A week of turmoil here. Highs, highs and more highs, and then, down to earth with a bump. Nearly literally.
Thanks to Dave’s very kind loan of his Bushnell HD trail camera, and spare tripod, designed to capture passing wildlife, I was finally able to nail the issue of what catches and eats our frogs, and probably later in the year the toads, at spawning time in our lower meadow ponds. 3 days of cold at the beginning of the month yielded no images at all. Then on February 6th at about 9.40 pm, the first view of an otter.
Quite stupidly, I’d assumed that it would grab the frogs on land as they reached the pond’s edge, from across the field. In fact, viewing the burst sequence of the 5 images taken each time the camera’s PIR sensor was activated, it seems that the frogs were probably grabbed in the pond and brought to land to be eaten. Otters can use sight, touch, and possibly even smell under water to find their prey.
In every case, bar one, all that was left on the bank in the morning was a pile of frog spawn and traces of organ tubes – possibly the oviduct? But one frog was found with just a ripped head. Dead, but otherwise unspoiled. Why?
Was it an unpalatable variant? Or maybe even a male? I’ve no idea.
The otter, or otters, since I can’t be certain if the images were all of the same animal, has appeared so far on several nights, and at varying times, from late evening to an hour or so before first light. But other animals have also been picked up. On one occasion a fox.
On another a stationary eye gives no real clue – an otter seems to appear in the background yet the eye doesn’t move. Was it a rabbit? Or perhaps even a dead frog’s eye? And in the early morning jays were frequent visitors, presumably looking to clear up any carrion left behind.
As indeed was a buzzard, on one morning.
So although very grainy pictures, really exciting stuff for me, given that we’re less than a mile from the source of our little stream, the Afon Melinddwr, which is the probable route the otter is using to explore this top part of its territory, which typically extends over about 11 miles – depending on food availability. So, it’s making full use of the very upper reaches of the local streams. Click here for more on European otter, Lutra lutra, ecology.
I remembered very clearly the green and white dust cover of Henry Willamson’s Animal saga, that I’d read as a young lad. Where is that book now? Inspiring another youngster to get out and explore the natural world? Or pulped, burned or skipped?
Who knows? It doesn’t seem to be on our bookshelves. Look it up on Amazon and there are only 3 written reviews of this compilation. Its lowly sales ranking of about 750,000 must mean that it has fallen from grace. Perhaps children these days just don’t want to read about animal life stories? Otter, salmon, badger and peregrine are all included and as whole life stories – at the end of a brief life of struggle and toil, they die. Often brutally.
I must buy it again, and see if the writing still grabs me, in spite of Williamson’s fall from grace after expressing sympathies for Hitler in the 1930’s (though this was borne out of his own terrible experiences of life as a soldier, in the First World War, including being gassed in the trenches – shades of J.R.R. Tolkein’s wartime experiences creating indelible influences on his subsequent writing).
Click here for more on this author’s biography, which ended tragically, but perhaps appropriately, on the day (unknown to him), that the later much acclaimed filming of Tarka The Otter, in 1977, was recording Tarka’s death, after a dramatic 9 hour chase involving the local pack of otter hounds. Is it naive to think that such a book should be rediscovered as an influential piece of British nature writing, given its endorsement by later writers as significant as Rachel Carson, Ted Hughes (who gave the address at his memorial service) and Roger Deakin?
Addendum: I changed the title of this post after publication, adding the extremely appropriate ‘visitations’ title, after my younger brother Mark told me about Ted Hughes’ otter based poem ‘Visitation’. Do click here to read this short piece, which with brilliant observational detail, records Hughes’ poetic and clear, not grainy, capture of these secretive river based animals. And Mark has a signed, and illustrated by Hughes, copy of the poem on loan, and hanging on his college room wall.
Whilst my blurry monochrome wildlife pictures were being secretly recorded, we were gearing up for another more personal, and certainly less secret, observational filming event. At very short notice, a recce by two BBC staff planning the new spring series of BBC 2’s Gardener’s World at the end of January, was quickly followed by a phone call and a date for filming on this last Tuesday and Wednesday. The day after Storm Imogen had battered us, and at which point, on February 9th, we were still 10 days from our official NGS Garden opening date, and were still coping with the wettest period ever experienced here! How could the garden possibly shine?
