Tuesday, April 24, 2007

I See Red

Yesterday, I was running around Hackney Marshes and a small animal scurried into my path. I suspected rat but hoped for vole. As I slowed to a tiptoe – the way I run, this wasn’t much of an adjustment – I could see the creature was a reddish-brown colour. I stopped within ten or so feet of it and it stood up. Not a rat or vole then. It had a white chest. After twenty-five years in England and on Hackney Marshes, of all places, I saw my first ever red squirrel. It was tiny.

At the end of my run, I went scurrying off to find a ranger to report this miraculous sighting. Breathlessly I pointed and explained. The ranger shrugged and said she thought that red squirrels were extinct. Impasse. I know what I saw. I couple of years ago I saw a grass snake swimming in the canal along Hackney Marshes. Luckily I had friends with me and they were able to confirm that I wasn’t hallucinating. The snake even stuck its head out of the water and hissed at us so as we’d be under no illusions about its slithery pedigree. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a snake in Britain apart from in zoos and Doreen’s pet shop.

I’ve been all over the English countryside and been promised many varieties of English wildlife but the only time I’ve seen any animal of rarity and note has been in Hackney. I’ve just been onto the London Wildlife Trust website and I’m not going to grace them with a link because they don’t even mention Hackney Marshes as a wildlife area, even though we have a wonderful bird sanctuary and a quite awesome population of pond life, not all of it concentrated in the surrounding pubs.

At great expense, I once rented a medieval manor in Suffolk and was guaranteed, at the very least, a badger. Barn owls and a headless horseman were also on the menu of possible attractions. Hopefully lighting candles and throwing runes each evening in what had once been ‘the great hall’, we were rewarded with the farmer next door’s moggy playing in the hedges masquerading as our promised badger. We were neither fooled nor amused. I’ve yet to see a barn owl that wasn’t tethered and available for photos at a fiver a pop. And the headless horseman? You figure it out.

On a weekend trip to Buckinghamshire I was vouchsafed enough hedgehogs to build a prickly stairway to the stars. If you are happy to enter heaven on a ladder of road kill, then Chalfont St Giles is definitely the place for you. The only living hedgehogs I’ve ever encountered have been on Hackney Marshes. For years I used to meet a friend, now sadly dead, for contemplative evening walks on the Marshes. We’d usually have a can of Carlsberg Special Brew to warm us up on cold nights and aid us in putting the world to rights. There were times when the sleeping hedgehogs were so thick on the ground that our conversation consisted almost entirely of ‘Gosh, sorry’, as our sturdy Zamberlan boots kicked yet another slumbering hedgehog into touch.

My very great excitement at the variety of birds and insects available on my doorstep is unmatched by any organisation that claims to keep a watching brief on our delicate urban ecosystem. I have attempted to report sightings of a black swan on the canal beside my flat and a pair of red kites hovering over the trees above to the RSPB. Black swans are much smaller than the mute swans that live in this area. At that time there was six pair in the vicinity. The black swan didn’t have a partner as it was probably an escapee from some wildlife park but it was tolerated if not exactly embraced by the large group of mute swans. I can’t believe that enthralling anthropological phenomenon wasn’t of interest to anyone. As for red kites, I thought people were desperate for sightings of kites – apparently not if it’s by me. If Bill Oddie had seen them I bet there would have been plenty of cooing.

And rabbits – Hackney is London’s Watership Down. You can see them come out for morning and evening silflay in their thousands at dawn and dusk. I’ve never managed dawn but have often spotted them at dusk. Common animals like foxes, coots, Greylag geese, Canada geese, moorhens, mallard and tufted ducks, cormorants, herons, terns, seagulls, robins, blackbirds and magpies, you hardly notice after a while. Yet they are all out there living their parallel lives. How many people know, for example, that the nest building behaviour of coots varies wildly from pair to pair and is the subject of fierce negotiation? Coots build their nests in water close to the bank. We have one pair that only ever uses natural materials. The female insists on only the finest lily roots neatly woven for her home. By contrast there is another pair who will throw together a nest out of anything within reach. Once, the male dragged a Yellow Pages telephone directory into the construction. They quite often refurbish an existing structure. One year they used a fridge door that happened to float by, another year they simply lined an old tyre to create a stylish abode.

Some day, in the very near future, all these animals will be thrown into turmoil just like the rabbits in Watership Down, by the coming of ‘progress’ in the form of The Olympics. Forty years ago, as school children in Australia, we were learning all about conservation. Britain is yet to wake up. Beaches are twice as filthy as they were ten years ago and wildlife staff think animals that live in their park are extinct. I feel most for that little red squirrel. Having defied ‘extinction’, it will soon find itself facing eviction. Where does a creature that doesn’t exist move to exactly?

Photo by R Thompson from www.castlemorpeth.gov.uk


Janejill said...

What a thrill to have seen a red squirrel; I still get excited by the grey ones even though we are overrun here with the nasty little things; I built a roof garden on my last house and they arrived in their dozens, eating all my plants and bulbs; they then nested in the shed, using my lovely linen umbrella as fodder for the winter.
I am watching two sets of pigeons struggling to build nests using ivy; of course, they cannot snap it off easily, but do they try.
You descibe the wildlife very vividly; now there's a thought - get Hackney Council to publish your post - it would attract thousands of tourists (only half joking)

That's so pants said...

