Orchid fever: hot and bothered in a wildflower meadow

Early summer means wildflowers, and in our household, it heralds the start of the ‘trying-to-get-the-children-enthused-about-pretty-pink-white-or-yellow things’ season.

This year, we decided to drag them, not quite kicking and screaming, to Clattinger Farm, a beautiful wildflower meadow in Cotswold Water Park, some five miles or so south of Cirencester.

Things started well – Mungo found a map.


Then, one of the highlights of our trip – a burnt-out car. “What’s that doing there?” asked Sam. “Good question,” I said.


Sam and Mungo seemed quite happy, but they hadn’t reckoned on being forced to walk through the meadow.


But worse was to follow. That idiot father of theirs started to show an interest in, and take pictures of, the flowers.

First, a common spotted orchid – or so he believed.


Then anther common spotted orchid – possibly…


And what were these infernal, though admittedly rather beautiful, white orchids…


Someone on Facebook suggested this could be a southern marsh orchid


This rather pretty, if dandelion-esque, flower looks remarkably like a mouse-ear hawkweed from my ID guide:


By now, the boys were getting increasingly grumpy. Sam complained that the grass in the meadow was coming up to his knees. “It’s takin’ a long time,” wailed Mungo.

At least there was a gate to climb.


And even the boys had to admit that the sea of ox-eye daisies offset the burnt-out car in a rather original way.


Well, no, they didn’t. “What was the best thing about that walk?” we asked them at the end.

“Getting back to our car,” said Sam without a hint of irony.

Ah well, you win some – and you lose some. Still, we had a nice day.

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In search of the River Thames and a special game of pooh sticks…

The Wildlife Trusts have started a campaign called ’30 Days Wild’, and the idea is to do something, well, wild every day in June. Apparently, there are some wallcharts and stuff to give you ideas and inspiration, and no doubt we’ll be seeing what they have to offer at some point, but for the very first day, I decided we’d do our own thing. It had to involve a train ride somewhere – anywhere – to keep Mungo on board.


From Stroud, we caught the train to Kemble, with the idea that we’d toddle on to the excellent playground there (with its super, whizzy zipwire), but I had another idea up my sleeve that Mungo didn’t know about.


Yes, weird as it may sound, Kemble (between Stroud and Swindon) is just half a mile or so from the source of the Thames. I thought I’d challenge Mungo to a game of pooh sticks on the upper reaches of England’s longest river. OK, longest river that only runs through England, if we’re being pedantic.

The playground was fine, and then I said we were going on a little walk. “Is it not a long walk?” Mungo asked plaintively. No, I assured him, quite a very short walk.

We soon found some dandelion clocks to amuse ourselves.


There were swallows zipping around us, and a chiffchaff chiffchaffing away from within a small copse.

Then we found the Thames and the bridge we were going to use for our game of pooh sticks.


Disaster – it was just dry riverbed. Actually, it wasn’t that surprising: this close to the source, the Thames is usually dry during the summer, but (with the weather the way it has been), I kept forgetting it was actually 1 June. It felt more like 1 April.

On the way back, we tested Mungo’s liking for butter.


Peanut butter, that is…

Suddenly, the weather closed in, and a rainy squall hit us hard from nowhere. It was every man for himself…



We rushed back to the station to wait for the next train back to Stroud. It was another Cross Country, not the hoped for Intercity. Ah well, you can’t get everything you want.










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We’re going on a boar hunt

We’re going on a boar hunt,
We’re going to catch a big one,
What a beautiful day, we’re not scared.

Oh-uh, a forest, the deep, dark Forest of Dean…
I don’t want to walk over it,
I don’t want to walk under it,
Oh well, I’ll just have to go on Daddy’s shoulders.


We’re going on a boar hunt,
And it looks like we’re in luck,
A footprint, a very clear footprint…

I don’t want to walk over it,
I don’t want to walk under it,
So, I’ll just poke my finger in it.


