Category Archives: London Mammals

Fostered Felines and an Unexpected Gift (Again)

Willow

Willow

Dear Readers, I am feeling a little under the weather this afternoon (I’m 99% sure it’s not the dreaded Covid-19, so please don’t worry). So, I decided to share this post from 2015 for those of you who haven’t seen it before, and, judging by the popularity of the Bailey post there are plenty of cat lovers out there. So I hope you enjoy it, and normal service will be resumed tomorrow. 

Dear Readers, although I usually write about the wildlife outside my house, today I would like to share some tales with you about the creatures that we actually select as our companions. My husband and I began to foster cats for Cats Protection back in 2008, because for me a house without a pet is not a home, but our garden-less flat wasn’t the best environment for housing a cat permanently. Fostering involves taking cats into your home and looking after them until they are ready to be re-homed. Sometimes the cats that we looked after were sick. Sometimes they were young or vulnerable, and needed some confidence-building. On one occasion we gave sanctuary to a creature who had no idea how to behave around human beings at all (see Snowball below). During our five years of fostering we looked after nearly 80 cats, and learned a lot about non-attachment, about how every cat is different, and how tolerant it was possible to be in the face of feline bodily fluids. We also developed a clear idea of the kind of cat that we’d want to adopt when we eventually had a house with some outside space (and at this point the Universe gave a little chortle). So, here, in no particular order, are some of the cats that were in our care, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months.

Billy

Billy

Billy had suffered a horrible abscess on his head through fighting with another cat – he was a harem-scarum tomcat, a real bruiser. But after being neutered he settled down into home life and would head-butt you so hard when he wanted to be stroked that woe betide your best clothes if you happened to have a mug of tea in your hand. We developed a love for these big male ex-strays, who were so full of character and seemed to want to make the most of their new environment. We were sure that this was the kind of cat that we would eventually adopt.

Snowball

Snowball

Snowball was the most beautiful and most acrobatic cat that we ever fostered. He was pure white, deaf and lethal. If you ventured downstairs in your dressing gown he would pounce from behind cover and rip your bare legs with his needle-sharp claws. As he couldn’t hear your screams he presumably wondered why your mouth was opening and closing while you tried to prise him off. I still bear the scars from making the mistake of reaching out to pet him when he snuggled up next to me on the sofa. We worked with an animal behaviourist to try to reduce his ‘boredom aggression’, but no amount of tiring him out by playing with him would completely eliminate his bad behaviour. Eventually he was adopted, with full disclosure, by a man who didn’t mind wearing Wellington boots over his pyjamas in the morning, which just goes to show that there’s an owner out there for every cat if you wait long enough. When we waved Snowball goodbye it was with tears of relief rather than the usual sadness. I later heard that Snowball had taken to wandering, and was regularly retrieved from locations more than 2 postcodes away from where he lived. I doubt that he made old bones, but I don’t doubt that he lived his life as a semi-wild animal in just the way he chose.

Colette

Colette

Little Colette was rescued from a house fire – in fact the cat carrier in which she was saved was melted like a Salvador Dali painting. She smelled of smoke for days, and also had a brutal flea infection. She made a quick recovery, however, and was soon off to her new home, where hopefully they’d made sure the wiring wasn’t a death-trap.

Felix

Felix

Felix came to us with his little sister Irene, and he was an unmitigated show-stealer. Whenever there was something interesting going on, he was there, and poor Irene was relegated to the sidelines. If she was being stroked, he would barge his way in. If you put down 2 dishes of food, he wanted both of them. It was decided to re-home them separately, and you never saw a happier cat than Irene when her brother went off to his new home.

Galaxy

Galaxy

Galaxy came to us with a terrible throat lesions, an allergic reaction to his vaccinations and a general air of depression. Mother cats who are not vaccinated can pass calicivirus onto their kittens, which leaves them with a lifelong tendency to throat and mouth inflammation. Galaxy’s throat was so painful that there was some talk of putting him to sleep if the situation didn’t improve, and so we spoilt him horribly. He slept on the bed, in spite of his snoring. He got all the best food. We put up with his outrageous flatulence. And, lo and behold, he gradually improved, and was finally (after a year) re-homed with a wonderful lady who gave him venison and wild boar at Christmas, and didn’t mind him sleeping in her potted plants on the patio. He lived for another five years, and was so cherished that he frequently featured on his owner’s Christmas cards.

Honey

Honey

Honey was a most unfortunate-looking cat. She was as round as a beach ball and had a most disapproving expression (not helped by her moustache). However, she was an affectionate cat, and would sit beside you, purring like an idling engine. If you didn’t stroke her, she would reach out with one paw and place it on your arm until you produced the desired caresses. If they stopped, she would pause for a moment and then apologetically reach out again. Eventually she found a home with someone who could see past her unfortunate looks to the characterful creature beneath.

