The mark of the wolf

For me the fascination with the weird and the uncanny was there from the start: on a family holiday to Wales, aged four, asking the tour guide in Caernarfon Castle whether we might see the place’s spectral lady; a few years later, obsessing over Borley Rectory – the ‘most haunted house in the world’ – or, at the Halloween party I begged my mother to let me have (long before such events were a commonplace British occurrence), my friends and I dressed as Dracula, the Wolf Man and various grinning ghouls. My favourites back then, which called out to me from my spine-creased Usborne Guide to the Supernatural World, were vampires and lycanthropes; the popular late 1970s children’s book even showed a “typical magical werewolf ritual” which involved rubbing a transformative ointment of wolfsbane, opium, bat blood and the blood of a murdered child into your chest at, of course, midnight.

I was hooked; I was definitely for the dark.

My Halloween party, c. 1981. I'm dressed as Dracula...

My Halloween party, c. 1981. I’m Dracula… (Copyright: Edward Parnell)

As I grew older that lurid childhood book was superseded by the black-and-white filmic horror of Lon Chaney Jr. in the purportedly Welsh-set The Wolf Man (sneakily recorded off late-night telly), before aged around ten I managed to persuade my older cousin to hire me a copy of An American Werewolf in London from the local video shop; I doubt I appreciated its inherent humour, but was hypnotised and terrified in equal measure by its Nazi zombies and jaw-stretching transformations from man to beast. A few years later, now a teenager, for a while I decided I’d outgrown such imaginary scares – perhaps there was enough real horror in my mum’s repeated trips to the hospital for chemo and radiotherapy? The countryside and its wildlife, particularly birds, offered a new obsession to pursue, though what M. R. James might refer to as those “pleasing terrors” never went too far away.

1981 poster for 'An American Werewolf in London'

I grew to love moors and mountains, a landscape so different to my own south Lincolnshire flatlands, and loved the stories and folklore that seemed to cling like mist to the hills we visited on childhood holidays to Dartmoor and the Lake District. An early holiday to Wales had taken in the haunting Gelert’s Grave, traumatising me with its folk tale of a wrongfully killed, faithful wolf-slaying hound. Later, I fixated on stories of Britain’s actual lupine past, but it wasn’t until I was eighteen that I first came to the Scottish Highlands, their reputed last redoubt. That strange imaginative hold of the wolf over our collective consciousness has been an enduring one, reflected in the wealth of falsehoods that persisted long after the species had been hunted and hounded to the dark edges of the British map.

A wolf on the prowl. Etching after P. Potter, 1659.

A wolf on the prowl. Etching after P. Potter, 1659. Credit: Wellcome Collection

There seems little certainty about when wolves became extinct on our island, though Anglo-Saxon place names that refer to them are relatively commonplace, indicating the species was widespread (or at least recently had been) during that period; this is backed up by the considerable numbers of successfully hunted animals recorded as late as the second-half of the tenth century. The increasing penchant of the monarch and the ruling class for the pursuit of deer – and the creation of royal forests and enclosed parks – led to an escalation of anti-wolf efforts after the arrival of the Normans. In 1281 Edward I commissioned Peter Corbet, a Shropshire knight, to bring out about their final extermination from England – a feat he is said to achieved nine years later; by this point wolves had likely long-vanished from Wales. Canis lupus lingered on north of Hadrian’s Wall, with a 1427 law passed during the reign of James I of Scotland making wolf-killing a compulsory activity. This did not lead to a nine-year removal like the purported extirpation south of the border, as Mary, Queen of Scots was still enjoying the hunting of wolves in the Forest of Atholl during 1563. However, the intensive woodland exploitation of the period would have meant that any remnant populations clinging to Caledonian survival must surely have been approaching their end by the time of Mary’s own execution in 1587.

