In search of the great green bush cricket

The closest nature reserve to where I live is called Neu-Lindsay, and it’s the self-styled home of the great green bush cricket.

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Somehow, in almost six years of living in our valley, I’d never been there, so it felt about time. “We’re going in search of the great green bush cricket,” I announced to my three-year-old, Mungo.

“No, no, don’t like it!” he wailed, looking despondently at first his trains, then – in some hope she might avert the impending catastrophe – his mother.

But Mungo is an accommodating little boy, and by the time I’d strapped him into the child seat on the back of my bike and not – like his mother has been known to do – pinched the oh-so-tender skin on the underside of his chin with the helmet strap, he seemed quite content. And, then we – well, I – huffed and puffed our way the half mile or so up Culver Hill.

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Neu Lindsay is what conservationists call a hay meadow. Take a picture of it, and it looks unremarkable – little more than a field of grass that hasn’t been cut or grazed for a year or two. You only really see the flowers properly if you focus your gaze on little metre-square grids. And then you see the insects – bees, hoverflies and of course butterflies, like this splendid marbled white.

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And there were critters moving in the long grass. Cricketty critters. “Look, Mungo!” I cried. But it wasn’t particularly great, and definitely not green.

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Never mind – we had plenty of time to find the great (and green) bush cricket, we weren’t in any rush.

“We go home now?” Mungo said, as he gazed fondly at the small red London bus clutched defiantly in his left hand.

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“Soon,” I replied airily. It’s amazing, really, given how adults use the word “soon” with their children, that anyone grows up with an understanding of it that isn’t along the lines of “You must be joking.”

Still, we had some fun watching this red soldier beetle inspecting a seedhead.

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And this hoverfly looking for a meal from a knapweed flower.

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Eventually, we even found a properly green cricket, but sadly it wasn’t especially great – or, in truth in this photo, very visible. You sort of have to trust me that there’s a cricket in here somewhere.

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By now, Mungo really had had enough, so I promised him as a way of reward a trip to the post office where we could buy some chocolate rabbits – or possibly hares, it’s hard to tell.

With Mungo revived by the chocolate rabbits (or possibly hares), I decided to push ahead with my threat to investigate a nice meadow in the ‘upper reaches’ of Boundary Court, a National Trust property above North Woodchester that briefly made national headlines in January 2012 when it was the location for a suspected big cat kill. Despite the hype, scientists eventually decided that it had merely been foxes all along.

On the way up to the meadow, I was delighted to find this beautiful butterfly on a shady part of the path. I later identified it as a silver-washed fritillary.

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The meadow was alive with marbled white and gatekeeper butterflies, but they were in a jittery mood, so I contented myself with taking a photo of this gorgeous field scabious.

P1020607But it was time to go. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing ‘In search of the Gruffalo’, it is that you shouldn’t over-exploit your child’s hesitant interest in natural history. Insects are never going to be as intriguing to my children as trains, trucks or traction engines.

So, when I said it was time to head back, it definitely put a spring in Mungo’s step.

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Butterflies and balance bikes: on the track of the deep dark wood

I decided to take my three-year-old, Mungo, down to the deep dark wood for the day – well, Highnam Woods RSPB Reserve, to be precise, just outside Gloucester. Or the “Deedar Wood”, as he called it last year when we went looking for dormice.

But when we arrived at the carpark, we were greeted by this rather dismal notice.

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“Where we going?” he chimed from the back, as I turned the car round. “I’m not really sure,” I replied, as I took the first turning off the main road, down a small B road that looked as if it might lead us round the back of the reserve. And, sure enough, we soon found a nice track heading in the direction of Highnam Woods that was just perfect for Mungo’s new passion – his balance bike.

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I wasn’t sure why, but the path was littered with small tortoiseshell butterflies that scattered like confetti as we made our slow but steady progress along it. Getting onto my hands and knees, I crawled along the track to try and get some photos of the butterflies before they flew off. Say what you like about the picture below, but I bet David Bailey – or Don McCullin for that matter – never had to put up with a small child launching themselves onto their prostrate bodies as they took award-winning fashion or war photos. Or sticking pieces of grass in their ears, for that matter, while giggling uproariously.

