Sunday, 21 September 2014

Shrews in my roof

18th August 2014

Today I took the opportunity to do some desk work out of doors, sitting on the terrace by the front door and proof-reading a book for a friend. Leaves were brushing the back of my neck from time to time as the wind stirred the vine there. It is a feature of the Bungalow garden: climbing up to the eaves and muffling the front of the house with a bright green jungle of stalks and questing tendrils.

The roof comes down to head height beside the front door. Twenty years ago we had a nest of hornets there. They were no bother - we saw them coming and going: they saw us doing the same; one of them was always on guard by the door to greet returning nest-mates and keep a weather eye open on the world; low-frequency murmurings heard at night, like Spitfires warming up on a distant aerodrome. I heard something different up there last week: a conversational twittering, scratchy and sporadic, like the sound of bats  - or pixies. I couldn't quite locate the source: was it coming from a chimney stack or a hole in the tiles? I had a vision of furry faces swivelling about in the semi-darkness of the roofspace, discussing something important.

My reading was disturbed by rustling among the leaf litter under the vine. Nothing to be seen. A few minutes later the rustling came from higher up among the thicket of leaves. A quick movement, and there - silhouetted by sunlight crossing a branch in the heart of the leafage - unmistakeably a shrew, climbing about, hunting and exploring; perhaps nervously taking its first foray out of the nest, its nose twitching about in frenetic hyper-mobility. The identity of my nattering neighbours became clear.

The locals call a shrew a 'ranny'. I'd like to think that the Latin name for a Common Shrew, Sorex araneus, owed something to the East Anglian dialect, or some obscure Viking root of it revived by Linnaeus who named them. Its name has another dimension for me: odour. It reminds me of the word 'rancid', and shrews have a reputation for smelling bad.

Shrews in my roof.... The twittering is apparently a 'low amplitude, broadband, multiharmonic and frequency modulated' sound used as a form of echolocation [1]. Coupled with a rosette of stiff but sensitive whiskers around their snout and a good sense of smell, that must be how they they find their way around in the roof. Their eyesight is said to be poor. Judging by size, I think mine are most likely to be the Common Shrew rather than the Pygmy Shrew.

I have always thought of shrews as being members of the Order Insectivora, along with hedgehogs. However recent genetic studies have shown they are part of an Order Soricomorpha (''shrew-forms') which they share with moles and a rare family from the West Indies called the solenodons. The latter are living fossils, with relatives dating back to Cretaceous times, over 65 million years ago, and teeth which can deliver a poisonous bite like a snake. Other shrews, including the Common Shrew, are said to have a poisonous bite, but this is due to a toxin present in the saliva [2, 3, 4]'It is a ravening beast, feigning itself gentle and tame, but being touched it biteth deep, and poysoneth deadly', says Topsell [5]. I have not yet tested the truth of this.

There is something primaeval about thise animal. How old is the species Sorex araneus? Scientists have traced shrew origins back to the Heterosoricidae, a family living in North America in Middle Eocene times, about 45 million years ago; behind them must lie some ranny-like Cretaceous mammal, as yet unknown. Later, the Soricinae family evolved, to which my Sorex shrews belong, and the earliest fossils of the genus are found in Germany, in the Middle Miocene, c.11 million years ago [6]. The earliest likely British record for S.araneus is from Hoxne, Suffolk, dated 400,000 BP [7]. The site is no more than two miles away from my house as the crow flies, and only yesterday in geological time. The species itself is not quite as ancient as I had imagined.

Strange to tell, shrews are one of the most studied animals on the planet. S.araneus is one of the few species whose genome has been completely mapped, and as a result we are able to carry out detailed studies of its subspecies and their distribution in time and space. Some surprising results have emerged. 30 years ago we thought it was just one species, but it now turns out to be five cryptic species, each with distinctive genetic signatures which directly contradict their apparent similarities in size, skeleton and bodily appearance [8]. Externally the look the same, but internally S.araneus is 'characterised by spectacular chromosomal variation' [8], and shows 'one of the most spectacular chromosomal evolutions ever recorded in mammals' [10]; it has evolved an extraordinary wealth of chromosomal races (karyotypes).

Since 1987 S.araneus has been the subject of a specialist research group called the International Sorex Araneus Cytogenetics Committee. Through the work of Jeremy Searle and others, it has been possible to divide the British population into six racial types and plot their geographies; from this we can work out the story of how the Common Shrew recolonised Britain after the last Ice Age, having spent it sheltering in a refugium area on the Continent, most likely in central Europe [8]. Some of the genetic diversity within the species seems to have adaptive value, as slightly different karyotypes are found in different habitats, for example shrews in bogs are different from those in dry grasslands [11]. Apparently shrews are a rapidly evolving species, and this helps adapt them to changing ecological niches and ultimately leads to the evolution of subspecies and - on a much longer time scale - species. I have no idea which race my shrews belong to, but quite possibly they are of the Oxford race discovered by Searle which is typical of Eastern England [12]. It now seems likely the fossil S.araneus from Hoxne is one of the cryptic subspecies. David Polly's research holds out the hope that we may eventually be able to tell them apart by the details of their molar teeth [8]. There is a lot more to shrews than meets the eye.