So hoping to put across what our little bit of garden has been deluged with, before their filming, I set up the image below:
And a question: How many litre bottles of water have fallen on every square metre of our land since November 2nd 2015? And every square metre of the mile and a half of mountain above us?
Any suggestions from readers will be most welcome. I’ll give the answer at the beginning of my next post, which by chance will be a reflective birthday or anniversary blog, since it will then be 5 years since my blog adventure began. The 3 brave film crew members who dared to respond to my challenge came up with figures in the range of 10 to 20 litres. How close were they?
This feature didn’t in fact make it into any of the actual filming which took place, in the end over 3, not 2 days. A whirlwind of cars, people and action on our Welsh hillside. And the results will be condensed into just a few minutes of the final show, which will apparently be broadcast on Friday March 4th, for any interested readers.
However, I’m convinced that they will have enough footage to capture the magic of the garden, even at this very early stage of the gardening year, since the whole crew were supremely dedicated, enthusiastic and committed, and how Mark’s knees managed to hold up to all that cold kneeling is beyond me. It was a really unique experience to have been just partly involved with. But, particularly for me, emotionally draining: having 20 years of our efforts condensed into just those very few minutes of film. I even had to call a halt to filming one of the “snowdrops in tyres takes” mid afternoon, since after two previously very chilly days, I ran out of energy and my brain stopped functioning. Fortunately, Fiona ran for a honey filled roll, and within 10 minutes I recovered enough to continue. Every single sequence (into the hundreds of takes, I guess) was shot multiple times, and I imagine that the vast majority won’t make the final programme. The campaign plan was also interesting, involving working to the guide of a typed multiple page plan of action to tell a roughed out and pre planned story. Although we don’t have TV, I had no idea that so much effort went into it.
Such was the attention to detail, that even something as simple as lifting and moving snowdrop bulbs, was filmed several times to make sure it was just right.
But somehow the weather Gods provided the full gamut of early spring weather including rain, hail, snow, cold, sunshine, and sharp frosts.A cameraman’s dream come true.
And technology, including a new £24,000 camera lens that was misbehaving, meant that the filming continued until dusk and the light was failing (apparently poor light and colour can be corrected digitally post filming), as the starling flocks flew to their roosts, directly overhead. Natalie, assistant and horticultural researcher, and Fiona demonstrated this to me, though Mark the director, Sam the sound recording engineer and Gary the cameraman were too busy filming Carol Klein negotiating the steep slope to notice. But if they use their own take of this scene, you might just be able to catch the whoosh of hundreds of wings overhead – it’s there on my own little video clip.
They even carried on after dusk, recording voice over takes with Carol in the yard. After dark, I ended up covering up snowdrop and cyclamen patches with bubblewrap, for lifting the next day, in order to keep the ground soft enough. A superb mist filled valley and sunrise had me out there in dressing gown and long johns to record the event.As Mark returned on the final day. They even took my SD card and time lapse record of it, though it most likely won’t be used.
Back at base, a whole day of editing all the footage will then take place before it’s checked by producers and woven into the final complete programme. Fiona, needless to say, looked lovely, but this camera-shy writer, dressed in mainly nondescript dark clothing, similar to the rest of the camera and sound crew, had nowhere to hide. Click here for a link to the Gardener’s World pages.
But I must record a huge thank you to all concerned, for visiting us and giving our little upland garden its brief glimpse of “limelight”.
48 hours later and a small group of lovely interested gardeners visited us for a guided tour of the spring plants, and some jovial banter and warming up teas in front of the wood burner afterwards.
And then at 3.30 am a funny, though really not that funny, start to Valentine’s Day.
We were both sleeping fitfully, and after opening my eyes to glimpse the time, I became aware that the linear purlins were rolling. I looked to my side, and things got worse. Staggering out of bed, feeling sick, and sweating profusely I made it to the bathroom and ended up calling out to Fiona to make a note of what I was experiencing, convinced that I was having a mini stroke, and would soon lose my speech. (Always one for the melodrama, me). She fortunately came to my aid, and guided me back to bed past the top of the stairs. The wonders of her bedside Hudl, and a bit of veterinary knowledge had us ending up, after a few minutes research on line, with a more likely diagnosis of vertigo. I’d always thought that this was simply a dizziness from heights.
