Grouse in winter

I took a walk on the Moor in the snow this week. I don't think I ever saw so many red grouse up there.

It used to be thought that the red grouse was Britain's only endemic bird species: the only one found here and nowhere else. According to the latest taxonomic thinking, however, the red grouse is merely a sub-species of the willow grouse, which is found in Scandinavia and other places surrounding the Arctic Circle.

Bollocks to that. Unlike the willow grouse, the red grouse doesn't turn white in winter. I reckon that's good enough grounds for counting it as a separate species.

The fact that the red grouse doesn't turn white in winter helps explain how I managed to see so many of them this week. Rather than being, as is usually the case, nicely camouflaged amongst the reddish-brown heather, they stuck out like sore thumbs against the snow.

In previous winters, I've noticed how grouse habits change in very cold weather. They seem to congregate in greater numbers. I saw one low-flying flock of over 20 birds this week. In addition, they take flight later than they normally would as I approach, and don't kick up nearly as much of a commotion when they finally do take off. I'm guessing both these of these changes help preserve energy in the cold weather.

Red grouse

One thing I've never seen before, however, is red grouse perched on fence posts. I saw three of them doing so this week. Again, I'm guessing this was to preserve energy by keeping out of the snow.

Red grouse
Red grouse

Staying warmer at the expense of becoming more conspicuous: one of the millions of risky trade-offs animals have to make every day.

A new favourite place

I had a day out with my old friend Mike in Cumbria this week. Nothing as adventurous nor reckless as our canoe trip to Wild Cat Island almost exactly a year ago; just a pleasant stroll along the headland at Humphrey Head near Grange-over-Sands.

In the coffee shop beforehand, I had explained to Mike how I am drawn in particular to bleak, open landscapes. How, for example, I prefer the ruggedness of the Yorkshire Dales to the—dare I say it?—somewhat more twee Lake District. It's a subject, I now recall, that I touch upon in my book—so at least I'm being consistent. I told Mike about the time I stood in the driving rain on a windswept cliff top at Brandon Head in Ireland—a place Mike knows well—gazing out into the Atlantic, watching the gannets fly by. Come to think of it, it was probably standing there, in the rain on Brandon Head, that first made me realise just how much I love bleak, empty landscapes. Which explains part of the appeal of my beloved Moor.

As it turned out, we were lucky with the weather, but Humphrey Head still had a wonderfully bleak feel to it. I took to the place immediately. The limestone headland reminded me very much of my favourite walk in Anglesey—even though, the tide being out, unlike in Anglesey, salt marsh and sands stretched almost to the horizon.

Mike was extremely patient while I faffed around taking loads of photographs. I have to say, I'm quite pleased with the results:

View from Humphrey Head
View from Humphrey Head
Humphrey Head
Humphrey Head

Once home, I texted Mike, thanking him for suggesting the walk, describing Humphrey Head as a new addition to my list of favourite places: an accolade I do not award lightly.

More photos on Flickr

Autumn alignments

In mid-summer, the sun rises late above our house. We live on a steep hill; the skyline of the Moor to the north and east looms above us. The high ground of the Moor is surprisingly flat, so our north-eastern horizon is still horizontal, albeit well above eye-level. By the time the sun finally climbs above it, the red of dawn has already left the sky.

As the Earth's tilt turns slowly away from the sun, sunrise moves a fraction of a degree farther to the right each morning. Come the equinox, it has left the Moor behind, rising above our friend's farm to the east. From there, her fields—and our horizon—fall away. The sun begins to rise more on schedule, more red, but climbs lower in the sky. Autumn is here.

A week or so after the equinox, depending on the weather, there comes a first morning of alignment, when the rays of the newly risen sun, filtered by the needles of the fir tree next to the garden gate, angle through our deep-set mullioned windows, pass over the sink, and strike the painted wall of our kitchen. It's an alignment which pleases me immensely. Our kitchen might not be of World Heritage Site calibre just yet, but the alignment is a reminder that our house sits on the same spinning rock as Stonehenge and Newgrange, and that you can tell the time of year simply by looking at the shadows cast on its walls. When the abstract, curving silhouette of our kitchen tap appears right there, on the west wall, you know for sure it's not long past the autumnal equinox.

