Zagori – Greece’s wildest human landscape

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Beloi: perhaps the ultimate spot in Zagori, not just for the breathtaking views of the world’s deepest gorge, but also for its breeding wallcreepers and glorious flowers and butterflies en route

In 2016 I began a series of excursions to the Balkans, beginning in Serbia. In September of that year it led Maria and me to Zagori, an area of the northern Pindos mountains, which includes the Vikos Gorge (pictured above), in northern Greece. I first heard of it in the mid 1980s and was inspired by the descriptions, but it has taken 30 years to fulfil this quiet ambition. How I wish we had acted sooner!

After just two visits it has become a kind of spiritual touchstone, a refuge from the increasingly humanised landscapes of southern England, a way of gauging what has happened to my country, but also a means to explore some of the new ways of thinking about European landscapes, such as the concept of ‘rewilding’.

However let me introduce Zagori. It is essentially a unit of human geography and a political realm originating during the period of Ottoman rule, which lasted in northern Greece for almost 500 years from 1430 until 1913. The Turkish capital for the region was Ioannina, a city with which many Zagorians retain strong links, often with houses there and also in the mountain villages.  The original Christian communities of Zagori, including 46 villages (of which Dilofo, pictured below, is one) were able to negotiate preferential trade arrangements with their Ottomans overlords and retained a degree of religious and administrative autonomy while expanding trade opportunities, partly through the construction of multi-arched pack bridges to facilitate communication among themselves and more widely in Epirus.

These remarkable stone bridges are a major feature of the place, such as the famous triple-arched bridge near Kipi (above). In truth, everywhere one travels in this glorious river-and-mountain landscape – and it is now both the North Pindos National Park (founded in 2005), the largest in mainland Greece at 2000 km2, and the  Vikos-Aoos Geopark – one is struck as much by the beauty and grandeur of the

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human settlements as the power of their natural setting. The craftsmanship exhibited in the limestone construction of the architecture (such as this old school building in Dilofo, above), is a never-ending source of pleasure in Zagori. Below meanwhile is Mikra Papingo, lying beneath the resonantly named Towers of Astraka (in the lowest dip in the hillslope above the village is the Astraka Refuge, where we stayed in May 2017).IMG_7395The wealth on display in the size and construction of many village houses speaks of a distinctive historical pattern in Zagorian society. Local people, while firmly rooted in their montane commmunities, spent long periods overseas and especially in parts of the Ottoman empire, and as far away as the Crimea, Moscow, Egypt and India. Zagorians were famous for their multilingual abilities and they were skilled merchants and administrators and sent home a stream of remittance money that financed Zagori’s architecture and underpinned numerous regional charitable works. A good example of this is the Rizareios Centre in Monodendri, a nineteenth century foundation that still supports local culture and craft.

Today Zagori is famous mainly for its natural beauty. It is a memorable place for wildlife regardless of season and is especially rich botanically. The national park has about 1,900 species, almost a third of Greece’s total 6,000 vascular plants and the equivalent of all the plant diversity in the British Isles. Here is a tiny glimpse below.

 

Where there are flowers there are invariably butterflies and I found their abundance in May 2017 completely intoxicating. I think it is the sense of unrelieved joy engendered by natural abundance – and which is something I have cherished since childhood – that I prize so highly about Zagori. It is the element that gives me a feeling of having ‘come home’. Too often in Britain, especially today,  encounters in nature are routinely pleated with the sense of loss. There are great places in the UK but even in Scotland one is assailed by awareness of mismanagement or by the reflection that things could be so much better.

One of the most memorable Zagori walks we did this spring was down from the tiny village of Vikos to the bottom of the gorge proper. The entire route was a succession of flowering bushes and shrubs thronged with insects – butterflies mainly but also bush crickets, owl flies, day-flying moths and grasshoppers – and everywhere  submerged in birdsong – subalpine warblers, cirl buntings, blackbirds, tits, finches and hirundines. Filling the gorge at the bottom were the icy waters of the Voidomatis Spring, where we cooled off.

May be it is their very coldness or some mineral content in the waters where they gush out the Earth, but they have a luminescent bloom that adds silver into the greens and turquoises of the river’s flow. The dryad and naiad-haunted tranquillity of the spot inspired the Greeks to establish a small shrine where  intact hand-painted frescoes can still be enjoyed. Above us in the shrine’s perpetual gloom were horseshoe bats. Outside in the shadows were singing nightingales. Here is a taste of it all (please click on the images to enlarge them and see the separate captions)

 

 

There is a further element in Zagori, aside from its glorious wildlife, sublime landscapes and complex human story, that makes the place so compelling. It is one of the least populated parts of Europe and human presence is shrinking. Here is how it has changed, with the historical populations for Zagori followed by the dates in brackets: 27,750 (1812), 28,135 (1874), 22,820 (1902), 9,446 (1961), 6,357 (1991), <1,000 (2017).

Many villages now are almost entirely deserted except at holiday times. We visited the beautiful settlement of Kato Pedina – just to the west of Vikos Gorge – which lies near one of the few large areas of open arable land. It has only 3-4 occupied houses in winter. We have had so many conversations with ex-patriate Zagorians, some making pilgrimage ‘home’ from Athens, and we asked them what they thought about ‘nature’. So often they found the changes, particularly the expansion of woodland, ‘scary’. Look at any old photographs of this landscape and then go and look at the same scene today. You can witness for yourself the forest’s inexorable encroachment. Zagori was, it still is, famous for its Vlach and Sarakatsani transhumant communities, but grazing pressure and livestock numbers are falling.

These changes are having a profound effect on many of the key natural communities for which Zagori is so special. Flowers, butterflies and birds such as red-backed shrike are all retreating before the spread of new woodlands. So often I found both density and variety of the birds greatest around the villages, rather than in the thick of the woods. Almost every area of pasture above villages such as Monodendri, has young suckering tree growth or saplings appearing at the edges of the woods or spreading out of the hedges. The afforestation is graphically illustrated by this old picture of the Vikos Gorge taken in the 1940s at Beloi, which offers one of the great panoramas in all Europe. Compare this image with the one I opened my post with (click to enlarge)

Greek friends, who are Zagorian residents and professional ecologists, spelled out some of the consequences of this process. Wild boar populations have massively increased as the tree cover expands and this, in turn, has led to increases in wolves and bears. It is not possible to find bee hives in the area that are not encircled by electric fences. One consequence of  the increases in some mammal predators has been the widespread use of poison baits. This has had dramatic negative effects on vultures and large birds of prey. As one ecologist friend announced to us: ‘What is so special about wolves’.