Tonight I saw one climb straight up a brick wall and disappear under the eaves. They are evidently bold and enterprising animals. They are also fevered and vulnerable beings, who live with death as a constant companion. Shrews have an incredibly fast metabolism, and when frightened their heart rate can shoot up to over 1200 beats per minute [13]; their digestion lives on a two-hour turnaround, so if they go without food for more than a few hours they will starve and quickly die [14]. I imagine they suffer greatly, passing their short and passionate lives in a ferment of hunger and competition for food and living space. I have often heard them shrieking at each other, hidden deep in the undergrowth of some grassy forest - 'a rapid succession of shrill cries, which pierce the ears like needles of sound'  [15]. Gladiatorial screams of defiance, triumph and submission. If I wanted to tame one I would have to bring it offerings of woodlice, beetles and spiders, and promise to keep it in solitude. 'They love the rotten flesh of ravens', says Topsell, but I think I'd have to draw the line there.

From Topsell, 1658.



1 -
2 - Buczacki, S. 2002: Fauna Britannica; Hamlyn.
3 - Poisonous Shrews, at: Shrew Culture, Myths, Stories and Poisonous Facts; The Shrew (ist's) Site aka 'The Shrew Shrine' - online at: [accessed Aug 2014].
4 - The poison is a paralysing organic peptide called Soricidin - see Wikipedia  [accessed Aug 2014].
5 - Topsell, E. 1658: History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents; London; p.406. Online at: [accessed Sept 2014]. 
6 - Rzebik-Kowalska, B. 1998. Fossil history of shrews in Europe. In: J. Wojcik, J. & Wolsan, M. (eds.): Evolution of shrewsMammal Research Institute, Polish Academy of Sciences, Białowieza, Poland. 
7 - Schreve, D.C. 2000: The Vertebrate Assemblage from Hoxne, Suffolk. In: Lewis, S.G. et al (eds) 2000: The Quaternary of Norfolk and Suffolk Field Guide; Quaternary Research Association.
8 - Polly, D.P. 2003 - Paleophylogeography of Sorex araneus (Insectivora, Soricidae): molar shape as a morphological marker for fossil shrews; Mammalia 68.2.
9 - Borodin, P.M. et al 2008: Recombination Map of the Common Shrew, Sorex araneus (Eulipotyphla, Mammalia); Genetics 178.2 - [accessed August 2014]
10 -Taberlet, P. et al 1994: Chromosomal versus mitochondrial DNA evolution: tracking the evolutionary history of the southwestern European populations of the Sorex araneus group (Mammalia, Insectivora); Evolution, 48.3
11 - Wojcik, J.M. 1991: Chromosomal polymorphism in the common shrew Sorex araneus and its adaptive significance; Mémoires de la Société Vaudoise des Sciences Naturelles, no.19.
12 - Searle, J.B. & Wilkinson, P.J. 1987: Karyotypic variation in the common shrew (Sorex araneus) in Britain – a 'Celtic Fringe'; Heredity, no.59.
13 - Crowcroft, P. 1963: Shrews; Animals of Britain Series  no.17, Sunday Times Publications, London.
14 - Churchfield, S. 1988: Shrews of the British Isles; Shire Natural History, Princes Risborough.
15 - Wood, J.G. 1865: The Illustrated Natural History. Mammalia; George Routledge & Sons, London; p.434.
16 - Topsell, E. 1607: The History of Four-footed Beasts

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Rock Samphire

2nd August 2014

A warm, boisterous wind is pushing me around today on Bigbury beach, south Devon. I am here with family enjoying the wide expanse of sand and sparkling sea. Rough, slaty cliffs make a backdrop to the beach, and their rocky outcrops provide a choice of sheltered places for setting out a picnic.

The rocks and pebbles are a galaxy of subtle pinks, greens and grey slates of Lower Devonian age, classified by geologists as belonging to the Meadfoot Beds. They have been polished smooth in the zone below the tideline, but remain sharp and pitted by salt spray weathering above it. The bedding of the rock is almost vertical, being evidence of severe folding after it was deposited. Up in the cliff, the bedding has been further distorted in places by frost action during the Ice Age, shattering and remobilising it into interesting patterns.

The sea is working a further transformation on the slates, steadily recycling them into pink, green and grey sand. This will, in turn, feed the formation of other rocks - on multi million-year timescales.

Up on the cliff, tiny roots are also doing their part in breaking up the slate. Pale green patches of Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) are growing in any places where their roots can penetrate. They have sought out joint planes in the rock, where rainwater is concentrated and a rudimentary soil has formed. The result is a pattern of hanging gardens scaling the rock face, with neat rows planted by nature.

Rock Samphire gives me a pang of nostalgia for southern skies. It looks as though it belongs - as it essentially does - to the Mediterranean world; it is found along warm coasts from the Black Sea to Atlantic Europe. It has a pleasant, aniseedy smell which reminds me of fennel and the holiday aroma of ouzo and pastis; they call it 'sea fennel' in Latin countries [1]. Its fleshy, drought-resistant leaves look good to eat, but reportedly taste like 'a mixture of celery and kerosene' [2]. I suspect this may be an effect of the phenolic and tannic phytochemicals it contains [3].