Kitchen tap shadow

I love the photographic quality of the shadow. The projected, high-contrast, monochrome image always reminds me—obliquely, in more way than one—of Henry Fox Talbot's famous 1835 image of a latticed window at Lacock Abbey, the negative of which—the world's oldest—is stored safely away from the rising sun's rays, a few miles down the road, deep in the bowels of the National Media Museum in Bradford.

As the sun continues to rise, the shadow slowly becomes less distorted, more square, migrating diagonally down the wall. As more of the sun's rays begin to enter the house, it heads off across the floor, becoming lost in the growing light.

There is a reprise. The equinox past, less than 12 hours after sunrise, the sun sets just to the south of west. You can watch it through another of our kitchen windows. Again, the sun's low rays are filtered—by the leaves of our cherry tree this time—before casting the shadow of the orchid on the windowsill on to the opposite wall, just above the bin. The sunset lends the resulting image a softer, more autumnal, sepia pastel tint.

Orchid shadow

Seeing purple

I haven't been on the Moor quite as much as usual over the last few months. I've been out and about, working on a new project—of which, no doubt, more later. But I couldn't let mid-August pass without a photographic excursion up to my favourite trig point and along the edge.

The Moor is at peak-purple at this time of year. For a few short weeks each summer, its magnificently drab brown hues become engorged with mauve. It's everywhere you look. All this colour seems a positive extravagance. Not very Yorkshire at all. Not that Yorkshire is noted for its discretion, you understand. But purple: there can be few gaudier colours. It's almost as if the heather is trying to catch our attention—or draw it away from something else. The annual bloodbath that commences on the so-called Glorious Twelfth of August, perhaps. The British army used to wear red tunics to conceal bloodshed; perhaps that's why our moorland heather turns purple at this time of year. Or perhaps it's just a reminder to the grouse to keep their heads down.

Trig point

As it happens, I spook a twelve-pack of grouse as I approach the trig point. I've not seen so many together before. Safety in numbers, maybe. They launch into the air in uncharacteristic silence and head off low across the heather. Usually, they would kick up one hell of a commotion, no doubt causing me to jump out of my skin and bellow, but not this time. Perhaps they've learnt to keep a low profile in the shooting season.

The Moor in heather

When I was at primary school, aged about six or seven, the teachers used to tell us stories about how Jesus had died to save our souls. I struggled with this concept. An incorrigible materialist even then, I decided they must be talking about a physical organ inside my body. I had a vague idea what my heart, lungs and stomach were for, but my soul...? I deduced it must be that strange, purple-coloured organ nestling between my lungs and my stomach that I'd seen in a brightly illustrated children's encyclopaedia entry about the organs of the body. To this day, I'm still not entirely sure what my liver is for. But one thing I do know: in the unlikely event that there is indeed such thing as a human soul, my soul will be the colour of Yorkshire heather in August.

Sheep grazing in the heather

More photos from my walk

The nearly dead tree

I walk alongside the fence at the edge of the Moor. It's mid-April, the week before Easter. Lapwings tumble and whoop above the fields to my right. There seem to be more of them this year, which has to be a good thing. Lapwings are, without doubt, one of my top-ten birds.

Fence at the edge of the Moor.
Fence at the edge of the Moor

Despite the strong, cold breeze, it has finally begun to feel more like spring. I saw my first swallows and wheatears of the year the week before last. The skylarks and meadow pipits were in full song up at the trig point twenty minutes ago. The grouse are starting to sound more boisterous—not that they don't always sound boisterous. On the slope above me, the wheezing pipe of a golden plover calls from somewhere in the heather.

Rooks wheel and bob in the up-draft above the edge. One of them has something white in its beak. An early egg, perhaps. The other rooks begin mobbing it. It heads off across the fields, a couple of its more persistent colleagues in hot pursuit.

The fence becomes a wall. I navigate a boggy section of the path and, climbing the stile at the end of the wall, enter the enclosed corner of the Moor known as Johnny House. They used to quarry up here. Johnny House, whatever it was, is just a pile of stones and a few old beams now. It must have fallen into disrepair many years ago: a sizeable tree now grows out of the rubble.