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Here is a huge male boar, whose balls were sliced off and fed to the hound in the box at the back of the pick-up

What he means is, why should we privilege one climax predator above the rest of an entire ecosystem whose ‘wildness’ and diversity is dependent upon humans and their management of grazing livestock? I stress that he is not a hunter or a shepherd; he is a modern sophisticated UK-educated ecologist with a passion for both Zagori’s wildlife and a deep love for the relationships between people and place in his home region.

Zagori raises fascinating questions. It is one of the most special parts of Europe that I have seen. It is now a fixture in our lives. I could not recommend a visit more highly.  If you would like to come with me, then watch this space!

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Recreating Extremadura

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The ‘dehesa’ woodlands of Extremadura stretch to the very limits of ones vision and are a wonderful paradox:  handcrafted wilderness (photo © Martin Kelsey)

Last week in Extremadura in south-west Spain I finally resolved a conundrum I’ve been pondering for almost ten years.

I taught nature writing for the first time in 2007 and since then have been dogged by a  question: how do you combine the inspiration from nature with its conversion to words? So often places where you can teach have restricted access to experiences that are truly affecting. On the other hand you can find great wild places, but there’s nowhere to sit and reflect on how to describe them. I’ve taken the same puzzle  with me to teaching centres in central Wales, Devon, south Yorkshire, the highlands of Scotland and  Norfolk. Finally with a week-long course entitled Recreating Extremadura I feel that I’ve solved the problem.

I’ve been working on it since 2014 with my old friend, Martin  Kelsey of Casa Rural el Recuerdo. On a balmy Sunday afternoon in November he met our pioneer group, many of them now friends also, amid Madrid’s gloriously bleached winter sunshine. Then we drove to his home near Trujillo.

There were nine in total and the aim was to envelop a three-day writing course within the overwhelming sense of natural abundance that is the signature experience in this landscape. It was apparent even as we barreled along the motorway. Every few minutes there were red kites, vultures, harriers and buzzards while a Spanish imperial eagle swept directly over the vehicle but managed , alas, to avoid eye-contact with several of us.

The following day we took in the full range of landscape forms in this region, including  Monfragüe NP. This was the first of two full-day excursions  book-ending the course and providing word fuel and inspiring memories for our central time indoors, . We were soon among the dehesa woodlands that are visible almost to the horizon at every point of the compass, but especially from the Castillo at Monfragüe near Peña Falcon.

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There are c300 breeding pairs of griffon vulture on peña falcon and rising. They are so  graceful and endlessly changing – like incoming waves on the shore or flames in the hearth- that one feels impelled to go on watching.

Vultures swept over and around us wherever we looked in numbers you now can now scarcely find either in India or Africa. And here for good measure – forgive the image quality –  is a little bit of moving footage.

We rounded the day off amid an even richer sense of abundance at the rice paddies of Madrigalego just a little south of Casa Rural el Recuerdo. This is intensive agriculture at it most puzzling. Vast areas of chemically drenched rice, highly mechanised farming with a little (illegal?) stubble burning on the side, yet this landscape holds immense numbers of waterbirds or sparrow flocks on every side. It is extraordinary. The highlight is undoubtedly the opportunity to see wintering cranes as they come to roost.

This scene was an intended canvas on which we could develop our own writing exercises. So in midweek, after a further day and a half of exercises and of thinking about the work of others (eg Mary Austen, Annie Dillard, Norman Lewis, Cormac McCarthy, Gavin Maxwell and Katrina Porteous) we returned to Madrigalejo to remind ourselves of its details. We stayed until sunset when the cranes, harriers, sparrows and egrets were all gathering for the night. It was wonderfully atmospheric. Nothing really conveys it, but here’s some  moving footage of the cranes that indicates how these birds in large congregations are an all-embracing encounter: a matter of smell, sight and hearing. We spent a lot of time trying to capture the exact quality of their calls but, like many natural sounds, I think it eluded us.

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With large congregations of large birds it is the incessant motion and renewal of scene that I find so captivating. At all times one is impelled  to watch in order not to miss how their random order will continue to unfold.

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Swirling globes involving hundreds, if not thousands of sparrows (and above they are Spanish sparrows) is a tableau one can longer enjoy in the UK

 

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Even the Dantesque smoke billowing off the marsh inspired some of the group including Angela and Fiona.

My own favourite of Extremadura’s key landscapes is technically known as pseudo-steppe,  expanses of grassland interspersed with patches of low-intensity arable, which I have written about at the conclusion of my book Birders. I never tire of the exquisite light, the continental vastness of it, as well as the subtler and more detailed intimacies – the upper vault of larksong, the banks of flowers at your feet, or the momentarily spiralling  birds of prey.

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The snow-capped Gredos mountains are about 100km away but are omnipresent features of many Extremaduran places.

One of our exercises involved trying to use the inspiration of music to explore how the internal rhythms of language can capture or, at least, help to convey the qualities of nature. It provoked some great results from Angela and Karen while Jez later produced a short passage that was a perfect reenactment of a fox hunting craneflies that he had witnessed elsewhere.

Our work wasn’t all straightforward. We suffered the interruptions of celebrity when Angelique of the regional Extremaduran television company came to see what the crazy  British were about. Here is Fiona explaining the fascination of nature and writing.IMG_7905.jpg

And here for good measure is the complete group.

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Here is the full group (L-R: Fiona, Karen, Jerry, Karen, Jez [kneeling], Martin, MC and Angela) during our afternoon visit to Trujillo, which is a great spot for medieval architecture and rock-loving plants

 So why was it so much more satisfying to talk about nature writing in Extremadura than anywhere else?

I guess this little montage of images spells out much of the appeal. It was not just the fact that the middays were warm and sunlit (or the nights crisp and starlit) so that we could often do our lessons outdoors around Casa Rural’s lovely granite table and bench; nor was it simply the drama of much of the wildlife, including the vultures and cranes; nor was it the constant surprises, the hoopoes as we took lunch, the tiny viperine snakelet across our path; nor the omnipresent vibrancy of the evergreen trees – the dehesa oaks, the olive groves, the wayside pistachios or strawberry trees (with the red fruits). It is the fact that you are enfolded in a sense of abundance that can be replicated in very few parts of Britain today. Extremadura is still a landscape where people and place are intimately connected. It works for them; they work in and with nature. No wonder I’ve been going back for 35 years. Now I’m looking forward to the next time.

