Dear diary – another sunny day?

Sometime during the year I lost sight of the schedule. After moving and taking time to draw breath we were sufficiently organised to find a way of moving around the diminishing towers of unpacked boxes and leave for a while; we were set for travelling. All it needed was a modicum of organisation in order that the few fixed points punctuating the calendar dovetailed neatly into any plans that developed. We had to be at the wedding of course – a grand weekend affair at an English country house could not be missed – and I had to vote in the Brexit referendum, which required some time in Cambridge even if I made a postal vote. There was a birthday gathering in Thailand and a short trip to Dubai. Those apart, it looked like there would be plenty of time to fit in some spontaneous peregrination.

It would take just a little planning and a few simple decisions. Simple, that is, until Sweden presented something that we hadn’t accounted for – a long, hot summer. It’s difficult to describe the effect of summer on a nation that lives half the year in dark, cold winter. As soon as the sun peers over the horizon Netflix and jam-making are discarded for al fresco dining in what are still single-digit temperatures; fallen leaves are swept from patios with gusto; excited chatter echoes over garden hedges and the air fills with the aroma of barbecue lighter. In the streets and supermarkets those long Scandinavian shorts appear – the ones with tie-strings, utility buckles and pockets on the knees – and on the beaches people huddle behind windswept dunes while their blond-haired children frolic in the bone-chilling water. But in 2016 it was different. Above average temperatures and long, sunny days made it feel just like the Med and you didn’t need a fleece blanket if you sat out in the evening.

The first cranes arrive over the garden in March and the sun is already shining.
The first cranes arrive over the garden in March and the sun is already shining.
Midnight at Mjörn lake near Gothenburg.
Midnight at Mjörn lake near Gothenburg.

Sweden’s summer can be a hard mistress but she does provide the perfect excuse for fleeing to warmer climes. But as the warm spell lengthened from days to weeks and then months there was little need and no justification in leaving. In fact, those arrangements that we had made were appearing more inconvenient as the year sweltered on and it became galling to leave the hammock. We swam in tepid water until early October and started a re-reading exercise as the summer’s supply of essential books was exhausted. It was too hot on some days to do more than lie in the shade with a cool drink.

I left the blogosphere inside with my tablet and just let the summer sweep me along whilst ensuring, in the interests of tradition, that the legacy of James Pimm was upheld and the fortunes of Tanqueray maintained. And as a measure of catching up, a few posts covering some aspects of my 2016 carbon footprint follow this.

A tree sparrow cooling off while I was doing the same
A tree sparrow cooling off while I was doing the same
Advertisements

Summer’s lease – thank you for the music

Benny Andersson giving his best
Benny Andersson giving his best

Over the years we’ve been to some celebrated concerts at a country house not far from where we live in England; they are held in the park during the summer on the gently sloping lawns above restored Jacobean gardens. It’s a well-tried formula – a good Pinot, picnic snacks, portable camping chairs and umbrellas; sit back, enjoy the music, get a little mellow. Well, that’s the plan but if I’m honest it really only worked out like that for us once. Mostly it has been cold and dull and twice it rained so heavily that we chucked it in, wet through to our underwear, before the concert started.

I’m not the best supporter of summer concerts – if plans are being hatched my preparations centre on the logistics of managing waterproofs, rubber boots and sufficient weather protection to see that drinks remain hot and food dry. Not so Mission Control, who is optimistic to the point of distraction. Her approach involves chilling wine, selecting an appropriate table setting and choosing which open sandals to wear. You’d have thought by now she knew that it always rains at outdoor concerts and as for me, my days of believing that wet feet are a prerequisite of musical appreciation have gone the way of my kipper ties.  

As summer reached its height and it really began to look as if you could plan an outdoor event more than 24 hours in advance the summer open-air concert agenda became a topic of conversation. I was immediately faced with a dilemma. From a point somewhere back in the seventies I have been a fan of Abba although I wouldn’t have admitted that before Mama Mia! took off. The success of the show and movie together with near-universal appreciation of the music has made it more or less acceptable to ‘fess up to a fondness for badly-rhyming lyrics and a chequered sartorial history that included stacked shoes and flared trousers. In Sweden Abba are something more than national icons, perhaps because they seem so normal and, in a manner that is intrinsically Swedish, anti-celebrity. Mission Control exchanged a few words with Björn Ulvaeus as he was loading beer into his car in Stockholm once and another time, in a traffic jam outside the city, Anni-Frid Lynstad was stationary right alongside me and smiled and waved as I recognised her. Such humility, although I secretly wished it had been Agnetha Fältskog. [That’s the blond one.]

Benny Andersson appears these days with a motley band of troubadours known collectively as Benny Andersson’s Orkester – BAO for short – and with them two vocalists; Helen Sjöholm and Tommy Körberg. The music they play is unashamedly popular and appeals to audiences, shall we say, of a mature and genteel disposition. It’s immensely popular – one song stayed in the charts for 278 weeks – but that disguises the fact that he’s a strong advocate for traditional folk music. For several reasons, but mostly because I like that they enjoy playing so much, I’ve been keen to see them for some time but our travel schedule and the brevity of their concert tour in Sweden – they play eight or so concerts a year – have minimised my chances. Added to that, most venues are a long way from where we stay and by the time we hear about a concert all the tickets are long gone. Frustrating, but what could you do? The concerts are in the open air and I’d expect it to rain anyway.

