Solastalgia Part One – What We’ve Lost

‘Woolly Bear’ caterpillar

Dear Readers, when I was writing my piece about starlings yesterday it seemed to strike a chord with quite a few people. ‘What’s happened to the starlings, and the sparrows?’ they asked, with genuine distress. There’s now a word for this, solastalgia – it was coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2005, and it describes the feeling, akin to homesickness, that we get when something in our home environment changes. It can be something as dramatic as a earthquake or volcano, or even when someone has built all over your history. This happened to me when I returned to my home town of Stratford in East London after Westfield and the Olympic Park had been built, and I could barely find my way from the old shopping centre because so much had changed. However, the deep meaning of the word is the sense of being disconnected with where we live because the natural environment has changed.Increasingly, we’re mourning for the fall in abundance and the loss of species of creatures that we shared our childhoods with. For me, there’s a real sadness about the woolly bear caterpillars, technically the larvae of the Garden Tiger moth. Although we had a tiny garden you could guarantee to see some of these furry beasties galloping across the cement path, in search of something or other to eat. If you picked them up, they curled into a little ball, just like the one in the photo, but if you were patient they’d uncurl and head off up your arm. You could feel the difference between the little suckers on the back legs and the hooks on the front ones. Every so often, the caterpillar would lift its head and wave around in search of a plant to munch on. I would always pop them back after a few minutes.

I don’t remember the last time that I saw a woolly bear caterpillar in London.

Garden Tiger larvae (Photo by TigerTatoo, CC BY 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons)

These are not particularly picky eaters, and they’d certainly gobble up most of the ‘weeds’ in our garden. If I remember correctly, they had a particular taste for docks of all kinds, and could sometimes be found in the little patch of nettles right in the corner. So what’s happened to them? Butterfly Conservation blame weedkillers and the habit of ‘tidying up’ everything from hedgerows to gardens. It makes me happy that more and more people are tolerating wild corners in their plots, because these are just the kinds of spaces where caterpillars of all kinds thrive. While it’s nice to have plants for adult pollinators to feed on, they also need places to lay their eggs and for their larvae to feed on.

It would be lovely if the next generation of children could also make friends with, and learn lessons from, invertebrates of all kinds. These creatures are on a child-friendly scale, and children seem to have a natural affinity with creepy-crawlies of all kinds, at least before they get older and a bit more squeamish and easily influenced by ideas of what’s cute and what’s not.  We had a fungi walk in Coldfall Wood this weekend, and the children were enthralled with a leopard slug, and even more fascinated with a blob of slug eggs. That curiosity and natural empathy might be what saves all of us, in the end.

I would not want to diminish in any way the scale of the environmental challenge that faces all of us. To return to the starlings that I wrote about yesterday, the size of the murmuration at Brighton Beach has dropped from over 100,000 individual birds to just 8,000 in the past forty years. But I have to believe that it’s possible to help by the pressure that we put on our governments, the way that we live and the opportunities that we provide in our homes and gardens and parks for animals and plants to make their home. Tomorrow, I’ll write about the creatures that have appeared during my 60-odd years, animals that I would never have dreamed of seeing up close and personal when I was a child. In the meantime, let me know what has been lost of the creatures that you used to see. We can honour and grieve them together.

Fledgling starling

Nature’s Calendar – 17th to 21st November – Chattering Starlings

Dear Readers, there are few sights in nature so compelling as a starling murmuration, and this is a great time of year to see one. Once upon a time you could even see this event in central London – I used to sit with my Mum on a bench in St James’s Park overlooking the lake, and the starlings would fly in from all directions as the light faded, massing and pulsing, the shape of the flock constantly morphing and changing until finally they settled for the night.  In ‘Nature’s Calendar’, Kiera Chapman has a wonderful description:

A liquid swirl of birds in a twilight sky, like billowing smoke become animate, rippling and pulsing in an aerial ballet of contoured Henry Moore figures, sometimes shimmering and transcendent, sometimes ominously threatening. The unearthly sound of their wings overhead, like the sound of the distant sea‘.

