I love poetry, I love Cornwall and I love the natural world, so this is a chance to celebrate with a trio of verses (proper poet’s verses, not my own!).
Let’s start with the Chough, a potent symbol of Cornwall with its red beak and legs and poignant cry over the cliffs. The nineteenth century poet John Harris, the son of a miner from Bolenowe, near Camborne, wrote about this wonderful bird in his poem ‘The Cornish Chough’, beginning with the lines:
Where not a sound is heard But the white waves, O bird, And slippery rocks fling back the vanquish’d sea, Thou soarest in thy pride, Not heeding storms or tide; In Freedom’s temple nothing is more free.
John Harris, speaking to us from the past, would have had no idea that the Chough was to disappear from our shores in the twentieth century, followed by its dramatic reappearance in Cornwall in the twenty-first century. He would have been pleased, I’m sure, to see it getting itself established again.
The cliffs of Cornwall are rightly renowned for their spectacular scenery and wildlife. John Betjeman loved the cliffs of Cornwall, and is buried at St Endonoc Church, close to his home in Trebetherick. His poem ‘Cornish Cliffs’ brings to mind Cape Cornwall and Gwennap Head, although I expect he was writing about the north Cornwall cliffs he loved so well. It is a special sight in the late summer and early autumn when the rich yellow of the gorse and pinks and purples of the ling and other heathers roll away over each other across the hilltops, but Betjeman chooses to describe the scents of the plants.
Nut-smell of gorse and honey-smell of ling Waft out to sea the freshness of the spring On sunny shallows, green and whispering.
I can definitely smell the coconut scent of gorse and the honey smell of ling as I read those words!
And to finish, some lines from the famed Cornish poet Charles Causley. Writing in the twentieth century, he described his love for his homeland in many of his poems. Pertinent to the current season, his description of autumn in ‘The Seasons in North Cornwall’ is one of my favourites, especially the vision of the tall woodland trees as ship masts.
September has flung a spray of rooks On the sea-chart of the sky, The tall shipmasts crack in the forest And the banners of autumn fly.
I haven’t been in Cornwall much over the last couple of weeks, but before I went ‘up country’ I enjoyed a glorious sunny day on the Lizard. It really was a beautiful day, with clear blue skies, flowers finally daring to poke their heads out and plenty of people out on the cliffs making the most of the warmth.
I parked in the National Trust car park at Kynance Cove, but rather than setting off down to the beach, I headed south along the coastal path, with two aims, to find Land Quillwort, and to see some Choughs.
Now, if there’s one thing I should know from past experience, it is that if I set off to find something in particular, I will NOT find it. True to form, I didn’t…Even more frustratingly, I had had described to me roughly where the Land Quillwort would be found, but either it had upped roots and moved (not likely) or I just didn’t have my eye in properly. Those of you in the know will be well aware that this plant is one of the Lizard specialities, so I’ll be off on another, and hopefully more successful, hunt soon.
As for the Choughs, well I had a great chat with the knowledgeable volunteers at the Chough watch point at Lizard Point, who hadn’t seen them much round there on the day, but knew they had been feeding on some fields near to the Lloyds Signal Station within the last hour. Off I trotted – no Choughs. I did see two black dots in the distance flying back the other way – it was probably them!
To make matters worse, almost everyone I passed on the walk said: ‘Have you seen the seal? It’s a really big one, really obvious – you can’t miss it…’. If only noone had said anything, then I’d definitely have seen it!
Now, all of this not quite seeing things made me a bit grumpy, which is why, for me at least, it’s always a good idea to set off and ‘see what I can see’, rather than having anything in particular to search for. Because, of course, I did see some lovely things on a beautiful day along the coast.
For example, I found this delicate Water Crowfoot – not the rarer Three-lobed Crowfoot that is another Lizard delight – but what I think is Round-leaved Crowfoot (the Water Crowfoots can be hard for a non-expert like me to distinguish). At first glance, this plant doesn’t look like much, and is found in boggy wet places – but in the early spring its pretty small white flowers appear.
To make up for the lack of Choughs, a Kestrel posed for me on a nearby rock, the soft pink displays of Common Centaury and rich yellow Gorse brightened the cliffs and, round by Lizard Point, the tasty smell of Three-cornered Garlic filled the air before the plants themselves came into view.
I’m hoping for some more bright days soon, so I can enjoy exploring – but without an aim in mind this time!