Helen Sjöholm  and accompaniment
Helen Sjöholm and accompaniment
Helen Sjöholm and Tommy Körberg
Helen Sjöholm and Tommy Körberg

And there was my dilemma; BAO were to play an open-air concert just up the road in Helsingborg and the weather was just about guaranteed to be good. No reason not to go, really – aside from the fact that it had been sold out for nine months. Would I rethink my aversion to open-air concerts, Mission Control asked?

I can’t recall if I did agree to soften my attitude but, a few days later and in blazing sunshine, I was at the VIP guest entrance at Sofiero Slott, chairs under one arm, a chilled Orvieto and an excellent picnic under the other. Quite how Mission Control managed to place us just below the stage and ahead of a few thousand people, some of whom had been queuing all day with tickets they had purchased months before, is a secret I’m asked not to divulge but there we were and there was Benny. Doing what he does best and smiling for the camera.

A bucket-list box ticked and how about that – it didn’t rain.

Summer’s lease – what a state we’re in

Red kite inspecting us
Red kite inspecting us
Golden eagles over the garden
Golden eagles over the garden

I felt the first icy grip of winter this week as I was wandering along the River Blackwater. Although it was bright and clear the temperature resolutely refused to move into double figures and I found myself reflecting on the warm, sunny days that 2013’s record-breaking summer eventually brought us. I’ve been walking the coastal marshes since I was a boy and, for me, they evoke the very essence of winter. The skies, big over the maze of winding channels and muted colours, were filled with hundreds of Brent Geese and golden plover; ducks and godwits; avocets; egrets and huge flocks of waders, panicked into a cacophony of whirring wings and alarm calls by a peregrine falcon. As background, robins and Cetti’s warblers sang in the shrubs behind the sea wall. Put simply, it was a spectacular experience.

The Essex coast doesn’t feel very different from when I first experienced it – a little more developed, a few more people, less wild perhaps – but essentially much the same. Change, though, is inexorable and often only noticed when we pause and take stock. Experiencing the sight and sound of those thousands of wintering birds was exhilarating but were there as many golden plover or redshank that held me in awe on my first visit there? Were the dunlin or geese as numerous?

In Sweden we’re privileged in living above a valley where golden eagles nest so it’s not unusual to see them – frequently with red kites – wheeling in languorous circles high over the garden. Last year a decision was taken to reduce disturbance in the valley and a project to reinvigorate the disused railway was abandoned, allowing the start of improvements to the landscape that reversed unsympathetic drainage in the grazing meadows. It was a bonus for an area that already has a rich ecology. The environment gets a very fair shout in Sweden, perhaps because it has the fourth lowest density of population in Europe or perhaps because there is less pressure on the land than in England. Whatever the reason, we’re used to big birds of prey in the sky and the thought that they might not be there one day doesn’t register as a possibility.     

Not so in the UK, where my summer was disrupted in late May by the publication of a report called The State of Nature. It’s a sobering document and requires a philosophical frame of mind – or a large Scotch – to read. It comprises collected overviews of twenty-five British conservation bodies that together provide an outline of the changing status of habitat and species in the United Kingdom and its Overseas Territories. It reports on the dire status of some species and highlights some of the successes that conservation can achieve. The headline conclusion, though, is that the UK’s wildlife has suffered a serious decline and is continuing to do so at a very alarming rate.

Egrets on the Blackwater
Egrets on the Blackwater
Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater
Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater

Reading the report raises conflicting emotions; on one hand the loss of habitat and once-familiar animals and birds is depressing whereas on the other, the gains are uplifting. Targeted conservation meant that a wintering flock of around fifty avocets graced the Blackwater margins, a bird that was once extinct as a UK breeding species. In sharp contrast, the losses of recent years are widespread and extensive – butterflies down by 72%, 40 million birds lost and 80% of lowland heath gone or degraded. The statistics paint a very disheartening picture. I rarely see House Sparrows these days yet they were ubiquitous when I was younger; recently, hedgehogs have declined by nearly 50% and could become extinct in some areas of the UK. The story is similar across a broad spectrum and one fears for less iconic species of plant or insect that lack popular appeal.

The State of Nature is upbeat and provides scope for optimism but it left me with a feeling of how little individuals can do in the face of such massive and apparently continuous loss. Anything, of course, is always better than nothing even if an individual contribution appears as insignificant as signing a petition or joining a conservation organisation.