There is something about a mass of individual animals acting as one  that is spine-tingling and can bring me close to tears. Have a look at this film, and see what you think.

Starling Murmuration at RSPB Minsmere (Photo Airwolfhound, CC BY-SA 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons)

There are different views about why starlings have this evening ritual. Some suggest that it confuses predators, especially peregrine falcons. Chapman explains how, when a murmuration is relaxed, the flock is ‘diluted’ – spread out in space. When the birds spot a peregrine actively hunting, the birds bunch together in a response known as ‘blackening’. You can sometimes see a pulse spread through the flock in what’s called a ‘wave-event’, as each bird tries to get closer to the bird in front, causing a black line to pass through the murmuration. If the peregrine suddenly dives from above the birds scatter in a ‘flash expansion’, rather like a bursting firework. The murmuration may also split in two to avoid a peregrine, or even develop a hole where the falcon is flying, known as a ‘vacuole’. If you watch the murmuration film above, you can see several of these changes, and others beside. And in the photo below, a falcon to the top right has caused the murmuration to bunch up and split into two parts.

Anyone who has watched a murmuration will be astonished by how quickly the whole ‘organism’ can change direction. Craig Reynolds, a computer scientist working in the 1980s, built a model of this behaviour based on only three factors:

  • Each bird avoids colliding with other birds
  • Each individual bird would try to match the speed and alignment of the birds around it
  • Each bird would try to move towards the centre of the murmuration (birds on the edge are more likely to be predated).

These simple rules provided a pretty good model for group behaviour in animals, but normally you would expect to see them diluted across a flock as it thinned out, and this doesn’t happen with murmurations – one little bird seeing a falcon can influence the behaviour of all of its flock mates in a fraction of a second. Scientists now believe that starlings are so attuned to a sudden change in direction of another bird that they are in effect primed – the murmuration exists in a state of what’s known as criticality, on the edge of changing at all times. This means that information from any single bird is transmitted across the whole murmuration with, as Chapman says, ‘incredible speed, and without loss’.

This extraordinary ability to react doesn’t always serve starlings, unfortunately. A few years ago several hundred dead starlings were found in a lane in Anglesey, which created all kinds of theories about what had happened. Scientists came to the conclusion that the birds had tried to avoid a bird of prey but the birds at the tail-end of the murmuration hadn’t been able to pull up in time, and had struck the road and been killed. In 2010 a similar incident occurred in Somerset, though here the thought was that the birds had mistaken the gravel drive of a house for a reed bed and had misjudged the height. But be that as it may, the biggest danger to starling murmurations is the fall in number of the starlings themselves and the destruction of their habitat.  You will  look in vain for such a sight in central London these days, after starlings were evicted from places like Leicester Square because they were too messy and noisy. I hope that the descendants of those birds have moved to the seaside and joined one of the last big murmurations that I know about, around Brighton Pier. There’s a really nice short film here showing what happens, and it’s really tempting to just jump on a train and go and see it! Maybe there’s something a bit closer to home though. Do share if you know of any murmurations in London. I feel deeply nostalgic for the sights of my youth.


Do We Make a Difference?

Dear Readers, over the past few months we have been suffering from an epidemic of graffiti here in Coldfall Wood. Normally, the fences and the walls are spray-painted, but for the first time since I’ve been living in East Finchley someone has taken to tagging the living trees as well, along with a memorial bench.

There is something particularly invidious about despoiling something that someone has set up to memorialise a loved one, someone who loved the woods, and this is a very popular bench – mothers sit there for a well-earned rest with their babies and toddlers, dog walkers take the weight off of their legs, youngsters scroll their phones and chat.

And then, there is the effect on the trees – it’s easy to forget that they are living things and that although the bark appears dead, it can still absorb the toxic chemicals in the paint. Furthermore, there are photo-receptors in the stem which can be blocked, and gas exchange between the tree and the environment can be affected.

And finally, I believe in ‘broken window theory’ – if a place looks as if nobody cares about it (and nothing could be further from the truth in Coldfall Wood) then it encourages other people to behave badly. This is one reason why we litter-pick, for example.

