Utterly Undiscovered – Fur Coated Visitors

These two snippets from my book Utterly Undiscovered describe our wildlife lessons as newcomers to the countryside:

*

Having been city dwellers, it took us a while to appreciate the range of creatures that would turn up on our remote country doorstep. Our idea of wildlife was squirrels scurrying up trees, red deer grazing at the edge of verdant forests and buzzards floating on warm currents off the Stiperstones – all to the background music of some Beatrix Potter movie.

Buzzards there certainly were. Thriving in ideal terrain, their faint miaowing and graceful spirals drawing the eye, they ventured closer each year, especially in winter when foraging in the hills was less fruitful. Near the back door one morning I find a giant specimen perched on a post checking the brookside grass for signs of a decent meal. Disturbed from his vigil, he turns and stares long enough for me to get a rare close-up of his sharp eyes and iron beak, the tools of a survivor.

Of course there are plenty of squirrels, and as well as common garden birds we have goldcrests in the conifers, crying curlews each spring in Geoff’s field and dippers, herons and grey wagtails using the brook.

What we hadn’t thought was that it was also a perfect setting for the squatters of the animal kingdom – mice, moles, shrews, voles and rats – many of whom wanted equal ownership.

*

Moles come and go. Romany moles. When they arrive it’s like an army has invaded,     though it’s normally a lone explorer. I wage war with Mr Mole. I don’t need another range of hills – the Stiperstones are fine. Although we’d sacrificed a lot of grass for Jack’s soccer pitches and made gorgeous flower borders in its place, the idea was to keep the rest as lawn. If Mr Mole chose to build castles and dungeon-runs in the borders – fine. But in the lawn – let battle commence.

It can drag on for days. To make up for their poor eyesight the suspicious creatures have an extraordinary sense of smell and a strong instinct telling them something’s not right. To stay friendly with the NSPCM (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Moles), I started with humane deterrents – a child’s plastic windmill stuck in a hillock or a talking greetings card delivered first class to the entry hole. I was especially hopeful with a card from the “Moles” section in my local Spar shop (just under “Granddaughter’s Birthdays”) saying:

Hello Mr Mole. Please go away. Or else.

‘You do realise moles don’t understand English?’ Debbie said.

I hadn’t thought of that. And having also failed to discourage the little dears with a slow release gas cartridge, I resort to Jack’s country recipe:

Ingredients

One stout wooden stick

Galvanised-iron spring traps from local farm merchants

One pair well-used garden gloves

Large leaves – foxgloves etc

Method

Push stick firmly into raised grass until it goes in without resistance

Repeat in same area to determine direction of run

Excavate neat hole in run, putting turf to one side

Set trap and lower into run, wearing gloves to mask human smell

Place pieces of turf and leaf around trap handles to block out light

The trap now forms part of the run

Set remaining traps in other areas

Check daily to see if traps have been sprung (handles will be released)

It’s hit-and-miss, but always hit in the end. At first the canny fellow teases me, switching burrows, starting new ones or pushing soil ahead to trigger the finely poised trap. But eventually he gets careless. Finding the slain invader means I’ve rescued my lawn. Fair cop – I did try to warn him off. But the victory is hollow. It seems sad that a velvety, perfectly-proportioned, underground powerhouse should have to meet such a sticky end.

Note to self: find a greetings card with instructions in native mole language.

Utterly Undiscovered          Out early spring 2013  

Fineleaf Editions  www.fineleaf.co.uk

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2 

Paul Costello © November 2012

www.paulcostello.me

@PaulCostello8

Advertisements

We Three Swans

 

 

For my birthday in February, Tess treated me to an overnight stay at Aberdovey, a small seaside village within Snowdonia National Park on the north side of the Dovey (Dyfi) estuary. We stayed at the Sea Breeze Bed and Breakfast and Restaurant, in a bright, spacious room looking straight across the river, though a heavy sea fret meant we’d have to wait until morning to enjoy the view.

In summer Aberdovey is a haven for watersport enthusiasts and for families enjoying the fine sand and thriving little harbour, perfect for crabbing. In winter it is quiet.

The driving rain we’d struggled through from the train station early afternoon had reduced to a drizzle as we headed for a drink at the Penhelig Arms. The few seafront shops that opened out of season had just finished for the day and we had the underlit streets to ourselves. Tiny waves, pushed on by a brisk South-Westerly breeze, slapped onto the shell-strewn beach below, reminding us how much we had missed the sea. Embracing the emptiness and wrapped in damp, salt air we were easily lost in the misty romance of it all.

‘Wow!’ said Tess, suddenly. ‘Look at that! Are they what I think?’

Feeding voraciously in the muddy shallows were three swans, their white plumage fluorescent in the gloom. Not only was it strange seeing them active after dark, and in salt water, but fascinating how they plucked nutrients from the water’s edge with such intensity, as if stocking up for a long vigil. They hardly noticed as I crept close enough to chance a photo.

Feeding in the shallows

Spirits raised by this unusual sight, we sat before the pub’s log fire supping Brains Bitter and French Merlot and dreaming up scenarios about where the swans had come from and what would happen to them next. When we came back an hour later they were still busying themselves, in deeper water round the wooden stanchions of the pier. Surely there was a plan to all this?

Back at Sea Breeze, we were taken by the happy ambience of the busy bistro on such a chilly winter night. We realised it was local people, well aware of the superb cuisine, and that we’d hit lucky. Barely were we seated, soaking up the warmth of the busy room after our trek through the mist, when a basket of homemade soda bread with olives and oils arrived.This could not have primed us better for the Dyfi fish stew with aioli, and crab with pistachio mayo, leaving just enough room for a shared apple and elderflower fool.

Afterwards we took the night air to round off a wonderful day. At the pierhead, leaning tentatively on the flimsy metal railing, we were entranced by the desolation. The sea churned below us on a turning tide, and a thicker fog had fallen across the estuary, so we could see no further than a few yards out into the water. It was hard to believe we were close to civilisation yet in complete ownership of this mysterious and romantic setting. I couldn’t have asked for more; it was the perfect birthday present.

‘They’re probably hunkered down somewhere,’ I said, harking back to the swans.

‘Don’t be so sure,’ said Tess. ‘Look – here they come now!’

My amazing day was not over yet! Right on cue we watched the surreal sight of our proud creatures appearing through the murk from further along the pier. It was as if they’d been waiting for us to return for a final, late-night performance.

‘Aah, there are only two,’ I said. The image we’d formed earlier was somehow spoilt by the trio splitting up.

‘No, here comes the other one,’ said Tess. ‘It’s lagging behind the others.’

The three swans picked up speed as they hit the ebbing current. With time against us and no real chance of a photo we huddled together for precious moments, transfixed as the solitary yellow lamp picked out the swans’ upright necks and dazzling feathers before they were plunged back into swirling darkness – a final sail-past before heading out to open sea on a vital night mission.

 

Paul Costello © May 2012

Web:        www.paulcostello.me

Twitter:    @PaulCostello8