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Further up, I found some rosebay willow herb in full bloom, and the dried seedheads of something that might have been cow parsley, but I couldn’t be sure. At least I could take these pictures standing up, though I still had to endure a small boy on his balance bike butting me like a mountain goat.

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We’d made reasonable progress in our quest to reach Highnam Woods, even though Mungo at some point abandoned the balance bike in favour of his own two legs. There was the occasional sit-down protest, the odd plea of “Carree” and an impromptu lunch (peanut butter sandwiches and milk for him, a small dribble of water for me).

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Further up, we found these poppies and what I decided was ragwort, though I wasn’t quite sure of the latter identification.

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We were just outside the woods now, where I found some log piles which I carefully sifted through in search of slow worms, snakes or even Little Brown Mouse. But we found nothing, apart from some wood lice and the odd snail. In any case, it was time to turn back – it had taken us long enough just to get here, and the skies were starting to turn a dark, leaden colour – if there was rain on the way, I was foolishly unprepared for it. And besides, now my tummy was beginning to rumble…

I  did at least get some more photos of the small tortoiseshell butterflies on the way back, this one appearing to feed from a bramble.

 

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“Torshell, Daddy, torshell,” Mungo chirruped happily. And he was even happier when he saw the end of the track and the car in sight.

 

 

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Flower power: a surprisingly happy orchid hunt in the Cotswolds

“Mummy’s tired,” I said, “so, let’s go and look for butterflies on Rodborough Common and then get an ice cream.”

Six-year-old Sam immediately went into a quasi-teenage sulk mode that he’s already, rather scarily, perfected. “That’s borin’,” he pouted, while three-year-old Mungo parroted innocently, “Daddy, are we going to look for burraflies?”

“No looking for butterflies,” I said firmly, glaring at Sam, “no ice cream.”

In the end, we left without much fuss, and up on Rodborough Common, Mungo ran ahead while Sam fretted that he was running too far ahead. “Mungo,” he yelled, “MUNGO!”, as if his brother were about to plunge into the jaws of a Nile crocodile.

The common is a lovely area of grassland, owned by the National Trust and overlooking the steep-sided Nailsworth valley. It’s a great place to look for tiny, virtually-impossible-to-find-with-or-without-kids butterflies such as the Adonis blue or Duke of Burgundy. Ah well, it’s also good for orchids, and there were plenty of those. These, in the picture, are fragrant orchids.

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And surprising as it may seem from this photo, Mungo was enjoying himself. As was Sam, possibly to his surprise.

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There had been some resistance when I suggested we were going to plunge down the precipitous slopes of the common – it’s the where the butterflies, and the Adonis blue in particular, hang out, apparently – so, instead I opted to take them round the contour, and a bit further along, we came across an exotic-looking bee orchid. At least, I think it was a bee orchid.

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From here, we had spectacular views over the valley – we could see the church, Sam’s school and possibly even our house. I took a shot…

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Then Sam took one…

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My attention was momentarily – and it was only momentarily – diverted by this lovely daisy.

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So, I missed exactly what it was that caused the fight.

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All in all, it felt like time to go home. Sam was beginning to moan that he was tired, it was too hot and that it would be ages before we got back to The Bear, where I’d promised them both a glass of milk and some crisps.

But even that wasn’t enough for Sam. He’d had enough and claimed he couldn’t walk any further, so I left them on this bench for the night, promising I’d return for them in the morning.

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Snakes Alive!

One way to get Sam, our nearly six-year-old, outdoors is to mention the word dinosaurs. In early March, we took him and three-year-old Mungo down to Hock Cliff on the banks of the River Severn to look for fossils – and OK, it wasn’t as if we stumbled across the cranium of Utahraptor poking out of the shale, but we found some pretty cool ammonites and a devils’ toenail, the 60-million-year-old (or more) ancestor of an oyster. Sam had a fair bit of fun whacking rocks with a hammer, too.

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In search of Jurassic Park: can we clone an ammonite, Daddy?

But when we decided to take the boys on an adder hunt (‘Snake’ is one of the trio of characters Little Brown Mouse encounters in The Gruffalo), I felt a little nervous. Not because adders are dangerous snakes, but because I thought Sam might feel they were rather mundane compared to Velociraptor.

