Celebrating the familiar
Wintertime delivers a richness of wildlife that we shouldn’t overlook, says the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s wildlife evangelist, NICK ACHESON
The wonders of nature on our doorstep
IN THE strip of winter-worn grass at the field’s edge a Fabergé pheasant crouches, his round back enamelled in the low light of December. A pheasant: ordinary extraordinary. Any walk in the countryside in Norfolk, any drive along our lanes, will see many pheasants. So many we do not look; we do not think. Today I look; I think.
The look of this thing at my feet is spectacular: his crown the green of bull kelp beds, his face a holly berry red, a velvet violet tear beneath his eye, the black-meshed copper of his breast and back fading to the blue of a summer dawn upon his rump. Spectacular. This is an Asian beauty in this Norfolk field, therein a second strand of extraordinary. How pheasants reached the UK is a matter of conjecture. Their natural range reaches east from the Caucasus to Manchuria and northern Korea. Many believe they came to our island with the Romans. Certainly they exist in our historical record prior to the bloodied arrival of the Normans. Since then they have been a favourite food and a favourite bird of Britons. Ordinary and at once extraordinary.
The pheasant springs up at my too-close approach through the grass and scuttles away, his barred tail aloft, his back a startled ramrod. Remaining in the field, where sheep chew the leathern leaves of beet, are woodpigeons, hundreds. These came here by their own agency, no doubt recolonising from the warmer south as soon as woods moved back to what we now call Britain when the ice withdrew. They have lived with us here for thousands of years and, like the pheasant, we pay them no attention. I stop to look.
Each has a field of furrows at its neck, as the mud will when the beet is lifted. The feathers on this furrowed neck are burnished; not the solid satin green of the pheasant’s head but a frost of green like the hoar which glistens on the sugar beet this winter morning. Below, each pigeon’s neck bears a snowdrift, startling even in this Advent gloom, which melts on to the breast in a mulled wine stain of purple. Each pigeon’s eye is a bead of citrine glass, its pink beak warming to an amber tip. It is a bird of bold beauty. Ordinary extraordinary.
In the many articles I write for Norfolk Wildlife Trust, “rare”, “specialist” and “unique” are words I use often. Many of the wildlife habitats we have in Norfolk are indeed rare, their species specialists; they may indeed in some cases be found nowhere else in the UK or even the world. During the course of a year I spend hundreds of thousands of words on bitterns, spiked speedwell, milk parsley, stone curlews, cranes, otters and proliferous pink. It is right that I should do so, that we should keep these rare species and their precious habitats at the forefront of our media campaigns. Without the work of conservationists to preserve them, such rare beings would be lost.
Fewer words are spent however, on the commonplace creatures, the ordinary and everyday, each of which is in its way extraordinary. Imagine, as an adult, gazing on a mallard drake for the first time, or a goldfinch, or blue tit. These are birds of dazzling beauty, to rival any sunbird or manakin of the tropical forests. Imagine, never having seen one, catching sight of a spring field of dandelions or creeping buttercups, blazing gold on a bright spring day. Imagine a railway’s bank, startling magenta with the blooms of rosebay willowherb, if you had never before witnessed such a thing.
As another year spent with wildlife ends, I give thanks for the commonplace. For the rabbits which bound from me as I walk the hedge, the blackbirds which flute the summer through from rooftops in my street, the cow parsley which makes May’s verges blousy, for the worms which churn the black river-valley soil of my north Norfolk garden. It is for them that I am a naturalist. It is for them, whether I notice it or not, that I get up each day excited by the wild. It is for them that I am committed to conservation. It is for them, I hope, that my small words speak.
As a year of rabbits, cow parsley, willowherb and fine pheasants ends, I wish you the same in the one to come. May yours be a life in the company of wild things, the ordinary extraordinary.
Goldfinch at Hardley Marshes
A mallard at Wroxham enjoying the water
Pheasant at Ludham
Woodpigeon on the Norfolk Coast Path signpost between Wells and Stiffkey
Cow parsley at Wolterton