Rock Samphire has evolved to exploit this rocky niche; I can't see any other plants competing to occupy this bit of uncomfortable, salt-blasted, sun-baked habitat. It is triumphantly doing what it is best at. 
Every plant expresses the special will of its species, and says something that cannot be expressed in any other language. [4]
Schopenhauer's thought leads me to new insights. Living things may be seen as verbal forms as well as nouns. They are dynamic doers and effectors. Crithmum maritimum does what it does - says what it says - according to the deployment of its genetic programming. It 'crithmums' at the genus level, and 'maritimums' at the species level. We can see it as a kind of selfhood - deploying life-seeking information specific to its own kind, existing and acting in the service of maintaining and reproducing itself. If Rock Samphire tastes like ‘celery and kerosene’ that is because it needs phytochemicals to defend itself from being eaten where it stands.

Here, I find Crithmum maritimum growing in rocky clefts. As a species, it is bound to its particular ecological niche, and as individuals these plants are bound to their clefts. They are constrained to make the best of their circumstances, and as individual plants fixed to the soil in which they are rooted (for better or worse) they can only transcend them through effective reproduction strategies. I reckon plants are absolute, blind optimists: they must wait for their environment to bring them what they need. By contrast, animals can move around and seek better circumstances, mate with whomsoever they will, but as a consequence they are naturally prey to the ceaseless, questing dissatisfaction which Schopenhauer identifies as their existential condition of all living things, and which the most conscious beings experience most acutely [5]. Psychologically, I reckon the more conscious an animal is the more capacity it has for pessimism as well as pleasure. Animals in zoos may mope or go mad [6].  

I am an example of the most mentally complex species present on Bigbury beach today - a human being. As an animal, I can exercise existential freedoms that are denied to Rock Samphire. I am able to make choices about where to lay my towel down on the beach or what food to eat. Like a dog I can choose where to dig a hole in the sand, or like a herring gull I can think how best to tackle a picnic hamper.

The onshore breeze is strengthening as the afternoon wears on. As an animal I am free to decide many things for myself - I can change my circumstances.

I think it's time to put on a pullover and fetch an ice cream from a café a few hundred yards away.

My innate pessimism tells me the café is sure to be closed by the time I get there.



[1] - Crithmum maritimum L. Gardening in mediterranean climates worldwide. Online at: [accessed August 2014]
[2] - Crithmum maritimum L. Plants for a Future. Online at: [accessed August 2014]
[3] - Houta, O, Akrout A & Amri, H (2011): Phenolic amounts, antioxidant and antimicrobial potential of Crithmum maritimum cultivated in Tunisian arid zones; Planta Medica 77. Online at: [accessed August 2014]
[4] - Schopenhauer, A (1969): The World as Will & Representation; Book 1, chap.28. Dover Books. 
[5] - Schopenhauer, ibid; chap.56.
[6] - Masson, G  (1996): When Elephants Weep: The emotional lives of animals; Vintage Books.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Enchanter's Nightshade

With such a compelling name, Enchanter's Nightshade must surely have magical powers. Its Latin name Circaea lutetiana was given to us by Carl Linnaeus, that intrepid genius of the imaginative epithet. 'Circaea' comes from Circe, a powerful enchantress in the Odyssey, and 'lutetiana' presumably from the ancient Gallic town of Lutetia, which is now Paris.

A plant of shady places, the white flowers of Circaea lutetiana shine like tiny candles in the gloom of woods and hedges. The contrast between its large, robust-looking leaves and its spindly, fragile-seeming stalks fitted spaciously with small, luminous flowers is remarkable. Its large leaves seem equipped to harvest as much of the scanty daylight as they possible; its flowers seem devoted to the art of luring micromoths. Linnaeus, who had an eye for the mythic and erotic dimensions of the plant world, has cast the plant is the role of an attractive Parisian enchantress - all libido and lace.

Enchanter's Nightshade and Cuckoo-Pint

The plant has been slipping in and out of my thoughts for the last few days - not entirely sure why. Perhaps it is because I found some Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum) recently in Norfolk, and have been meditating on its name. Perhaps it is fallout from a relationship with a certain lady in which I feel powerless to move in any direction that satisfies my heart. The painting of Merlin and Nimue by Burne-Jones comes to mind - the enchanter finds himself enchanted. 

I came across Circaea lutetiana yesterday in a Devon hedgebank - a high bank sheltered by trees with a magnificent view over hilly South Hams countryside between Harberton and Totnes. It was keeping company with Arum maculatum, otherwise known as Lords-and-Ladies or Cuckoo-Pint. The one a spindly complex of dull green and flickering whiteness; the other a stalk topped by lurid orange knobs. The two could hardly be more different.

I am not sure what sorcery Enchanter's Nightshade can work. Perhaps it has the power to manage painful separations.
      Yes, thou art gone! and round me too the night
      In ever-nearing circle weaves her shade.
                                          [Matthew Arnold, 'Thyrsis']
Perhaps it is just a light in dark places.

Meanwhile, cloud shadows move over the Devon landscape, and life moves on.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Old Man Ivy

Heronry Wood at Earlham is a mature wood, filled with tall trees casting a deep shade. My eye reaches up into the sunlit canopy where tiny birds are twittering and foraging, and from where unripe beech mast is dropping sporadically to earth through solid space. At ground level,  ivy is crawling everywhere like a lustrous, dark green fog, masking the tree trunks and blanketing the woodland floor; it has had over 160 years to put down roots here.

The wood is now part of the grounds of the University of East Anglia. I shall be leading a group of young students around the campus next Tuesday, as part of the Art & Nature Summer School at the Sainsbury Centre. I am looking for things to fire their imaginations.

