The peak time for wildlife!

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By the time July ends, summer is full-blown. The trees are as full of mature leaves as they can be, grasses are producing seedheads, wildflowers too, growth is lush, insects plentiful and birds and animals often still looking after their broods, or indeed, in the case of many birds, raising their second families. At this time of year, I feel everything is at its peak.

I mentioned in the last diary that the mild winter that preceded the lovely March weather was very good for barn owls. With no deep snow cover for long periods of time or prolonged spells of heavy rain, many more survived through to spring and some of the sites that had been empty the previous two years had been re-colonised. It also seems to be a good year for voles. Having checked some more barn owl sites, I can confirm that many have been successful. Another mild winter would really help the population to recover. We can but hope.

My younger son is working in England at the moment, in the countryside around the Skegness area and while he is working, he is seeing lots of barn owls hunting in daytime. I am so jealous, as sadly, that does not happen very often up here in the North East - our birds are very nocturnal - which is why people are surprised when I tell them that we have quite a good population. My son phoned me last week to tell me that he had spent a long time one evening watching a young bird trying to catch something in the grass. He said that it was not having much luck, coming up empty-handed every time.

At times, just standing still in one spot and having a close look around you can make you much more aware of how rich and diverse the countryside is. I was standing beside a low drystane dyke on the banks of a loch recently, having a short break from a long car journey. As I stood there, I started to look at the plants growing between the dyke and the loch side. It was a dense tangle of growth, thick and intertwined, all the plants fighting for space and light. Shrubs like dog rose, were wrapped around with bindweed, sporting its glorious, virgin white trumpet flowers, cleavers, or goosegrass, sticking to everything, brambles, tough and thorny with surprisingly delicate blossom and richly scented honeysuckle, all clambering over one another.

Tall spikes of blossom speared up from the mass of foliage; magenta pink foxgloves; spiny thistles; towering willowherb. Among them was the very pretty, but invasive non-native Himalayan balsam, a pink flower with a large “chamber” into which bumblebees fit perfectly. I have some in my garden (once you have it, it is difficult to get rid of as the seed capsules explode with quite a crack when touched, sending seeds a good distance in all directions). The bees love it, so I let mine flower, but pull them up before the seed heads form, leaving only a couple to spread seeds for the following year. In the wild, they are starting to dominate large swathes of bank and become a problem, squeezing out native species.

Returning to the tangle in front of me, the lower stories were a matt of yellow hawkweed (like a simpler formed dandelion on a long stalk), red valerian, yellow ragwort, cow parsley, frothy meadowsweet, yarrow and many grass species. It was a veritable mini jungle. It was also alive with insects; orange soldier beetles on the cow parsley; leafhoppers on the grasses; hoverflies on the flat heads of the yarrow; bumblebees droning away inside foxglove flowers; spiders webs slung between the plants and one huge garden spider sitting fat and fierce in the centre of a large web strung between two dog rose bushes; midges (of course) and flies. On a nearby bush a male blackcap, subtly beautiful with his mole-black crown, was flitting around, no doubt helping himself to some of this insectivorous feast.

On the way to Aboyne one day last week, I had to take avoiding action twice on the road. The first time was to allow a very disorientated and panicking male roe deer racing down the road in front of me, to get his act together enough to find a gap in the roadside hedge and leap effortlessly and elegantly over the fence and then bound off across the field and into some nearby trees. What this unscheduled stop allowed me to do was to have a really good look at him and to admire his beauty. Roe deer are at their most beautiful in summer, with rich russet coats and he had a set of velvet covered antlers, giving him a much gentler look then later on in the year when they will be hard and spiky.

The second swerve (luckily it was on a quiet part of one of the backroads), was when a small badger shot out from the verge right across in front of me. It was one of this year’s cubs by the look of it and it came close to not making a second year. It vanished through a gate, no doubt with its heart pounding. About quarter of a mile further down the road, I came across the sad sight of another cub about the same age, and I suspect from the same sett, lying dead at the side of the road.

At this time of year, with many young birds and animals around, it pays to be a bit more aware and cautious when driving around. Sometimes, I know that hitting a creature is unavoidable, the roadside verges are long and overgrown and so you often do not see them until they dash out, but if we are all a bit more vigilant and slow our pace a little, perhaps we can save some of them. Plus, at a gentler pace you get to enjoy the countryside without it whizzing past so fast.