The graffiti has been reported to Haringey Council on numerous occasions over the past few weeks, and, to be fair, offensive graffiti is removed very quickly. However, stuff like this isn’t a priority for cash-strapped and understaffed local organisations and so a group of local people (including some of the Friends of Coldfall Wood) took things into their own hands. Armed with some Graffiti-Go (a water-based, non-toxic paint remover) they went to work, and the results bring me a little frisson of joy. The memorial bench has also been cleaned up.





It might feel as if we’re helpless these days, with so many terrible things going on, but I do believe that what we do as individuals matters. Someone might come back and graffiti the trees, but we’ll be back to clean it up again. Increasingly, people seem to be respecting the wood and feeling protective of it, and this has to be a good thing. We are so lucky to live close to ancient woodland, and it gives us so much, from a beautiful place to walk to a chance to interact respectfully with nature. It is often easier to make a difference than we think.

A Little Bit Early, But I’m Not Complaining

Christmas Cactus

Dear Readers, in my ‘plant hospital’ (i.e. a desk at the back of the house) my Christmas Cacti have been quietly minding their own business all year, before suddenly busting forth in the past week or so. They are so splendid that I had to share them with you. The white one is smothered in flowers, and I love the magenta stigma against the ivory of the petals.

The pink one is not quite so floriferous, but even so, the flowers are enough to cheer anyone up.

And the red one has only a few flowers, poor little thing, but I seem to remember that that was the same last year.

What I’m puzzled about is what exactly has triggered these plants into flowering. Is it day length? Is it that I suddenly started watering them a bit more? Whatever the reason, they are all a bit previous, poor dears, as they are Christmas cacti and now it will all be over by the big day. Nonetheless, I am delighted that they’re flowering again, and now I just need to think what to do when they’ve finished. Should I be repotting them? Feeding them? Watering them less? Over to you, Readers! If you’ve managed to keep a Christmas Cacti for years, I bow to your superior knowledge and expertise. Failing that, I will be pulling out my copy of ‘The House Plant Expert’ by Dr D.G Hessayon that I have had for about a century, and actually reading it. As indeed I should, as it’s now out of print and selling for nearly £40 on Amazon.

And if you want to read a bit more about Christmas Cacti, here’s a Wednesday Weed that I did on these very plants in 2021. So they’ve survived two years. Thank you to my lovely friend Jo who bought them for me as a Christmas present.

Hang On A Minute….

New Zealand’s Bird of the Year – The pūteketeke. Does it look familiar? Photo from Pūteketeke: New Zealand crowns ‘bird of the century’ championed by John Oliver | CNN

Dear Readers, New Zealand has just announced its ‘Bird of the Century’, the Australasian Crested Grebe and when I saw photos of it I was slightly puzzled. Surely this was a straightforward Great Crested Grebe, as spotted on the reservoir at Walthamstow Wetlands only the day before? And indeed it was, though the bird, known in Maori as the pūteketeke or ‘puking bird’ is the Australasian subspecies, Podiceps cristatus australis.

The bird had an able ‘campaign manager’ in the form of television host and comedian John  Oliver. He bought up billboards in New Zealand (famous for the Lord of the Rings films) and popped up a photo of the bird with the words ‘Lord of the Wings’. He managed to persuade the American host of the Today Show to appear dressed as a Great Crested Grebe (sadly I’ve been unable to find a photo of the costume). He campaigned not only in New Zealand, but in the UK, US, Japan and France, and flew a plane above Rio de Janeiro with a campaign banner. The competition normally only attracts about 35,000 votes, but this year it received over 350,000, with 290,000 for the pūteketeke.

What’s with all this stuff about puking though? Apparently the bird will sometimes eat feathers and then regurgitate them in order to reduce its parasite load. Personally, I suspect that the temptation to link the bird’s name, pūteketeke. to puke was too good for Oliver to miss. But anyhow, here we are. The Australasian Great Crested Grebe is rare in New Zealand (less than 1000 pairs), so it could probably do with all the help it can get.