Mocha

Mocha (aka Fat Boy)

Latte

Latte

Mocha and Latte were described to us by the people at the cat shelter as ‘the Cappuccino Kits’ but they arrived as two lively adolescent lunks, with all the social graces of a troop of teddy boys. One afternoon, Latte decided to run up our full-length sitting room curtains, and, before I could stop him, Mocha tried to do the same. Unfortunately, Mocha was twice the weight of Latte and so the entire curtain rail, complete with an enormous chunk of plaster, came out of the wall, leaving a cloud of dust. Suffice to say that they were both in hiding for at least five minutes before they ventured out to inspect the damage.

Lee

Lee

Mork

Mork

And talking of adolescent lunks, Mork and Lee were our two first teenagers, and were a whole heap of trouble. Lee was forever jumping out of open windows, hiding on the top of bookcases and, on one occasion, getting into the washing machine.

Aaargh! Don't try this at home...Lee in the washing machine.

Aaargh! Don’t try this at home…Lee in the washing machine.

Mork was the most affectionate cat we ever had, and the first that would sit on your shoulder while you went about your housework (though he never did learn how to wash up or do anything useful). Mork and Lee were the first cats that we truly fell in love with, and we were heartbroken when they eventually found a wonderful new home. It’s safe to say that we were careful about not becoming too attached in future.

Tabby Kit

Tabby Kit

And this is Tabby, a lynx in miniature. Look at the size of those paws! He grew to be enormous, and was the gentlest kitten we ever looked after, happy to lie in your arms like a baby.

Rosa

Rosa

Rosa and the family

Rosa and the family

Mostly White

Mostly White

Stripey Tail

Stripey Tail

Rosa was the only cat who gave birth to her kittens in our house. And what an event it was! We had prepared several places for the big event, but of course she had her babies squeezed between the bookshelf and the radiator, on the 4th November. On the 5th November there was a Guy Fawkes party in the street, with deafening explosions and shouting and general carry-on, but she stayed firm despite it all. When the kittens first came out from their hiding place after a few weeks, she spent a lot of time trying to corrall them by tapping them with her front feet, like a footballer trying to dribble the ball, but eventually she gave up and let them start to explore. We felt like proud parents, and were most indignant when the shelter folk described them as ‘long-bodied and short-legged’. Harrumph!

Stripey Tail emerging for the first time

Stripey Tail emerging for the first time

Seymour

Seymour

Seymour was another big tom-cat, but he had a condition called Horner’s Syndrome, a condition which makes one eye droop, and is often related to lesions of the nervous system. Hence, he wasn’t expected to have a long life. He spent his first day with us hiding in his covered litter-tray, and it was only after I reached in to stroke him and he started to purr that I realised that he was just frightened and confused. He was always very careful with the many flights of stairs in the flat, and I’m sure that he couldn’t focus properly. As is often the case with the most damaged of cats he was very easy to love, and I was very happy when he was re-homed by someone who knew that his prognosis wasn’t good, but wanted to make his life as happy as it could be.

Which brings me on to Rosie.

Rosie

Rosie

We looked after Rosie when her owners went away on holiday. She was a cat with quite severe disabilities – she couldn’t stand up, and had to be helped to her litter tray a couple of times a day. She would always call and let you know when she wanted to go, which was generally at the human-friendly times of 8.00 am and 6.00 pm. She was a very perky cat, interested in everything that was going on, and loved to sit on the sofa next to you, or to be picked up for a cuddle. She also loved other cats, but they generally knew that there was something wrong with her, and so would avoid her. Until, that is, her owner adopted another little cat who had been through the most horrific abuse I’d ever heard of. He loved Rosie on sight, and would cuddle up with her in her basket – maybe she reminded him of his mother, or maybe he just recognised another cat that wasn’t able to deal with the world around her on her own. At any rate, the two of them were a comfort to one another throughout their lives.

So, dear readers, having read this far, what do you think happened when we finally decided to adopt? Was it a big tough tomcat, full of personality and affection?

Umm, no.

Our last two foster cats were a brother and sister: a big tough tom, and an extremely shy little female cat. The big tough tom was adopted out to Gerrard’s Cross (the richest area in the UK by the way), to a man who owned a stable full of show jumpers, a wood, a stream, and who didn’t mind if his cat wanted to sleep on the bed. This just left the female, who, up to then, had spent her whole time hiding behind the sofa.

John and I wondered who, on earth, would ever adopt a cat who never showed herself. The months went on. Nobody wanted a very ordinary little black and white scaredy cat. And yet, we’d started to notice that she wasn’t such a scaredy cat any more. She liked to be brushed, for just a minute or so at first. Eventually, she would demand to be brushed, and complain when you stopped.