I could start with ivy (Hedera helix). It is scrambling over the ground and scaling the trees with its hairy limbs. The contrast between its five-pointed, palmate leaves at ground level and its lance-shaped leaves on the vertical plane is striking. There's a story here. 

The plant ramps across the forest floor in a dark green, immature state, before finding an opportunity to reach for the light. It then starts climbing, bushing out and questing for reproductive maturity: its leaves become lance-shaped and lighter in colour, and its flowers develop and so disperse their pollen at a suitable height from the ground [1]. There's also a story in its thick, bristly stems which look more like roots. They embrace the trunks and climb upwards in a basket-work of ramifying arms. Recent research has shown that these adventitious roots are able to climb because they secrete a glue made of polysaccharide and miniscule nanoparticles. Scientists believe that synthesised ivy nanoparticles will have important technological applications [2].

Ivy is our only native representative of the Araliaceae, a complex family of plants, originally of palaeotropical origin over 50 million years ago, which includes Panax (ginseng), Tetrapanax, Fatsia and Fatshedera. The oldest fossil examples of the genus Hedera date from Oligocene times in Korea, perhaps 30 million years ago [3], and Hedera helix probably evolved in the Mediterranean area in Miocene times, perhaps 10 million years ago. It is now a native of the warmer parts of Europe and western Asia. 

Ivy looks exotic and behaves strangely - there's something rather un-British about the way it thrives in shady places and shamelessly exploits other plants to meet its needs. It has a whiff of the jungle about it. Its mode of life is that of a liana, one of those long, tropical vines beloved of Tarzan which use other trees for support in order to reach the light. It flowers later than most other plants, in October and November, which may be evidence that the plant is not fully adjusted to our present climate [4], but a fact that is convenient for insects who struggle to get late-year food. Its pollen gets plenty of attention then. Foresters are not so enamoured: they cut it off at ground level, in the belief that it strangles growing timber. Ivy is an alien tree in America which has invaded deciduous forests and created an 'ivy desert', stifling understorey and ground cover plants [5]. It has a reputation as a poisonous food plant for humans [6], although my neighbour's sheep eat its leaves with gusto in winter time, and rabbits often gnaw its bark when deprived of their usual food by a snowfall; their depredations are evident in Heronry Wood. Ivy  may be palatable to rhinoceroses too: fossil ivy pollen has been found in sediment embedded in the tooth of an extinct species of rhinoceros found in river deposits of Hoxnian age at Clacton, Essex; as much as 37% of the pollen was ivy, suggesting that the animal died in autumn time [7]. A cynic would blame the ivy.

Ivy limbs scarred by browsing rabbits.

Ivy ramps around in my imagination. Its Will to Life is uncompromising. While some people may find it sinister, I like to follow its deep, Aralian genetic roots back to the time of our remote ancestors, to the immense forests of the Palaeocene, which were home to the monkeys, lemurs or tree shrews which gave rise to our Miocene forefathers, the apes. Hedera helix is far older than human kind. It was was thriving in the forests which 'Adam and Eve' entered when they first came out of Africa; it lives alongside us today in our technological civilisation, and will no doubt embroider our bones when the last of us eventually becomes extinct. 

With its unscrupulous vertical ambition, ivy may be a good plant metaphor for human invasiveness and hubris. Perhaps we recognise a kindred spirit when we see one. 

I wonder what my students will make of it.


[1] - Okerman, A (2000): Combating the 'Ivy Desert': The Invasion of Hedera helix (English Ivy) in the Pacific Northwest United States; Restoration & Reclamation Review, 6.4 - Online at [accessed July 2014]
[2] - Burris, N et al (2012): Nanoparticle biofabrication using English ivy (Hedera helix); Journal of Nanobiotechnology 10, 2012
[3] - Metcalfe, D (2005): Hedera helix L.; Journal of Ecology, 93.3 - Online at [accessed July 2014]
[4] - Godwin, H (1975): The History of the British Flora. A factual basis for phytogeography; 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press.
[5] - Okerman, ibid.
[6] - Hyde, M (1976): Hedgerow Plants; Shire Publications Ltd.
[7] - Godwin, ibid.

Friday, 27 June 2014

And they call the wind Roger

The Broads area of Norfolk is prey to occasional whirlwinds known as 'Roger'. They strike without warning - wrecking buildings and trees; ripping sails off wherries and windmills; battering small boats into the water - and a few moments later they are gone.

My introduction to the diabolical 'Roger' is a recent one. I have been reading 'The Land of the Broads' by Ernest Suffling (1892), lent me by my friend Jenny [Gladstone]. It's one of those attractive, late Victorian books with nice engravings and floridly printed covers. It belongs to the days when the Broads were undisturbed by pollution and motorised traffic, and were teeming with wildlife; when wherries silently plied the rivers and there were so many eels at Rockland Broad that they 'swarmed among the reeds'. It is a tourist guide to the rivers Bure, Yare and Waveney, with particular advice for people on sailing holidays.

"I would council amateur yachtsmen against an unseen danger, which appears to be peculiar to Norfolk, and that is 'Roger' - beware of 'Roger'!.... [It] is the name given to a whirlwind which occasionally strikes yachts before the crew are aware of its approach. ... At Wroxham Regatta in 1881, no less than three competing yachts were overturned and sunk by a 'Roger', whilst a tent on shore was taken up in the air and carried a distance of 80 yards." [1]

Other writers have described this disturbing phenomenon.