Like the story of the legendary Gelert, a number of tales of dubious provenance were gathered during the nineteenth century surrounding the fate of the supposed sole remaining Scottish wolf, all of which possess an unreliable pedigree (the nature writer Jim Crumley catalogues these stories in The Last Wolf). Just off the A9 in Perthshire, outside the town of Pitlochry, is the Pass of Killiecrankie, a narrow gorge enfolded in mixed woodland where, in 1689, a decisive battle occurred during the Jacobite Rebellion; nine years before, in 1680, Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel (who would go on to be a commander on the battle’s winning Jacobite side) was said to have shot what, at the time, was considered the last wolf to be killed in Scotland. On the early Spring day on which I stopped off at the Pass while researching Ghostland it was hard to imagine any such creature lingering for long among the steep-sided slopes: the airy green woods were far removed from the bleak wilderness vistas in which my imagination had come to place the species.

One-hundred-and-fifty miles to the north along the same meandering A9 – at Helmsdale, halfway between Inverness and John O’Groats – stands a carved stone that marks the spot near which “the last wolf in Sutherland was killed by the hunter Polson, in or about the year 1700”. In fact, William Scrope’s Art of Deerstalking gives us the rather-less romantic account of the “feeble howling of the whelps” and subsequent killing of five or six wolf cubs, before the desperate, but ultimately futile intervention of their fearsome, full-grown mother.

No such monument exists near Strath Glass, northeast of Loch Ness, where in 1720 a woman supposedly defeated a wolf with an iron griddle pan, nor is there any commemorative marker along the lonely middle stretch of the River Findhorn, thirteen miles east of Inverness. Here, in 1743, a six-foot seven-inch giant of a man named MacQueen – who in my imagination appears like Christopher Lambert’s Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod from the film Highlander – slayed, according to Victorian accounts composed a century later, a huge black beast: absolutely the last of its kind left in the land.

I retraced the mythic-seeming MacQueen’s steps on my trip north, putting up with the driving rain that soaked through my inadequate trousers for a glimpse of the landscape in which the fabled carnivore lived out its final days. The Findhorn curved below me like a scythe, the winter-bleached grass on the hillsides punctuated by ribbons of brown heather and the occasional leafless birch. A blackened, freshly charred area of burnt-off moor filled the air with a distinctive aroma not dissimilar to that of cooking sugar beet – a smell familiar from my Fenland youth and the four giant silos of the steam-emitting factory that rose over my hometown until their demolition in 1996. Though big-skied and vast, the lonely country all about me was managed and tamed, I realised, with the distant house perched on the bluff above the bend in the river, close to where the infamous deed was said to have been done, now a base from where less-mythic modern-day MacQueens head out with their shotguns to pursue tame, farm-reared pheasants and red-legged partridges, or flick their expensive fly rods to and fro for salmon.

The bend in the River Findhorn close to where the last wolf in Britain is said to have been slain. Copyright: Edward Parnell

The bend in the River Findhorn close to where the last wolf in Britain is said to have been slain. Copyright: Edward Parnell

As I descended to my car, tentatively crossing a shallow tributary by stepping on its slippery stones – for a second once again the excited little boy of those earlier upland holidays – three songbirds flew in front of me and perched low, half-obscured, in a birch: two taupe-coloured females and a coral-red male bullfinch that sat in silence while I watched them, before taking off in a flash of white and whispered whistles. Despite its long absence from the landscape the wolf will, I think, continue to persist as a powerful icon of our folk tales and supernatural fables, because it reminds us of the ultimate dominion of nature and time, of our fragility away from the safety of our ring-fenced human enclaves: we each know too well that there will be no hiding in our houses of straw – or even in slate-roofed, stone-walled cottages – once the Grim Reaper’s dry breath begins to blow our way.

 

(This is an adaptation of an article I wrote for a feature that appeared in The Scotsman on 31 October 2019.)

Waved Black: a rare Norfolk moth

Waved Black

Waved Black, Wymondham, 12 August 2015 (Photo: E. Parnell)

I started using a moth trap last June – a simple harmless light positioned above a wooden box, which attracts moths at night and then holds them until I check the box the following morning. Since then, with only occasional use, I’ve caught more than 150 species of the larger macromoths, as well as almost 50 of the trickier-to-identify micromoths. The undoubted highlight in terms of rarity though has been a small, dark moth: the Waved Black.