Then, she started to jump on the bed when we were reading at night.The remarkable thing was that she would jump off as soon as we put the lights out, and would never come into the bedroom until she heard us talking.

And finally, she had no interest at all in going out into the garden. In the living room, she would hunt scraps of tissue paper, foil wrappers and invisible microbes, but she was quite content to watch the birds from a window-sill.

We stopped thinking about her in terms of ‘who else will adopt this cat if we don’t?’ and started to realise that, for us, she was ideal. She wouldn’t hunt and kill the creatures in my garden. She respected our sleep time. She didn’t have any strange problems with food. She did rip the sofa to shreds, but then it was old anyway.

So, Gentle Reader, we adopted her, and put away all notions of the cats that we thought we wanted, in favour of the one that we actually did. She is seven years old this year, and gets more outgoing and friendly every day.

Every animal has a personality. If we can understand this with our pets, I wonder why we find it so hard to acknowledge that wild animals might be the same?

Willow. The perfect cat.

Willow. The perfect cat.

 

R.I.P Bailey, King of the Cats

Bailey, the world’s most magnificent cat in 2017

Dear Readers, a few nights ago Bailey, the King of the Cats, went to sleep for the last time at the fine old age of nineteen years. He has been so much part of our life, and of the lives of many people who lived in the County Roads, that I wanted to pay tribute to him here.

I first met Bailey before we even moved to East Finchley. We were standing on the patio of what was to become our new home when we heard a loud and persistent miaowing issuing from the bushes. Up strode Bailey. He bobbed up for a head scritch, rolled on his back and then marched up to the back door, demanding to be let in. As it  wasn’t yet our house, we decided that this probably wasn’t the best idea, but once we were living there he became a regular visitor.

On one occasion I heard the voice of Bailey’s owner, followed by an all-too familiar wailing.

“Bailey! Come down from there. Don’t make a show of yourself”.

And there was Bailey standing on top of the ten-foot fence at the end of the side return. He had gotten up there, but seemed not to have worked out how he was going to get down. We humans stood and considered what to do. I tried standing on a chair but it wasn’t quite high enough. Fortunately at that point my six foot three inch tall husband arrived home from work, fetched a stepladder and rescued him. Carrying Bailey up the road to his actual house became part of our weekly routine. I think he regarded us as some kind of taxi service for when he was too tired to walk the last hundred yards home.

We soon made friends with Bailey’s actual family (or ‘subjects’ as I’m sure he thought of them). We were in regular contact, as Bailey developed a habit of wandering off. We never fed him, but other people did, and locating him became quite a problem. I am convinced that Bailey never thought of himself as a cat, but as a small furry human being. He would make himself at home on the armchair and watch benignly as I worked. He also loved sitting in the sink, normally (but not always) when there was nothing in it. We learned that what he loved was to drink from a running tap.

Bailey trying to get us to turn the tap on by telepathy.

Finally!

You would not believe that in these photos Bailey was already fifteen years old. He retained his elegant good looks for most of his life, and he was such a popular character on the street that everyone seemed to know his name. Well, you couldn’t really miss an extremely vocal pure-white cat who simply demanded to know who you were and what you could do for him. I had the sense that Bailey always knew what he wanted, and a bit more besides. We found we had a lot in common with Bailey’s owners, and we would probably never have found out how much if Bailey hadn’t ‘introduced’ us. He always seemed preternaturally wise to me.

As the years wore on, Bailey got a bit slower and a bit stiffer, like most of us, but he was still a regular visitor to the garden. The birds never bothered about him, and I never saw him try to catch anything. Other cats scattered at a glance. He would sometimes pay a visit to the garden ‘waterhole’ for all the world like a domestic lion.

Bailey drinking from the pond

He’d always march straight up to the back door and yowl to be let in. If he caught your eye from an upstairs window he would re-double his efforts.

Let me in!

In April this year he paid a visit to the garden. He was clearly a very elderly gentleman, and yet he still announced himself in the usual way,

He was very wobbly on his legs and so we called his ‘Dad’ who came to carry him home. It is so sad to see an animal towards the end of his days, and yet Bailey was a cat who defied pity; he was still the same regal cat that he’d been when we first met him eleven years ago. He loved people, was never happier than when he was plonked down in a patch of sunshine, and seemed to be of the opinion that everything had worked out for the best. He was, as Samuel Johnson said of his beloved cat Hodge, a very fine cat indeed.

R.I.P Bailey. The street is quieter, and much sadder, without you.