Personally, though, my favourite New Zealand bird is probably the Kakapo. Who can forget that magnificent  film where a particularly randy bird attempts to mate with the cameraman’s head? And what’s not to love about a rare, noctural, flightless parrot? And there are only 252 of them (as at 2023). Come on people! 

Sirocco the kakapo. Photo by By Department of Conservation –, CC BY 2.0,

And then there’s the rather splendid Kea, another parrot but one which has had a rather trickier relationship with humans. Intelligent and destructive, it was accused of injuring sheep and other domestic animals, and while this proved to be true, the subsequent hunting reduced Kea numbers to less than 5000. These days the bird is protected, so it can dismantle cars and torment tourists as much as it likes.

Kea investigating a car full of tourists (Photo by By Bold_kea.jpg: Peti Deuxmontderivative work: Avenue (talk) – Bold_kea.jpg, CC BY 2.0,

And who can resist a Kiwi, with its nostrils at the base of its beak and the fact that its eggs are larger as a percentage of body weight than those of any other bird on earth?

Young kiwi (Photo by By Stewart Nimmo – Released under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence by Development West Coast as part of the West Coast Wikipedian at Large project., CC BY-SA 4.0,

So, whatever you think about the campaign for New Zealand’s Bird of the Century (and the knocking of the Kiwi off the top of the chart has led to charges of ‘foreign interference’ which it’s difficult to dispute under the circumstances), it’s always good to see birds in the news, particularly rare birds. The extraordinary birds of New Zealand need all the loving attention and protection that they can get, as they face threats from habitat destruction, climate change and invasive species. Long may they continue to be a source of dissension.

Kea about to land and showing orange flight feathers (Photo from CC BY-SA 2.0,



Nature’s Calendar – 12th -16th November – The Smell of Decaying Leaves

A series following the 72 British mini-seasons of Nature’s Calendar by Kiera Chapman, Lulah Ellender, Rowan Jaines and Rebecca Warren. 

Dear Readers, only a few days ago I was exhorting everyone to ‘watch the skies’, but today I am inviting you all (well, at least those of you in temperate zones) to ‘watch your feet’ instead, because the leaves are making some very fine patterns at the moment. What an extraordinary transformation is going on! I suspect that the breakdown and decay of the leaves from deciduous trees is the biggest annual change in biomass in the seasonal areas of the world, and as it happens it releases an ephemeral but evocative smell. Scuffling through leaves reminds me instantly of looking for conkers in the garden of my Aunt Mary’s care home, of walking with friends through the local woods, of raking up leaves for the Guy Fawkes bonfire that we used to have when I was a child.

As Rebecca Warren explains in her article in Nature’s Calendar, the different parts of the leaves decay at different rates. Fungi are very important detritivores, spreading their hyphae over the fallen leaves like tiny fingers and extracting the nutrients that they need. Slugs, snails, bacteria and worms all get to work, and the frost and rain help break down the trickier elements of the leaf. Lignin forms the skeleton of the leaf, and is often the last part to remain.

I also love those ‘ghosts’ of leaves that you sometimes see on a particular kind of paving stone, where the leaf has disappeared, but its ‘shadow’ remains.

Of course, if you live in the UK one reason often used for disruption on the railways is ‘leaves on the line’. But why? Well, the tracks are lined with literally millions of trees (and there used to be a lot more mature trees alongside the route for HS2 which have now been cut down) (don’t get me started) and they all shed their leaves over the course of a month or so, leading to a mulch on the rails. This makes the rails slippery, and so train drivers have to accelerate and brake more carefully, which can cause slower journeys and delays. ‘Leaf fall timetables’ are in place for many of the more rural lines, including my regular journey from Waterloo to Dorchester to visit Mum and Dad’s grave. I note that the first three trains of the day in both directions will be leaving 5 minutes earlier, so I had better make a note. If you are in the UK and want to check your trains for ‘leaf fall timetable changes’, have a look here.

Well, as the rain pours down outside and the leaves gently turn to mush, here is a poem by Amy Boothby, aged 10. Many of the poems by adults equate autumn with sadness and loss and endings, but not our Amy, who sees the excitement of it all. Let’s be more Amy whenever possible!