"The cutter Zoe, with all sail set, was moored by a strong rope to a tree. It was a dead hot calm, when without any warning, a whirling puff of wind came upon us. The Zoe was thrown over almost on her beam-ends. She snapped the mooring-rope like a piece of thread... " [2]

"Sudden strong gusts of wind.... are known locally as 'Rogers'. They strike usually without any warning, and for twenty or thirty seconds blow with almost hurricane force... they have torn down windmill sails, stripped off thatched roofs, capsised haystacks and taken a wherry's (sailing barge) canvas out of the bolt-ropes....on one occasion five wherries were crossing Breydon Water together in a gentle breeze when a Roger struck them. They heeled over at a terrifying angle sending quants, boathooks, buckets, brooms and all other loose gear over the side...." [3]

From The Land of the Broads by E Suffling, 1892.

CR Davies says that the 'rodges-blast' [sic] is a 'frequently recurring' phenomenon in the area, that it is most likely to occur with a south-west wind, and is essentially unpredictable. "Even if you see one coming over the marsh, convulsing the grasses of lifting the reed-stacks high in air, you cannot tell whether it will strike you or not, its course is so erratic. It may wreck a windmill fifty yards away, and leave the water around you unruffled"[4]

Use of the term goes back to the early 19th century, or earlier. Forby (1830) relates it to dust devils. He says a 'Roger's-blast' is "a sudden and local motion of the air, not otherwise perceptible but by its whirling up the dust on a dry road in perfectly calm weather, somewhat in the manner of a waterspout.".[5]

Today, any sudden, powerful wind in the Broads may be called Roger, ranging from 'strong gusts' of very localised wind and 'unexpected squalls' [6], through 'mini-twisters' [7], 'small whirlwinds' and 'rotary wind-squalls' [8], to 'proper whirlwinds' and maybe even tornadoes.

"There on the other side of the dyke was a mini tornado! It was well over 60 ft high, about 15 ft wide, made entirely of water picked up from the dyke. The wind went from about 15 mph to about 35 mph and it was headed directly for us!  Well it hit us and we got soaked in fine spray and then it was gone." [9]

Artist's impression of a Roger at Barton Broad, August 2009.
Image used courtesy jillwix @ Norfolk Broads Forum

A very powerful Roger struck the Thurne valley in 2001. "A tornado lasting for 15 seconds created a column of debris half a mile high as it swept across the Norfolk Broads in Potter Heigham; holiday homes were badly damaged, and electricity poles and telephone lines were brought down". [10]

An eye witness has supplied more graphic detail: "Over towards Repps all hell had broken loose. A menacingly dark coloured spout of branches, roof tiles, straw, tarpaulins - and that was just the recogniseable debris. There must have been tons of the stuff up there defying gravity. There wasn't a breath of wind on the staithe, but what sounded like a freight train was approaching fast..."

This particular blast is even reputed to have lifted cattle off the ground. Another eye witness reported: "... they said the cows stampeded when the wind started and it picked them up - someone mentioned about them being in the air." [11]

Tornado alley? A summer view of the Thurne valley from Potter Heigham Bridge.

A 15th century devil. 
From The Travels of
Sir John Mandeville 
Rogers may develop in Broadland due to the combination of flat, open fields, warm water surfaces and abundant sunshine. While we can explain the phenomenon as the result of spiralling updrafts of unstable air, to our unscientific ancestors the sudden arrival of a Roger must have represented something uncanny: the irruption of a capricious, invisible, hostile power in a summer's day. According to Charles PG Scott (1895) 'Old Roger' is a nickname for the Devil.[12]  Personally, I suspect our rude forbears explained 'Roger's blast' as the fart of the Devil, who is 'prince of the power of the air'. [13]  However, we may perhaps find traces of older, more complex peasant beliefs in its diabolical status, for example the mythology that whirlwinds are caused by fairies or demons, invisible travelling sorcerers or damned souls passing in flight, or that they have special power to impregnate women [14]. The uncanny and inexplicable is named and personified, then gets mythologised. Stories are told about it.

I saw a very minor Oxfordshire example of a Roger when I was at school in the 1970s. It took the form of a dust devil crossing the cricket pitches during a First Eleven game. It came whirling along as a mini tornado of dust and grass clippings which ploughed through the square, blowing off the bails and the striped caps of the players. They were too absorbed in their game to see it coming. As they ran after their caps and wiped the dust from their eyes, I enjoyed the spectacle much more than the cricket match. A little bit of Nature's chaos had come whirling through the preposterous world of boarding school.

Old Roger is a reminder of the physical laws which frame our planetary existence. Evidently he may have entertainment value as well as disruptive energy. If anyone has first hand experience of him in the Broads I would be interested to hear from them.