 

A Foxy Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Fox and Cubs (Pilosella aurantica)

Dear Readers, our walk in the cemetery today had a distinctly foxy overtone. Firstly, we bumped into my friend A, who told us that she’d seen the fox with the terrible eye injury that we’d both spotted a few months ago – all the fox has now is a pronounced sickle-shaped scar. What a testament to the resilience of wild animals! I honestly thought that the animal was probably doomed, but then the people in the cemetery, both staff and visitors, are very kind folk.  Apparently the fox was very interested in A and tried to steal her carrier bag, but wasn’t at all impressed by the handful of dog biscuits that she threw down – clearly this is a fox with more refined tastes! Anyway, we were both delighted to hear that he’d survived. Here’s a photo that I took when I saw him.

So it seemed very appropriate that the flowers known as fox and cubs (Pilosella auratiacia) were in full flower in many places in the cemetery today too. Otherwise known as orange hawkbit, these are stunning members of the daisy family, and quite made my day. The colour is always stunning, but today it seemed even brighter than usual.

So, what else is happening? Well, the bindweed is opening, and if it wasn’t such a thug I’m sure we’d all love it. A lot of pollinators, such as this hoverfly, are very fond of it too.

This cabbage palm had a spectacular show of flowers, and you could smell its honeyed sweetness from the other side of the path.

The hedge woundwort is in flower. I always think of this as being a most underrated ‘weed’. especially the way that it stands up in such a martial fashion, as if on parade.

There is a tangle of yellow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)…

a blooming of self-heal (Prunella vulgaris)….

an outburst of nipplewort (Lapsana communalis)

and on some of the graves, where the conditions are just right, there’s a carpet of white stonecrop (Sedum album) with its tiny white flowers.

But it’s funny the things that catch the eye. No one would consider sowthistle as the most delicate of flowers, but I was very taken with the tracery on the leaves of this one. Leaf-mining insects get between the layers of the leaf and leave these lacy pathways, without any obvious detriment to the plant. I thought that they were rather beautiful.

But the real excitement came when I dragged my husband along a mowed path beside the stream, while I looked for hoverflies. I had a strong feeling of being watched.

And so I edged my way along in slow motion….

And this curious cub just sat and watched my peculiar slow progress…

..almost as if s/he couldn’t believe all the shenanigans…

..until s/he decided enough was enough, and disappeared into the undergrowth. What a treat, though! And how adorable s/he looks, as if s/he hasn’t quite grown into her ears yet. I always feel such gratitude when I’ve had a close encounter like this with a wild animal. I will be cheered up for the whole week.

 

Babies and Some Cheekiness

Dear Readers, blue tits always sound a bit flustered to me, but for maximum anxiety you need to be present on fledging day. Goodness, the poor parents! I couldn’t work out exactly how many babies there were, but I’d estimate at least six, and they were all over the place. For the adults it must have felt like herding cats, plus they were intent on feeding all the little ones.

 

Fortunately the fledglings soon get fed up with waiting around and start pecking at things at random, until eventually they learn what’s edible and what’s not. And as at today, none of the babies had managed to drown themselves in the pond, which is always a result.

I decided to put out some suet and live mealworms just in case the blue tits would find them. Sadly, everyone else found them first. Firstly the starlings, with their latest broods of youngsters….

And then an occasional visitor, who always scatters everyone else. The jackdaw spent a good five minutes meticulously searching out the mealworms before flying off. S/he must have a nest somewhere, I’m sure. Look at that face! No wonder no one messes with the jackdaw (except for the magpie).

And finally, I have planted some packets of seeds in some of my pots, and every day someone digs them up. I had my suspicions, but today they were confirmed.

And then another squirrel ran into the garden. Would there be war?

Well, these two obviously knew one another because they touched noses and then sat happily together, squashing my wildflower mix under their furry bottoms. If there was ever evidence that once you have a wildlife garden you have no control whatsoever about who turns up, this is it. And honestly? I don’t begrudge them. There’s plenty in my garden for everyone.

LNHS Talks – ‘Bats in Churches’ by Claire Boothby

Dear Readers, when I hear the phrase ‘Human/Wildlife Conflict’ I think of villagers fighting off elephants who are raiding their crops in Sri Lanka, or oil plantation workers chasing orang utans with machetes. But there are plenty of occasions in the UK when our hard-pressed wild creatures come into rather more contact with humans than is good for either party. I do love a talk that makes me think about something that I’d never considered before, and so it was with this one. Claire Boothby, who works for the organisation ‘Bats in Churches’ has the remit of trying to mitigate the problems that occur when bats roost in churches, and she had some very interesting things to say on the issue.

Bats have always used churches as roosts – they seem to prefer older churches with wooden roofs. One conservationist suggested that those timber beams reminded the bats of ancient woodland, which is where they would probably roost preferentially if there was enough of the habitat left. If the church is surrounded by a nice big churchyard with lots of flying insects, so much the better. In the summer, the female bats like the warmer part of the church as it’s ideal as a maternity roost. In the winter, they may favour places like crypts and undercrofts as hibernation sites.