So, I played the dinosaur card. “Hey, Sam, on Saturday, we’re going to look for some snakes called adders, which were around with the dinosaurs,” I said. A bit of an exaggeration of the truth, I admit, though snakes did evolve more than 100 million years ago – it’s just that adders didn’t.

“Wow! Cool!” came the frankly unexpected response. Game on.

We drove up to a tiny wooded valley on the edge of Bewdley in Worcestershire and in the heart of the Wyre Forest, and here we met Sylvia Sheldon, a woman who’s been studying the forest’s adders for the past 30 years. At her National Trust property that resembled a place that Hansel and Gretel would have felt at home, we watched great tits and a surprisingly sweet rat from her kitchen window, while the boys nibbled at their sandwiches at just after 10 in the morning.

Sylvia took us up to one of her study sites, where she hoped we’d find adders basking in the spring sunshine. It was an expanse of open heathland, with some scattered silver birch trees, but largely blanketed in dead bracken in late March. We’d barely gone 10 yards from the car when Sylvia pointed out a long-dead tree trunk. “There’s normally a lizard here,” she said.

We stared for 30 seconds or so, and suddenly there it was. A small brown-green lizard with parallel rows of spots studding its back like tiny jewels, perfect in every way. Sam – once he’d managed to locate the beast, which can be difficult to make out against a brown background – was entranced. Perhaps to him it looked like a mini Ankylosaurus, albeit without the massive club-tail.

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A common lizard doing its best to resemble Ankylosaurus

We walked another 20 yards, and Sylvia pointed to some dead bracken around a the base of a tree. “There we go,” she said. “There’s two,” said her partner and fellow adder enthusiast, Chris.

If I’d considered the lizard well-camouflaged, it was nothing compared to the adders. I couldn’t see them initially, and Sam certainly couldn’t, and he was tramping around the spot where Sylvia and Chris were pointing as if we’d said there were some chocolate goodies hidden there. While I did, I know, say that adders aren’t dangerous, that wouldn’t have held a lot of sway with Sam’s mother, Louise, if we’d returned from our reptile foray with a puncture wound in his arm and the remark, “It’s OK, there were only 14 deaths from adder bites in the past 100 years, and children recover quicker than adults!”

It’s surprisingly hard to describe the location of a brown snake (with darker brown chevrons or diamonds running along its back) when set against a background of dry, dead, brown bracken and dry, dead brown leaves, even when it’s only a few feet away. “Do you see that stump? Now, can you see a small branch? Now, there are some dead leaves…”

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“Where are you going to, Little Brown Mouse? Come for a feast in my brackeny house.”

Sam saw it eventually – Louise had taken Mungo away, as he was rampaging around and likely to scare any basking adder –  and moved onto to another tree. We found one more adder and several slow worms –  a shinier, more coppery colour than adders, but even they don’t exactly announce their presence to the world.

Sam was losing interest at this point, and was keen to get back to the lizard which had captivated him in a way that the adders hadn’t. I can only assume that an animal with legs is more akin to a dinosaur than one without. Four legs good, no legs just a bit on the dull side. Not sure where two legs would have come in, but George Orwell would have approved.

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Sylvia and Sam’s Wild Adventure: OK, they didn’t find Stegosaurus, but three adders, several slow worms and a lizard felt like a decent return for a morning’s work.

 

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Steller birds

A three-year-old child’s skull discovered in South Africa in 1924 presented an odd puzzle to scientists. It was about 2.8m years old (so belonged to a ‘pre-Homo sapiens’ species called Australopithecus africanus) and had some strange puncture marks on its face, just below the eye sockets. What had made these holes, they wondered, and was it the reason why the child had died? At first, it was assumed that they’d been made by the fangs of some prehistoric big cat, but the truth turned out to be rather more extraordinary.

The killer of the so-called Taung Child had been an eagle. Yes, an eagle. Even today, there are eagles that prey on treetop monkeys – the monkey-eating eagle of the Philippines is one, as is the harpy eagle of Central and South America, though it is also partial to sloths (they’re easier to catch).

I was mulling this over – well, that if an ancient bird of prey could have carried off one of our ancestor’s children, then presumably a modern one might be able to get away with one of mine – as our not-yet-three-old, Mungo, ran gleefully towards  the biggest flying assassin he’d ever encountered.