So, here I am, almost at the end of 2012. The year started with my permanent move westward to Cornwall, and the year is now close to its end as I sit here, in my lovely Cornish cottage, enjoying a G&T (I am writing this after 6pm, honest) and contemplating how I got here. It’s been a tough year – bereavement, a change of career, lifelong friends and family now many miles away. But it’s also been an amazing year – new friends, a new home, a different life, fresh challenges.
If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that change is either good or bad, depending on how you greet it. I hope I’ve greeted it well – sadness, joy, but absolutely no regrets!
So, having got that self-reflection out of my system, I started to think about my Cornish wildlife highlights of the year. Looking back over 2012, what do I remember about the things I’ve seen and done, each of which have taken me forward a few steps in learning about how wonderful and amazing our world is? It was quite hard wittling the number down to only a few, but here’s my top ten Cornish wildlife highlights of the year…
1. Great nature-loving people: There are so many people in Cornwall who care about the environment, from academics, to farmers, to conservationists, to ordinary people like you and me. My first real experience of this was turning up at the Cornwall Butterfly Conservation branch AGM in January (I can’t even remember why I went – I might even have just been bored, and keen to get out for an evening!). I came away having felt welcomed, had loads of fun, and chatted to some wonderful folk who know an amazing amount about butterflies and moths (and plenty of other wildlife-related things). Now, a few months on, I’m the Branch Secretary!
2. Choughs: I mentioned choughs a few weeks back as residents of my Cornish Ark. Recently, I had a meeting with the RSPB down on the Lizard. Walking back to the village car park from Lizard Point Cafe, we spotted two choughs in a field – not only a pair of choughs, but THE pair of choughs, the original two who came back to the Lizard in 2001. That was pretty cool..!
3. Long-headed clover: OK, not everyone is particularly interested in planty things. But I love them, and the Lizard Peninsula, that planty hotspot, hosts clover species that you can’t find anywhere else in the UK. I headed off to Caerthillion Cove in May last year looking for Long-headed Clover. Could I find it anywhere? No. Despondent, I plopped myself down on a grassy patch and gazed disconsolately around me…at a slope filled with Long-headed Clover! Stop looking, start seeing – that’s the message I learned there!! I haven’t been back in 2012, but I’m aiming to go on a new hunt in 2013.
4. Dormice: This isn’t a Cornwall story, but I’m justifying it because it could have happened in Cornwall, as we have dormice here. But I had nipped just over the border to Devon with South West Lakes Trust to help with some dormouse monitoring. I’m not sure I will ever ever forget the experience of holding a very fast-asleep dormouse in the cup of my hands, and listening to her actually snoring! I felt both awed and protective in equal measure…
5. Science in the Square: I’ve been working for the University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the Cornwall Campus for the last year, and they are doing tonnes of work to engage with young people. As part of Falmouth Week 2012, we held a humungous science event in Events Square in Falmouth in August – it rained all day, but we were in a huge marquee with earthquakes, mini-beasts, raptors, mammals etc. Lots of kids there and they were amazing!
6. A Very-Close-Buzzard: I’ve already mentioned this in a recent post about Stithians Lake, but I was stunned by my very close encounter with a Buzzard. What amazed me most was how unphased this bird, happily sitting in a tree, was by me – there I was, having turned a corner and surprised both of us, pointing lens-y things at it and generally behaving not like your average dog walker. The buzzard stared, glared, and then soared away.
7. Screechy wildlife noises: In London, I was often woken up in the middle of the night by foxes screeching. In Cornwall, I’m also often woken up by foxes screeching – a nice reminder that wildlife knows no boundaries. However, the other night it was a barn owl screeching that woke me up – I can’t remember ever hearing that in London!!
8. Pearl-bordered fritillaries: With my new-found friends at Cornwall Butterfly Conservation I went looking for these on Bunny’s Hill, on Bodmin, earlier in 2012. We found them! These lovely butterflies are endangered, but are hanging on in a few locations.
9. Adders: Nosing about at Loe Bar earlier in the year, I caught sight of an adder – probably several seconds after she caught sight of me. She slithered away into the undergrowth, but I watched her and there was a moment – only a few seconds – when we were eyeballing each other. A bit like my buzzard, there is something both uncanny and empowering about meeting a wild creature’s eye.