Many churches have voids in the roof with direct access to the outside world, and in these cases the parishioners might not even know that there is a bat roost. The trouble comes if the bats have access to the interior of the church. My heart is obviously with the bats, but Boothby showed how the droppings from the bats can damage brass memorial plaques, marble tombs and stained glass windows. Many of the volunteers who clean churches are elderly, and the church can lose significant income from weddings and events if the building is soiled. One church in the study closed because of the damage from a substantial bat roost.

What to do? The bats are protected (thank goodness) but the buildings are part of our heritage, and are often also the centre of a small community. Fortunately, Bats in Churches works with all the parties involved. Funded by the National Lotteries Fund, it brings together the Bat Conservation Trust, the Church of England, Historic England and the Church Conservation Trust, and it works very closely with the parishioners and clergy at the church.

It’s easy to demonise those in the churches who are complaining about the bats, but in the video interviews with them, they were all quietly apologetic about even mentioning the problems that they were experiencing. They wanted to conserve the bats, but they were also worried about the churches, one of which was an extremely rare brick-built Tudor church. They were also worried about the cleaning burden that fell on a group of volunteers who might scrub for hours only to find that, when they returned a few days later, things were just as bad.

Photo One by By John Winfield, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8684692

St Nicholas, Chignal Smeally (Photo One)

So, what to do? In churches where the bat population wasn’t causing too many problems, such as Holy Trinity Tattershall, the bats were turned into a feature, with a bat information board inside the church, bat walks outside it, bat teeshirts and a ‘Tatty Bat’ mascot that people could buy.

Photo Two from https://twitter.com/BatsinChurches/status/955473780750594049

‘Tatty Bat’ merchandise from Holy Trinity, Tattershall (Photo Two)

In churches where the problem was worse, however, there were capital works on the building. Bat surveyors would get an idea of the size of the roost, the species involved and their entrance and exit points. They would be watched to see how they were behaving, and then a plan was drawn up that would minimise the damage in the church without affecting the bats. In some cases, this could involve something as simple as a screen so that when the bats left the roost they were funnelled towards the outside exit, rather than flying around in the church first. In another, a bat box with heraldic symbols on it was created so that the bats had a perfect roost with the same entrance as previously. In the most expensive example, St Lawrence Radstone church had so many bats, and so many droppings, that the church had actually been closed. Part of the church had a twelfth century ceiling, but the bats were in the much later Victorian part of the roof. A plan was drawn up to create a false ceiling in the Victorian bit, so that the bats still had a void to fly around in, but could enter and exit from their original points. This was so successful that the church was able to reopen in 2020, without any damage to the bats. You can watch a video about the project here.

Photo Three by By Ben Nicholson, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9246139

St. Lawrence Church, Radstone (Photo Three)

All of the projects mentioned are subject to monitoring for at least three years, and hopefully longer, to ensure that the bat populations haven’t been harmed by the changes. I must say that I was impressed by the imagination and dedication shown by all parties, who clearly wanted to achieve a solution.

Bats in Churches would really like some help surveying churches: you don’t need to be a qualified bat surveyor, and it sounds like an interesting and worthwhile project. They are trying to survey a sample of 1000 churches (they ground to a halt during the pandemic along with everybody else) and, excitingly, you get the loan of a bat detector and are taught how to submit bat droppings for DNA testing. Who could resist? If you think you fancy it, all the details are on the Bats in Churches website here.

Claire Boothby was a very engaging speaker who is clearly passionate about finding solutions to the tricky problems of bats, people and medieval buildings. It was a real pleasure to watch her talk, and if you’d like to do the same, you can find it here. These LNHS talks have been so fascinating and varied that I hope they continue even after the pandemic – it’s clear that they can reach and educate a much wider audience than their London evening in-person events did. Fingers crossed that we can soon have both!

Photo Credits

Photo One By John Winfield, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8684692

Photo Two from https://twitter.com/BatsinChurches/status/955473780750594049

Photo Three By Ben Nicholson, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9246139

A May Walk in Highgate Wood and Queen’s Wood

Sunlight through hornbeam leaves

Dear Readers, sometimes when I walk through one of North London’s ancient woodlands, I am reminded of how much I have learned through writing the blog over this last 7 years. Although there is still so much to find out, it makes me happy that I can look at the muscular trunk of a hornbeam and identify it, and that I can imagine it as a younger sapling, a mass of twigs that were probably cut back once or twice when the tree was a baby, before coppicing was abandoned and the tree was left to grow.

The tree above has five distinct trunks growing from the same ‘stool’ – they interweave with one another in a kind of slow-motion dance as they reach towards the light. I love the silvery bark of hornbeam, and the way that it is covered in a web of ‘veins’ and ‘sinews’ like a weight-lifter’s arms.

There is so much to notice, and yet so often we don’t, absorbed in our thoughts or in our phones.