Anyone interested in joining our next ‘Recreating Extremadura’ course should click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Strange Nest Behaviour of European Stone Curlews

This is the not the best selection of European Stone-Curlew images but I thought the birds’ behaviour sufficiently unusual to post them and see if anyone can shed light on it.

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We were driving alongside a peach grove on the Judaean Plain in central Israel when two stone-curlews suddenly appeared walking away from the vehicle. One of the birds then trotted back through the trees to a spot just by a peach stump and genuflected its thick knees and I immediately assumed it was a nest, where she may well resume brooding.

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Instead of that, however, she stabbed down (as I now know to puncture the egg; see above) and resumed an upright posture with the egg fixed in her bill tip, holding it only by its lower end. It was an oddly plain and pale egg for this species with patterning concentrated at the top end, but of a size and colour to match stone-curlew.

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Then the bird trotted off back the way it had come with yolk and clear white apparently spilling out of the hole. It then dropped it and stabbed it until there was a large hole all along one side (see top pic, where it is just visible at the front of the egg)

Pandemonium broke out in our car as we tried to get images. We left the birds one behind the other with what was assumed to be the female standing over a punctured stone-curlew egg. But what was happening here? Had we disturbed them close to a recently laid egg and she had therefore destroyed her own egg? Apparently stone-curlews are highly site faithful and return year in, year out to the same spot. It seems unlikely that another stone-curlew pair had laid in their territory and she was destroying the nest of usurpers. But some nests do contain eggs from multiple females.

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Was it therefore an old egg in the old nest that she was simply getting rid of in preparation for a re-nest? They apparently lay in April. A single egg is the common clutch size but we didn’t want to go and see if there were other eggs in the nest. There was little sense that this was an old addled egg. The white ran clear when it dribbled out the crack. Apologies that the images are not brilliant and the information is sketchy but if anyone can shed any light I would be fascinated to hear.

Bitterness and Blossoms – Lawrence Durrell’s Cyprus

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Strange to reflect that there was a period in the seventies, when a copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet was obligatory on every student’s bookshelf. Now he seems as passé an emblem of the era as that poster of the female tennis player scratching her fulsome bare cheek.

I recently introduced a passage from Reflections on a Marine Venus to a writing group and was highly embarrassed as they analysed its multiple deficiencies to oblivion. How could I not have seen them? The lushness of colour, the elaborate, sometimes creaking imagery –’In the fragile membranes of light which separate like yolks upon the cold meniscus of the sea’ – and the metaphors piled on top of one another and so little substance to underpin them. The truth is I think I have always seen them and always forgiven them

They are  the kinds of failings intrinsic to a writer with undeniably acute powers of observation, yet one given to writing very quickly. Apparently 4,000 words a day was by no means exceptional for Durrell. And I still maintain that even Reflections, an account of his post-war period on Rhodes, contains some truly wonderful writing and superb characterisation. I also think that the trilogy on Greek islands – Prospero’s Cell (1945), Reflections (1953) and Bitter Lemons (1957) – stands the test of time. All three are still in print and by Mark Twain’s measure of literary immortality (‘about thirty-five years’) Durrell’s trio are classics indeed.

During a visit to Northern Cyprus earlier this month Maria and I were able to make pilgrimage to the central locus for what is unquestionably the finest of them, Bitter Lemons. Bellapaix is just a short drive to the east and slightly landward from the port of Kyrenia.

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(HERE’S MARIA OUTSIDE THE HOUSE THAT WAS BUILT IN 1897 AND WHICH DURRELL BOUGHT IN 1953 for £200. HIS DESCRIPTION OF ITS PURCHASE IS ONE OF THE GREAT COMIC MOMENTS OF THE BOOK. THE VIEWS FROM ITS UPPER BALCONY ARE SUBLIME: ‘FROM THIS HIGH POINT WE WERE ACTUALLY LOOKING DOWN UPON BELLAPAIX, AND BEYOND IT, FIVE MILES AWAY, UPON KYRENIA WHOSE CASTLE LOOKED ABSURDLY LIKE A TOY.‘)

Today the village makes much of Durrell. The local cafe overlooking the Abbey of Bellapaix is called the ‘Tree of Idleness’, which is a name for one of his chapters. There was apparently a real tree (unusual for Durrell, he never identified the species but I guess it would have been a plane), whose cool-spreading foliage was the location for many of the book’s reported conversations.

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(‘AND THE ABBEY ITSELF WAS THERE, FADING IN THE LAST MAGNETIC FLUSH FROM THE HORIZON, WITH ITS QUIET GROUPS OF COFFEE-DRINKERS AND CARD PLAYERS UNDER THE TREE OF IDLENESS. AT FULL MOON WE DINED THERE, BAREFOOTED ON THE DARK GRASS, TO WATCH THE LIGHTS WINKING AWAY ALONG THE FRETTED COAST …’)

In the way that life often imitates art, the road on which Durrell’s old house stands is now called Aci Limon Sokak, ‘Bitter Lemon Street’. When its current occupants are in town they apparently open it to the public and give Durrell-inflected presentations. It is a lovely looking property, although it was not actually where he wrote Bitter Lemons (I learn from his volume of diary and occasional writings called Spirit of Place), he completed it during a brief stay in Dorset. But he did write Justine in Bellapaix, the first of the Alexandria Quartet. He would rise pre-dawn, so he said, to get the words down before the day came crowding in; then he would set off over the Kyrenia Range to teach in Nicosia.

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(MY HERO FOR THE TRIP WAS THIS CYPRESS, NEAR TO BUFFAVENTO IN THE KYRENIA RANGE, WHICH HAD PROBABLY BEEN GROWING IN THIS EXTRAORDINARY POSITION SINCE BEFORE DURRELL EVER SET EYES ON THE ISLAND. ITS DAILY VIEW INCLUDES TURKEY AND THE WHOLE OF KYRENIA. THINK WHAT CHANGES IT MUST HAVE SEEN.)

Bitter Lemons is no longer a meaningful guide to the physical characteristics of Cypriot life, given that community has been so terribly mauled by civil war and now entirely seperated along ethnic lines. The Greeks are all in the south and the Turks in the north. The quaintness of their backwater existence has also been further deluged by a tsunami of tourist development. Apparently it is far more pronounced on the Greek side.