Not a pleasant experience, though certainly for me a new one.
Eventually, I fell asleep (though not poor Fiona) and on waking, the rest of my Sunday was less wobbly. We’ll have to see what happens next, but I suspect that the extensive bending over in the cold, and stress of the last few days were probably contributory factors, and I record this in case any readers should ever experience anything similar in the future, and be equally worried about what was going on in their brains, or vestibular systems. (And no booze was involved for any cynics out there – I’m currently teetotal). Click here for more on vertigo.
Well! What an exciting blog: otters, headless frogs, Tarka, maths problem, spawn, lights, camera , action, Carole Klein, Gardeners’ World and to finish- vertigo. What a brilliant romp through the lot- I could comment about them all! Absolutely wonderful that your brilliant garden has been rewarded with a visit from a BBC crew – look forward to seeing the end result of all your hard work at filming and gardening in March. Next: 33 litres of water sounds far far too much but it has rained rather a great deal! Most importantly I do hope your vertigo has now improved as it is such a horrid thing to have and it must have been to do with the stress, cold and having your head down so much. Finally, Tarka the otter, every child should have a chance to read the book- it’s superb.
Thank you for that, and well done to having a go at the challenge … all will be revealed in 2 weeks or so! Am definitely a bit better today, and am working out what positions and movements seem to make me feel a bit wobbly, to try to avoid them. It was a wonderful few days, and I know that they’ll have some lovely photos of the garden – we were just very, very fortunate with the weather we had!
Hi Julian, I was thrilled to read your post, firstly for the Otter sightings, I can imagine the excitement. And secondly that your beautiful garden is being featured on Gardeners World, I have March 4th in my diary and I hope they do your work justice. Sorry to read about the Vertigo, my Mother in law has just had a bout of this and its really not fun. I hope you feel well again soon and in the meantime look after yourself. Best wishes, Julie
Thanks for that Julie. It seems vertigo is quite a common problem once you mention it, but really variable in how long it lasts – I’ll have to wait and see. Anyway I’ve managed to get a really good night time video clip of the otter a couple of nights ago, so if I can get a few more, I’ll see if I can find someone to upload them to U tube for me. The BBC director has just emailed me today to say the team are really pleased with the end result of editing, so I’m sure it will be fun to watch! For everyone except me, grimace.
Have you read Miriam Darlington’s book, Otter Country, I can recommend it. I sympathise over the vertigo, I have had it myself and it is not pleasant.
Hello Philip, Thanks for that – no I don’t know the book, but clearly I should. It does seem that vertigo is really quite common …. still trying to work out what movements are particularly bad, but often it seems to catch you unawares and off guard….
Wow! Such extremes after such a different and very wet winter. The excitement of your otter and a full BBC filming crew descending on you! At least now I’ll have a chance to see your garden in the spring as I will get my daughter to record it. I had not seen the Williamson Animal Sagas but I’ve Read Tarka the Otter sometime as a single volume and not in childhood. I must have a look and see what I can find as I would enjoy reading them. I hope you are taking some time to relax and enjoy the garden and are back on form now. Amelia
Thanks for the comment Amelia. If you’ve just read it, I’ve right now changed the post title and added in a link to a Ted Hughes poem about otters as well, which seems really appropriate, and which my brother put me onto. We went off yesterday on a fascinating historic Welsh snowdrop hunt which I might mention sometime…grand once I’d steadied myself after the car journey, which shook me up…so still not 100%. Sudden bending or head turning is definitely still off the agenda!
I hope some rest will see off the vertigo, I can imagine it must be so annoying when it curtails your activities. I am fascinated by the snowdrop hunt. I think more so because I cannot get snowdrops to take in my garden and I have always loved them. I am only rarely touched by poetry and I am afraid “Visitations” did not mark me.:(
Shame about the poem…I think like music, poetry is a very personal preference/taste.
