Columnists

Rob Yorke

Saturday, December 13 2014

A woodland detective story in the dying year
Nature Notebook
The grass has turned brown, folding in tussocks around bare-leafed saplings in my wood. I saw my first
woodcock of the year on a late evening walk. It was too dark for colour but some of the best sightings are
will-o’-the-wisp figures in darkening woodland: silhouette of roebuck’s antler; oak branches against
gloaming sky; flickering December moth. The late PD James said that autumn “lends itself to a detective
story through the dying light” as nature conceals itself with darkness, a “melancholy in the dying of the
year”.
Light drops fast in the countryside on these winter eves. Silent crepuscular woodcock fly from the wood to
open pastures to probe for earthworms using the sensitive ends of their long bills. Our resident birds are
joined in November by a hungry influx from Siberia — one was even found exhausted on a street in
Birmingham. These doe-eyed waders are rarely seen except by hunters and those who venture into wild
thickets.
Scientists are intrigued by woodcock. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has its own dedicated
expert; Dr Andrew Hoodless has spent countless cold nights trapping woodcock and gently fitting satellite
tags to record their extraordinary migrations. One, named Monkey, has been tracked, over a two year
period, travelling 12,117 miles to and from his summer habitat in northeast Russia — closer to Japan than
the UK. I hope my young mixed-species wood provides shelter for woodcock
in the future. You can follow the tagged birds at woodcockwatch.com.

Marsh music
We are island dwellers and should breathe a lungful of sea air at least once a year, for the rewards are
great.
As winter closes in, the estuaries are filling with life and early morning is the best time to hear nature in
all its glory, like a stadium before a concert. My Celtic roots draw me to a tongue of river that carves its
way through the craggy outline of southern Snowdonia. John Masefield’s words echo in my head as I
stride out into a southwesterly gale across the salt marshes of the Mawddach estuary:
I must go down to the seas again,

for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that
may not be denied.
The haunting echo of a curlew’s call breaks the dawn, followed by the falsetto of dunlin and ringed
plovers; a whistling pack of wigeon whoosh overhead backed up by honking Greenland white-fronted
geese on the water front.
If this is all too wild, you could always get up later and, after a pint at the pub at Penmaenpool, saunter
across to the old signal box run by the RSPB at its Arthog Bog nature reserve. Now that, in my book, is a
right royal box when it comes to hearing the tail-end of the concert unfolding across the estuary.

Too cute to cull?
Chances are that a grey squirrel, left, will be featured on a Christmas card. The “cute factor” has given this
intelligent species a head start in defending itself against being one of the main targets of Biodiversity
2020, a project to reverse wildlife decline by, among other steps, “tighter controls on alien invasive
species”. There is no strict point at which a species becomes identified as alien but the website
nonnativespecies.org has a list that seems to grow at a frightening rate.
Grey squirrels amuse us, they connect us to the natural world from the kitchen window. The trouble is
that nature also demonstrates just how successfully invaders manage to pillage our defenceless residents.
Greys get blamed for many wrongs; giving the pox to red squirrels, damaging trees, devastating bird
feeders and destroying songbirds. Conservationists are caught in a conundrum of “outing” a species that
threatens biodiversity while shying away from lethal control of a publicly popular species.
All are agreed that grey squirrels are a major threat to native broadleaf woodlands — any 15-year-old
beech, sweet chestnut, sycamore or oak is susceptible to bark stripping, which kills the tree. Simon Lloyd,
from the Royal Forestry Society, is concerned that unless grey squirrels are curtailed, we must consider
planting non-native broadleaf trees that aren’t attractive to them.
The society is part of a working group comprising the Red Squirrel Survival Trust and Forestry
Commission England, supported by other conservation organisations such as the RSPB, which aims to
launch its Squirrel Accord next year.
There may be some tough decisions for nature conservation today if we want to fill our landscape with
trees and hang on to some of our native wildlife for tomorrow.