A day of snowfall tempted me outdoors, following the edge of an arable field, alongside a tall and ancient hedge. Tall hedges are, in themselves, a feature of the South Norfolk Claylands, sometimes being a remnant of woodland left when the fields were first created. These ancient hedges can contain woodland flora, like primroses and polyploidy ferns. This one has trees typical of the landscape – hornbeam, visible even in winter by its twisting grey bark, the gnarled trunk of field maples and a few suckers of elm. There are also wild pears here, although it takes a stretch of the imagination to conjure up the creamy froth of blossom that will crown their branches in just a few weeks. In early autumn, the fruit is as round and small as a crab apple, but with the taste and grainy texture of pear.
The fallen snow is tracked with fox prints, running close to the hedge. Out in the field are the prints of hares, showing wild, exuberant leaps up to 2 metres apart. It is hares I have come for, hoping to catch them boxing; last week, on a morning of sun that seemed to be heralding spring, there were 7 hares here, leaping and racing in the fragile warmth.
The first shape I see in the snow is a rabbit and the second dark hump shakes and resolves itself into a pheasant. Then a hare lives up to its name, haring across the end of the field, vanishing into the base of a hedge.
Last summer, I counted up to 13 hares in this field, but then the farm was in a Countryside Stewardship Scheme and paid to leave wide margins between hedge, ditch and crop. The Scheme has ended now, the margins ploughed up and I wonder if the hares will be here in such numbers again.
The narrow hoof prints, the slots, of roe deer mark out the footpath I follow across the wide, ploughed field and I often see these deer here, usually a group of 5 or 6. Despite the fresh tracks and my constant scanning of the wood edge and hedges, I don’t find them today. However, just before I turn onto a narrow lane, I spot another two hares, sadly not boxing, but gaining some meagre sustenance from the young oil seed rape that stands limply just out of the snow.
Along the lane, a flock of yellowhammer twitter and stay a few strides ahead of me in a hedge, as if warning me out of their territory. This bright little bird is on the ‘red list’ for conservation, having declined dramatically as farming has changed and left fewer hedges for nesting or foraging for insects and seeds. As I am watching the yellowhammers, the tell tale white rump of a bullfinch flits into the hedge, this is an ‘amber list’ bird that also declined in the last half of the last century and the disappearing white rump is usually all I glimpse of this shy little bird.
Before I turn for home, a movement catches my eye and my first thought is roe, but it is a Chinese water deer. First spotted a couple of years ago, I see this solitary deer quite often now, larger and redder in hue than the muntjac, it is easy to distinguish even when the distinctive curve of its tusks are not visible. We watch each other across the snowbound field, until I turn away; when I look back, it is trotting quickly down hill, tucked close to the sparse safety of a winter hedge.
Tall hedges are, in themselves, a feature of the South Norfolk Claylands, sometimes being a remnant of woodland left when the fields were first created.
Turning for home, I keep an eye out for buzzards, but only crows call in the snow hushed evening and when their black shapes rise slowly from the fields, I spot a few fieldfares among them. In autumn these can appear just before a spell of cold weather, moving south before snow and frost, but now, with spring on its way, I suspect these are birds moving northwards again, back to their breeding grounds in the far north of Europe or Asia. The elusive buzzards have been breeding in a nearby wood for a few years now, although when I first came here, 20 years ago, they were still rare in Norfolk. They seem to have slipped back into the county, reclaiming their space and filling the morning sky over my garden with the loud mew of their call.
As I reach the common where I live, the starlings are gathering into their evening murmuration, before they settle to roost on the reeds of a pond. Small groups are gathering, joining the throng that circles and rises and twists itself into shapes that vanish before I can give them a name, like shifting wood smoke caught in the wind. A smaller flock of pied wagtail cross them, their flight dipping and rising, constantly calling to each other with a busy chipping sound. The pied wagtails also roost in the reeds and at this time of evening, a sparrowhawk often haunts the edges of pond, sending both wagtails and starlings into a noisy, panicking spin. Today, as the daylight fades, there is only the winter bare trees and no sign of the hawk.
This is a route I walk often and in many weathers, yet it is an unremarkable circuit of hedges and fields, with arable crops and a couple of grassland commons. The abundance of wildlife that still exists in this farmed landscape never ceases to amaze me and offers a glimpse into what we can achieve with our Living Landscape projects. Buffering and connecting existing habitats with grassland, ponds and hedges, creating just a few more acres of wild land would breathe even more life into our countryside. Such action will help reverse the fortunes of the yellowhammers, bullfinches and many other species that rely on this landscape and that brighten even the bleakest days of the year.
Helen Baczkowska is a Conservation Officer at NWT.