We’re going on a boar hunt
We’re going to catch a big one.

In fact, if this trail of footprints is anything to by (and really were left by wild boar, as Daddy claims),
Then we’re going to come across a small army of them at this rate.


We’re going on a boar hunt,
We’re going to catch a big one,
What a beautiful day, we’re not scared.

Oh-uh, a walk, a terrible long, deathly dull walk and not the “10 minutes or so” as Daddy claimed at the beginning.
I can’t now get out of it, and I’m definitely not staying here on my own.
Oh well, I’ll just have put on my sulkiest look and pretend I’m miserable (now).


We’re going on a boar hunt,

We’re going to catch a big one,
What a beautiful day, we’re not scared…

Uh-oh, alone – I’ve been left all alone.
The meanies.
(And the last time I saw him, Daddy was glancing anxiously at the map, so we’re probably lost.)


We’re going on a boar hunt,
We’re going to catch a big one,
And – sucker that I am – I’m beginning to believe Daddy when he says this clod of earth I’m holding was dug up by a boar while it was rootling for food.

Not sure anyone else does, though.


We’re going on a boar hunt,
We really might catch something.

Look! Look! Some poo!
It’s all shiny and black like coal, and Daddy claims it’s definitely wild boar, looks very fresh and was probably only left here late last night.

Like he’s an expert on these things.


We’re going on a boar hunt
We’re going to catch a big one,
What a beautiful day…

Crikey, there really is poo everywhere.
What on earth were they doing here last night?


We’re going on a boar hunt,
But Daddy’s wandered off into that conifer plantation on a frankly transparently flimsy pretext that he might be able to scare some of the boar that are supposedly hiding in there into the clearing.

Bet he can’t, and he just ends up taking pointless shots of sunshine coming through the trees.



We’ve been on a boar hunt,
And we didn’t see any.

Uh-oh, we’ve run out of Oreos,
Oh well, it doesn’t matter, because that nice man Pete had chocolate brownies, malt loaf, biscuits and then some, so I’ll just have to tap him up and see what more I can coax out of him.

And – more importantly – we’re finally going home!


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Yellow peril: on the trail of Gloucestershire’s deadly daffodils

It had been a while since we’d done any gruffalo hunting. It’s harder during the winter, partly because there is evidence that gruffalos hibernate (“the Gruffalo snored and snored and snored”), but mainly because the kids just want to stay in and play Minecraft or watch crazy videos on YouTube of repeated Lego train smashes. Normal stuff.

But then, just a few days ago, my Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust quarterly envelope of goodies (I know, my horizons are kind of limited these days) dropped through our letterbox. Or would have if we had a letterbox.

And there on page 14 came inspiration. “Spring Walk,” it said. “Let Gloucestershire’s golden wild daffodils light up your path through Gwen and Vera’s Fields and Betty Daw’s Wood.” Hardly vicious predators with raking claws or one of those obscure marine invertebrates with enough venom to kill the entire wildebeest population of the Serengeti – and which Steve Backshall would happily engage in combat mano-a-mano – but there are definitely daffodils in The Gruffalo, I thought. Or was it yellow flag irises? Well, to hell with it – Mungo and I would go anyway, even if the nature reserves in question sounded like they’d be selling jars of broad bean pickle and wild strawberry jam.

“DON’T WANT TO!” Mungo screamed, when I suggested it. “DON’T WANT TO GO ON DAFFODIL TRAIL.”

I had to think fast. Grabbing a small tupperware box, I started to fill it ostentatiously with biscuits “We’ll take Oreos,” I said, doing my best imitation of the snake with the apple in the Garden of Eden.

It just about swung the day. That, and the balance bike, the Brio trains in his pocket and the £500K in his bank account. If he had one.

The daffodil trail was over the other side of Newent, some 40 minutes away, and by the time we got there, Mungo was snoring like a brown bear in the first stages of his winter torpor. A prod and a poke, and he awoke in a shockingly grumpy mood and gave me a look rather worse than the one he’d shot earlier when it first dawned on him that a blissful afternoon smashing up his own Lego train was about to be rudely interrupted.