And here’s a horse-chestnut seedling, optimistically growing in a patch of sunlight.

Last time we walked in these woods it was Boxing Day, we were ankle-deep in mud, and there were hundreds if not thousands of people on the paths. But today it’s a weekday, the children are back at school, most folk are at work and it feels as if the woods are breathing again.

There is a new dead-hedge around the little pond, though whether this will keep an enthusiastic golden retriever out of the water remains to be seen.

A pair of great tits have made their nest in this dead tree stump, a great advert for leaving dead wood where it is.

The coppiced areas in the middle of the wood really show off the oaks as they reach for the sky.

But hang on, who is that on the path? My keen-eyed husband spots a creature just past the ‘cross walk’ in the picture.

There are rats in all of the woodlands that I’ve visited this year. There are always a few around, but with more people also in the woods they’ve been noticed a bit more. In Cherry Tree the council have put down poison, so there are now dead rats. Let’s hope that they don’t become food for foxes, dogs, cats, crows, buzzards, magpies, owls etc etc.

Rat populations (like pigeon populations) are almost entirely governed by availability of food. There has been a huge increase in littering in wild places and parks all over the country, with people seeming incapable of taking their rubbish home. Lots of creatures have taken advantage. Plus there is a kind of hysteria about rats. We have become so detached from wildlife that some people seem to feel that if their toddler sees a rat they will keel over with Weil’s disease. I understand that you wouldn’t necessarily want to share your house with wild rats, but in a woodland?

Someone recently posted a short film on our local community Facebook page of an elderly rat being harassed by crows, so let’s not forget that in the natural world these rodents are way down the food chain. However, this crow was rather more interested in something in the stream.

I wonder if the crow is looking for invertebrates in the mud at the bottom of the rivulet? They are such intelligent animals generally, but all members of the crow family seem to be super-attuned to possible food. You can almost see them working out what’s what.

There is a little drift of wood anemones here too, an indicator of ancient woodland because they don’t travel very far over the generations. They are partially protected by the fence, which is probably why they’ve survived the huge growth in footfall in the woods during the lockdown.

And then, there is a patch of hybrid bluebells in the sun, close to where the boundary of the wood meets the local housing. Sometimes people throw their garden rubbish over the fence in these situations, which is why there is often such diverse non-native flora in these places. The evidence seems to show that in a ‘real’ bluebell wood, hybrids can’t outcompete the native bluebells, though they may still make incursions at the edge where there is normally more light. At any rate, these are pretty and have some value to pollinators clearly. In an urban wood such as this I suspect any increase in biodiversity isn’t to be sniffed at.

A Chilly Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, I often get a glimpse of a fox in the cemetery, but today we had quite a long encounter with this vixen. She looks in fabulous condition, and was cheerfully trotting around the area at the entrance to the cemetery, sniffing at twigs and occasionally squatting to scent-mark. However, when I got home and looked at the photos properly, it’s clear that she’s had a close encounter with something very recently.

My guess would be that she’s narrowly avoided being run over by a car, poor thing. However, the fact that she’s still alert and moving normally makes me think that it’s probably just a flesh wound. I do hope so. She looks a bit thick around the midriff to me, so it may be that she’s pregnant (or just well-fed, which is another good sign). The main road that surrounds the cemetery is a death trap as the young foxes try to disperse, but fingers crossed that this one will be ok. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that foxes are extraordinarily resilient creatures, and seem to bounce back from things that would fell a human.

I know that people are still feeding the foxes in the cemetery, so she’s in a good place at any rate, and the cemetery security guys have a soft spot for all the wildlife, so they’ll keep an eye on her.

As we walk on, I have a quick look at the swamp cypress to see if it’s getting any spring growth yet. Not much yet, but these things happen very gradually, and I’m sure this cold snap will have put everything back a bit. Next week the temperature is supposed to be up to 59 degrees Fahrenheit at the weekend, which will feel positively spring-like. I’d bet my bottom dollar that it will bring the frogs in my garden out.

Nothing very exciting happening on the swamp cypress

I spotted a rather exciting new grave today, simply by taking a quick detour to the left instead of the right. The memorial is for Francisco ‘Frank’ Manzi, born in 1913 and died in 1962. He was the chairman of the Amusement Trades Association, and appears to have been married to Elizabeth Paolozzi, but only for three months in 1934. Therein hangs a tale, I’m sure. And I couldn’t find any indication of who sculpted the memorial, which is really rather remarkable.

As we took the perimeter path around the edge of the cemetery, closest to the North Circular Road, I noticed that some of the twigs were absolutely covered in lichen. Then I remembered an LNHS talk by Jeff Duckett about the flora of Hampstead Heath, in which he noted that there are lichen which actually thrive on the nitrous oxide from car exhausts. I wonder if this species is one of them? It certainly loves this area, and I haven’t noticed it in anything like as much profusion anywhere else in the cemetery. I have a feeling that this might be golden shield lichen, and if so it’s known to love nitrogen – it’s often found in areas where there are lots of bird droppings which are rich in ammonia. Who knew that being a nature detective could be so much fun?