(ONE OF THE SAVING GRACES OF THE ENTIRE MEDITERRANEAN LANDSCAPE IS THE PREVALENCE OF TREE CROPS. ALTHOUGH CHEMICALS ARE OFTEN NOW USED TO CONTROL THE SURROUNDING VEGETATION, THE TREES ARE A GLORIOUS HABITAT IN THEIR OWN RIGHT. AND OFTEN CHEMICALS ARE NOT USED AND THE GROUND AROUND THEM IS THEN A FLOWER-RICH PARKLAND. I WAS MESMERISED BY THE SLOW-GROWING ANCIENTNESS OF SOME OLIVES. THIS ONE [ABOVE LEFT] WAS PROBABLY AROUND 400-500 YEARS OLD JUDGING BY THE GROWTH RINGS ON JUST ONE SMALL SIDE BRANCH.)

Yet two things resonated deeply on re-reading the book. One, which I had completely overlooked previously, is Durrell’s loving attention to the flowers and trees on Cyprus. (But then how could I not have noticed it? It is, after all, called Bitter Lemons!) We were there during December yet the vegetation was still a powerful part of our own experience.

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(MY FAVOURITE TREES WERE PROBABLY THE CAROBS, WHICH HAVE A TENDENCY TO HAVE TWO PRIMARY TRUNKS (POLLARDS PERHAPS?) THAT GROW OUT AND TOPPLE OVER ONLY TO REROOT AND CONTINUE GROWING. THEIR DENSE SHADE WAS IDEAL FOR ROOSTING LITTLE OWLS AND THE CYPRIOT TURKS GATHER THE PODS, ONCE KNOW AS ST JOHN’S BREAD, FROM WHICH THEY MAKE A STRANGE BITTER-SWEET JUICE [PEKMEZI] WHICH THEY HAVE FOR BREAKFAST WITH TAHINI AND CABBAGE. I MUST CONFESS IT REMINDS ME OF MARMITE. THIS INDIVIDUAL, ON THE KARPAS PENINSULA IS REALLY OLD AND HAS PROBABLY BEEN PRODUCING A CROP SINCE THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY.)

The second element, which seems such a contradiction of the first, was Durrell’s ability to summon the sheer nihilism of terrorism. It is almost as if he had written the book with our own times in mind. Inter-ethnic strife, war without boundaries or limits, Muslims and Christians – you begin to see how Bitter Lemons speaks so powerfully to our own age. Here, however, the terrorists are all Greek and their victims are either those Cypriots who had collaborated with the island’s political masters, or they are the English overlords themselves. In fact, Durrell’s own life was eventually threatened.

The one false note in the book is Durrell’s half-hearted attempt to dodge the injustice of colonialism. His defence of the imperial government, particularly its governor-general John Harding, seems odd from a writer whose entire oeuvre derived so much from its antagonism to the narrowness and cold-hearted smugness of English public life. Yet, in Bitter Lemons he looks rather reactionary.

In a way, Durrell resolves the dilemma by viewing the politics from the perspective of his Cypriot friends and by stressing the impacts of public terror on private lives, those of his friends and his neighbours. And this is where those flowers and trees start to carry significance.

Botanical imagery is recurrent throughout the book and is most evident in Durrell’s comedic portraits of local Cypriot life or the tavern camaraderie of Bellapaix, but especially in his account of a Greek friend Panos, a schoolteacher from Nicosia. ‘In his memory’, Durrell notes of this tender-hearted scholar and naturalist, ‘he carried a living flower-map of the range, and he knew where best to go for his anemones and cyclamens, his ranunculuses and marigolds. Nor was he ever wrong.’

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(DECEMBER WAS NOT A MONTH TO SEE CYPRIOTS FLOWERS AT THEIR BEST BUT WE DID FIND THESE VERY EARLY NARCISSUS. RICHARD MABEY IDENTIFIED THEM AS N. TAZETTA.)

The final fifth of the book is taken up with Durrell’s description of an outing with Panos. It is, in many ways, very typical of the leisure-filled, carefree, pleasure-loving spirit that pervades all the travel writing by Lawrence Durrell. The two men go to inspect a friend’s garden. They have a picnic. They drink wine and smoke cigarettes and savour the very airs of spring: ‘this spring breeze which … am I imagining it?’ says Panos, ‘tastes of lemons, of lemon-blossom.’

Later they collect great basketfuls of flowers and when they are stopped at an army roadblock, Panos is confronted by a young English squady, whose red beret is notably described as ‘gleaming like a cherry among the silver olives.’ The private happens to pass comment on the great pannier of blossoms in the back of Durrell’s car and with that Panos immediately hands him ‘several great bunches of Klepini anemones’.

He made a vague gesture of handing them back, saying: ‘I’m on duty now, sir,’ but I had already let in the clutch and we were rolling down among the trees to the village, leaving him alone with his problem and the smiles of his companions.

There, in a way, you have the whole book: a gift of flowers as a small kindness between people of different race; but flowers also as emblems of the generosity of spirit from which flows all human friendship; and flowers, finally, as the absolute inverse of war. Flowers, as they always have been, are the blessings of peace in Bitter Lemons. All of this has been made so much more poignant and affecting, because right at the start of the chapter, Durrell has already told us that Panos was shot dead by terrorists as he walked out one evening in the town. We are allowed to observe the beauty of his soul, the beauty of his flowers too, from the perspective of his senseless murder.

It is a consummate, masterly piece of controlled writing. It says so much more about the failure of humankind when it resorts to terror than anything written by one of the modern immortals like, say, Martin Amis. It is why I love Durrell’s work. It’s why he is still in print despite that loss of popular acclaim.

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There is one brief personal postcript to this post: It was Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons that gave me the title for one of my earliest books. In the first chapter he wrote: ‘We had become, with the approach of night, once more aware of loneliness and time – those two companions without whom no journey can yield us anything.’ For me the claim still holds absolutely true about all travel and all travel writing.

Wasps and Spiders – a trial of toxins

Today I published a short piece in the Guardian about my sightings of wasps and spiders duelling and preying off one another. However I had more extraordinary encounters this weekend while meadow making at Blackwater. I thought it worth some extra words. But the first thing to say is that both carry toxins that would be lethal for the other: a wasp sting on a spider would surely be fatal, just as a spider bite can clearly kill a wasp.