Thanks Jane Jill. I KNOW! I can't tell you how excited I was. Squirrels are quite curious so it did stand and look at me for a while before scurrying off. I get very dispirited sometimes at how little interest Londoners seem to have in the natural environment. The coots especially have been a source of endless amusement to me over the years. I watched in horror one year as some moron let his dog loose in the water where nine baby coots were learning to swim and killed one of them. I have stood helpless as a heron invaded a nest and ate all the eggs with the parents screaming blue murder to no avail from a safe distance. I've seen scores of fish the size of pit bulls swimming below and been kept awake at night by a frog chorus. And I've roared with laughter as broody swans dive bomb rowers who come too close to their nest.

For the life of my I don't understand why this area doesn't get more visitors but then again, would I have seen a red squirrel if I hadn't been the only person for miles around?

MrZhisou said...

I thought I saw a red squirrel once, it darted in front of my car as I approach Brighton across the back road through the South Downs. I was quite excited and checked on the Internet but officially none live south of the Trent (or something like that) so I assumed I was wrong.

There's lots of rabbits at Gatwick Airport by the way, and I can't be doing with Bill Oddie.

That's so pants said...

Hi Mr Zhisou - it was broad daylight and I was really close and it did very squirrel like things. It was definitely a red squirrel. After failing to secure adequate engagement from the park ranger, I went and looked on the internet to see if I could find an animal that looks anything like it that it could have been and only confirmed my view that I had seen a squirrel. It was the white belly that did it - and the standing up, and the cute little button eyes. I have to stop now because I am getting all misty.

That's so pants said...

Hi Zhisou. I meant to say - rabbits have a thing about airports. There are loads at Charles de Gaulle and also Vienna. For Frith's sake, I thought hrududu were BAD creatures. Perhaps the rabbits have developed a symbiotic relationship with them like we have with Easyjet.

Reading the Signs said...

Read the signs, Ms Pants, this must mean something! My Jungian analyst grandma would have said so. Whatever, there is a touch of magic about something like this. It is a good omen. I have spoken.

That's so pants said...

Oh gawd Signs DON'T. It can only be BAD. I see only single magpies on my runs these days - don't they know it's Spring? As for the red squirrel, the most put upon animal in Britain decides to identify with me! Duh! I NEED MS MELANCHOLY NOW! If she's not available, Michael Winner will do.

Ms Melancholy said...

Lovely Ms Pants, I will be of no use to you. At the moment I only see single magpies too. Great big groups of single magpies. I do see red kites quite often though, and they are truly beautiful creatures. And I saw a treecreeper out of my office window last week. That cheered me up for a whole day. (BTW please don't mention me and Michael Winner in the same sentence ever again.)

nmj said...

Hey Pants, I love squirrels, but have never seen a red one. We had the grey ones all around, growing up. I love their acrobatics & their cheek. By the way, we have red sheep in Scotland just now...

That's so pants said...

Dearest Ms Melancholy - What can I say - I panicked. I am absolutely sure you have never said 'calm down dear' in any context whatever. I just thought it would be better than nothing.

Hi NMJ - red sheep? Are they so daft they've not noticed their throats have been cut?

Janejill said...

I used to drive along the canal on the way to work at Hoxton and even then, though it was badly run down and really neglected (1985 ish) I thought it had a really fey air about it (this was usually around 7.00am - not to boast, but just to avoid the nightmare traffic) I would have lived there, but the schools were so bad and I thought couldn't do that to my children (I just did other things I think...)

Reading the Signs said...

Something generally considered extinct, lost, is apparently alive - a miraculous sighting - and you talk about bad omens?

ok, maybe you should go and talk to Michael Winner.

That's so pants said...

Hi Jane Jill

I've always lived fairly close to the canals and I really don't think they've improved much over the years - unless you're near Canary Wharf or Paddington Basin.

Hi Signs

Maybe I'm one of those glass half full people but what I drew from it was that I had come face to face with a kindred spirit - terrified, alone, threatened and thought not to exist.

That's so pants said...

I meant empty, obviously

Boris said...

Who would have thought it? Wild life as you describe in London. It warms my heart to think of them living peacfully amongst you, but I shudder with rage at their probable fate.

I have never seen a red squirrel, but along with the many greys, we do have some black squirrels, which I am reliably informed are just mutant greys.

I saw badger on Monday on my way to work, it was still in the same spot on my way home too, and no body had squashed it any more than it already was.

Nice blog by the way.


That's so pants said...

Hi Boris - nice to hear from you. I think the present success of our local wildlife IS due to the fact that they largely go unnoticed. But, as you say, those days are numbered.

Reading the Signs said...

I don't want to be prosaic, but there's something poetic about "face to face with a kindred spirit - terrified, alone, threatened and thought not to exist." Just saying.

That's so pants said...

You prosaic away to your heart's content old girl. There has been a poem much on my mind since the sighting, by Humbert Wolfe. Maybe you know it.

The Grey Squirrel

Like a small grey
sits the squirrel.
He is not

all he should be,
kills by dozens
trees, and eats
his red-brown cousins.

The keeper on the
other hand,
who shot him, is
a Christian, and

loves his enemies,
which shows
the squirrel was not
one of those.

I once did a drawing to accompany this poem. Must see if I can find it anywhere.

Reading the Signs said...

I don't like grey squirrels, but do like this. Never seen it before.
(not so much of the "old" - girl will do nicely).

That's so pants said...

Pardon one's impertinence Signs - I meant it affectionately.