It was a Steller’s sea eagle, a massive beast with talons and a beak like a set of Kitchen Devils. Admittedly, it was still juvenile and captive, but it also probably stood some 70-80cm from head to toe and weighed up to 8kg. Mungo might just have had the edge in size, but in terms of armoury and fighting ability, I’d have backed the bird every time. It’s also true (the name gives it away) that a Steller’s sea eagle is more likely to be slicing up cod for sushi than decapitating primates, but still – this was one case where intervening felt like the right thing to do.

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A young Steller’s sea eagle probably prefers sushi to little boys, but you can never be sure.

Mungo clearly wasn’t a bit concerned. I do wonder what he thought he was going to do when he reached the bird, but luckily I was able to intercept before any encounter took place. Besides, I suspect the people who run and work at the International Centre for Birds of Prey in Newent would have been less than delighted to see a small, robust boy grapple their prized flying exhibit to the ground, whoever the odds favoured. It might have ruffled a few feathers.

Mungo had already caused a bit of a stir. We’d turned up at 11-ish on one of the last Fridays in November to see the flying demonstration. I’m not usually too keen on captive raptors (as birds of prey are technically called by zoologists), but I thought Mungo would enjoy it. And – crucially – there’s a bald eagle in Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale, so it was another tick in our gruffalo quest. Try as hard as we might, there weren’t going to be too many wild eagle sightings, even in deepest, darkest Gloucestershire.

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Mungo and two of the residents of the International Centre for Birds of Prey  in Newent in Gloucestershire.

The first bird to be put through its paces was a saker falcon. These are lean, mean flying machines, and the demonstrator – the lady, in fact, who runs the centre – showed us its skills by swinging a lure around her head at great speed. The falcon flew off towards a line of trees about 60 feet or so away, then flew back at considerably greater pace, coming down low like an enemy fighter plane avoiding the radar and then speeding past.

It was a thrilling sight, and Mungo and another little lad who was there with his granny showed their appreciation by squealing in   delight. The falcon came round for another go, and the boys squealed even louder. This was great, I thought – such enthusiasm.

The only problem was that it wasn’t going down too well with our demonstrator, who was trying to give a simultaneous lecture through a PA system. There was, no doubt, some fascinating stuff about the saker falcon’s ability to dive-bomb its prey at 200mph, but the audience – consisting of three other adults besides myself and the other boy’s gran – was finding it rather difficult to hear.

“If people are going to shout and scream, then I won’t bother,” she said sternly, which made me wonder if her comment about these birds hunting prey rather bigger than themselves was meant to be taken literally. Still, I bet no one had ever shown such vocal enjoyment of falconry before.

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Mungo was eventually calmed down with a peanut butter sandwich.

Eventually, I did manage to calm Mungo down, and after that, the kestrel and the Harris hawk were rather tame. Then the Steller’s sea eagle appeared as the piece de resistance, and suddenly the adrenalin was flowing again. And, of course, it also made me consider alternative revenue streams for the centre, should they need them – a small child suspended from the talons of a large martial eagle, for example, would provide excitement for both watchers and participant. If there was just a way of making sure the talons didn’t actually pierce the cranium too deeply…

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Who would win a fight between a small boy and a very large eagle? Answers on a postcard, please.

Later the same day, Mungo tried to find a way into the Andean condors’ enclosure, but luckily for them, it was well sealed. All in all – despite my doubts about captive birds of prey – the visit had been a success, though I think I’ll be scanning the skies of Scotland with a touch of nervousness when we go there next year in search of eagles. 

 

 

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Sika here, sika there – we seek those rutting deer everywhere…

It was the usual scenario. “What are we doing here, Daddy?”

“Er, we’re going for a walk,” I replied in a tight-lipped kind of way in the expectation of a volcanic reaction.

I wasn’t disappointed. “No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o! I don’t want to go for a walk.”

“Well, Mummy does, Mungo does and so do I, so you’ll just have to come along. Unless you want to stay in the car.”

At this point, Sam probably collapsed on the ground, wailing as if he’d just been told that an asteroid was about to smash into Legoland and obliterate it forever. But I can’t be sure, because I’d stalked off to get a parking ticket.