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Even so, I was surprised to find a wasp stealing prey out of an active spider’s web (belonging to a garden cross spider). While continuing to fly (albeit in rather static hovering mode) the insect pulled the desiccated spider prey out the centre of the web, tugging the mashed protein until the spider’s silk attaching it to the web snapped. It would be interesting to know if this wasp worker had developed this kleptoparasitic practice serially, stealing from one web after another? Either way it was apparent that the spider was taking no chances and dropped clean out of its own web onto vegetation below. But the wasp’s behaviour is also high risk, as I learnt later.

The next sighting (the one I described in the paper) is here below. The wasp was already enmeshed, its aristocratic jawline and those sad black oval eyes looking extremely melancholy from behind their veil of spider silk. My article was largely about the tiny little male spider that tried to take advantage of the female’s recent catch to sneak in to mate.  IMG_5113Here he is making his move, but she was having none of it and would have eaten him i suspect if he had not been nimble.

IMG_5118 copyThe sighting that was most riveting is partly illustrated in the picture at the very top. It shows a beautiful female marble orb weaver that had just caught the wasp as I chanced upon it at Blackwater. Go back to the picture (it should enlarge if you click on it) and you can see her first moves to tackle the wasp. She approached it all from below, well away from that lethal abdominal sting. One wonders if she’d ever encountered a wasp before and how she ‘knew’ how to manipulate it. But her first goal was to immobilise the wings and head/thorax. Then, when these were tightly bound, she worked carefully around the wasp’s abdomen and firing silk from her rear spinnerets she soon had it much as you see the garden cross had got hers – entirely bound like brisket in tight silk. Even so, the wasp at this stage was very much live. I could see its abdomen still pumping vigorously.

The next part was the most remarkable. The spider moved in and i could see the exposed needle-like jaws opening wide as it injected venom into the insect. Often spiders drag large prey up to a shelter which is invariably to one side of the orb web. A leaf or a grass stem forms the A frame to a kind if silked-over tent, where the arachnid can feed unobserved. But this spider, rather than using its legs directly to move the wasp into place, pulled it up on a long strand of silk, thereby keeping the wasp at all times a safe distance from itself. Even when it had got into position in the shelter it left the wasp dangling like a load on a rope pulley a few centimetres below itself, presumably giving the injected poison time to work. Then it finally hauled the wasp in tight and started to feed.

The interesting and mystifying part for me is how the spider ‘knew’ how to work this particularly risky type of food. It may have met wasps before but spiders are quite short lived. My guess is it is not relying on previous experience to guide it. How has it acquired the ‘knowledge’ to avoid the dangerous rear end of a wasp? The aposematic warning colours – yellow and black – of the wasp are surely a helpful cue to the spider that it is dealing with something unsafe, but how did it ‘know’ that keeping the trussed-up insect on a long leash as it climbed to its shelter spot was advisable. My guess is it is all instinctual. Nothing is processed in our sense of ‘thinking’ or ‘reasoning’. The creature has inherited behaviours from generations of successful spiders, going back millions of years, and this ancient, genetically programmed suite of reactions builds into an ‘operation template’ that allows it to catch and overcome something as potentially poisonous as itself.

‘It’s a strange world Sandy!’ as Kyle MacLachan said to Laura Dern in the film Blue Velvet.

Meadow Making II (on top of Slub Mountain)

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One of the fascinating things about managing any patch of ground is learning to envision it ecologically: conjuring it not as it looks at any one time but as it will be at all stages. Meadow-making is thus an act of imagination and of faith. My particular hope is that the scene you can see below (the first image was taken on 30 November, the second in May this year) will slowly evolve into a lower, shorter (and more manageable) sward richer in meadow plants. See also Meadow Making for the backstory to all this.

My ally in the business was yellow rattle, whose papery seeds I bought in 100-gm packet.


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03 05:05:14 01I spread most of them on about a third of an acre after rigorously mowing it with our small petrol lawnmower in autumn. The recommended date is August-September but mine was delayed and some was not cast until December. It seemed to make little difference and even the late-sown seed produced a fabulous abundance of flowering plants come the late spring, possibly with the second cast flowering slightly later.  Here it is in its pomp in June, but I cannot tell you how exciting it was to spot the first tell-tale yellow rattle leaves coming up in late March.

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The image above is the first indicator that my meadow making plan is bearing flower and fruit. When i bought the site in 2012 there was no ragged robin at Blackwater at all. Now it is springing up everywhere (the pink flower above), along with marsh thistles (there was none when I got the site), lady’s-smock and this summer, for the first time ever, common fleabane. All these new plants are fulfilling the original ambition, which was to create a site with abundant flowers from March/April until about now (late September). In my first spring I had an early flourish, especially of sallow blossom and white dead nettle, and then there was a long hiatus until the meadowsweet and purple loosestrife started in July. Already I can see how the spring ‘colour hole’ is being filled with all sorts of nectar-bearing plants. It means that bumblebees and other wonderful insects are now present spring and summer-long with a superb abundance in August and my first recorded nests – both tree bumblebees, one in my haystack (see below) and one in a hollow tree stump.

Each year has been totally different, not just with new things suddenly appearing but with commonplace residents  showing themselves in unexpected abundance. Last year was wonderful for hoverflies but for some reason this summer  they seem to have been much more scarce.  However I have had a glorious flourish of angelica, the queen of all umbellifers as far as insects are concerned. But it is also such a sculptural beast and the way it breaks out of that huge bulbous egg of green to throw out those wide white-pink arms to the sun – it behaves like an animal. I love it.

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Some wonderful additions to the site, appearing for the first time this summer and singing to me yesterday as I scythed one of the last patches of tall herb, were long-winged coneheads (male, below left). I’ve long had dark bush crickets (right) and they are wonderful too but the conehead records have been special. Their sound is a really soft fragile susurration like an old foot-driven sewing machine but in a far room. I was crouching low to hear this tiny hiss better and realised that the beast was stridulating just near my foot. Remarkable to reflect that this species had not been recorded in Norfolk at all until 2000 and it was only recorded for the first time in Britain in 1931. Nice climate change indicator!