[1] - Suffling, Ernest R. [1892]: The Land of the Broads; Benjamin Perry, Stratford; pp.137-8.
[2] - Davies, C (1884): Norfolk broads and rivers; William Blackwood & Sons, London. p.54.
[3] - Amsted, M (2005): Not so jolly Rogers; New Scientist no.253, 11th June; quoting: Clark, R (1961): Black-sailed Traders - The keels and wherries of Norfolk and Suffolk; Putnam & Co Ltd, London.
[4] - Davies, C (1884), ibid.
[5] - Forby, R (1830): The Vocabulary of East Anglia; JB Nichols & Son, London; vol. 2, p.280.
[6] - Tozier, J (1904): Among English Inns; LC Page & Co, USA; chap.10.
[7] - billmaxted (2006): online in: Topic: Tornadoes?; The Norfolk Broads Forum, Feb-27-2006 @ 7:22 am; online at: [accessed June 2014]
[8] - Davies, C (1884), ibid, p.265.
[9] - jillywix (2006): online in: Topic: Tornado on Barton!; The Norfolk Broads Forum, Aug-24-2009 @ 4:00 pm; online at: [accessed June 2014]
[10] - Monthly Climatological Summary for Oct. 2001. Online at: [accessed June 2014]
[11] - Graeme Coles, quoted in: Tornado shakes holiday homes; BBC News, Sunday, 7 October 2001, 14:51 GMT; online at: [accessed June 2014]
[12] - Scott, CPG (1895): The Devil and His Imps: An Etymological Inquisition; Transactions of the American Philological Association; vol.26, p.135.
[13] - The Bible; Ephesians chap.2, v.2.
[14] - Giraudon, D (2007): Supernatural Whirlwinds in the Folklore of Celtic Countries; Béaloideas, 75.

Roger on Mars

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Jackdaws at Midsummer

June 21st, 2014

It was a fine day last Thursday. Wisps of cirrus and dispersing vapour trails drew a light veil over the blue sky. The business of jackdaws in the trees behind my house reached a climax that afternoon.

Blue-skies flocking

I call this land behind the Bungalow the Wilderness: a domain of brambles, nettles, elders and elm suckers, which may once have been a field. Muntjac and rabbits skulk there, and the blackcap sends out jets of pure lyric beauty in summer. Its eastward boundary is a long, thin rectangular pond of mediaeval date shrouded by tall oak and ash trees. The pond brims up in winter, but soon shrinks away leaving a blackened pit of detrital mud. For some reason the local jackdaws have made this belt of trees their focus for the last fortnight.

Ask Konrad Lorenz what jackdaws have to say. His years of study at Altenberg  identified a range of calls such as kia, kiaw, zick and yip, also rattles and churrs. Kia means 'let's fly abroad' and kiaw means 'let's fly home' [1]. Karrr means 'threat'; the main flight call is a cheerful, 'metallic and squeaky' chyak.
For the past two weeks a chorus of kia and chyak has been ringing from the belt of trees and swirling round the neighbourhood. When it started I assumed that a nest of jackdaws had fledged from a hole in one of the trees, perhaps the largest oak, with much joyous 'let's fly abroad' communication. They were then joined by other local families, perhaps from the grounds of Ivy House three hundred yards away, where several mature oaks contain nest holes.

Lately, all the families have joined together in a rabble of playful exploration. They fly around the estate in loose, shifting flocks, calling to each to each continually, circulating among leafy ash summits and stag-horned oaks. Some drop to the sheep field and forage for insects in the close-cropped turf. Others scramble about among the branches hoping to be fed. They seem to be living a swirl of impulses, like children crying out "let's do [such & such]", then waiting to see how the collective will picks up the idea and runs with it. 

 From Wood's 'Natural History. Birds' (London, 1864)
'Fly with me' call-notes, says Lorenz, are "purely indicative of the mood of the bird in question and are in no way a conscious command. These completely unintentional expressions of individual feeling are as of highly infectious a nature as yawning in human beings. It is this mutual mood-infection which ensures that all the jackdaws finally act concertedly[3]So the swirl of activity among the jackdaws here seems to be flickering of moods and social conjugations, testing out ideas and linkages, coming to decisions then abandoning them - in fact, classic teenager activity. I think my jackdaws are learning and testing out their life skills. I have watched a begging fledgling being instructed by a parent how to get food from sheep droppings.

On Thursday afternoon the mood was extremely expansive: the jackdaws wanted to be up and flying high. Loose flocks were forming and reforming aloft, riding the thermals - splitting and diving, rising and swapping, overlapping. I took my binoculars and watched them, enchanted. The sky was alive with kia and chyak, pealing from lofty distances. Black specks approaching from the south resolved into four individuals drawn from further afield, the parish of Eye. They passed overhead, ignoring the largest cluster of their fellows, before breaking down and entering a group. This commotion was attracting attention, and a few rooks had come to investigate as well as me.

There are 72 jackdaws in this photo. Many more are out of view to the left.

Lorenz spent years fostering and studying a jackdaw colony at Altenberg. Here in the parish of Brome and Oakley, I suspect several families have lately been raised in this attractive, wooded corner of Suffolk. For some reason they have now made the land round the Bungalow their flocking place; in previous years the wooded belt has only yielded carrion crows. This year it has hosted jackdaws. I am worried that my neighbours will classify them as a nuisance, and try to drive them away by shooting a few. I can't see the point, as they are very companionable birds, 'of infinite wit and humour, and one that has an extraordinary attachment for man and his habitations' [4]. Studies have shown that each mates for life [5].

High on the stag-headed oak in the Bungalow garden today, a few jackdaws are busy socialising. One catches sight of me looking up from far below and gives a karrr alarm call; they take flight. Ten seconds later the bare branches of the tree are occupied by more individuals. I am part of their perceptual universe, as they are of mine. I doubtless signify 'non-jackdaw' and 'predator' to them, but for me they signify 'companion' and 'friend'. They are part of my community, and the fact that they have chosen the Bungalow area as 'significant place' pleases me. I like to think that they see it as a secure place for bringing up young, a 'magical environment' as Jacob Von Uexküll might have put it [6], though I am afraid a few gunshots from my neighbour could change all that.