Autumn, by Amy Boothby (Age 10)

Look at the different coloured leaves,
Swaying gently with the breeze,
Lovely reds, browns and greens,
All waiting to fall from the trees.
When they leave they twist and turn,
Ready to join the masses of fern,
Landing softly on the ground,
You can taste the smell of autumn, all around.


Wednesday Weed – Firethorn Updated

Firethorn (Pyracantha) in the Sunshine Garden Centre car park

Dear Readers, having written about waxwings and their taste for berries yesterday, I wanted to have a quick revisit of Firethorn, or Pyracantha. This has become an increasingly popular garden plant, as the number of colour varieties increase. And it forms a very fine prickly hedge, which is not only full of flowers in spring, and berries in autumn, but would keep out anything less determined than a grizzly bear (see the story about the man who bought my previous house below.

And here is an interesting poem by Jane Hirshfield, an American poet whose work I like very much. See what you think of this enigmatic little piece. And then, on to my original Firethorn Wednesday Weed, from 2015. Gosh, such a lot has happened since!

Pyracantha and Plum by Jane Hirshfield

Last autumn’s chastened berries still on one tree,
spring blossoms tender, hopeful, on another.
The view from this window
much as it was ten years ago, fifteen.
Yet it seems this morning
a self-portrait both clearer and darker,
as if while I slept some Rembrandt or Brueghel
had walked through the garden, looking hard.

Pyracantha growing in Coldfall Wood

Firethorn (Pyracantha sp) growing in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, this week we have something of a mystery on our hands. Growing at the edge of Coldfall Wood is what appears to be a Firethorn (Pyracantha) bush. This native plant of southern Europe through to south-east Asia is a common garden plant, but the clue to its normal form is in the name. Firethorn normally has the most impressive array of thorns of any common shrub, but this  individual appears to be thornless. What is going on?

I used to live in Chadwell Heath, which is in the hinterland between Essex and Greater London. I had two Pyracantha bushes, one with yellow berries, and one with orange ones, much like the one in the picture below.

A fine orange Pyracantha („Pyracantha-coccinea-berries“. Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons -

A fine orange Pyracantha („Pyracantha-coccinea-berries“. Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons –

As you might expect, my garden was wild and overgrown by suburban standards, but it was a home to sparrows and bumblebees, toads and foxes. The sparrows in particular would chirp from the depths of the Firethorn, safe from predators, for none would dare the Firethorn’s spiky tracery. When I sold the house, there was a mix up with the moving vans, and we were marooned after the transaction was completed. The new owners took possession, but we had nowhere to go while we waited for transport to move all our stuff. We had to watch as the new owners of the house started to hack the garden about. For reasons which puzzle me even now, the new man of the house took his shirt off before he started in on my beloved Firethorn. As anyone who has ever encountered one knows, pyracantha fights back with a vengeance. Within half an hour, the plant was half its previous size, but its attacker had so many cuts on his torso that he looked as if he’d been whipped. The Firethorn might have been going down, but it left its opponent bloodied and resentful.

Pyracantha flowers and fruit ("Starr 021126-0030 Pyracantha angustifolia" by Forest & Kim Starr. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Pyracantha flowers and fruit (“Starr 021126-0030 Pyracantha angustifolia” by Forest & Kim Starr. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons )

Pyracantha has many advantages as a wildlife garden plant, and has been cultivated in the UK since the Fifteenth century. We have already mentioned its thorns, so useful as a deterrent to would-be burglars. Its flowers attract bees, and its berries attract birds. In fact, the fruits can be such a draw that the municipal planting of Pyracantha and its close relative, Cotoneaster in supermarket car parks sometimes summons that most colourful and iconic of winter birds, the Waxwing.

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) ("Bohemian Wax Wing" by Randen Pederson - originally posted to Flickr as Cedar Wax Wing. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) (“Bohemian Wax Wing” by Randen Pederson – originally posted to Flickr as Cedar Wax Wing. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Of course, none of this explains exactly why this thornless, berryless, flowerless specimen has popped up in the wood.