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Meadow making may sound like a walk through the flowers but it isn’t all contemplation of wonder and beauty. There’s hard graft too. This year my wonderful brother Andy came down to help. I have previously had support from the Hawk & Owl Trust but they are only available in the early winter and really I want to intervene in the tall-herb succession by cutting at an earlier date. So we started work in August. In truth it was so hot that we were only able to work some of the time. But we were blessed with a secret weapon in one of Simon Fairlie’s Austrian scythes, which i borrowed from a friend. I have an old English brute of a scythe (vintage 1948) with a heavy beech handlle given to me by my lovely 90-yr-old farmer neighbour John. The Austrian snath is light pine  and the blade itself finer, sharper and lighter. The whole scythe is twice as efficient and half the effort. Here’s Andy midway through cutting the main yellow rattle patch. We assembled all our cutting on two haystacks. Eventually we needed a ladder to climb to the top of either, because they were twelve feet high.

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You have no idea what effort it took to capture the selfie below. The camera was perched on top of a ladder and i had to run in the intervening ten seconds, grab my brother’s rake, which he used to pull me up to the top of the stack. Our combined age is 114 going on 23!

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And here I am yesterday on top of what is known in our house as ‘Slub Mountain’ after I had finally cleared three-quarters of the meadow. Just one last cut to go. Any takers? ps I now have my own wonderful Simon Fairlie scythe!IMG_5188

A new Writing and Wildlife holiday in Spain’s Extremadura, Jan-Feb 2016

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It seems part of our age that all human experience can be reduced to a league table, so I’m proposing a thought-experiment. How about a list of favourite European landscapes? I wouldn’t like to second-guess all the candidates for top slot, but I’ll suggest my own choice. I’ve visited the dehesas of Extremadura in south-western Spain and eastern Portugal about 15 times, but a recent trip was the first occasion I’d seen it in late winter. Even without those astonishing carpets of wild flowers that are such a feature of the spring, the landscape seemed as full of vibrant beauty – and birds – as on every other trip.

If you’ve never seen Extremadura’s dehesa then you still have one of the great moments of your life before you. When I first set eyes on it almost exactly 35 years ago to the day I was mesmerised not just by the flowing contours of the plains but also the mathematical precision with which unseen Spanish hands had spaced out an endless ‘forest’ of evergreen oaks. Each individual tree is laid out in identical manner. The top is reduced to four main branches spreading to the four points of the compass. The sum effect of the regime is that every tree looks like a green umbrella. Replicate it a million times and you have a sense of one of Europe’s ultimate wildlife landscapes.

One intriguing sidelight on dehesa is the trouble we have in classifying exactly what kind of landscape it is. It’s often thought of as a type of park woodland but just as often it is treated as savanna or steppe ‘with trees’. These taxonomic difficulties may well reflect our modern concern that landscapes should be a single entity rather than two, or even three simultaneously. What is indisputable is dehesa’s extraordinary richness for birds.

At any one moment almost anywhere in Extremadura the sky is full of raptors. Hundreds of birds of at least ten species are barely even noteworthy. In fact there are often so many vultures over what can seem like acacia savanna that it feels more like tropical Africa than temperate Europe.

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One of its main features is the presence of Cinereous Vultures (above; also known as Black Vulture) in densities found nowhere else on Earth. Even better, the population of this once threatened bird has surged in recent decades. When I first visited there were 90 pairs; today there are ten times that number. The other headline species – if one sets aside for a moment its Great and Little Bustards – is its totem raptor, Spanish Imperial Eagle. Half a century ago this qualified as one of the world’s rarest birds of prey, with just 30 pairs left anywhere. Now there are 50 pairs in Extremadura alone. (Picture below: these two giants – the largest flighted bird in the world – are Great Bustards)

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What makes dehesa so deeply fulfilling is not the rarities, marvellous those these are, it is the commonplace birds and their sheer abundance. Features that we have forgotten or lost from Britain, such as massive flocks of sparrows and larks, are still embedded in this glorious farmland. One moment during the last visit that gave me huge pleasure was a stop by a feedlot. There was a dense, endlessly recycling mixed flock of Spotless Starlings, Corn Buntings, sparrows, larks and finches. It fizzed with ordinary life and therein lay the joy of it.

Yet what seals dehesa as the ultimate habitat is that this is not some carefully preserved national park barricaded behind a fortress of acronyms and official designations. It’s a working landscape and as devoted to human products as the worst arable monoculture. In fact, dehesa yields six principal harvests. It is cattle or sheep pasture as well as cropland and a source of charcoal or firewood. Its key speciality results from those billions of acorns, which fatten the region’s breed of black pigs. It is their exquisite hams and smoked meats that are savoured by all Iberian people. Finally the cork oaks produce that bottle stopper which makes the wonderful sound when the bottle of Spanish Rioja is first opened.

Dehesa is more than a bird- habitat. It is a hope-filled model of what human land-use can be: a gloriously creative transaction between ourselves and nature. Next year I am, together with Martin and Claudia Kelsey of the lovely Casa Rural el Recuerdo (near Trujillo), running a week-long nature and writing course from Sunday 31 January – Saturday 6 February 2016. It promises to be very special. At last I can be involved in a course where we can not only talk about nature but can be in daily contact with some of the most extraordinary wildlife in Europe. Among the things we will look for are the huge flocks on Common Cranes (pictured below) that pass the winter in Extremadura’s rice fields.

Cranes and dehesa Martin Kelsey

There’s more about the course under the Talks and Teaching section of my website. I hope to see you.

All images courtesy of Martin Kelsey

A Short Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the Nature party

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Here are the wonderful gritstone columns on the top of Kinder Low, Derbyshire

(This is a slightly adapted version of my column in Birdwatch magazine last month.) I was fascinated to read Adrian Brockless’ thoughtful piece (The Heat Is On) in December’s issue. Who would have thought that the breeding Black-winged Stilts in Kent might be a consequence of anthropogenic climate change; on the other hand, it could just be to do with the axial inclination of the Earth? However there was one part of his argument with which I wish – politely – to take issue.

Adrian writes ‘It is imperative that the arguments [about climate change] do not become shrill or hysterical’, and further contends that ‘To gain and maintain trust, conservation organisations need to distance themselves from politics and politically motivated arguments [my italics].’

I would argue quite the reverse: I would like to see much more environmental politics and some that was very ‘shrill’ and even quite ‘hysterical’. Because the real issue is the singular, shocking absence of environmental issues (with perhaps the notable exception of climate change) from any kind of contemporary political debate. Surely every reader of Birdwatch would like to see the breeding status of the Skylark or Hen Harrier as subjects of mainstream discussion, because from that would flow reflections upon land usage and practice that affect almost all birds in Britain.

