy in the harvested Cornish wheat fields, harvesting scraps of grain, exposed insects and larvae as the rolled rounds of straw crisp in the sunshine.

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Monday 28 September 2015

View north from Godolphin Hill

From the top of Cornwall’s Godolphin Hill we could see as far as St Ives' Bay on the north coast, and Mount’s Bay on the south. Around us lay small fields, green and brown, interlaced with hedgerows and copses that were tinged with autumn colours. Here and there were farm animals, miniatures from this height and distance – brightly white shorn sheep and ruby red cows. Studded across the landscape were the chimneys and engine houses of the tin and copper mines that once made this area a hive of industrial activity.

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Tuesday 29 September 2015

Bees using Godolphin dovecote

Wild bees have colonised one of the old dovecote entrances above the stables of Godolphin House in Cornwall. There was constant activity as bees flew in and out of the small opening, presumably ignoring the skeps in the neighbouring King’s Garden – although perhaps these were already occupied.

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Wednesday 30 September 2015

The winds have been so strong that earlier this week they drove Bryn’s thrown tennis balls out to sea on a flowing tide. When the winds changed direction and began blowing from the east the sea cast up more than usual flotsam and jetsam.

Seaweed up the beach

There were piles of seaweed blocking the entrance to Helford beach and barricading the boats that had been drawn up high above the shoreline. On Hayle beach prickly shell casings and the torn-off legs of crabs lay littered just below the dunes, while further down scattered straps of brown kelp had been cast up by the tide.

Helford dinghy

It was Coverack beach, though, that had the jellyfish, lying like great blobs of discarded see-through plastic.

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