Plus, at that point I bumped into Michael Wilson, information officer at RSPB Arne on Dorset’s the Isle of Purbeck (a short peninsula that forms the southern side of Poole Harbour)  and I was doing my best to pretend that the family standing around the metallic-blue Ford Focus – that may or may not have included a five-year-old boy beating the ground with his fists – was nothing to do with me.

I’d originally arranged with Michael to turn up at Arne at first light (without the family), because that, he said, would give us the best chance of running into our quarry for the day – rutting (or fighting, in other words) sika deer stags. 

Storm St Jude had put paid to that idea, but by the time we woke at, well, about first light, it had largely blown itself out. So we went anyway – to have a walk, of course. Seeing any sikas would have to be a bonus. And though the deer depicted in The Gruffalo’s Child looks more like a roe deer (it’s the short antlers, since you ask), it was still another species to tick for the boys.

Michael said he had half an hour to spare and offered to set us off on a walk. Arne is a mixture of woodland, scrubby heathland and coast, and on this late October, now surprisingly sunny Sunday, morning, it was looking beautifully autumnal. In short, it was a perfect day for a walk.

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It was a perfect day for a walk – and picking up oak leaves and acorns.

Within 10 minutes, Michael had found us some sika deer. They’re close relatives of red deer, though slightly smaller and slightly less red. They’re native to the Far East, and they were originally introduced to nearby Brownsea Island. There they would have stayed, except sika deer – like all deer – can swim. There was a stag and two hinds, and there wasn’t a lot of rutting going on. What I’d really come here for was to hear the noises the males make – oddly, high-pitched calls that I’ve heard described by former Springwatch presenter Kate Humble as sounding like a rusty gate, but there was none of that either.

The stag clearly didn’t need to rut. He had his girls, and he was doing just fine, thank you very much, so we wandered on. Sam got a decent look, but they were 100m or so away, and he wasn’t hugely impressed. But at least, by now, he’d more or less accepted the walk situation. (Though I’ve just been told by his mother that she’d given him a piggy back for the first half a mile.)

Michael left us and we carried on to the beach, along the sandy shore, then headed back inland. Below and to our right, dendritic channels of water had felt their way into what looked like a dark green expanse of saltmarsh. “It’s the Amazon,” Sam declared confidently. He’d seen it on the Octonauts, which is fast becoming his wildlife Bible. His mood had noticeably improved and was now verging on ebullient, so I wasn’t going to complain about a minor geographical error, or contradict Captain Barnacles.

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To a boy who has been raised on a diet of Octonauts, this isn’t Arne RSPB Reserve, but the Amazon.

And then, entering a small area of woodland, we heard it. To me, it didn’t sound so much like a rusty gate as a rabbit being dispatched to meet its maker, but there’s no doubt what it was – a sika deer, unless of course it was a rabbit. And then, there it was again, somewhere within the deep, dark wood…

I picked up Mungo, and walked towards where the noise appeared to be coming from. There it was again, this time from a different direction. And again, but still I saw nothing. By now, Louise and Sam had caught up with us. We stood, gazing outwards in all directions, in a small clearing. And there they were, two deer, a stag and a hind, just 20m away, picking their way silently along the edge of the wood.

“Wow,” said Sam. “Wow, that’s amazing” (and all without a hint of irony or sarcasm – well, he is only five). The stag looked at us briefly, and carried on. There was no sign of a rival, and we didn’t hear any of those strange, slightly pathetic squeaky calls again.

And that, more or less – apart from a few running races and the like – was the end of our adventure. Back at the carpark, Sam and Mungo were given some well-earned treats. But despite the bribery, despite our efforts at almost Pavlovian conditioning (you go on a walk, you get chocolate), I’m quite sure what reaction I will get next time I suggest that we are going on a walk. And it won’t be, “Hooooooooray!”

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Arne’s network of tracks were perfect for running races.

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In search of Squirrel Nutkin

It was the weekend of the St Jude storm. The wind was whipping across the harbour, cormorants – or were they shags? – were being blown across the sky as if they were F15 fighter jets, while Mungo, my nearly-three-year-old son, was being blown across the deck of our small custard-yellow ferry like a piece of tumbleweed. He seemed to be quite enjoying it.

