December, the Winter Solstice. The shortest day of the year is here, the tawny owls already hooting in the darkness at 4.30pm, while the owl on the roof of our village hall stonily surveys our gorgeously scintillating village Christmas tree from above.
However I am going to leave the expression of the deepness and darkness of midwinter to the poet John Donne, with this excerpt from his poem A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day:
‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d…
…Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.’
NOVEMBER update. Finally the beech at Meech’s Corner is distributing its copper coinage lavishly all over the ground with the first frosts – hasn’t it been beautiful though, with the westering sun tuning its leaves to brilliant orange and gold in the evenings? Starlings are now congregating in murmurations – you can see them down at Cogden, in the reed beds west of West Bexington; mild, clearing weather after rain is the best sort of time to see them. If it’s too cold they tend to just drop down into the reeds without doing their aerial manoevres. The arable lands around Eggardon are the place to see the winter flocks of fieldfares and redwings – sometimes lapwings and small brown things, including meadow pipits. Now that I have taken to keeping my binocs in the car I may be better able to tell you what those brown things are before next month: if YOU know, let me know! In these times of diminished wildlife generally, it is heartening to see a flock of anything. Meanwhile tawny owls are calling, and we hope that a pair may nest in John and Sue Willows’ owl box erected on one of their trees earlier in the year. The box in the churchyard hornbeams has unfortunately been colonised by squirrels – they have filled it up with leaves to sleep away the cold weather in. This is the last call to take care of your hedgehogs – leave them piles of leaves here and there in dry places such as the garage or woodshed, to hibernate beneath; and of course don’t light a bonfire until you have made sure there isn’t a prickly resident asleep in the bottom of the pile.
And finally, in these tumultuous times we must feel lucky to be close to what is eternal and changeless in our countryside… As Hardy put it in his poem In Time of the ‘Breaking of Nations’:
Only a man harrowing clods In a slow silent walk With an old horse that stumbles and nods Half asleep as they stalk. Only thin smoke without flame From the heaps of couch-grass1; Yet this will go onward the same Though Dynasties pass. Yonder a maid and her wight2 Come whispering by: War's annals will cloud into night Ere their story die.
SEPTEMBER update. The red and golden month. The trees are still green, but sparks of red are everywhere: the last of the painted lady, red admiral and comma butterflies are igniting the Michaelmas daisies, while scarlet hips and haws dot the hedegerows. Orchards are scattering their golden and red apples freely into the grass, and the Lavans’ crab apple tree has been leaning over the wall casting its beautiful orange fruit into the churchyard – help yourselves. Crab apple makes the most beautifully coloured jelly of all fruit.
Your hedgehogs need you! Now is the time to make sure your garden hedgehogs are fat enough to survive the winter’s hibernation – cat food will help. And if you have an open wood store, garage, barn or shed – do leave a pile of dried leaves in one corner – a hedgehog will appreciate that dry spot to spend the winter asleep in. My mother’s log store used to house four or five of the little critters under the beech leaves that had blown in with the autumn gales.
In praise of ivy. This is the month when that most late flowering of wild-flowers comes into its own. Ivy was one of sacred trees of the Druids, and of high esteem throughout antiquity, its leaves forming the wreath of Bacchus, to whom the plant was dedicated, probably because of the practice of binding the brow with ivy leaves to prevent intoxication. Ancient herbals also claim that a handful of ivy leaves bruised and simmered in wine cures a hangover – I haven’t tried it! It is true, though, that In former days, English taverns bore over their doors the sign of an ivy bush, to indicate the excellence of the liquor supplied within. As Shakespeare’s taverner explains at the close of As You Like It: “Wine that is saleable and good needeth no bushe or garland of yvie to be hanged before.”
To those of us who have ivy growing up our houses or walls, it is good to know that it is the only plant which does not make walls damp. It acts as a curtain, the leaves falling in such a way as to make a sort of armour, deflecting the rain and moisture. This month the important thing is to resist cutting it back until it has flowered – because on sunny days its odd little pom-poms of yellow flowers will be teeming with hover-flies, bees, moths, butterflies and gilded flies of every possible description. While we are still having this Indian summer, take a chair out into the garden and enjoy watching the variety on your ivy and listening to the hum. These insects in turn will feed the last of the swallows and house martins, and the odd chiffchaff – still to be heard singing in the hedges.
August has brought hedgehog news to Cattistock: Lisa and Simon Peck discovered a nest of young hedgehogs in their beautiful garden in South Drive. Simon had cast aside a small, untidy pile of leaves, weeds and clippings under his hedge to use as mulch when it had rotted down – only to find that Mrs Tiggywinkle had got there first and successfully raised three hoglets in it, now old enough to be out and about. ‘Every one of my clipped box squares seemed to have another hedgehog under it’ said eagle-eyed Simon who nightly spots the little beasts rummaging around in the flower borders, no doubt eating the slugs and snails that are the bane of gardeners. Simon and Lisa never use slug pellets, which poison hedgehogs – and it seems this is their reward: a truly biological solution to the problem!