I first caught one of these black and yellow moths on 12 August 2015. Initially, I assumed it must be something common that I was unfamiliar with (most species at that point, and probably still now!), but searching through my field guide it took me ages to find this rather butterfly-like creature. There it was though, Waved Black (Parascotia fuliginaria). Looking it up on the excellent Norfolk Moths website, I was surprised to note that at that point there had only been around 25 records in Norfolk of this species, which is largely confined to an area around London, Essex and the Home Counties, with an outlying population around the Severn Estuary.

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12 July 2016 (Photo: E. Parnell)

Fast forward to July 2016, when I noticed another little black moth resting in the back of my trap while emptying the catch from the evening of the 12th; this time I knew instantly what it was. Two night later on the 14 July, I caught another slightly differently marked individual and received my first moth ‘twitchers’, as various other Norfolk moth-ers (‘moth-ers’, not ‘mothers’!), including James Lowen (visit his excellent wildlife blog), came to take a look.

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Waved Black, Wymondham, 4 August 2016 (Photo: E. Parnell)

Finally, on 4 August, I caught another individual, attracting another wave of visitors to look at this scarce little moth. The fact that the species has occurred two years running in my garden suggests that these aren’t migrants, but part of a small population probably occurring in the sallows/wet woodland that border my garden. Incredibly, the area seems to be the Norfolk hotspot for the species! Hopefully, however, having now made that bold claim, the August individual won’t turn out to be the last garden record that I have…

Kingdom of moths

I’ve been catching moths in my garden (using a harmless light trap) for almost a month now, and in that short space of time I’ve already managed to identify more than 50 different species. I’ll write more extensively on this in future, but for now here’s a short selection of images.

Privet hawkmoth

Privet hawkmoth, caught on the evening of Sat 4 July. One of the largest of our resident moths, with an incredible 8cm wingspan.

Burnished Brass.

Burnished Brass. An incredible-looking moth with a glorious metallic/mother-of-pearl sheen to its wings.

Beautiful Hook-tip

Beautiful Hook-tip. A very attractively shaped moth. I’ve only caught the one to date.

Buff-tip

Buff-tip. One of the commonest moths in my garden at the moment, but certainly one of my favourites with their amazing birch-twig mimicry.

I’m recording all of my sightings onto the excellent Norfolk Moths website, so hopefully the data will also prove useful in showing some of the hidden biodiversity in this corner of South Norfolk.

Elephant Hawkmoth

Elephant Hawkmoth. Just one so far in the garden of this common, lilac-tinged giant.

A spring 2013 visit to Upton Broad

NWT Upton Broad and MarshesAlways when I have visited Upton before it has been the height of summer and the place has been alive with insects: dragonflies and damselflies quartering the dykes, and butterflies skitting low over the nettles that blanket the woodland floor. This evening, one of the last of April, I would have expected summer to have almost arrived, but the strange, stunted spring has put paid to that. Nature is a couple of weeks in arrears, and despite a false promise of things to come a day ago, the wind gnaws at me as I get out of my car. Even so, I am excited at the prospect of walking around one of my favourite Norfolk nature reserves at an unfamiliar season; from the look of the empty car park, it seems I will have the place to myself.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Upton Broad and Marshes is located between the villages of South Walsham and Upton, two miles northwest of Acle. Covering over 300 hectares, it’s a sizeable reserve, comprising a mosaic of different habitats: open water, reedbed, wet woodland, grazing marsh, and the exotic-sounding quaking bog. As well as its wealth of dragonflies, Upton is also famed for its plants, including being one of the few sites in the country where the exquisite fen orchid can be found. The site forms the heart of NWT’s Bure Valley Living Landscape, which aims to connect together parcels of important wildlife habitat into an impressive whole: already, the Trust has made several purchases of neighbouring land, and evidence of conservation improvements and management work are plentiful around the reserve.