Johnny House
Johnny House

I pass the ruin and head up the slope. I'm on a mission. I've come this way, as I do each spring, to check if an old friend has managed to survive another winter.

At some point in the unrecorded past, two trees grew side-by-side just above Johnny House. I presume both were blown down, perhaps in the same gale. One tree is very much dead, its trunk snapped right through a couple of inches above ground level. The other tree, the nearly dead tree, has somehow managed to cling on. Or so it had the last time I checked.

The nearly-dead tree.
The nearly dead tree

Both trees lie, as they have always lain since I first came up here twenty years ago, sprawled inelegantly across what is left of the drystone wall bounding the enclosure. The tree on the left, the dead tree, has lost all of its branches, most of its bark, and has snapped into several large fragments. If anything, the nearly dead tree looks to be in even worse shape, having been rent in half, top to bottom. Its denuded left half resembles the dead tree, and is every bit as dead. Its right half has come off slightly better, having managed to retain most of its bark, and a single side-branch bearing actual twigs. It is these twigs that I have come to inspect.

But first, a brew. I sit on the wall between the two recumbent trees and unscrew the lid of my flask.

For years, I assumed the nearly dead tree was an elder. I'm not very good at trees, but decided it had an elderish look to it, going by its general size, and deeply rutted bark. But I've recently come to the conclusion that the nearly dead tree and its late companion are more likely to be goat willows. This change of mind was prompted by my more confident identification of another goat willow on my way down from the Moor a few summers ago. The tree in question's leaves were covered in tiny emerald beetles. It was trying to identify these beetles that made me look more closely at the tree they had congregated on. It was then that I noticed the tree's similarity to the nearly dead tree. After much clueless internet searching, I eventually concluded that the beetles were none other than Plagiodera versicolora, a type of leaf-beetle which feeds on willow. Which led to my concluding that I was looking at a goat willow, not an elder. Which made me suspect that I might have misidentified the nearly dead tree as well.

Like I said, I'm not very good at trees. But at least I'm trying.

The nearly-dead tree.
The nearly dead tree

I admire the trunk of the nearly dead tree as I drink my tea. It was the trunk that first attracted my attention. It contains several crevices and hollows, niches in which other plants such as moss, bilberry and tormentil seem to thrive. Life is good at finding new ways of making a living. My new friend the botanist Johnny Turner informs me that plants which live on other plants in this way are known as epiphytes: one of those words you never thought there would be a need for, but, once you know it, seems extremely handy. I've been trying to slip it into everyday conversation ever since. Well, not so much slip as crowbar. From the photos I've sent him of the nearly dead tree, Johnny provisionally concurs with my goat willow hypothesis, although he says he'll need to see it in person before he can say for sure. So, I've arranged to come for a walk up here with him in a couple of weeks' time.

Bilberry growing on the nearly-dead tree.
Bilberry growing on the nearly dead tree

My cup of tea finished, I take a deep breath and clamber over the wall. The moment of truth has arrived. I twist my way between the nearly dead tree's prostrate limbs to inspect its sole remaining branch. I'll be really pissed off if it has finally given up the ghost. But something tells me the nearly dead tree will still be going long after I'm dead and buried.

Wonderful news, it's just as I hoped: the twigs on the nearly dead tree's last branch are covered in half-opened leaf-buds. The tree has survived yet another winter. It is still only nearly dead.

Renewed signs of life on the nearly-dead tree.
Renewed signs of life on the nearly dead tree

I'm more delighted than I would care to admit. The hopeless fight against entropy continues: the nearly dead tree might be down, but it's not out. Not yet.

Respect where it's due: it might be an unseemly wreck—a mere shade of its former self—but the nearly dead tree carries on as best it can, fulfilling its sole purpose in life: being a tree.

Postscript, May 2014: Since writing this article, I have taken Johnny Turner to see the nearly dead tree, which Johnny confirmed is indeed a goat willow.