Someone has put up a little bird house next to Randall’s Path in the cemetery, and I was delighted to see a pair of robins checking it out. In fact, in even more exciting news (for me anyway) I saw a pair of blue tits checking out the bird houses that I’d put up for sparrows last year. They might not meet with the approval of the prospective tenants, but it’s the first interest that anyone’s shown in almost two years, so at least my hopes are raised a little.

I loved this statue too, swathed in ivy and holding artificial flowers.

And also this modern cross, with the red stems of dogwood glowing behind.

The snow has almost gone in some places, but is clinging on in others. The places where it remains are the least trodden, and so the most interesting.

And finally, four graves that caught my eye today. The first is of Thomas Hollyman Nicholls, a despatch rider for the Royal Engineers, who served in the First World War and who finally passed away in 1930 as a result of his war service. I have found some information about his war record, and it seems that he was discharged with heart and lung trouble, caused by being gassed at Ypres. Poor man.

The second is this one, with its beautifully carved anchor and chain. Walter Hugh Price was in charge of a motor boat during the raids on Zeebruge and Ostend, a campaign that ended up costing 200 British lives. However, it wasn’t enemy fire that killed him: according to an article on the history of Friern Barnet (where Price lived), he caught a cold during the raid which turned into something worse, and he actually died on a hospital ship in Dover harbour.

Thirdly, there’s another anchor, this one broken by frost and time. Robert Samuel Nodes was Chief Officer on board HMS Vesuvio when she was torpedoed in 1914. On his pension card, his death in 1916 is described as being due to ‘shock caused by explosion on ship’. In the War Graves records, his death is said to have been caused by ‘acute laryngitis’. On his grave, it says, more explicitly, ‘shell shock’, though I wonder if, at this point, it refers to what we now think of as shell shock (i.e a mental breakdown), or if it means the physical effects of being caught in a confined space when there’s an explosion. Whichever it is, Robert Samuel Nodes died at 27 years old.

And finally, I found the austerity of this grave, with its broken column, rather affecting. John Stuart Alexander was born in Alnwick in Northumberland, and was married to Maria, who was from Scotland. He seems to have been a secretary in a private company, and the 1881 census finds them living in Barnsbury, Islington, at 52 Mildmay Grove. They shared the house with their son, Stuart, who worked as a commercial clerk, and their servant, Mary. John was only 53 years old at this point, and I imagine that dying was the last thing on his mind. However, he did at least leave his widow and son well provisioned: probate records show that he left an estate of £2417 0s 7d, which would have been a sizeable amount in those days. And could there be a better epitaph?

‘He was one of the best of husbands, and the kindest of fathers’.

Storm Darcy Arrives in East Finchley

Dear Readers, well I’m not having to shovel my way out of the front door, but we do have snow this morning, and so it’s on with the walking boots and woolly hat, and out into the garden to make sure there’s food and water for the birds. A blackbird was pecking over the bird table before it was even light, so the critters are definitely hungry. Sure enough, the robin was down pecking at the mealworms before I’d even left the garden. And then the starlings arrived.

 

And the chaffinches.

I’ve noticed before how more tolerant birds are of one another in the winter, but even I was surprised when this little gathering on the bird table didn’t end up with ‘pistols at dawn’.

It doesn’t take much to spook them though.

And it turns out that one of the starlings has ‘cracked’ the nut butter feeder. I’ve seen coal tits feeding on the other one (which is hidden away next to the bittersweet) so at least somebody likes them.

But the height of the excitement was spotting a female blackcap working over the bittersweet. At least I’m thinking that it’s a female – juveniles look similar. Some folk have found that these birds are aggressive at the bird table, but this one couldn’t be more reclusive. I love that she’s eating the berries – at one point she hung upside down on a twig to get one. I hung a roosting pouch in the hedge so I wonder if she’s using it?

And it’s still snowing, though just wispy little flakes. The temperature isn’t expected to get above 30 degrees Fahrenheit for the rest of the week, so I’m glad that I stocked up on birdfood. And who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and see a fox like we did last time.

Winter Comes to East Finchley

Dear Readers, on Sunday the snow that the rest of the country has had for weeks finally arrived in London. I still find something magical about it, the way that it covers up all the imperfections for a while, the way it falls so silently. It seems to put the birds into some confusion though: for a few minutes they disappear, as if trying to work out what this white stuff is, and then they’re back.

Starlings queueing up in the hawthorn

Male chaffinch on the sunflower seeds

Female chaffinch and goldfinch

I had been saying that I hadn’t seen a blackbird in the garden this winter when, as if by magic, one appears in the cherry tree next door.