NWT Upton Broad and MarshesFrom the car park, I head along a woodland trail. It’s quiet, apart from the wind, but now a chiffchaff – one of the most pioneering of summer migrants – pipes out its staccato song from somewhere unseen. I come to an open area where the reeds have been cut to encourage new growth, and admire a display of daffodils which bring a vibrancy to the early-evening greyness. Despite the breeze, it is an oddly tranquil scene, with the woods that border the clearing soaking up any stray background noise. I press on, along the side of a dyke. The water it holds is black, with a thick film of bubbles and scum floating on top, a reminder of all the nutrients and life below. When I approach more closely, an army of pond skaters whizz away across the oily surface. I carry on, the ground spongy, but firm underfoot; no need to worry about the quaking bog, a sign assures me, so long as I stick to the path.

Reeds at Upton MarshesA great spotted woodpecker passes overhead, drawing my attention with its sharp call, and a wren scolds at me from among a stand of stark ash trees. Now I come to a boardwalk and the wood opens out. Large towers of exotic sedge jut up like termite mounds, and I stop to examine a semi-rotted birch stump covered with strange, sculptural fungi. The sun has emerged from behind the clouds, and although the breeze is no less severe, the newly arrived brightness makes the scene different again: the green shoots look verdant, and spring really does appear to be on its way. A blackbird begins to sing and a rival replies, not wishing to be outdone. Abruptly, I am into a sea of reeds, one lone birch ahead standing guard in the middle of the path. I stop, to try and take in the tranquillity, but am shocked by a commotion from just off the path. A brown shape crashes away into the reeds and I know it can only be one thing: a dog-like Chinese water deer, an introduction from the Orient that now flourishes in East Anglia.

As I carry on around the circular trail there are lots of signs of the hard work that goes into maintaining such an important jigsaw of habitats – pyramids of cut reed-straw cleared from paths and rides exposing the new growth below, shovelfuls of peaty soil dug from half-blocked channels, and piles of logs where willows and birches have been chopped back to stop the unceasing progression towards scrub and carr which, otherwise, would continue unabated.

Grazing marshes at Upton BroadI reach the grazing marsh, which looks resplendent in the late sunshine. The cattle glow orange-brown as they make their way, in unison, to wherever they are headed. Another deer gets up from among the juncus, disappearing into the distance like a frightened hare. I count five windmills on the horizon, reminders of the landscape’s human history: Clippesby, Oby, Upton, St Benet’s and Thurne Mills. From the reeds comes a loud rattling churring and I scan with my binoculars to find the culprit, who eventually pops into view – a sedge warbler, another long-distance summer visitor. In a few weeks, this reedbed will be alive with these smart, striped songbirds, as well as their plainer relative, the reed warbler.

Since my last visit new water-filled scrapes have been cut out among the reeds, and over on the marshes. Two lapwings spiral and dive above them, making the peewit calls that give them their local name – an odd, evocative noise unlike anything else. In the distance I can make out a lone little egret, pure white against the darkness of the land, and the V-winged silhouette of a marsh harrier strains the edge of my sight.

Chinese Water Deer at NWT Upton Broad and Marshes

Chinese Water Deer at NWT Upton Broad and Marshes

Returning through the other side of the wood, more life stirs. Pale yellow primroses paint the floor below feathery willow catkins. Stock doves cough out deep hooting calls as big flocks of woodpigeons scatter from the treetops, and two new summer migrants join the evening chorus: the bubbling chatter of a blackcap and the down-slurring song of a willow warbler. Almost back to where I began, I pass alongside another reed-fringed dyke and disturb one last water deer. This one though is braver, peering at me through a curtain of brittle stems, so close I can make out its distinctive facial pattern. I swear its down-turned mouth is scowling at me.

As I reach my car the light is slipping away fast, but there is still time to look up at the source of a twittering call: my first swallow of the summer.

[A version of this article first appeared in the Eastern Daily Press on 11/5/13]