[1] - Lorenz, K (1952): King Solomon's Ring. New light on animal ways; Methuen & Co, Ltd, London; p.169.

[2] - Western Jackdaw; Wikipedia - [accessed June 2014]
[3] - Lorenz, ibid; p.170.
[4] - Wood, JG (1864): The Illustrated Natural History. Birds; Routledge, Warne & Routledge, London; p.398.
[5] - Western Jackdaw; ibid.
[6] - Uexküll, Jacob Von (2010): A Foray into the Worlds of Humans and Animals; University of Minnesota Press; p.119 ff.

Saturday, 24 May 2014


East Beach at Bawdsey, Suffolk - 7th November 2013

A brown lump of sandstone, easily overlooked on the beach. The ghost of a shell impression draws my eye.

A boxstone. This is the first one I've ever found with a fossil in it. Looking closely, I see that the sea has abraded the shell's outlines, though the margins have survived better than the rest. It should be possible to identify it.

Boxstones are witnesses of a vanished world. They are all that remains of a lost geological stratum in Suffolk called the Trimley Sands, although deposits of similar age are still present across the sea in Belgium and other parts of Europe. Boxstones are nodules of phosphate-rich sandstone which may contain shell fossils and - if you are lucky - bones and teeth. Most are thought to date from the late Miocene period, perhaps 5.5 million years ago. Later, when the Pliocene sea swept over Suffolk and deposited the Coralline Crag and Red Crag (4.4 to 2.5 million years ago) it eroded some pre-existing marine beds. So earlier material got reworked into later deposits, which are - in their turn - being eroded today. The boxstone material at Bawdsey is coming from the base of the Red Crag strata in local cliffs and perhaps offshore.

Red Crag sands at Bawdsey Cliff, September 2013.
Introduced holm oak, tamarisk and silver ragwort give the cliffs an exotic, Mediterranean aspect.

The Red Crag Basement Bed at East Lane Beach, Bawdsey.
There is a boxstone in the centre of the photo. The dark brown pebbles are phosphatic mudstone.

The boxstone in my hand is a key for researching and imagining what England was like in late Miocene times. "Strata of Miocene age are very rare in Britain and none are preserved in the district"[2]. Resurrecting this period will be like piecing together a jigsaw picture where most of the pieces are missing. 

Also, this battered lump of rock definitely has a numinous aura for me. Hopefully I may come to understand why I think it is worth writing about.

There are a few Miocene deposits surviving in Britain, but only preserved in scattered pockets and cavities. Sands and clays have been found at the bottom of karstic sink holes at Brassington in the Peak District of Derbyshire. Blocks of fossiliferous sandstone have been found in solution pipes in Chalk bedrock at Lenham in Kent. Further afield, fossil-rich deposits in hollows in limestone at Hollymount in Ireland have been tentatively dated to the Miocene or early Pliocene. So little has survived because this period was one of crustal uplift in Britain, and erosion was active, while the North Sea was a subsiding basin area [2]. Much of Suffolk then lay beneath the waves, on the western margins of the North Sea. 

My boxstone shell's habitat was evidently a sandy one, given its sandstone matrix. Some of this sand must have been washed into the sea from rivers streaming off the English land-mass, although mineral studies suggest that sediment may also have come from metamorphic rocks in the Ardennes region of Belgium [4]. The sandstone then became solidified on the sandy sea bed, along with its enclosed fossil. Deposits of a similar age have survived at Deurne in Belgium, and contain fossil shells, shark and whale bones [5].

Two parts of a Miocene Plesiocetus whale skeleton from the 
Deurne Sand Member at Antwerp, Belgium (Bosselaers et al 2004)

What was life like onshore in late Miocene times? The Brassington deposits contain an assemblage of plant fossils which can be used to reconstruct the climate. They suggest that the mean annual temperature was about 16ºC; by way of comparison, Suffolk today has a mean of 10ºC while Madrid has 15ºC. So we are talking about a period of warmer climate, before the general cooling trend which took place after 2 million years ago which ushered in the successive ice ages of the Pleistocene. The list of species seems to have more in common with an Asian forest garden than an English woodland. My imagination goes travelling. Exotics include Cedrus (cedar), Tsuga  (hemlock), Liquidambar (sweetgum), Sciadopitys (Japanese umbrella-pine), Symplocos (sweeleaf) and Cryptomeria (Japanese cedar). The forests of Derbyshire must have been richly aromatic places. There are also more familiar British trees such as alder, spruce and hazel. The ground flora includes mosses, ferns, herbs and grasses. The salt-tolerant herbs Armeria (sea thrift) and Limonium (sea lavender) suggest the sea may not have been far away. Given that the Brassington site is now some 330 m (1082 ft) above sea level, this indicates how much crustal uplift may have taken place here over the last 5 million years [6]. Brassington shows just how much difference five million years has made to the geography of Britain. 

Leaves of Liquidambar, from the Pliocene Forest Project, Sutton, Suffolk.