10. Last but not least: So, two years ago, the view from my office was the London smog. Now, it’s this. Need I say more?
Like me, you may have enjoyed watching David Attenborough last night (Friday 9 November) on the BBC talking about which 10 endangered species he would save by taking on to his ‘Ark’. I was both entranced by the charismatic (and in some cases, very cute!) species he chose, but also saddened to be reminded about the threats facing them – all are at some danger of extinction, all because of us humans.
It got me thinking about what species from Cornwall I would want to save in my own Ark. So here is my list (of 8 rather than 10) – not all are unique to Cornwall, but all can be found here (for now) and are loved members of our Cornish countryside. It’s also a list based on my own knowledge and interests – what species would you choose?
1. Cornish Chough: No apologies for the Cornish prefix – although making a comeback elsewhere across Britain, this is an iconic bird of Cornwall. Absent from Cornish shores for three decades, a breeding pair first reappeared on the Lizard in 2001 (they’re still there! – choughs pair for life). The population has been growing since and choughs can now be found all around the Cornwall coast, in no small part due to the amazing army of volunteers organised by the RSPB who help each year in nest monitoring and guarding. A conservation success story – fingers crossed for the chough!
2. Hedgehog: Hedgehogs are in trouble across the UK. A report The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2011found that numbers have decreased by 25% in just 10 years – and that’s a conservative estimate. More research is needed into why, but loss of habitat is doubtless one reason. I’d like to see more hedgehogs in Cornwall, so they are in my Ark.
3. Basking sharks: I’ve yet to see a basking shark on the Cornish coast, though I’ve been trying – I fell over and hurt my knee on the coastal path last year when spending more time gazing oceanwards than at where my feet were going! Like the Choughs, these plankton-feeding majestic creatures are on the increase, due to their comparatively recent protection from commercial hunting, as shown by recent research. They’re in my Ark to make sure the success continues – I’m not sure how I’m going to fit a pair in, though!
4. Marsh Fritillary Butterfly: This is one of our most endangered butterfly species. It’s hanging on in a few locations in Cornwall, thanks to the work of various wildlife charities, including the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Butterfly Conservation (plus the dedicated volunteers of its Cornwall branch). I’ll need some Devil’s Bit Scabious in my Ark as well, of course – the food plant of its caterpillar.
5. White-clawed crayfish: This is another seriously endangered species – our only native freshwater crayfish – at threat from being outcompeted by the introduced non-native American Signal Crayfish, which also carries a fungal infection fatal to our home-grown species. Buglife and the Environment Agency have been leading on conservation efforts for this small but beautiful creature, including a release in Cornwall, so here’s hoping for success.
6. Skylark: A lovely bird, and we do still see it in Cornwall but, like all farmland birds, it has been seriously declining. I was once walking a little-used heathland path in the Cornish spring and accidentally disturbed a skylark who was nesting, hidden away right at the path’s edge – I retreated and watched to make sure she made it back safe and sound, but skylarks are in my Ark as an apology to her, and because I would hate to lose the sight and song of this bird from our Cornish countryside. Read the chapter ‘Hope for farmland birds’ in Mark Avery’s excellent book Fighting for Birds for a balanced and insightful account of efforts to save this and other farmland birds.
7. Short-snouted Seahorse: Some people are surprised to learn there are seahorses round the British Coast, but there they are, nestling beneath the waves. Mostly they are found in the warmer south-west British waters, including Cornwall. All are at risk – partly due to disturbance to the eelgrass and seagrass beds they need for their habitat – and the Short-snouted Seahorse is the rarest. Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Living Sea’s programme works to protect the places they live, as does The Seahorse Trust. Possibly my favourite fish, they are welcome in my Ark!
8. Pigmy Rush: In a departure from Ark-ish tradition, I am including a plant on my Cornish Ark. Pigmy Rush is an endangered plant, found in Europe, but in the UK only found on the Lizard in Cornwall. It is one of the smallest rushes, and colonises bare ground so likes land that is a little bit disturbed. Thanks to conservation management efforts, it has done well over the last year or so, including at Windmill Farm where artificial disturbance has been successful. You need to get up close and personal to appreciate its pink-flushed beauty, but it’s worth the effort!
Discover Cornwalls best trails. With over 250 miles of continuous coast path, areas of outstanding natural beauty, prehistoric burial sites and abandoned mine trails, Cornwall is a great place to go trail running, hiking or walking. Get out there and enjoy the experience!