Glorious melancholy

My partner, Jen, and I spent last weekend at Filey on the North Yorkshire coast. We had gone there to celebrate what was, in her own words, ‘a significant birthday’ for Jen. When you get to our age, they all start to feel significant.

There's something gloriously melancholic about the seaside in winter. The sparse land- and sea-scape seem reflective somehow. The light is different: metallic. The summer attractions are in hibernation. The dog-walkers on the beach are wrapped up against the bracing northerlies. As we stood on the headland of Carr Ness, looking east, out across the North Sea, it felt almost as if we had reached the end of the Earth: Finisterre. In reality, the next landfall was in Northern Germany, 360 miles away.

Carr Ness, Filey.

Even though we had a wonderful time, the photos I took during our stay reflected the general mood of melancholy. I kind of like them:

Second World War gun emplacement, Filey.

Exploring my damp patch

I'm currently re-reading Richard Mabey's uplifting masterpiece, Nature Cure. The book describes Mabey's more-or-less enforced transplantation to Norfolk, and the reawakening of his love for the natural world, following a two-year period of bed-ridden depression. At one point, he tells the tale of going on a ‘plant twitch’ in search of the yellow star-of-Bethlehem, Gagea lutea, in Wayland Wood, part of his new local patch:

A quarter of a century on […] I'd still never seen the plant, and knew it only from illustrations in books, where it looked rather like a diminutive and unprepossessing celandine. I had no idea of its jizz, or the sort of spring weather that might overcome its notorious disinclination to come into flower, or even the kind of woodland niche it favoured. I was a trufflehound without its nose. So I quartered the wood, tacking across its mysterious earthworks. I peered round all its inner recesses, in the coppice glades, along the edges of the rides, in the patches of dapple under the taller trees. I tried to be clever and nudge my way down tracks that had brushwood piled in front of them, thinking that this might be a deliberate deterrent to Gagea stalkers. But I knew I was hunting blind. I didn't find a thing. I was a stranger and a train-spotter and it served me right.

A (mostly) clueless amateur plant-spotter like myself can take immense comfort from the idea of such an authority on wild flowers as Richard Mabey blundering around a wood, not at all sure if he's seeking his quarry in the right place, or in the right conditions. It's a feeling I know all too well—although, in my case, the blundering has been mostly around bogs.

Drosera rotundifolia
The round-leaved sundew, Drosera rotundifolia.
From Insectivorous Plants, by Charles Darwin (1875).

For many years, I've sought in vain for a particular wild flower on my own local patch. It's up there, I'm sure, on my beloved Moor: I feel it in my bones. A plant that inspired my hero, Charles Darwin, to write an entire book on insectivorous plants: the round-leaved sundew, Drosera rotundifolia.

Drosera rotundifolia is a plant which grows in waterlogged, acidic, nutrient-poor soils—for which, read peat bogs. It acquires the precious nutrients it needs from insects, which it traps in the sweet, sticky droplets it secretes on its leaves (the eponymous dew of sundew). Once an insect becomes stuck in the droplets, the sundew slowly wraps its leaf around the doomed creature to ingest its bodily fluids. Animal-eating plants: what's not to like?

I've kept my eye out for Drosera ever since I was transplanted from the Wirral to West Yorkshire twelve years ago. We have peat bogs coming out of our ears up here. But no joy. I've had tip-offs about where to look for sundews, but, the problem is, I don't want to see them on any old moor; I want to see them on the Moor—my local Moor—Moor with a capital M.

I'm up on the Moor every week or so, but have so far failed to spot a sundew. Then, a year or so back, I saw Alan Titchmarsh talking about Drosera rotundifolia on the telly, and realised I'd been getting the scale all wrong. It's hard to judge a plant's size from a book illustration. When I imagined Drosera rotundifolia digesting insects, I had heather-flies and horse-flies in mind. It turns out those would be a bit of a mouthful for poor Drosera; gnats and midges are more its size. The plant is a far smaller than I'd expected. Time to look more closely…


1st August, 2013. Yorkshire Day. What better excuse do I need for getting out on to the Moor? The weather might be oppressive, but the words just haven't been flowing. I need to clear my head. The Moor is the best place to do that.