There was only one thing for it – he’d have to go on my shoulders. That never fails to cheer him up. As you can see.


Just down the road, at the entrance to Gwen and Vera’s Fields Nature Reserve (no jars of chutney for sale, I can report) we saw our first daffodils. Damp, boggy meadows on either side were awash with small yellow flowers, pint-sized versions of the domesticated versions in your garden.

Entrance to the meadows was clearly discouraged, so I lay down and stuck my camera through the gate to take photos, while Mungo saw an opportunity and jumped up and down on my back as if I were a trampoline.


This definitely cheered him up, and soon he was making great progress on his own two legs. Despite the springtime sunshine, the ambience in the wood was that winter still hadn’t gone for good. The tracks were boggy, the trees leafless and the birds mostly quiet – perhaps they were still spooked by the solar eclipse earlier in the day.

There were lots of daffodils on the forest floor, however. Mungo ran from one lovely clump to another, pleased as Punch, pointing them out to me as if I’d somehow missed the one thing we’d come here for. “LOOK, THERE’S THEM DAFFODILS, DADDY!”


At a bridge over a small stream, I had to quell a minor rebellion, repelling “We go back to the car now?” with a counter-thrust of an Oreo biscuit, with a promise of more to come should we make it through the next wood (that would be Betty Daw’s). Mungo seemed mollified – and promptly wet his pants (we’re potty training).


More daffodils, and yes more Oreos followed. At the exit to Betty Daw’s, I heard my first chiffchaff of the spring, though it was almost drowned out by the M50 motorway. And yeah, I know it’s nothing remarkable – almost anyone you care to mention who’s got a Twitter account heard a chiffchaff before me in 2015. Even Justin Bieber. (note: I don’t follow him myself, I must have spotted a retweet),

That was almost it – we were a day too early for the promised land of ‘Teas’, and besides one of us had more than had his fill of biscuits. It only remained to get snarled up in Gloucester’s rush-hour traffic on the way home and to start pondering the next Oreo-fuelled adventure.

daffodil trail5

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Golden wonders: ups and downs on the eagle way

After the great eagle success on Mull – see previous post for our ‘Close encounters of the big bird kind’ – it was difficult to see how Harris, in the Outer Hebrides, could be as good. It was bound to rain all week, and we’d be stuck inside playing endless games of ‘pairs’ or, worse, I’d have to devise a home-made set of Battleships.

But from day one, things were looking good.

For a start, the beaches were to die for.


And there was almost nobody else on them – just us, and one mysterious stranger…


But would we see much wildlife? Eagles? Otters? Dolphins? Well, the initial signs were good – the heather was in full bloom.


But while it may be very pretty, heather doesn’t have a set of talons deadlier than a set of Bowie knives and it can’t pluck a single mackerel from the sea without getting its feet wet. It’s a fairly passive entity, really, and as such, it doesn’t hold much fascination for young boys.

So, we arranged to go for a walk with Matt Watts, a ranger for the North Harris Trust in the beautiful, edge-of-the-world village – well, barely a village, if we’re being honest – of Huisinish.

Matt soon found us something I’d been searching for all week but not had any luck with.


Yes, an otter spraint – like an eagle pellet, something naturalists love to sniff to show people just how strange they are. And to see who or what did it. In this case, if it smells a bit fishy, then it’s been left by an otter. This one was a bit old, so it didn’t smell much, but you can also pull one apart to see fish bones and scales.

But while Matt was explaining to the assembled throng what the Western Isles’ unique habitat of machair (pronounced ‘macker’, more or less) is, Sam found something even more intriguing.


Yes, the jawbone of a rabbit! Mr McGregor had finally got his revenge.

Indeed, the machair was littered with dead animals – perfect food for a golden eagle, you’d think, but they were eerily absent, though this particular carcass and been well-scavenged.