The Pecks’ residents may be related to the churchyard hedgehogs – the church PCC is working on a project to make our churchyard as wildlife friendly as possible, and its own marvellous clippings-and-compost heaps have ensured the survival of many of these charming creatures, as well as much other wildlife.
Senior residents of Cattistock will remember how common hedgehogs were in gardens in the 1950s, with a nationwide population estimated at 30 million. But that has plummeted to fewer than one million today, with – alarmingly – a third of this loss taking place in the past decade, and the decline quicker in rural than urban areas. This is attributed to fragmentation of habitats: they can’t wander between gardens in the way they used to. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society stresses the value of back gardens as a refuge – “particularly if you can make a few, small holes at the bottom of your fences – six inches or 13cms will do”. The intensification of farming has played a large part (insecticides and loss of thick, wild hedges); and predation by badgers. Unfortunately badgers are well able to open up hedgehogs with their powerful claws, and one such unlucky disembowelled creature has been found on Ellerslie land, and another recently in Duck Street (pictured) – just its skin remaining.
Badger-proof gardens provide a natural refuge for hedgehogs, especially if gardeners can leave the odd pile of leaves in a dry place here and there… the Pecks’ miniature compost heap shows just how little a hedgehog needs to help it survive – and reproduce.
Have you seen a hedgehog recently? Do let me know where and when – Merrily Harpur, firstname.lastname@example.org or 01300 320064.
Wednesday morning 3rd July: I had just finished emailing bee-log creator Matt Somerville with the sad news that, after initial bee-interest, there does not seem to be a colony in our churchyard log hive, and gone despondently down to the shop to do some shopping, when Hilary Summerfield burst in saying there’s a massive swarm of bees flying round the churchyard… And indeed Michelle confirmed they had flown up the the street earlier (heading in the other direction) causing her to have to shut the door. So I dashed down, and sure enough there they were, swarming in thousands around the bee-log and a big cluster working its way in through the little holes. When I returned fifteen minutes later they were nearly all in it. Hooray! Our church swifts were swooping low over the square picking off the stragglers.
Wednesday evening: Dog walkers Cathy Evans and Sean Lavan (their dogs are closely related) report that the hive continues VERY busy… so let’s hope these good bees are permanent residents and that this is not just a holiday let for them. Click this link – The swarm arrives – and when it has downloaded (check bottom left corner of your pc screen) double click it to make the vid play.
It is very heartening to hear the swifts screaming around the rooftops to make up for the fact that swallows are in such short numbers this year. One pair are nesting in Markers, but do let me know if you have some nesting in your domain. 01300 320064.
With the warm weather bats come out. A serotine bat plies over the Duck Street gardens, and pipistrelles in the churchyard, among other species I hope to name as the summer goes on. The reason I can do this is that I now have a bat detector, which identifies species by their ultrasonic calls. SO… if you would like me to identify the bats in your garden, give me a shout and I will pop over with my magic machine. Merrily Harpur 01300 320063 or email@example.com
At last – the Midsummer month – when all the roses are out, or nearly all, The rain has plumped up our gardens, but washed most of the insects to the ground – to the detriment of the hirundines who catch only airborne ones. However the swifts have been shrieking around the church, always the joyous sound of summer. Swallows seem thin on the ground, though I aim to research further and report again at the end of the month. One of the Nelsons’ artificial house-martin nests is again occupied this year – we in Duck Street are watching it hopefully. Last year sparrows took up residence before the house-martins could get there, but this year Patrick Nelson stuffed up the holes with paper – restoring the openings only when the house martins actually turned up – a triumph of good timing.
Efforts by the PCC are continuing to make the churchyard a wildlife haven for the whole village to enjoy, with rough areas and wildflower areas as well as the mown bits. A hedgehog has been seen there by Cathy Evans, and another by David Orr on his land near the churchyard – though his, alas, had been disembowelled by a badger. There have been very few butterflies about since the initial flush of brimstones earlier in the year – I have seen one red admiral and that’s about all. Do let me know what you have spotted: firstname.lastname@example.org or 320064.
Compost heaps are wonderful places for grass snakes and slow-worms. If your heap is in a sunny position, some black plastic on top, or roof slates or corrugated iron, will provide a warm nursery for slow-worm babies – like little golden pencils – easily visible if you lift up the cover carefully.