But then the magic really happens.

This beautiful, well-fed little vixen puts in an appearance. She sniffs out all the suet we’ve thrown down for the birds and then goes for a wander.

Occasionally she spots a bird and decides to try her luck.

But mostly she’s just pottering. How do I know it’s a vixen? Because females squat to scent mark, while males raise a leg. She’s in beautiful condition. Look at that lovely long fur.

I wonder if I’ll get a portrait, and then she looks up. Look at that face. She has absolutely made my day.

A Chilly Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Redwing about to fly off

Dear Readers, the cemetery is full to busting with redwings at the moment – these small thrushes are extremely shy, so getting any kind of photo has proven to be a challenge. The one in the photo above headed off as soon as it saw my camera. I wonder if they are hyperalert to people raising metal objects in their direction? I know that the woodpigeons in Dorset were always much more worried when I tried to take a photograph than the ones in London, and I put this down to the fact that the country ones are much more likely to be shot. Anyhow, even seeing a redwing was a nice start to the walk.

As usual, I suddenly notice things that I’ve been passing every week. This grave, in quite a well-manicured part of the cemetery, is completely covered in ivy. I wonder what’s under there? Quite the conundrum.

We loop through the woodland cemetery site, and I stop to say hello to the swamp cypress, now completely denuded of its leaves. But look, it has buds! Spring will soon be here.

And as we walk along our normal path, I suddenly notice an outbreak of snowdrops. What a particular joy they are this year! They must have been pushing up for ages, but I’ve only paid attention to them now that they’re in flower. Years ago, I imagine someone planted a few bulbs, and now they’re colonising the whole area. I love their delicacy and their strength.

Once I’ve noticed them in this spot, I see them all over the cemetery.

And by the stream, in the usual stand of ash trees, a robin is announcing his territory to the world.

These little puffed-up balls of feistiness are in full song: if you listen above the rumble of the traffic from the North Circular you can hear them challenging one another right through the cemetery.

We head towards the woody part of the cemetery. I hear a buzzard mewing, and crows cawing, but don’t see anyone overhead this week. However, there is a fine gathering of crows and magpies, and they are happily picking up chunks of bread that someone has left them under one of the trees. They are joined by at least two foxes, who are too fast for me to catch properly on camera, though there is the faintest suggestion of one in the photo immediately below.

Fox just to the right of the road sign.

We came into the cemetery at about 10.15 (it opens at 10 o’clock) and a car shot past us on the way out – maybe this was the person who feeds the birds. I’m sure they need it in this cold snap. Anyhow, now we know where to head for. Maybe next time I’ll have more luck getting a photo of the foxes.

I was rather moved by this Victorian cherub, on the grave of a child who died at six years old. It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in terms of health: my grandmother lost three of her four children, one to scarlet fever, one to diptheria and one to a late miscarriage, before she gave birth to my Mum. This wasn’t unusual in the East End. But just because early death was so common it didn’t make it any easier; my Nan remembered the poems on the remembrance cards for her dead children for her whole life. I suppose that being in a pandemic is, for many of us, our first experience of a disease that curtails our activities and fills us with fear, one where medical science doesn’t immediately have all  the answers. As recently as the 1950’s people lived in dread of their children contracting polio and ending up in an iron lung. We have been very lucky, and you don’t have to walk far in this cemetery before you start to realise how unusual we’ve been. It makes me very humble when I see what previous generations have gone through, and what I’ve taken for granted, at least until now.

The great spotted woodpeckers don’t care about our troubles  though, they’re much too busy drumming and staking their claims to the best trees. I watch two woodpeckers chasing one another past the chestnut trees, and then get this most excellent photo of one. Yet another candidate for Wildlife Photographer of the Year, I feel.

And then I wander down for a quick look at the Mond mauseleum. I’ve mentioned it before, but it really is an extraordinary thing: my book ‘London Cemeteries – An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer’ by Hugh Meller and Brian Parsons describes it as ‘the finest classical building in any of the London cemeteries (along with the Ralli mortuary chapel at Norwood’). It was designed by Darcy Braddell, later a vice-president of the R.I.B.A, and was built in 1909. I’ve mentioned before that Ludwig Mond was a major industrialist and philanthropist. I must confess that I don’t love this building: it seems a bit overbearing and austere to me.

But I am very fond of this little tree that stands at the road junction opposite. I am thinking that it’s a weeping cultivar of silver birch, maybe ‘Tristis’? No doubt you lovely people will put me right. There was no angle from which I could avoid the sign pointing to the crematorium and pick up the purple of the shoots and the snaky twisting of the branches, so this will have to do. But what a pretty little tree this is! I shall have to pay it more regular visits to see how it’s coming along.