IMG_1161IMG_1160IMG_1159We have seen numerous examples of plants who have escaped from gardens and established themselves (no doubt with great glee) in the ‘wild’. And as Coldfall Wood backs onto many gardens, it would be a simple thing for a passing blackbird to gobble down a berry, perch in a hornbeam tree and deposit the seed amongst the fallen leaves. But living in the deep shade of the uncoppiced part of the wood is not ideal for a plant that needs at least some direct sunlight. I have a hypothesis that, because thorns are expensive for a plant to produce, maybe this individual is putting all its energy into producing leaves at the moment. Maybe it is too young and innocent to have thorns. Or maybe, in my infinite wisdom, I have misidentified it and it is, in fact, some errant Cotoneaster (though my botanist friends agree that it is a Pyracantha).

Not everybody is fond of Pyracantha.  Like Hawthorn, its flowers are said to smell a little like sex, and so it has come to have something of a wicked reputation. Indeed, it is said that some churches will not have Firethorn berries included as part of the Harvest Festival flower arrangements because it is associated with the Devil. Terrible woman that I am, this makes me admire it even more. Who could not love this fierce, beautiful, generous plant? It is as much a force of nature as a tiger or a kestrel. And in the uncertain, tumultuous days ahead, maybe this is exactly what our struggling pollinators and birds will need.

Pyracantha hedge. © Copyright Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Pyracantha hedge from Sandhill (north of Leeds).  © Copyright Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Sources this week include the Plantlore website, the Plant Lives website and Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica.

Watch the Skies!

Dear Readers, I have been watching the influx of Bohemian Waxwings this year with some interest, and not a little excitement. These handsome birds ‘irrupt’ out of Scandinavia during years when the berry supply that they rely on in Scandinavia starts to run out, and they head south and west. It looks like quite a promising winter, with birds arriving in some numbers on the east coast of Scotland, and with some turning up now in East Anglia. There is also one record from Richmond Park.

I have been lucky enough to see waxwings actually in my very own street here in East Finchley, munching berries from the whitebeam tree just up the road from the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner. I first spotted them on an icy day in 2010, and then they were back in 2017 in the very same tree. They tend to stay around until they’ve eaten practically all the berries, and as they defecate every four minutes this can make for a very ‘interesting’ abstract pattern under the tree. However, while they’re feeding they seem absolutely fearless: they were unconcerned about me and my camera, and the various other people that I grabbed and forced to watch as the birds flew about. There is a rumour that waxwings can get ‘drunk’ on the fermenting berries, which may account for their devil-may-care attitude. Anyhow, I shall be keeping a very close eye on this tree, just in case.

You don’t have to be out in the wilds (or indeed the suburbs) to spot waxwings either: in 2005 160 waxwings were recorded in the trees outside Warren Street Station in Central London, and the largest London flock ever recorded was at Lakeside Shopping Centre, with 367 seen in 2011. The species is sometimes known as ‘the carpark bird’ because if there’s a cotoneaster hedge, or some pyracantha, or a few rowan or whitebeam trees the birds will often hang about, sometimes for as long as a week. So another place that I’m keeping a close eye on is the carpark at the Sunshine Garden Centre, which has some splendid Pyracantha bushes.

Pyracantha at the Sunshine Garden Centre

Incidentally, even if the waxwings don’t show up, these are great sites for the various little thrushes that arrive in the UK at this time of year, especially Redwings. My first sight of a Redwing is always an indication to me that winter has finally arrived.

Redwing in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery last year.

Squirrel Advice Please!

Dear Readers, as you know I am usually enchanted by the squirrels that visit the garden, but this year they are slightly ‘taking the Mickey’ as my Dad would have said. There are at least two adults and two youngsters who visit the garden as soon as the seed feeders are put out and sit there until they have eaten so many sunflower hearts that they can no longer move. Then, they sometimes move over to the suet feeders. I had no idea that squirrels had a taste for animal products, but I should have guessed following a squirrel’s interest in the prey of a sparrowhawk a few years ago. At one point, all four feeders had a squirrel attached.