Only this month and after fifteen years’ management of a site that contributed toward maintaining a viable population of Cirl Buntings in southern England the area has been deliberately degraded at the behest of the local NHS Trust so as to facilitate a housing development. I’m aghast that it can happen – you can read about it here – and yet not entirely surprised when considering the attitude adopted by a weak and unprincipled government that acts in a manner suggesting it is both in hock to business and detached from the long-term implications of its own ineptitude. A report from Wildlife and Countryside Link – *Nature Check 2013 – has looked at how the government is matching up to its promise to be the ‘greenest government ever’, as set out in the Prime Minister’s speech in May 2010. If you’ve caught my drift thus far you’ll know what conclusions are drawn.Red Kite, Golden Eagle, 

Next summer – when I hope it’ll be just as sunny – I’ll be checking the sky in Sweden to see how many young eagles fledge in our valley; in England I anticipate that I’ll be writing another rant as yet another misguided example of the government’s expediency comes to light. 

*Read a synopsis of the report in the Huffington Post here or read the full report here.

Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013's record breaking summer
Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013’s record breaking summer
Brown hare enjoys the sunshine
Brown hare enjoys the sunshine

 

Summer in southern Sweden

It’s not cool these days to express joy in some of the simple things in life; meadows full of wild flowers, the scent of a pine forest on a warm, still day or a bird of prey soaring overhead. Our lives, individually and collectively, are poorer for it and so too, I suspect, is our literature. It seems to me that we are so preoccupied with navel-gazing, so careful to pursue the course that fashionable consumerism sets out for us that a lot of the richness that’s provided for free passes us by. 

I like being in southern Sweden a lot but haven’t had time to just sit back and enjoy it at its own pace until this year. This is a place of countryside and a place of nature. Sweden’s a big place with a small population – around nine million over about 174000 square miles and most of them in the three main cities. Compare that to the UK, where just over 61 million are crammed into a seemingly tiny 94500 square miles. What you get here is space. If you get off the beaten track you really are on your own so if nature and all things natural captivate and seduce you, like they do me, then the past few weeks of summer here have been something special. It’s been a time of long cycle rides and walks through the forest; local strawberries, chilled Orvieto in the shade and dinners at Kåseberga on the coast with friends. But, mostly, it’s been a time of wildlife. 

Kaseberga Harbour

 

We had a long, cold winter – so miserable that I fled to balmier climes after week upon week of deep snow and very, very sub-zero temperatures. But following-on from a cold spring we have been enjoying hot, sunny days with temperatures frequently in the high 20s centigrade and sometimes above 32. The late onset of warmer weather held back spring so this period has been a condensed experience, with a fresh green landscape set against the long days that are the hallmark of midsummer. 

The ground falls away beyond the fence at the end of the garden here and drops into Fyledalen, a huge area of mixed woodland, rough grazing and valley slopes. So we’re a real and close part of the nature that surrounds us. As I write this three or four young Long-eared Owls are calling into the night, one of two broods that we have in the village this year. A dog Fox was just barking and there are Hedgehogs on the lawn. It’s truly dark only for about four hours a night so evening and dusk last for several hours. Earlier, as twilight hung on an early migrant Northern Harrier made its way lazily south-west while we watched Hobbies hawking for beetles over the apple trees at the end of the road. Thrush Nightingales were still providing an occasional burst of song and tonight two rivals were competing from opposite ends of a small plantation. Two Woodcock were still ‘roding’ around their territories. 

 

During the day Common Redstarts have been feeding their young in the garden but the two pairs of Pied Flycatchers have moved away from the boxes and only visit now as occasional individuals. Coffee on the deck last week was interrupted by an immature Icterine Warbler in the adjacent hedge and a Lesser-spotted Woodpecker in the Oak Tree. 

It’s hard to avoid so much activity and, if you don’t go looking for it – as we did for young Tawny Owls in the valley a few evenings ago, when we counted 22 – it comes to you; standing quietly in the garden at dusk this week a young Badger shuffled all the way over to me to check if my sneakers were edible. Out in Fyledalen Fallow Deer are calving and Roe Deer are seen with new kids. The Wild Boar start farrowing in May so we’ve already seen the spotted piglets running at the feet of the adult animals. Golden Eagles nest in the valley and, although we see them frequently, we’re always amazed at how easily such a huge bird can remain out of sight. White-tailed Eagles are also breeding on an island in a nearby lake. Common and Honey Buzzards are often in the sky and the Red Kites are ubiquitous. We’ll have hundreds of Cranes overhead when the migration really gets underway but were thrilled to have the first one over the garden this week, circling high in a clear sky and trumpeting loudly. 

Add to all this a huge variety of butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies [and a few things that bite you] as well as wildflowers in the woodland and valley and it becomes a multifarious experience. As I wrote at the start of this, it’s a joy and a simple pleasure that is easy to overlook in the race to be cool or famous. 

A busy life can get in the way of enjoying simple pleasures and, like most people I guess, pursuing a hectic career has tended to take precedent for me. I’m not certain, however, that I ever lost sight of my appreciation of what I wanted to get out of it all as I shouldered my way on and off the 7.34 to Liverpool Street. Life today sometimes seems to have the wrong complexion and clearly puts massive demands on people’s time. It seems to me though that many of the values held as important are both shallow and superficial, measured as they are in degrees of fame or acquisition.   

It’s hard to find either the space or the variety in nature in the UK and one almost certainly has to travel to a protected area to find it. Here it’s still abundant and all around us and it’s been a joy to experience.