The dog’s paw

The streamlet glistens in the sunlight as it trickles over pebbles and stones. The sound of my dog lapping eagerly at the clear water drowns out the quiet tinckle of the flow. He eagerly returns to me with water still dripping off his hanging tongue, padding the hardened ground as he walks. I am just about to send him back into the water when my eye is drawn to the ground he has covered. Right where his paw fell there is a twisted piece of wood with a bold hatched pattern. That pattern is one that is familiar. This is not a piece of wood but a snake. It remains still but as I walk to its side I can see its head and tongue, pronged and waving like a wagging finger chastising us for disturbing it.

The pattern that caught my eye is of a common viper, better known as an adder. This is only the second time I have seen one, and I have contrasting feelings. My dog is still oblivious to it and I want to keep him that way. I can envisage the outcome of an inquisitive sniff. I want to look at this creature and get a photograph, though. With the dog safely down and staying I reach for my camera. As I do so the neck straightens and moves forward, the coils quickly trailing after it until it disappears behind a small wall. Shifting round I can see no signs, only cracks and crevisces between the rocks making the face. Looking now there are no signs that a snake was just here.

Still keen to capture an image, I try a trick. Nearby there is an abandoned farm building where I can retreat and watch the birds. Swallows nesting at the back of the buildings skim the turf of the surrounding slopes and continually twitter as siskin and linnet in the scattered trees give harsher calls. After 15 minutes standing, I walk quietly back to the stream and look over the wall. There at its base is the hoped for bold chevron pattern and now I succesfully get my photograph. Even as I press the shutter she starts to move off again. Within 30 seconds she is back in the crevices, hidden.

Today is a calm, sunny, early summer day. Nearby is Lynn Brenig, one of the largest lakes in Wales. A wind pushes wavelets along its length and creaks trees but here, sheltered, the air is warm. Winter is different, the ground crackles as snow and ice abound, yet this snake will still be here. I have seen no aggression from her today, even when trodden on. She has been shy and required stalking for my best views. Instead of feeling threatened I felt excited and privelaged to share these few minutes with her.




My orchids

Bee orchid

Bee orchid

For most of the year they are hidden, their narrow leaves looking like the grass that they grow amongst, but as we approach mid summer and the birds fade into the bushes, orchids flower. Amongst the pot pourri of plain yellow flowers, short spikes of pink and purple appear. My bee orchids always fascinate with their structure, a crown of normal pink petals displaying the central suede cherry. Getting down on my knees the detail in the centre is remarkable. A vivid red tongue is surmounted by a short green hood with fur cushions on each side. The cherry I saw from a distance is now delicately marbled.

I call these my orchids because they grow on my front lawn. They were not planted their, they simply appeared. This piece of grass measures about 5 by 3 metres, smaller than the smallest official nature reserve. Managed like a traditional hay meadow, it is home to yellow rattle, cowslip and grasshoppers as well as my orchids.

All of the neighbours have neat, closely mown sheets of velvet. To me, my orchids are far more attractive.

An atlantic expedition

Why travel to a collection of cliffs and stacks when the passage is never short, often rough and sometimes dangerous? The bait ┬áthat attracted me was the history of the seabirds here. Thirty years ago I read of the spread of fulmars from the only british breeding site – St Kilda. Then I learnt about a population of people who scaled sheer cliffs and rowed to offshore stacks to harvest seabird that provided food, oil and feathers – the St Kildans. Nowhere else in Britain has this relationship been so well documented with witness accounts and photographs.

There is always anticipation as a new place is approached, but the rough crossing denied me a first glimpse of the islands breaking the horizon. Instead I emerged on deck when we were anchored to see a cove cradled by hills and ridges. A group of green buildings like shipping containers behind a small, rocky beach stood out stark against the barren slopes. A road ran into the hills leading my gaze to a radio mast on the skyline. The St Kildans may have left but the stamp of a modern community is clear. Spreading out from the new village are softer shapes formed of coalesced boulders. Grey lines and circles wash across the low land around a single line of grey houses.

Once ashore I soon find the echoes of the old community now faded. The walls of the houses are intact but inside the floors are marshy grass or covered by fallen rocks. Where the people lived, sheep now wander and shelter. Starlings, dark and almost spotless, and wrens, grey and scruffy, now converse where parliament used to be held. Despite the isolation, the islands are crowded. Cruise ships anchor in the bay sending a continuous flow of tourists in black inflatables to race around the village and slopes. People wander without restriction, sometimes apparently without respect. On returning to the shore I hear talk of being struck by skuas and of finding nests with eggs.

After exploring the old village I explore the surrounding steeper ground. The slopes are covered by shrivelled heather and grass that barely reaches my ankles. Tiny dots of colour break through the brown mat like sparkles of sunshine on the sea. Blue violets, purple lousewort and pink heath spotted orchid crouch close to the soil. In wetter patches sphagnum moss shines green, clubmoss forms inch high forests and pale green rosettes of butterwort wait their insect prey. In a gully, primrose spatter the wall yellow whilst purple saxifrage is almost spent. There is a constant sound of birds. The chip,per,chip,per,chip,per call of snipe and grouse like growl of fulmar sound like they are coming from the plants whilst parachuting meadow pipit twitter softly and wheatear sing their short, chat like warble from rocky perches. Occasionally the stuttering whistle of whimbrel catches my ear.

Unlike the lost crofting community, the seed of seabird abundance that inspired me to visit is still here. Every piece of steep ground is dotted white where fulmar sit on their egg. Bonxie patrol the ridges like raptors looking for victims. Out to sea, uncountable numbers of birds appear as smoke blowing from rocky crags. As our boat pushes out of the bay rafts of puffin rise like shimmering black sheets and the nasal call of kittiwake echoes around cliffs. In open water gannets spear the water in a fountain of spray, dodging fulmar that bank and shear like fighter planes. The seabird heritage is alive and flourishing.