Re not being able to grow snowdrops, I’m surprised, given by the pictures of quite a lot of mature trees and areas of shade in your garden. I wonder if you know of any ‘native/wild’ snowdrops growing nearby? Or whether you’ve planted them ‘in the green’ or as dried bulbs? Come to that, France never seems to get mentioned as a place where snowdrop ‘events’ take place. Unlike Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands.
But we’ve just started to grow a G.nivalis called ‘Llo ‘n Green’ which was found in the Gorge de Llo in the French Eastern Pyreenees – which seems to like it in one of our tyres in full sun …not really an ideal location. We’ve headed off this last week on a couple of snowdrop hunt trips – in due course, pics and comments might follow – but both really old sites, and very different populations/ecology, so maybe the key for you is which snowdrop you try, where you plant them, and then maybe plenty of post planting watering until they’re established, since you clearly don’t get the same rainfall we’re blessed with (???)
Amazing post and the photographs. I used to live just across the road from the river and had a wonderful opportunity to observe the life of an otter family.
Thanks Inese. WOW .How fortunate – have you read the Ted Hughes poem? I thought it really captured the magic of these animals. I’m guessing Ireland has always been a stronghold, in that probably pesticide use which partially was responsible for their decline over here, was less of a a problem with you?
Yes, pesticides 😦 Even the rabbits are gone, and some fifteen years ago there were thousands of them. Otters are common around here. I have seen them in Clonmel town, and Carrick on Suir. One day I was near the river in Clonmel ( no camera…) and an otter got out of the river with a big fish in his teeth. He sat on his butt and ate the whole fish just in front of me! I didn’t move, it was so fun just to watch him eat 🙂
Thanks. F’s just found me a copy of Hughes poem book River – with photos by Peter Keen, and its arrived. Interestingly the lovely otter poem doesn’t have an appropriate otter image accompanying it. I sometimes wonder doing a blog like yours, or mine, whether or not the difficult bit is writing the words…or finding just the right picture to accompany your thoughts/writings? I think its the combination of both that really makes a good blog – special – as indeed yours are…
Otter poem should have had a funny whiskery face to go with it 🙂
Thank you so much! For me it is easy enough because I have TONS of photographs, and if I don’t, I just go and take one 🙂 Writing is my problem ( not a native English speaker). I think your blog is brilliant.
Inese -Thank you. The limited edition versions of some copies of his poems have his own otter footprints drawn on, which are fun… seeing your otter eat the fish right in front of you must have been amazing! And as for your writing….I would never have known English wasn’t your first language….anyway clarity of thought, which is a strong point of your blogs but which sometimes lets me down, is maybe just as important…
Why does it let you down? I am trying to be as gentle as possible, even if I have an opinion 🙂
Otters – how wonderful. Apparently we have them not far from here but I don’t suppose we’ll have any visits. For some reasons we have very few frogs and spawn only for a couple of years – I guess the newts have something to do with it as they ate their way through all my taddies in the one year that we actually had any 😦
Gardeners World, 4th March is on the calendar!
Thanks Noeline…I didn’t realise newts were tadpole eaters! We find newts in the garden sometimes, but I’ve never seen them in the pond….maybe I’m not looking hard enough- will have to try better…
It’s an odd situation; newts eat tadpoles and frogs eat baby newts – eat your predators before they’re big enough to eat you!
Really interesting, thanks Noeline.
Lovely to see your garden on Gardeners World! It was also great to see some general/wider shots to put everything in perspective and the misty/rainy views were wonderfully atmospheric. What a fabulous place to live …. as long as you can cope with the weather! 🙂
Thanks Noeline, ahhh the weather…, but even now as the grey, cold and sleet have returned, there are pluses – I managed about a 4 minute, 8.15 am video, of a mistle/song thrush running through its amazing repertoire yesterday, with almost no wind or extraneous noise….quite magical. We really did appreciate the sensitive way the BBC managed to capture this almost mystical aspect of the location, even if some have told us that felt that they didn’t show enough of the garden… frankly at this time of the year, being able to show anything on a TV scale of small spring bulbs is very challenging – I really liked their bit of background mood music as well – very appropriate – and of course the exposure has increased blog flow traffic quite a bit…