A few boxstones contain mammal fossils. As one would expect, marine mammals are most often represented, for example the sea cow Halitherium, the beaked whale Mesoplodon and the sperm whales Hoplocetus and Scaldicetus. A handful of land mammal specimens have been found, their bones and teeth presumably washed out to the sea. These include the elephant-like Mastodon, the ancestral pig Sus palaeochoerus and the mustelid Pannonictis [7]

If we want to expand this meagre evidence for land life we can turn to the fascinating Dorn-Dürkheim site in Germany, dated about 8 million years ago. Fossils have been recovered from mud in an abandoned meander of the early Rhine. A wealth of over 80 mammal species have been identified, and looking through the list of them I have a sense of a modern zoo fauna seen through the distorting mirror of time and change. The mastodon Anancus roamed the forest, along with the hornless rhinoceros Aceratherium, the horse Hipparion, the dirk-toothed cat Machairodus, the bear Ursavus and the deer Procapreolus [8]. These are all extinct genera, but some Miocene mammal types have survived pretty much unchanged to the present day. I even have one of them living in my garden, the muntjac deer, which has same the long canine teeth and prong-like horns of its ancestors from Dorn-Dürkheim. It is a native of Asia which has been introduced here and has unwittingly recovered old ground in Europe. Other Miocene descendants are living today in warmer parts of the world, where they found refuge during the cold phases of the Pleistocene or remained living in secure habitats. An example is the white rhinoceros Cerathotherium simum from Africa, closely related to the Miocene species C.neumayri from subtropical Greece [9]. Other examples are the raccoon dog Nyctereutes (a native of the Far East) and the tapir Tapirus (south-east Asia and south America). These animals remind me of the currents of evolution that flow through our present day wildlife, and which have their sources in the exotic, warmer world of the late Neogene period of Earth history. As for us, are we not the descendants of Miocene apes?   

A late Miocene scene at Dorn-Dürkheim
This is an artist’s impression of how life and palaeoenvironment may have been during the late Miocene (specifically the Turolian mammal stage). A small tributary of the early Rhine meanders through a rather flat landscape covered with patches of woods and savannah. In the foreground, beavers have dammed the creek creating a small pond that stimulated a group of deinotheres to take a refreshing bath. While two chalicotheres are feeding on leaves and fruits, a group of deer is searching for shelter in the shade of trees. In the middle on the right side, a small herd of hipparions is fleeing, whereas on the far left some mastodonts are crossing a meadow. Above the deinotheres a dwarf tapir is approaching the creek, while on the right side above the hipparions a gathering of carnivores is feeding on a carcass. Painting by Wolfgang Weber. Image courtesy 
Franzen et al. 2013.

A Miocene scene by Mauricio Anton, showing the mastodont Gomphotherium
and the rhino Aceratherium in a Spanish landscape. 
From the book Madrid antes del Hombre 
by Jorge Morales and illustrated by Mauricio Anton (Comunidad De Madrid, 2010). 

I've done some research, and I think my boxstone fossil is an example of Laevicardium decorticatum, an extinct cockle, or more likely Glycimeris obovata ringlei (an extinct clam). It lived and died on the seabed of the North Sea, in a moment of time well beyond human memory, even before the dawn of human awareness. Perhaps the Miocene is a metaphor for an Eden-like world before the mythical Fall of Man. If so, the present Anthropocene epoch is a bitter confirmation of that Fall, as human beings para-consciously consume and abuse ever more of the world's resources. Also, perhaps my boxstone fossil reminds me obscurely of life before the dawn of my own awareness. Hence its numinous power.

Exploring this fossil's world has put me in touch with a continuum of genetic memory streaming through the world of plants and animals from the Miocene into the present. It reminds me of the biodiverse richness of the tropical parts of our planet, now threatened as never before. It reminds me of the tides of change operating on million-year timescales, transforming species and environments but also conserving elements of them. It reminds me of the fragile bubble of my own animal awareness and genetic identity which is floating - for a moment in time - on the surface of the Earth, yet part of an ancient continuum of being. In this I am no different from a mollusc which was alive 5.5 million years ago - or one alive today.

Laevicardium crassum - a living example of the genus.
Photo by Dominique Horst, courtesy DORIS database.


[1] - Balson, P (1990): 'The Trimley Sands': a former marine Neogene deposit from eastern England; Tertiary Research, vol.11.
[2] - Mathers, SJ et al (2007): Geology of the Ipswich District. A brief explanation of the geological map Sheet 207 Ipswich; British Geological Survey, Keyworth.
[3] - Jones, RL and Keen, DH (1993): Pleistocene Environments of the British Isles; Chapman and Hall.
[4] - Boswell, PGH (1928): The Geology of the Country around Woodbridge, Felixstowe and Orford; HMSO.
[5] - Bosselaers, M et al (2004): Geology & Palaeontology of a temporary exposure of the late Miocene Deurne Sand Member in Antwerpen (N. Belgium); Geologica Belgica 7.
[6] - Pound, MJ et al (2012): The palynostratigraphy of the Brassington Formation (Upper Miocene) of the southern Pennines, Central England; Palynology 36.1. See [accessed May 2014].
[7] - Spencer, HEP (1970): The Early Pleistocene. The Crag Epochs and their Mammals; Transactions of the Suffolk Naturalists' Society, vol.15, pt.4.
[8] - Franzen, JL et al (2013): Palaeobiodiversity, palaeoecology, palaeobiogeography and biochronology of Dorn-Dürkheim 1—a summary; Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments, Vol.93, no.2. See
[9] - Agusti, J & Anton, M (2002): Mammoths, Sabertooths and Hominids - 65 million years of mammalian evolution in Europe; Columbia University Press.