So I have come to the conclusion that while I am happy for the squirrels to have some of the food that I put out for the birds (after all, when you make a wildlife garden you can’t necessarily be that fussed about who turns up), I don’t want them gobbling it all up. This morning there were three varieties of tit (coal, blue and great), some sparrows, a dunnock and some chaffinches who were all unable to feed because of the squirrels, and that’s without the collared doves who looked as if they were gathering en masse to at least attempt a take over.

So I have turned my mind to ‘squirrel-proof feeders’. If I had one or two of these at least the birds would get a look in. But which type to buy? There are so many different kinds, and I know that not all of them actually foil the furry foe (a quick burst of alliteration there). Have you had a similar problem? What has worked for you? Before anyone points out that attaching a seed tray to one of the feeders probably helps the squirrels, I need to tell you that I put this there for the woodpigeons/collared doves so that they could feed.

So, looking at Vine House Farm (my favourite bird food provider), it appears that the choice is: cage…


or the ‘Squirrel Buster’ (the weight of a squirrel or large bird closes up the ports of the feeder, though clearly I’d have to be careful about where it was located). I haven’t found any photos of squirrels ‘busting’ the squirrel buster feeders, so maybe this design really does foil them. Shame it’s the most expensive, but there we go.

Over to you, Readers! Squirrels and bird food – your thoughts. I will report back soon.


Finding Fungi

Dear Readers, today we went for a fungi foray in Coldfall Wood. We were all a little dizzy with excitement, as I had been trying to find someone to lead a walk for weeks, and then, like a blessing, Mario arrived. The walk only had 20 places, but it was subscribed twice over. I had no idea that there was such interest in these ephemeral organisms, but soon we were ‘getting our eye in’ and spotting them all over the place. We saw more than 30 species in an hour and a half, and I will do a longer post soon describing what we saw.

If you have a wood nearby, and haven’t had a chance to explore it for a while, do go. This seems like a particularly splendid year for fungi, who are maybe recovering after all the period during Covid when it seemed as if everyone in the world had descended on any woodland that they could find, in a kind of desperation to be outdoors. Their variety and abundance is astonishing at the moment, but not probably for much longer – once the rain and the frost get going, it will be mostly over until next year.

For now, though, I wanted to share their beauty with you, and also this poem: I love the way that the poet weaves the life of the forest together, from what we can see above ground to the intricate weaving of mycelial threads underground. The poem is by Paige Quiñones, a poet that I hadn’t come across before. She is writing about foraging for mushrooms probably in the US where she’s based, and by the size of the spiders I’d say maybe the south west of the country, but still, there is much that is familiar here. See what you think.

Mushrooms by Paige Quiñones

Pulling my first from its place in the forest floor
felt like slipping a key from its partnered, well-oiled lock.
Broken so cleanly at the stem it appeared scalpel-sliced.

You assured me this was a good find, a Boletus from its reddened bruise
and lack of gills. But chanterelles proved easiest to forage;
their penny-bright caps glinted between dead leaves, ripe for the taking.

Spiders were the largest animals we saw that day: orb weavers
bigger than a man’s fist, sharp-legged seamstresses whose webs
like neural networks transgressed each clearing. Without hair

they weren’t so frightening, as if each spider had disrobed herself
to display a less menacing skeleton. Still, we kept our distance.
And suddenly what I had never paid attention to was flourishing:

oysters in bursts around a rotting stump, Amanitas with their white
burial shroud, indigo milk caps as fluted and blue as
a ballerina’s tulle skirt. You told me the wildness

might not be as feral as we think. That the fungi’s filaments
weave a pattern, a conscious fabric, engaging the nearest tree with
its opposite furthest tree to say entwine your roots with my mycelia

and I will tell you my secrets. We followed their invisible cartography
by whatever heads peered up from autumn’s detritus.
And though we were strangers there, unmooring

each mushroom that seemed least dangerous, we could feel
the vast organism underfoot. Silent but for the sounds
of insects, unwitting and soon to be caught.