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(apologies: this is the best I could do with a Hen Harrier)

But first let’s tackle Adrian’s assumption that conservation organisations should not ‘do’ politics. The answer is very simple: they don’t. In fact, they cannot do anything that smacks of party politics, because of their status as charities. The Charities Commission forbids it. Organisations like the National Trust or the Wildlife Trusts are rightly reluctant to engage in anything that looks shrill or hysterical. They are always measured and – largely – trusted, but this approach creates its own deficit.

What we get as a consequence is a campaign with the hilarious dottiness of ‘Vote for Bob’. You must have seen it somewhere on your e-travels – Facebook or Twitter – that cute red squirrel asking if you have signed the petition and telling you that ‘A vote for Bob is a vote for nature.’ (https://www.voteforbob.co.uk)

Don’t misunderstand me, I hugely admire the wonderfully dedicated personnel who now make the RSPB the most effective voice for nature in Britain. Moreover I deeply respect the 120,237 people who have signed the petition to date, but let’s be frank, the campaign is gentle to the point of toothlessness. And it is exactly what you get when a charity wants to do politics but has to look as if it is not. Worst than all this, for me, is that ‘Vote for Bob’ will probably be the only meaningful statement about the environment at the next election. That’s how little real nature there is in modern politics.

But let’s now look at ‘shrill’ and ‘hysterical’. If we replace those words with ‘impassioned’ and ‘theatrical’ then I would argue that the groundbreaking Hen Harrier Day – based partly on celebrity, guided by clever social media campaigns and filled with strong rhetoric and timed to coincide with the inglorious 12th – is a form of heady politics. Sometimes it is only when people stand up to be counted and perhaps get carried away and certainly allow themselves to be abused, that voices are really heard.

Hen Harrier Day in some ways resembles another ‘shrill’ protest that took place in the Peak District 82 years earlier. The actual details are relatively mundane. In 1932 a group of several hundred largely working folk from Manchester set out from Hayfield and walked close to the top of Kinder Scout. They were protesting the lack of a right to roam on non-productive private land all over Britain.

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(Here’s the route they took from Hayfield in 1932 up William Clough towards Ashop Head on Kinder)

A smaller subgroup eventually got into a scrap with a gang of stick-wielding gamekeepers. Six of those ramblers were eventually judged by a jury, packed with brigadier-generals and colonels, to have been guilty of ‘riotous assembly’ and imprisoned for up to six months. The whole thing became famous as the ‘Mass Trespass.’

The entire campaign for ordinary British people to have the right to walk on ‘our’ countryside spans 120 years. Between 1884 and 1939, 15 parliamentary bills were submitted before the House of Commons and thrown out or defeated by its landowning incumbents. It was not until this 2000 CROW Act that this citizen’s birthright finally made the statute books. It all involved politics. If you like, some of it was ‘shrill and hysterical’, in fact that part – the so-called Mass Trespass of 1932 – is the only part of all this complex political campaign which people now remember.

For me, the devastating implications of the State of Nature Report in 2013 proclaim one loud and unmistakable truth. Nature now needs all the political action it can get. Perhaps what we really need is a lean, mean, non-charitable pressure group, prepared to do loud, attention-grabbing and – yes – even party politics, funded perhaps by donation or some independent trust. Quiet, measured non-political conservation has got us thus far. Nature now needs a whole lot more.

Partners in Rhyme – The Rialto/RSPB Nature Poetry Competition 2015

It is not every day you get to win Norfolk as a prize. The only drawback is you are only allowed to keep the memories. Yet a day’s safari enjoying the wonderful landscapes and wildlife near where I live is surely one of the most innovative awards you’ll encounter in any writing competition. It comes from Rialto, which is the nation’s most regarded literary magazine (ok little bias there!), although the publication had rather more modest origins. It began life in a Norwich bar, when a group of friends took a chance on creating another poetry journal. Against considerable odds and with a little help from the proceeds of a jumble sale, their offspring flourished and 33 years later one of that initial founding group, Michael Mackmin, is still at the helm as Rialto’s editor-in-chief.

(Here’s a picture of the main man himself. I hope Michael will forgive me but I cannot resist showing you his world-weary visage at the close of the 2012 Nature poetry season when the finalists were just agreed.)

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Even in the earliest stages The Rialto  seemed destined for great things. Among the writers coaxed into submitting material for that first ever A4-format issue were the Canadian novelist and subsequent Booker prize-winner Margaret Atwood, as well as Norfolk’s own laureate the late George Barker and, at that time, a very little-known writer called Carol Ann Duffy. That last link remains unbroken today, because Britain’s first woman laureate is now a staunch ally and official advocate for Rialto.

Three years ago Michael Mackmin embarked on another literary adventure when he teamed up with his Norwich-based friend (and my good friend) the poet and RSPB officer Matt Howard to develop a competition that has fast become a fixture in the world of British verse. Poetry and conservation are not perhaps the most obvious bed-fellows, but Michael and Matt are as enthusiastic for wildlife as they are about words. These partners in rhyme fused together the two ingredients so that, as they put to me so beautifully, ‘we can turn the writer’s creative energies into money that helps wildlife and puts poetry at the lug end of a conservation spade’.

(And here is the brilliant Howard boy almost at the lug end of his conservation spade .. well, ok chopping sallow scrub at Blackwater last autumn)

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The scheme got off to a flying start when it managed to attract Andrew Motion as its first ever judge. (This year it has secured the services of Simon Armitage who, as well as an esteemed poet, is another enthusiast for wildlife. With his friend, the author Tim Dee, he was co-editor of The Poetry of Birds, the best of several recent verse anthologies on nature.)

Birds featured strongly in last year’s crop of winner’s, with the first prize going to ‘Kites’ by HarperCollins and former-Guardian exec Colin Hughes, a rhythmically complex and witty evocation of the scavenging fork-tailed raptors that thrive in the city slums of India. (I tried to find a link for Colin’s poem online so you could read it, but track it down if you can. It’s a fabulous winner.) ‘Kites’ was first choice of the last judge, poet and novelist Ruth Padel, who strikes me as a particularly appropriate figure to be associated with the Rialto competition, given her impressive environmental work and the fact that she is also the great great granddaughter of Charles Darwin!