I head up the track, through the stile, and on to the Moor proper. Meadow pipits scatter into the purpling heather. Sheep raise their heads, then return to their grazing. A grouse clucks somewhere in the distance. After the recent thunderstorms, I thought it safest to wear my boots, but the first bog is almost dry, with only a couple of small pools glinting through the rushes. I follow the flagged track through what's left of the bog, then turn left, up the final steep climb, and wind my way through the quarries and heather to the trig point.

Looking towards Stoodley Pike Monument from Trig Point 4144.
Looking towards Stoodley Pike Monument from Trig Point 4144.

As always, I touch the whitewashed concrete column to make it official, then turn to take in the view. Good grief, it really is muggy! Anyone might think those were clouds shrouding Stoodley Pike, but it's just a humid haze; the real clouds are much higher.

I turn along the edge. Without warning, a grouse explodes out of the heather at my feet, causing me to emit my customary startled-by-a-grouse bellow: HUU­UUU­­UUU­­URR­R­RRR! Bloody grouse! I don't deal with sudden shocks at all well. Over the years, the local grouse have reduced me to a nervous wreck. Then, a split-second later, two further explosions. The grouse head off low across the heather, disappearing over the camber of the hill.

A flushed grouse heads off low across the heather.
A flushed grouse heads off low across the heather.

I pause to regain my composure, then continue along the edge and drop down, taking a narrow track across the expanse towards the air-shafts. There are some particularly boggy patches over this way. The trick is to search for cotton grass. It's on its way out now, after June's spectacular show, but there are still plenty of white seed-tufts bobbing in the light breeze. Cotton grass seed-tufts a sure sign of bogs (so are its rusty stalks, once the tufts have gone).

Cotton grass.
Cotton grass.

I circumnavigate a couple of pools, stepping gingerly from tussock to tussock, crouching down every so often to peer and prod amongst the mosses. There are plenty of flies around, but no sign of Drosera. Then I spot a movement to my right, out of the corner of my eye. I turn, but there's nothing. I must have imagined it. I return my attention to the moss. There it is again: definite movement! I turn to see a fat, squat creature sloping off into a clump of rushes. A newt! I haven't seen a newt since I was about nine! All the years I've been coming up here, and I had no idea there were newts on the Moor. I am elated, but decide to leave the poor creature alone—even though I'd dearly love to photograph it.

A few more pools, and I decide it's time to head for home. No, I didn't manage to track down my elusive sundew. Not today. But where would the fun be if such things were easy? The whole point of having a local patch is to get to know it as well as you can. What better way to explore the Moor really close-up than by going on a wild Drosera chase? If I hadn't, I would never have discovered there are newts on the Moor. Newts: who'd have thought it? So what if I still have no proof that Drosera is up here? There's always next time. There always is, on your local patch.

Finding new ways

Milk bottle garden.

An occasional recurring theme in my book On the Moor is the idea that ‘life is good at finding new ways’.

The level at which evolution occurs is a hotly debated subject, but I like to keep things simple: genes mutate; individuals are selected; species evolve. The majority of the times I use the phrase life is good at finding new ways, I'm referring to the evolution of species. But sometimes I'm referring to something else: how individual organisms find themselves in strange new places, but somehow get by (which can occasionally be the first step in the evolution of new species).

In the first chapter of the book, I write about how certain individual plants have found themselves growing on top of some of the fence-posts that bound the Moor. I write about one fence-post in particular, which I nickname the Niche, on account of its being an interesting new niche in which plants have somehow found themselves. (I go on to discuss the somehow, obviously.)

Ecological niche
The Niche.

Last week, walking on the Moor, I spotted an even more unusual niche: an old milk bottle. It was packed with moss, grass and ferns, which seemed, if anything, to be thriving:

Bottle garden
Niche 2.

I don't know how long this second, perilously fragile Niche will survive, located as it is in a moorland gateway on top of a millstone grit set (paving stone). But, unlike us, the plants living in Niche 2 don't have any choice in the matter: they're stuck with the hand life has dealt them, and are simply getting on with being plants.

That's what plants do. Extremely well.