The scent of bluebells is in the air – at least of the native English kind, the Spanish ‘garden’ varieties don’t smell – and the first swallows are back in Cattistock. If you would like to have these wonderful birds nesting in your shed, stable or garage, just leave the door open – you could get lucky. If we have a dry spell, turn the hose on a patch of mud in the drive or farmyard or lane – they need it to make their nests. Lay a slate or tile flat in a sunny, undisturbed part of the garden and after a while you could find a slow-worm warming up underneath… they are the gardener’s friend and eat all kinds of unwelcome bugs. Want to see a sparrowhawk? – the alarm calls of other birds will tell you where it is – attune yourself! And having attuned yourself, download a useful app called Chirp! and see how many of Cattistock’s birds you can identify in a half-hour walk.
Last month Matt Somerville installed one of his fantastic bee-kind hives in the ash tree in the churchyard. We are hoping it will soon be colonised, and Matt will return at the end of summer to view progress. His hollow-log hives are designed to benefit their occupants, rather than humans, and to promote the health and well-being of wild English bees. Have a read of his web at – beekindhives.uk Bees have also returned to the church roof, whence they were rudely evicted in less enlightened times, but this time efforts are underway – thanks to Sean Lavan who is organising repair to the plaster – to make sure they do not get inside the church itself. Now all we need do is sow masses of bee-friendly flowers, shrubs and wildflowers for them to make honey with, and keep an eye on News & Notices for news of any bee colonies taking up residence in the log hive.
March – with satisfying obedience to tradition – ‘came in like a lion and out like a lamb’. Brimstone butterflies took off around the village during the warm latter days, and even the odd small tortoiseshell visited the primroses. The chiffchaff arrived – the first of the summer migrant birds to do so – and can be heard chiffing and chaffing in Duck Street and Back Lane.
Ramsons are burgeoning in the lanes – delicious in salads. Don’t forget to sniff the white violets on the bank opposite the Jones’s stone shed at Prospect farm.
Our garden ponds have been full of frogspawn – and now tadpoles – since February. Toads spawn a little later, but the tiny toad tadpoles are busy eating the blanket weed in my pond now. Establishing a pond is probably the single most effective way of increasing the numbers and diversity of local wildlife… it doesn’t have to be big – a hole in the ground the size of a kitchen sink will do for starters! What’s in your pond? I’d love to know. Email me at email@example.com
THE WILDLIFE OF CATTISTOCK, OVERVIEW:
Most Dorset villages offer diverse habitats for native flora and fauna, but Cattistock offers more than most. Almost every dwelling has a garden, and many of them are managed for the benefit of birds and insects as well as us humans. Interesting rarities often visit – a nightjar was photographed taking its ease on a sun lounger in a garden at Duck Street! And an otter was recently snapped making its way down Mill Lane past the village shop.
The contingent farmland is mainly pasture, dotted with copses and criss-crossed with footpaths – plenty of scope for the now-rare farmland birds, and the opportunity to spot them. Our valley, Lankham Bottom, is a noted butterfly reserve, with glow-worms on its chalk escarpments too.
At the heart of the village is the church and churchyard, a central green space seething with wildlife if you know where to look. On summer evenings at least five species of bat whirl above your head, while the swifts which nest in the church buildings speed shrieking around the rooftops as dusk falls. Some of the churchyard’s most famous visitors are the hawfinches which flock in winter to the magnificent row of hornbeams which border its south side, and following them the flocks of bird-watchers from all over the county. Dog-walkers sometimes encounter the now rare hedgehog foraging among the graves at night. In spring and summer the graveyard is a carpet of wild flowers, and the church’s programme of grass cutting is managed to ensure that they continue to proliferate.
The Friends of Cattistock church aim to implement a scheme to increase habitats for wildlife of all kinds around the church, perhaps in time to acquire a gold medal for conservation from the Eco Church Foundation.
In the wider village other steps are afoot to enhance the presence of wildlife. Tawny and barn owls boxes, made here in the village, have gone up this autumn, under the auspices of the Dorset Owl and Bird Box Society – a Cattistock-based initiative. Boxes for swallows and house martins were added to many of the houses, sheds and stables of the village this spring.
Plans to help slow the disastrous decline in honey bees are also underway… Matt Somerville, the brother of artist Liz Somerville, sometime of this village, will visit next year to explain how to do this – beekindhives.uk
Wildlife is more than ever dependent on us humans – to notice it, to include it, and most of all to enjoy it. We need all the observations we can get to form a picture of the wildlife in Cattistock, and thus to help it all thrive. Such information also goes to form a nationwide picture, though such agencies as the Dorset Wildlife Trust. So, if YOU have noticed anything unusual – more or fewer than usual insects or butterflies for instance, or variations in migratory species of birds, hedgehog encounters, the odd unexpected wildlife visitor or wildflower… or just anything that has attracted your attention – please contact the editor of this page Merrily Harpur, on 01300 320064. We will flag it up on this page – (named after the special table where we used to put our wildlife finds at primary school) and also pin it on the web’s News & Notices.