In an age when nature is constantly being pushed to the fringes – by housing, farming, infrastructure developments and by our own busy, urban-centric lives – encounters with wildlife are increasingly rare and increasingly precious. Vivienne Crow, author of Walking in Cumbria’s Eden Valley, recalls some special wildlife moments in this quiet corner of northern England.
Some of my most cherished walking memories involve unexpected encounters with wildlife – and the more elusive the critters the better. Gazing down on a pod of orcas from an Orkney cliff-top, being dive-bombed by great skuas on Unst, watching a golden eagle bounce along the ground beside the bus on which I’m travelling on Harris – these are all images that will stay with me forever. But I don’t have to travel to remote Scottish islands to see wildlife; there are a surprisingly large number of species right here on my doorstep.
My home is in Carlisle in north Cumbria, just a 10-minute walk from the banks of the River Eden. For 75 wonderful miles this river meanders through varied terrain, from its source high up on the wild moorlands of the North Pennines to the open spaces of the immense Solway marshes on the Scottish border. It is fed by tributaries that rise on the flanks of Helvellyn and Skiddaw, on the limestone grasslands of the Orton Fells and on Cross Fell, the highest summit in the Pennine chain. It’s no wonder then that the Eden and its catchment provide habitats for a range of wildlife.
Flocking to the Solway
I’ve seen kingfishers in Carlisle city centre, starling murmurations while driving on the M6 near junction 44 (very distracting!) and large flocks of lapwings beside the A6 on the way to Penrith. One of my favourite sounds when I switch off my bedside lamp is the happy honking of geese on their surprisingly late night-time flights.
Every autumn the entire population of barnacle geese from the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean – tens of thousands of them – descends on the salt marshes of the Solway Firth.
Thousands of other swans, ducks and geese also take advantage of the relatively mild Solway winters, as do snow bunting, twite and glaucous and Iceland gulls. The Solway is also a major migration route for seabirds such as the pomarine skua in the spring, and shearwaters and storm petrels in late summer.
Another evocative sound is the call of waders as they return to the hills in the spring. When I hear the unmistakable, bubbling trill of the curlew in Geltsdale in the North Pennines, I sense the promise of longer days ahead. The desire to shed winter layers and welcome the warmth of the sun on bare skin becomes almost irresistible. As these long-legged birds head inland, having spent the winter poking around on coastal mudflats with their long, distinctively curved bills, I know spring has arrived. Their calls are accompanied by the ‘bleating’ of the male snipe; the high-pitched, melodious piping of the redshank; and the evocative ‘pee-wit’ of the lapwing. (I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m always reminded of 1980s arcade games when I hear lapwings!) The most haunting of all is the melancholy ‘tweeping’ of golden plovers, an increasingly rare sound on the hills of northern England.
Brink of extinction
Rarer still is the sight of hen harriers, although I’ve been lucky enough to see three in my lifetime – all within the Eden catchment. The first was a male – a huge, pale-grey apparition drifting low over the moorland above Pooley Bridge. The second encounter was just a few weeks ago when I took my sister and her husband, visiting from Surrey, on a walk up Talkin Fell and on to the heathery top of Simmerson Hill in Geltsdale. ‘I think that was a hen harrier,’ I say, pointing but a little unsure of exactly what I’d just seen disappearing over the brow of a hill. ‘Is that unusual?’ Sue asks. I tell her that it’s one of the UK’s most endangered species and explain about attempts to protect it from predatory gamekeepers on the driven grouse moors of England and Scotland. I’m half-way through my proselytising lecture when the bird reappears with its mate. ‘There!’ I whisper. I’m sure this time – the second bird is grey with black wing-tips, unmistakably a male hen harrier.
I’d love, one day, to witness the hen harriers’ courtship ritual – a twisting, swooping, diving aerobatic display that gives the bird its nickname, skydancer. But, with only three successful hen harrier nests recorded in the whole of England in 2017, the chances are unlikely. I’ll keep heading out with my binoculars in the spring, though… I might also, one day, catch a glimpse of another impressive courtship ritual – the black grouse lek. In this flamboyant dance, males, also known as ‘blackcocks’, spread their tail feathers – showing off their magnificent glossy black plumage – extend their wings and inflate the distinctive red ‘combs’ above each eye. They crouch, circle the ground and occasionally square up to each other in a bid to dominate the site and impress females on the look-out for a suitable mate. It’s another display that has so far eluded me, despite sleepy dawn visits to black grouse territory in Geltsdale.
Fools on the hill
An unusual sighting one spring morning a few years ago was a group of four dotterel on the summit of Cross Fell. The roof of the Pennines is a special place, known for its unusual habitats and exceptional conditions. Arctic-alpine plants, such as the spring gentian, colonised the area after the last glacial period and have survived ever since. It was just after dawn when my partner Heleyne and I crossed the broad, open summit area. The labouring sun was slowly winning its battle to pierce the haze, creating a golden mistiness across the cool fell-tops. The birds, probably on their way to their summer breeding grounds in the Cairngorms, seemed oblivious to our presence as they picked at the ground, searching for breakfast. Their scientific name, Charadrius morinellus, comes, in part, from this trusting attitude towards humans – morinellus deriving from the ancient Greek word ‘moros’, meaning ‘fool’.
Just occasionally, walks in the Eden Valley take on a Disney-like quality with creatures jumping out at you left, right and centre.
I remember, in particular, a leisurely early evening stroll along Hoff Beck with Heleyne and our terrier Jess while I was working on the second edition of my Cicerone guide Walking in Cumbria’s Eden Valley. I wouldn’t normally expect to see much wildlife with Jess in tow but, as we headed out across the farmland, countless hares erupted from the fields. (Hares have been my constant companions while exploring the lower ground of the Eden Valley over the years; their silent, graceful manoeuvres always stopping me in my tracks.) Later, as we sat beside the water close to the spectacular Rutter Force, we spotted a red squirrel scampering along a branch on the other side of the beck. Then a kingfisher appeared, just a hundred yards or so upstream of where we’d seen the squirrel. A little later, it was the turn of a roe deer. I almost expected Snow White to put in appearance, too.
But my favourite local wildlife encounter was about 10 years ago when I’d set off from home, just before first light, to walk the River Eden from Carlisle to Rockcliffe about eight miles away. (This was in the days before the bus service between the two had been axed; I was aiming to reach Rockcliffe in time for the lunchtime bus back.)
The day dawned crisp and frosty, and there was a low, steam-like mist hanging over the River Eden. As I drew level with Grinsdale a couple of miles downstream, I heard something splashing about in the water below. I assumed it was some large salmon close to the surface. Later on, as I passed Beaumont, I heard the noise again. With the mist having burned off by now, I stood and watched the water. Then I stood some more. And some more. Finally, my patience paid off and the mystery was solved. An otter broke the surface, its sleek body clearly visible just a few feet away from me. It disappeared under the water and then came up again, even closer this time. Having been driven to the brink of extinction during the second half of the 20th century, these shy mammals are making a dramatic comeback on Cumbria's rivers, partly thanks to the banning of the poisonous pesticide dieldrin in 1989. I was spellbound. This was the first time I’d seen an otter in the wild in England – Scottish islands, yes, but never England – and I was surprised to see one so close to the city. We live in a world dominated by the urban environment, so it’s easy to forget that, even in the 21st century, the natural world can still sometimes be just around the corner – maybe only a walk away…