Low and slow (17/02/2015)

Low and slow

The Severn, in its middle reaches, can be a turbulent river; rising and falling many times over the course of a year and, although the origins may vary, the underlying cause is always the same – rapid, uncontainable accumulation of water. The river rises in an area of high rainfall and, along its route, collects the input from many other watercourses: some of them substantial rivers in their own right; others relatively minor; some probably unknown to most of us.

Over the years I’ve probably seen the river – particularly the stretch between Bridgnorth and its confluence with the Teme – in all of its moods: from meandering and benign all the way to torrent and flash flood. In spate it can be irresistible and horribly destructive: given the choice, my preference is for low and slow.

Swollen and fast, the river runs a cloudy and unattractive brown – the colour of tea with not enough milk – and carries all manner of debris, plenty of which is deposited in waterside meadows as the volume abates.

Worcester (left) is always susceptible to flooding. To the immediate left of the road bridge in the picture is New Road county cricket ground; arguably one of the most visually attractive of all the county grounds, it is frequently under water and inaccessible in the weeks leading up to the start of a new season.

By contrast, when levels are at their lowest, the Severn can run clear and shallow, sparkling over gravel beds with the bottom clearly visible. Not quite comparable with the Tay at its finest, but a far cry from the deluge which regularly threatens towns and villages along the flood plain.
This was how we found it on today’s walk and – with the increased activity from an assortment of birds – there was generally a feeling of ‘the coming of spring’, albeit slightly tempered by the clinging, muddy clay underfoot, which made the going harder than expected.

A few weeks back, the roar from the rushing water had been loud enough to drown out the noise of the trains passing by on the Severn Valley Railway, which runs alongside the river for most of its 16 miles. Today the long-tailed tits could be heard clicking away in the undergrowth. There are times when it’s scarcely possible to believe it’s the same stretch of water.

Talking of the railway: from Bewdley – where it swings alongside the river and shadows its route north all the way to Bridgnorth – it is rarely out of sight, other than a few sections when the trees are in summer foliage. The line crosses from the east bank to the west by means of an engineering masterwork – the Victoria Bridge, near to the village of Arley.

Today, one of the old diesel multiple units was in service and I was reminded of the old, and long gone, Dudley to Snow Hill route. Snow Hill station, as it was in those days, was another engineering masterwork; if only we’d had digital cameras back then.

By high summer, trackside vegetation will look a little different. This is the SVR’s resident Class 20 making careful progress

The forecast is saying rain for the midlands and west; for elsewhere as well. Tributaries of the Severn will be gathering water: hopefully not too much – some of them are susceptible to flooding issues of their own, before they add to the volume of the Severn. The Teme, the Vyrnwy – both with their sources in the Welsh hills – even our own smaller local river, the Stour, are all prone to gathering water and rising quickly, before they join the Severn on its meandering journey – east, south, then finally back towards the west, and with many other deviations along the route.

That’s not forgetting the Avon – the one we call the ‘Warwickshire’ Avon (presumably because of Stratford), even though it rises near to Naseby in Northamptonshire and has a pretty meandering journey of its own – Northants, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, finally Gloucestershire where it joins the Severn at Tewkesbury.

If the predictions turn out to be correct, and the next band of rain proves to be persistent and widespread, the goosanders won’t be drifting downstream on gentle currents as they were today. If the pattern of recent years is any guide, there will probably be, before spring is over, at least one major ‘event’ affecting any number of vulnerable areas from Shrewsbury all the way to the final outflow into the Severn estuary. If that should happen, I won’t be the only one looking forward to an extended dry spell and the return of low and slow.

 

Low and slow: the Severn at its most agreeable

Birmingham Snow Hill Station as it once was (1957) (Source: Wikipedia)

For our sanity

A few weeks back, a particularly malevolent strain of winter bug decided I would make a suitable candidate for its next victim. It obviously found me to be an agreeable host, stuck around and outstayed its welcome. Cajoled remorselessly into visiting the GP, I was advised that the verdict was “Severe inflammation of the upper respiratory tract”, in other words a very bad throat, and there was nothing much to be done beyond sensible precautions – no antibiotics (they would be ineffective – I was actually pleased!) – just keep warm and let nature take its course.

So I’ve been trapped indoors for almost a fortnight and even my unfailingly sunny disposition can be tested in those circumstances. Or, alternatively, there may be some truth in the view that “You can be a cantankerous git at the best of times, let alone when you’re stuck in the house”. It’s a subtle dividing line between those two points of view…

By today, I’d had enough; even if I didn’t go far, I was going somewhere. Plus – and this is no small consideration – I’m acutely aware of how quickly fitness can dissipate during an enforced lay-off; and how hard it can be to regain. A few miles would be better than another day of inertia.

