Urban diary: Wildlife in Worcester

p1180184There could be a debate about whether the areas to the south and west of Worcester city centre genuinely qualify as urban: there’s a cathedral, a county cricket ground – once considered the most picturesque of all the first-class grounds – and the Severn meandering in a leisurely manner (today at least, if not always so) towards its confluence with the Teme. The Malvern hills are barely eight miles distant, and look closer.

We rarely drive to Worcester, or indeed to Malvern: for a day strolling the city, or a longer one walking the hills, the train is by far the preferred option. The walk from Foregate Street station to the riverside paths takes you right past the Cornish Bakehouse, purveyor of fine and varied pasties. Lunch is easily taken care of; all that remains is to choose from one of the wide selection of benches adjacent to the river. Stick to the cathedral side and any time from mid-morning on you’ll be catching the sun, if sun there is to be caught.

As well as the road bridge carrying the A44 there are two pedestrian footbridges crossing the river within easy walking distance of the city centre. The most recently constructed – just past Diglis weir on the southern side – added the final link in a pleasant, undemanding, circular walking route.

p1180135With the river low and slow-moving – consequence of an extended dry spell – a grey heron waded further from the bank than would usually be possible; repeatedly spearing and swallowing morsels too small to identify. There are some relatively new kids on this particular block – cormorants: there was a time, not so long ago, when they would have been a rarity this far upstream; these days they’re a fixture and their appetites are said to be prodigious by those who study these things. They will certainly be competing with the herons for food, possibly also for nesting sites. As of now, herons generally appear to be doing well; testimony to their adaptability and instinct for finding first water, then fish.

p1180101Speaking of which – fish that is – they could be forgiven a certain amount of paranoia: to further complicate their already hazardous existence, a kingfisher was patrolling a stretch of the river immediately south of the bridge. It was disinclined to pose for the camera – waiting part-hidden among the vegetation at the water’s edge. Seeing without being seen; not an easy trick for such a brightly-coloured bird.

Crossing the bridge and turning back in the direction of the city we found some of the plumpest wild blackberries we’d seen for a good few years; fully ripened and the size of large raspberries. Unfortunately a posse of hornets – the European variety, not the Asian ones which are the source of so much concern – had found the blackberries first. Risk seemed to outweigh reward, so we moved on. Last week in October and the hornets looked a long way from slowing down their activity.

p1180137There was still time for the day to throw us  one final surprise: a decent-sized salmon – exhausted from the look of it – making a few tired attempts to climb the weir, never really managing to get fully clear of the water. Eventually we lost sight of it, partly a consequence of being distracted by the brief drumming of a woodpecker before it flew away.







The enduring pull of Shropshire


We return frequently to the Shropshire hills, and more to the Long Mynd than any other: 35 miles by road, a journey generally hassle-free, giving the feeling of proper hill country made accessible. The height might be unspectacular, but the complexity of the terrain and the propensity for ground-hugging mists, particularly in autumn, makes for some interesting outings. You can lose yourself in more ways than one.

45530185107941__405x720-argb_88881818675229The valleys (hollows), which cut into the hills, provide a variety of ways to reach the plateau; and indeed a variety of options for returning by a different route. “Plateau” shouldn’t be taken as meaning table-top flat; there’s plenty of undulation – some of it subtle, some less so. Many of the hollows carry a stream (although ‘brook’ seems to be favoured locally), often fed by springs, some of which are marked on the OS 1:25000 maps. Reduced to little more than a trickle at times, they can be difficult to cross at others – it is proper hill country!

For a time – an all too brief time each summer – there is the possibility of spotting a hobby, most likely in pursuit of a dragonfly; a still better chance of catching a fleeting glimpse of a merlin on the move. The merlins seem to have moved on, as indeed do the peregrines, although the latter were apparently sighted hunting over the hollows until a couple of weeks ago. The kestrel and buzzards seem to be ‘stayers’ though; and it’s no longer a surprise to spot a nonchalant, drifting kite. Not that raptors exactly have things all their own way: ravens go about their business without apparently feeling the need for a by your leave; ravens can probably take care of themselves.

Spotted for the first time last weekend, a respectably sized flock of golden plover – wheeling and diving over the moorland, dropping down into the heather, taking to the air again en-masse, endlessly repeating. They could be new arrivals – the UK population swells anything up to tenfold over the winter.

Winter will mean more layers: down jackets stuffed into the pack for rest stops; hats, gloves, thicker socks. All of those out-of-the-wind crannies will come in handy; just as long as we can remember where they are.

Pictures above: [Top]: Mist and watery sunshine – Long Mynd; [Above left]: Walkers descending into Light Spout Hollow, Long Mynd


Light spout waterfall, reduced to a trickle following an extended spell of dry weather


Detail from Routebuddy OSGB 217 – The Long Mynd & Wenlock Edge (1:25000) – showing a number of springs feeding the brook in Ashes Hollow

Suburban diary: The battle for control of the treetops

We live a few miles from where we spotted those five buzzards in the previous post – a short hop from where the suburban fringes give way to farmland. I often think of it as a kind of frontier: the west midlands conurbation finally (thankfully!) dissipating into copse, covert, and the rotating mix of arable and grazing pasture.

Inevitably the divide is blurred and, in the same way that the building line encroaches outwards, remnants of the former greenery remain trapped within the suburbs – parkland, golf courses, cricket clubs. Often bequests from benefactors long departed, these oases endure – covenanted, protected and inviolate; safe from the clutches of the developers. Being arboreal, they also make for a fascinating battleground…

Not quite enjoying the cause célèbre status of the “back from the brink” red kite, or the poster bird celebrity of the osprey, buzzards seem to have just got on with the job of reoccupying territories from which they had long been absent. As an aside, something similar seems to be happening with ravens, although not in anything like the same numbers. Perhaps the ready supply of roadkill is part of the equation; the apparently unstoppable rise in the local grey squirrel population seems to be another, at least where the buzzards are concerned.

Over the course of the last couple of years I must have seen at least half a dozen instances of grey squirrel being carried in the talons of low-flying raptors; always buzzards and mostly around the tops of the trees which surround the local park – a mix of tall conifers and broadleaf (horse chestnut, in the main). A couple have been young, possibly snatched from dreys; mostly they have been of adult size.

In the context of evolutionary timescales, this is a brand new food chain – the greys being non-native and relatively new to the UK. If it is a building block in the longer-term reduction in the grey squirrel population, then it is a welcome one as far as I’m concerned. The greys have had an easy ride up to now: the polecats, pine martens and goshawks which might have controlled their numbers are largely absent from our locality; there’s the odd weasel and that’s about it. Reports of a slowly recovering goshawk population, should they turn out to be true, will be welcome in all sorts of ways; the buzzards are doing their bit – but they could certainly use some reinforcements.