Lucky his mother, sitting sensibly inside the cabin with our other son Sam, can’t see him I thought, as Mungo reached the boat’s guard rail and peered down, fascinated, at the spitting, foamy water below. At this rate, just getting him to Brownsea would be an achievement – never mind seeing a red squirrel.

Because that’s what we were here for – the next chapter of our quest to see as many as possible of the animals featured in Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s masterpieces, The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child. And this quest had brought us here, to Brownsea Island, a large, wooded piece of land in the middle of Poole Harbour on Dorset’s south coast.

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Approaching Brownsea on the ferry – this photo does absolutely no justice to how windy it was.

Brownsea is the only place close to our home in Gloucestershire where red squirrels still survive and can be easily seen. They’ve been ousted from most of England and Wales by their American cousin the greys, which were brought here from the other side of the pond in the 19th century, let loose in the 1870s and have been making life intolerable for the reds ever since.

Landing on the island without catastrophe, Louise and the boys quickly made the most significant find of the day – the café, and in the café’s garden, the sandpit. Disaster! Suddenly, I had a sinking feeling that we would never leave this nirvana to explore the rest of the island – or find any squirrels. I consoled myself by watching a pair of jackdaws that had made themselves equally at home there, but we needn’t have left our house, let alone come to Dorset, to see jackdaws.

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Jackdaws enjoying life outside the café

The National Trust – which owns Brownsea – had organised a squirrel walk for later that morning, so dragging the children away from the sandpit, we lined up with other parents and their offspring and set off into the island’s interior. Pausing briefly to point out a tiny snail that belongs in the warmth of the Med (it hitched a ride here on some Greek or Italian masonry, apparently), our squirrel walk leader took us into the woodland and showed us some of the foods red squirrels like to eat – sweet chestnuts and pine nuts, of which there were plenty. Acorns, by contrast, don’t agree with them (though greys love them).

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Sam shows off some of the chestnuts we found – favourite food items for the island’s reds.

We rounded the island church and entered another area of woodland where peacocks were wandering around as if they owned the place. The walk leader was now explaining how squirrels bury their food and then find it again, but Mungo scampered off to chase those plump and rather dozy-looking birds.

Deciding that I couldn’t be seen to permit the harrassment of a wild (if not native) bird, I’d just picked him up and he’d just started hollering at the injustice of it – he can’t yet say, “Put me down, put me down”, but he doesn’t need to – when I spotted it. A red squirrel, Squirrel Nutkin.

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The only shot I took of our red squirrel – holding children and taking photos rarely go hand-in-hand.

Luckily, I didn’t have to yell out and frighten the poor beast into leaping for safety into Poole Harbour, because everyone else seemed to spot it at the same time and suddenly the eyes of 30-odd adults and children were watching it intently. It was remarkably unconcerned by all this attention, but then it was feeding on a satisfyingly large chestnut.

I wouldn’t quite say our children – children who, remember, normally only care for trains, planes and automobiles (and the odd tractor) – were watching the squirrel in rapt silence, but they were at least watching. Amazing.

Louise and Mungo even saw another one a few minutes later. I am sorry to say, however, that we now concluded that by now the boys had had enough of the official walk leader’s (engagingly delivered and informative) spiel,  so we branched out in freelance fashion to explore the woodland for ourselves (a lot more peacocks, no more squirrels).

Finally, we made it back to the café. There had been the promise of ice creams, and we couldn’t disappoint – otherwise, Sam certainly would never trust us again when we took him on another of these escapades.

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Ice creams for our squirrel-searchers – Sam later said it was the best thing about the day on Brownsea.

On the way back to the ferry, Louise hurried the kids through the obligatory shopping experience to avoid any unnecessary purchases (sorry, National Trust), while I lingered at the point overlooking Brownsea’s large, enclosed lagoon. I don’t know how I hadn’t noticed them earlier – oh probably something to do with being repeatedly head-butted by a small child, though I can’t be sure – but there were hundreds of avocets out there, beautiful, delicate black-and-white waders with gently upward-curving bills.

I had no more than a minute to myself, but I gazed out across the lagoon and the birds feeding happily there. One day, I thought, my kids might even appreciate it. If we just work on maintaining the bribe count high enough.

More information

National Trust http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/brownsea-island/

Part of the island is managed by Dorset Wildlife Trust as a nature reserve http://www.dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk/brownsea_island_reserve.html

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