We were engaged in changing into walking boots when our attention was drawn by an unusual call from a nearby tree. The source of the commotion was easy enough to identify – it was one of a pair of jackdaws. The noise however was untypical of any normally made by a jackdaw; but it had succeeded in attracting attention, which was probably the objective.

We were still trying to work out what was causing the corvid so much agitation when a likely explanation passed right above the tree – the unmistakable silhouette and flying pattern of a peregrine falcon. What we were hearing was probably one of the jackdaw’s repertoire of distress calls; in the event, the falcon passed by without any apparent interest and flew off purposefully into the distance. Still lacing up and it was already worth the outing.

This isn’t classic peregrine country – far from it. We were standing just at the point where suburban opulence (and – if we’re being honest – a bit of ostentation) gives way to arable farmland; Premiership footballers have, on occasions, colonised this neighbourhood and for all I know may still do so. But it wasn’t the first time we’d seen peregrines in the area and food supply is certainly sufficiently varied and plentiful; what makes it surprising is the absence of any obvious nesting sites, particularly for a bird not exactly renowned for making a big effort when it comes to home-building.

I did a bit of research and apparently it’s not unknown for peregrines to make use of nests abandoned by other varieties; but for some reason it would be very unusual behaviour in the UK. There are a number of active rookeries in the area, and also the remnants of some abandoned ones; so the opportunity is there, if not much precedent.

Over recent years, this tract of cultivated land has been an interesting barometer of the changing fortunes of birds of prey. Go back a couple of decades and you might, if lucky, spot a couple of kestrels hovering over field margins, and that would have been about it. Buzzards – which, back then, were seldom seen east of the Severn valley – were the first to return in numbers, as they have been in a in all sorts of places. These days you can spot them in the most unlikely of settings and they are hardly secretive when it comes to their choices of nest site. Typically we saw a number on today’s walk, including one sharing a leafless tree with a posse of rooks.

The comeback of the sparrowhawk has been less spectacular in terms of numbers, but they are no longer a rarity and, despite some of the hysteria surrounding them (and raptors in general), they are not “killing all the songbirds”. Although, apparently there was a recent incident where a buzzard tried to single out and carry off a dog which was on a lead and stood at its owners feet, in the company of a group of other dogs and their owners. Really, somebody actually said that: it must be the local equivalent of white-tailed eagles snatching children from play areas.

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Juvenile Sparrowhawk surveying our back garden

For a few brief months of summer, you might spot a hobby in pursuit of either dragonflies or swifts, and red kite are known to drift over on those days when updraughts are abundant and flying isn’t too much of an effort. Ironically kestrels now seem to be the ones struggling to hang on in the area; whether this is down to increased competition, or some other factor, is unclear for now.

I’m a sucker for apex predators (although it seems a stretch to apply that description to lazy opportunists like kite and buzzards), even though the deceptively pretty sparrowhawk can be a ruthless terminator. Despite what certain elements of our society would have you believe they are (far from being a menace) an essential component of biodiversity, natural and effective managers of the food chain and, ironically, considerably more sophisticated than ourselves when it comes to coexisting with other species.

Sadly, unlike the resurgent buzzard, other varieties of raptor are faring less well, particularly those whose preferred habitat is managed upland, where the law of the land appears able to be set aside when it suits. In the whole of 2013 and 2014 I had just a single hen harrier sighting and that was a migrant group, mid journey, and in an unlikely setting; it’s been years since I saw a merlin in the wild. Much worse though is that the majority of people will probably go their whole lives and never see either: the blame for that lies squarely at the feet of the only apex predator sufficiently self-absorbed to drive other species to extinction.

According to the latest information on the RSPB website, there are 617 breeding pairs of hen harrier in the whole of the UK: 617 pairs! – a higher number than can be tolerated, according to some. Seeing the falcon reminded me of the value of these genuinely wild species which, properly appreciated and understood, can do nothing but benefit our sense of perspective and sanity; like walking itself.

Addendum: An interesting and related story broke over the weekend: it concerns high profile presenter Chris Packham, The Hawk & Owl Trust, and (most likely) Hen Harriers (Link)…

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Male Hen Harrier – shot, poisoned, trapped. Absent from large areas of the UK – persecuted by humans to the verge of extinction in others. Protected by law. 

(Image from: http://www.birdguides.com)