The recent planting of the new wood out on the Oakington road set me thinking about the Histon wood (the one on the Girton footpath next to the guided busway) that we helped to plant way back in 1993.
It was a bitter December day, one of those cold, grey days when the horizontal sleet cuts right through you. The field was ploughed bare and muddy, and the trees were short bare-rooted sticks that, quite frankly, looked decidedly unpromising. As we stuck them into the mud it required something of a leap of faith to imagine that one day the field would be a ‘real’ wood!
As spring came round we watched excitedly as our sticks grew leaves. The following summer was dry, and we worried that the saplings would succumb to drought, but they survived and grew (in retrospect we decided that the lack of water actually made the tiny trees stronger, as they put down deep roots in search of water).
Over the years we’ve watched ‘our’ wood grow and flourish. The trees are a mixture of species: oak, ash, alder, field maple, wild cherry, birch and hawthorn, with wild roses and guelder rose mixed in. The wood is particularly beautiful in spring and early summer, resplendent with blossom and fresh green leaves, but it’s worth a visit any time of year.
In the winter the wood is visited by roving flocks of tits and finches, and jays searching for acorns to eat, while the oak trees and rose bushes bear the signs of insect life in the shape of marble and spangle galls, and Robin’s Pincushion galls (all formed as a result of the activities of various species of gall wasp). Spring brings migrant warblers to the wood: chiffchaffs, willow warblers, blackcaps, and whitethroats, filling the wood with song, while the froth of hawthorn blossom attracts insects galore. Summer is a lush and lazy time, sleepy and green, when the trees cast welcome shade, and early visitors may spot a fox or muntjac deer. In the autumn the wood displays bright colours – maple leaves in all shades of yellows, oranges and reds, oaks in browns, coppers and russets, and hawthorn and guelder rose berries and rose hips in a variety of startling bright reds. At any time of year you may spot a black squirrel, a kestrel or a sparrowhawk.
Walking through the wood today, the trees meet over my head. It feels like a ‘real’ wood now that I can walk through it rather than being able to look over it, and it seems all the more special and beautiful to me because I can remember how it started.
Some day very soon I’m going to take a walk out to the new wood on the Impington road, stand in the middle of it, and let my imagination wander forwards to the day that it, too, will be tall and green and full of wildlife.
Red, grey – and now black. Just exactly what is going on with our squirrels?
I’m sure that many people are aware that here in Cambridgeshire our native red squirrel was replaced long ago by the grey squirrel, an American species (grey squirrels were introduced from America in 1892 and quickly spread; by 1958 there were no longer any red squirrels in Cambridgeshire). However, in the woods and gardens around Histon and Impington there is another shade of squirrel to be seen: black. And they may be taking over.
You may be forgiven for thinking that the black squirrel is a new species – it certainly looks strikingly different from our ‘normal’ squirrels. However, that is not the case: the black squirrels are actually a colour variant of the grey. The normal grey colour is a result of a balance between two versions of the pigment melanin, a darker one and a lighter one. In the black squirrels, a genetic mutation causes overproduction of the darker pigment, resulting in the black coat colour. This mutation is dominant, which means that any squirrel that inherits a copy of the mutated gene from either parent will be black, with squirrels inheriting a copy from both parents being a particularly deep, glossy black.
There has been some speculation about the origin of the black squirrels here in the UK. The first black squirrels were spotted on the outskirts of Letchworth as long ago as 1912, and since then they have spread northwards and eastwards, reaching Cambridge in the 1990s. Initially scientists thought that the black mutation had occurred here in the UK; however, more recently, examination of the gene involved has shown that the mutation matches that found in black squirrels in the United States. This suggests that the black mutation was introduced into the UK population by American black squirrels that escaped from zoos.
Whatever the origin of the colouring, the black squirrel is here to stay, and it’s spreading. Again, it’s somewhat unclear why this is so. It’s hard to see how the black colour gives any survival advantage over being grey, unless perhaps their dark colour allows them to absorb more sunlight in winter and therefore stay warmer and thus need less food. There are also many reports of black squirrels being more aggressive than grey ones, perhaps because their genetic mutation also means that they produce more testosterone than greys, and are therefore able to out-compete them for resources such as food.
Perhaps one day all our squirrels will be black, but until then, keep an eye out for them (Girton is a hotspot, and I’ve seen them many times in Histon wood and the Coppice) – they are, after all, an interesting local speciality!
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Imagine a bright afternoon in early Spring. Outside my garden gate, parents are gathering to collect their children from school. Cars are pulling up. Younger brothers and sisters are racing around and yelling loudly. I’m in my kitchen, pottering around whilst waiting for my own children to come in from school, when I suddenly hear a loud ‘thump’ at my kitchen window. Rushing to look out, I see the most amazing and surprising sight: a female sparrowhawk, plump blackbird in her talons, looking up at me from the patio just outside the window. For a few breathtaking seconds she stares at me, fierce yellow eye glaring, and then she’s off across the lawn, fast and low, carrying her prey. She settles under the bushes by the barbeque and starts tearing into her meal, seemingly oblivious to the shrieking children just the other side of the garden wall. When my children come chattering up the drive she picks up the blackbird and slips away over the garden wall to continue her dinner somewhere more peaceful.
Imagine another scene, a few years ago, in Saffron Road. It’s about 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning and broad daylight, with a thin layer of snow on the ground, and two men working under the bonnet of a car in the British Legion car park. Glancing out of the window I spot a big dog fox emerging from under a garden fence. He trots nonchalantly round the front of the Legion, ignoring the two mechanics completely, slips through a gap in the hedge, and saunters up the garden. He’s clearly on his way somewhere but is in no particular hurry. When I follow his tracks later I see that he stopped for a sniff around the pond edge before continuing on his leisurely way through into our neighbour’s garden.
These were two truly wild encounters in the very heart of the village, and two reminders that this isn’t just our place. We share our village with some amazing wild creatures who make their way alongside us, fitting themselves into the spaces we leave around us, and carrying on their daily business at the edges of our lives. Often they go unnoticed - these were two occasions when I had the good fortune to be in the right place, looking the right way, at the right moment, but how often had these things happened when I wasn’t looking? The fox was clearly on familiar and comfortable ground, and mine isn’t the only garden with a good supply of plump and tasty blackbirds attractive to a sparrowhawk, so it’s unlikely that the two events I witnessed were in any way unique or even particularly unusual.
It’s all too easy to sit and watch wildlife programmes on the television that have been made in exotic locations, and to forget that this stuff is happening right here, too, in our own neighbourhood, on our own streets and in our own gardens. If you stay alert, be aware, and keep looking, then who knows what you might spot on your own front doorstep?
My mother-in-law and I do this thing where we count how many species of wildflower we see when we go on walks throughout the year. Yesterday's total was two - speedwell and dandelion - and I had to search pretty hard for those. However there are catkins now - both alder and hazel - and the pussy willow is starting to break out, so things are starting to move.
Interesting to note that the blackthorn blossom-to-be is still tiny hard buds. Looking back at my photos from previous years, I see that on the 8th March two years ago the blackthorn by the 'new' wood was a riot of blossom, whereas this year the same bushes still look almost like bare twigs at the moment.
One of the best things about travelling is getting a glimpse of somebody else's neighbourhood nature. We spent the last week in Val Thorens, in the French Alps, and these guys were daily visitors to our balcony (encouraged by a few kitchen scraps). They're Alpine Choughs, talkative characters who are master aeronauts, and some of my favourite birds. Over the past few years I've spent literally hours watching them while the rest of the family ski, and they still amaze and entertain me. Well worth the journey.