Still, who needs eagles when you’ve got rocks to play on and your brother to muck about with – actually, the sudden delight with which Sam and Mungo were playing together was starting to worry me. They actually seemed to enjoy each other’s company.



Strange days indeed (as John Lennon once sang).

But where were those eagles? I mean, cloudless blue skies, so just imagine the vortex of thermals for them to flier higher and higher on, lifting them up where they belong (as Joe Cocker once sang). Actually, Matt had told me something worrying earlier that week – eagles don’t like it when it’s too hot. They sit around on the mountain crags, complaining about the heat and, instead of soaring into the sky in search of a tasty mountain hare or red grouse, they go for a lie down. And the weather was totally gorgeous. Endless, cloudless blue skies. Hopeless.

All was not lost, however. Robin Reid, who works for the RSPB on Harris and is – like Dave Sexton – an eagle man through and through, had told me of one place where we were guaranteed success. Cast-iron certainty, or our money back. A place called Bhoga Glas, or Bowglas in English, about 10km north of Tarbert on the road to Stornoway. You can see them from the carpark, he promised – perfect for my family, I said.

Better still, it was blustery, rainy sort of afternoon the day we went – thank god, the sun had finally gone in after shining incessantly for four days. Honestly, where’s a good, honest overcast day when you need it?


We set off, full of enthusiasm.


Replete with vigour and vim.  Nothing could stop our brave eagle hunters.


For a while, nothing happened (but still they were not disheartened), and then we heard the iconic cronks of ravens passing overhead – always a good sign (they love to mob golden eagles). Then something much larger appeared, swooping round in elegant circles, silent as the grave. “Golden eagle,” I shrieked.


Great excitement all round. And don’t imagine for a minute that just because Mungo had my binoculars back to front that he couldn’t see the eagle. Nothing could be further from the truth – he could see it alright, he just couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about when the bird we were hollering about was the size of an earwig.

Anyway, the sightings (for there were many more to follow, though whether we saw a total of two or three separate birds was hotly debated) definitely cheered our raptor warriors. Or was it the chocolate biscuits they were being drip-fed? Whatever, they were in remarkably good spirits, considering there were no trains or Lego Chima within range.


Anyway, I didn’t get any pictures of the eagle. I didn’t have a proper telephoto lens with me, and it’s difficult to hold a camera steady when you’re being ram-raided by a small boy doing an imitation of the Big Billy Goat Gruff, so here’s one I picked up from flickr.


Well, that was about it for the holiday. There was just time for some posing down on the beach.


And for me to get my picture of the beautiful harebells in the sheep field we walked through on the way to the beach every day.


And that was it – it was goodbye to Harris as we took the ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool. But, much to my surprise, it seemed we had won our battle to interest our children in wildlife. Sam had kept a running tally of the number of ravens he had both seen and heard, and all the indications were that they’d both enjoyed watching eagles and otters. So much so that Sam couldn’t stop looking out for them.


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Eagle eyes: hunt for the flying barn door

If you go to Mull, on the west coast of Scotland, there are lots of wild things to look out for – seals, otters and dolphins, for a start – but what makes it really special is to be found up in the sky: the white-tailed ‘sea’ eagle, a bird with a wingspan that exceeds the height of an NBA basketball star. The carved wooden statue below doesn’t really do the species justice. Not sure that’s a particularly good impression of one, either.


You’d think that such a flying barn door would be easy to see, but eagle sightings are often experienced through the lens of a powerful spotting scope from a quarter of a mile or more away. I’ve often found myself thinking “So what?” in these circumstances, and I didn’t think it would impress our two boys, Sam and Mungo, aged six and three. If they were to get excited about eagles in any way, seeing them needed to have more cutting edge than that.