Birds are always popular subjects among the entries but they’re not the only part of nature to be explored. To date the subject matter of more than 6000 poems from over 20 countries has been enormously diverse, in accordance with the ‘wide interpretation’ of nature that’s explained in the competition rules. So far all life has been there, from slugs to whales and from bees and spiders to entire landscapes. The winner when I was judge was a poem on a large hairy, slightly scary arachnid in Pat Winslow’s ‘East Sabino Sunrise Circle – The Visit’.

To date the Rialto nature poetry competition has raised in the region of £27,000 to fund important conservation work. It’s a creative scheme of which Norfolk should be very proud, yet its founders are also proud of Norfolk – hence their unusual idea for one of the prizes. The stock reward for such poetry events is cash and the top prize this year’s round, which has a closing date for entries on 1 March, is £1000 (See Rialto’s website for full details: http://www.therialto.co.uk/pages/nature-poetry-competition-2014). The second and third prizes are respectively £500 and a week’s course at the wonderful  National Writers’ Centre of Wales at Ty Newydd.

Yet for the last three years I’ve been privileged to accompany one of the competition’s other finalists, along with the Rialto team, in search of Norfolk’s natural riches. The first winner of this al fresco award was the novelist and poet Naomi Foyle, whose poem I absolutely loved when I judged it with Andrew two years ago.

(And here are Andrew and I ‘fighting’ over our respective nominees. It has to be said I think the former poet laureate won through in the end!)

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And for your interest here is Naomi’s glorious elegy to the linnet, one of the most under-rated, beautiful and – woe of woes – seriously declined birds in Britain http://naomifoyle.com/wp/encountering-the-incalculable-a-walk-in-the-norfolk-broads/. Also check out her own blog post on our wonderful day together. She was such a joy to take round the Broads. She will just have to win again, because we never got to show her Norfolk’s crane. Next time Naomi …

But we did have experiences that were no less special: barn owls floating down the field margins in the mist and a late-winter short-eared owl quartering the marshes near Horsey Gap. One moment I also remember when we took Colin out last year was the sight of two male adders sunning themselves on their little tin hibernaculum. They are wonderful creatures. Living poems really.

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It is in moments such as these that you appreciate how cultural riches are integrally entwined with place and nature. The land and the language are part of the same deep fertile soil. So go on get out your pencils and your coats and hats and even if you only come fourth I look forward to showing you the cranes this year. I promise it’s worth at least £1000 ….

(Oh the Holly and) The Ivy

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The holly and the ivy,

Now both are full well grown.

Of all the trees that are in the wood,

The holly bears the crown.

Who doesn’t know these lines and who won’t hear them this Christmas? Yet who doesn’t overlook the fact that the carol celebrates, not one, but two wonderful plants? What is it about the prickly-leaved bush with the red berries that makes us want to deck the halls with its boughs, but the poor old ivy remains firmly in the shadows, literally and symbolically?

This Christmas I think it is time to stand up for Hedera helix and proclaim the many virtues of this wonder species. Yet perhaps to understand the greater popularity of our other Yuletide evergreen we need to begin with those shadows, because ivy is, for many people, still an edgy and even unnerving beast.

The way it creeps slowly up the tree or wall, entwining itself like some great coiled serpent, until it can almost smother its host, gives it an ambiguous quality. Some people mistakenly assume that it parasitises other trees. It doesn’t. It attaches itself by a thousand little adhesive rootlets that take no nutrients from elsewhere, but simply give the plant support and traction as it climbs vertically towards the light.

Because of its evergreen foliage ivy is also able to tolerate genuine conditions of low light and its shadow-cleaving habits have fixed the plant in our imaginations as a creature of decay. In The Englishman’s Flora (1958), Geoffrey Grigson’s wonderful book on plant lore, the author writes: ‘Ruins, owls and ivy go together – or they did until the Ministry of Works decided that ruins were all all to be historical exhibits; picked, pickled, pointed and sterilized.’

The one notable adverse impact of ivy that even the most devoted enthusiast has to admit is the prolific nature of its growth. An ivy plant can bring down the stoutest tree if it becomes too heavy or so bulky that it exposes the host to the impact of high wind. Another consequence of this luxuriance is that it can take light away, especially from hedgerow shrubs, and the ivy flourishes at the expense of its neighbours.

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Yet we should also celebrate ivy’s multiple gifts to our countryside. It creates wonderfully sheltered niches where all sort of other creatures find homes. The fact that it is thick with leaves in winter makes it especially important for roosting birds. Come spring it then offers them places to nest. Wrens and blackbirds love it.

Another important feature of ivy is the way it keeps strange hours compared with other plants. So it flowers in autumn and fruits in winter. Come September or October, when the landscape is largely stripped of sugar and pollen, ivy becomes the main attraction for an entire community of insects. One of the great joys of autumn is a cascading ivy mound smothered in the gentle hum of bees, wasps and bush crickets. Butterflies like red admirals and commas are also partial to those weird green sputnik-like flowers that spring up among the foliage.

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Come true winter when the world is bare of other food sources, those purple ivy fruits are often a lifesaver for many birds. Pigeons in particular relish them but so do lots of other songbirds, including thrushes. One of my most powerful memories of ivy’s generosity was a host of hungry warblers all feasting in spring on some very succulent late fruit.

The plant not only gives back to nature, it is also generous with us. One of the things that makes the dead time from Christmas to March a little more tolerable is that we are not completely without a sense of hope. Those islands of green created by ivy bushes sing out in our landscape about the possibility of life’s renewal. It is surely because of its evergreen potency that ivy was brought in doors with the holly at Christmas. It reminded us that the year was turning and good times would return.

In the distant past ivy had other purposes. It was once used as a source of fodder for sheep and cattle. People also believed that it was imbued with protective magic. Young married couples in ancient Greece were wreathed in ivy as a symbol of their fidelity. In the Scottish Highlands crofters placed ivy plant around their butter, milk and livestock as a way of warding off evil. The leaves were even said to be an early form of après soleil, when they were boiled in butter and smeared on the sunburnt parts.

However my favourite form of ivy is that small scrap of sky blue that flutters across the lawn on warm April mornings. Despite its name, the holly blue butterfly lays eggs on ivy in its second generation. The tiny green caterpillars are little more than the flowers of the plant processed by the butterfly’s respiratory system. So when the adult imago emerges in spring, in effect, you are witness to ivy with the powers of flight.

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