We started off with an old contact of mine, Dave Sexton of Mull RSPB. He met us in a battered Land Rover, which immediately made him a bit of a God in the boys’ eyes. Dave drove us along the south side of Loch Na Keal, looking for otters and eagles along the way, and round to Forestry Commission land where there was a white-tailed eagle nest and hide.

And it was here that Mungo discovered all the tools he needed for making scrambled eggs.


Sam, meanwhile, was getting an object lesson from Dave on one of the key skills needed to be a proper ‘naturalist’ – the ability to pick up and smell organic waste matter without being revolted. I say “organic waste” because Sam is sniffing a pellet – a matted tangle of bones, scales and god-knows-what – and not a poo in the photo below. It’s a pellet because it’s something that the eagle has effectively vomited up. Proper naturalists love them, because it’s their way of telling other people, “We’re weird.” Sam certainly thought so. Proper naturalists dissect them and tell you what the eagle, or any bird of prey or owl, indeed, has been eating.


But while there was plenty of eagle ‘stuff’ (including stuffed eagles) in the hide, there was no eagle action outside it. The nest still had a juvenile on it, Dave had said, and we might be lucky enough to see the parents bringing food back for their hungry ‘teenager’, though, rather disappointingly I thought, it wouldn’t be take-away pizza.

So Dave took us to a dark woodland glade that overlooked the nest they were using last year, and wheeled out his scope with little expectation of finding anything. It at least gave our budding eagle watchers a chance to practise their spotting skills.


In fact, as it turned out, the juvenile – this year’s model, but already more or less fully grown – was sitting on this nest, as if he’d just discovered that his parents had a second home and had decided to squat it. Our first proper sighting! It was some distance away – not quite a quarter of a mile but that scope came in handy – but near enough for Sam to witness ‘teen-boy’ attending to his toiletry needs, a dramatic squirt of almost day-glo white that I swear could have been picked up by any passing satellite.

But for close-up encounters with white-tailed eagles, Dave recommended that we spend a morning with Martin Keivers of Mull Charters. Martin has a boat at Ulva Ferry, and most days between April and October, he motors into Loch Na Keal, throws a mackerel out of the back of the boat and waits.

So off we went, some of us consuming our packed lunch within the first five minutes. We still had a biscuit or two for the remainder of the day, or if the kids got really hungry, there was always fish.


Anyway, luckily, something happened pretty quickly to take their minds off food.


“When the eagle starts coming close,” Martin had warned us, “keep as quiet as possible. We don’t want to put it off its meal.”

Unfortunately, one member of the crew couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. “The big bird’s getting closer,” Mungo yelled excitedly, as the eagle circled around the boat.


It certainly was. “The big bird’s getting closer,” he yelled again, this time prompting a flicker of consternation (polite, for now at least) from some of the other clients on board.

I’m not quite sure what he was saying as the bird swooped on the fish and took it clean out of the water as if it possessed a spear gun on its talons, because I was hurriedly stuffing him into the cabin while simultaneously trying to get some record of our adventure. Which I did, just about.


But at least we all saw it – you could hardly miss such an event.

Sam had watched with his eyes popping out of their sockets – and we got to see it happen twice more. He was also intently looking out for any passing ravens (numerous were spotted, he got rather expert at recognising their cronking calls) or the more elusive otter – none on this particular day, but we had already had an excellent sighting from our self-catering cottage overlooking the Sound of Mull.


Meanwhile, Mungo – released from cabin captivity – was enjoying life on the ocean waves.


And to top it all, they got to drive the boat.


When you consider that white-tailed eagles went extinct, thanks to persecution, in the UK in the early 1900s, and were only reintroduced (to the island of Rum, not Mull) over 10 years between 1975 and 1985, it’s remarkable that we and our children can watch them so easily today. Next time, though, it would be great if one of them could keep a little quieter.

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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.


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.


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.

marbled white

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.


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 car clutched defiantly in his left hand.


“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.


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


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.


By now, Mungo really had had enough, so I promised him by way of reward a trip to the village 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.

silver washed fritillary

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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