The Red Squirrels of Snaizeholme

red squirrelred squirrelAs soon as we park at Mirk Pot Farm, Snaizeholme, we get a view of a red squirrel which has been attracted to the bird feeders. When it has finished, it scampers past, paying no attention to us, heading for a corner of the plantation.

Walking towards the viewing area down through the conifer plantation, we pause to watch a second squirrel which is sitting in the fork of a conifer nibbling a pine cone as if it were a corn on the cob.

squirrelThis squirrel not only runs towards us but circles around us a couple of times. I’m using my telephoto lens and I’ve got my camera attached to a walking pole which doubles as a monopod, so I struggle to focus on the squirrel as it pauses for a few seconds just a few feet away from me. 

Two or three red squirrels are active around the feeder at the viewing area, but none comes quite as close to us as the first two squirrels that we saw.

It’s hard to believe that when Hugh and Jane Kemp arrived at Mirk Pot Farm in 1966, Snaizeholme was a bare hillside. red squirrelThey initially planted conifers but encouraged the regrowth of native trees, such as rowan, birch, blackthorn and oak, by fencing off the area from grazing sheep. Red squirrels started to arrive in 1997.

Red squirrels are capable of thriving in isolated conifer woods like this but as the woodlands of the Yorkshire Dales start to return to their natural state with more deciduous trees, would the red squirrels be able to hold their own if greys started to move in?

Young rabbit at
Young rabbit at West Field, Snaizeholme
Chaffinch, coal tit and pheasant.
Chaffinch, coal tit and pheasant.

We see lots of coal tits – probably the most numerous bird in the plantation – and the inevitable chaffinches near the feeding station and also a great spotted woodpecker in the top of a dead tree. When we return to the car park a goldcrest is hopping about feeding on the branches of a willow by the bird feeders.

goldcrestIt’s so quick that I realise that I’d be better if my camera could take a burst of multiple exposures (if it can, it’s not given as an option in the manual) because the instant that I press the shutter button, it moves. In fact it is probably never entirely motionless during the time that we’re watching it.

Dales Centre

Gayle BeckI’ve been concentrating on photography and trying to keep up with my written notes during our stay here but after lunch at the Firebox cafe at the Dales Countryside Museum at Hawes, I get the perfect chance to spend an hour drawing by Gayle Beck as the others head off to the shops. My key-fob thermometer registers a comfortable 60° Fahrenheit. Winter gnats dance in the sunny sheltered bank clearing beside me.

Mist around Ingleborough

IngleboroughAs we return over the moor we pull in at the view-point to photograph mist rising around the sphinx-shaped bulk of Ingleborough as the sun starts to set.

Dark Skies

From my 1979 book 'A Sketchbook of the Natural History of Wakefield'. I've never seen the Milky Way as bright as this!
From my 1979 book ‘A Sketchbook of the Natural History of Wakefield’. I’ve never seen the Milky Way as bright as this, even in the Dales!

Appropriately for Halloween, we hear the screeching call of the barn owl as we venture out briefly to look at the stars.

Above the hill, the Great Bear is fading into thin cloud but overhead the ‘W’ of Cassiopeia looks brighter than it might at home, against the dark sky of this part of the Yorkshire Dales. Through binoculars there are bright star fields sprinkled along this arm of the Milky Way and nearby the Pleiades are also impressive through binoculars.

Even with dark skies, I’m struggling to see the Andromeda galaxy which is directly overhead with my unaided eyes but the misty patch that marks its bright centre is clearly visible in binoculars. The photons that are reaching our eyes tonight set off on their long journey from Andromeda 250 million years ago.

Greenfield Valley

9 a.m.: The mist has cleared and we can see the conifer plantations of the Greenfield Valley again.

Fieldfares and starlings
Fieldfares and starlings

Two fieldfares settle on the rushy pasture in front of the farm. With their grey rump, greyish head and slithers of white on the front of their folded wings they’re more strikingly smart than the resident mistle thrush and the female blackbird which are also about this morning.

When one of them perches on the power line and starts preening, we see the dark band at the end of its tail and two tear-shaped streaks of chestnut on its breast.

Post Pecker

great-spotted woodpeckerA male great spotted woodpecker probes every crevice on the stout timber corner post of a wire fence. Having checked all around it, it perches on top then flies to the adjacent fence post. The slimmer post evidently doesn’t offer the same possibilities so it flies off, with bouncing flight, to the power line post and continues probing.

Two dippers are working their way down the beck towards Oughtershaw this morning; one wades in then completely submerges.

heronOn an afternoon walk to the Greenfield Valley we see a heron flying up Langstrothdale along Oughtershaw Beck, four pipits (no doubt meadow pipits) and a kestrel.


ZephrentisPausing to take a closer look at some crushed limestone on a forestry track, I find this complete fossil of a funnel-shaped coral amongst the more common macaroni-like lithostrotion corals and the stout toadstool cap-shaped shells of brachiopods (which I’m assuming are Productus).

The funnel-shaped coral is Zephrentis phrygia, given its species name because of its resemblance to the Phrygian cap, a tall, pointed felt cap which was worn with the point tilting forwards.

Harebell, yarrow and herb robert, Oughtershaw.
Harebell, yarrow and herb robert, Oughtershaw.

Harebell, yarrow and herb robert are still in flower on the banking below the drystone wall on the road immediately to the south of Oughtershaw.

Mist in the Dale

seeds heads of grassNethergill Farm, Langstrothdale, 9.10 a.m.: The trees on the far side of Oughtershaw Beck have faded away as the morning mist fills the valley. I was keen to study clouds during our stay here, now we’re in one.

StarlingBarbara counts thirty-eight starlings which have cascaded out of the mist and settled along the power line; there are at least twice as many below – so a flock of more than a hundred in total – but as they are performing a Mexican wave of short leap-frogging flights to get to the leading edge of their feeding party on the rushy sheep-nibbled turf, it’s impossible to count them.

crowAttracted to the shrubs and the bird feeders in front of the farmhouse are a couple of blue tits, a robin and a blackbird. Five carrion crows perch on the cables of the power line pole nearby.

The Track to Swarthgill

Hammock web
Hammock web

10.40 a.m.: The mist has closed in as we walk up Langstrothdale along the track to Swarthgill Farm, so we can’t see beyond the power lines a couple of hundred yards away down the slope. Droplets sparkle on the seed heads of grasses and on hammock-webs, slung a few inches from the ground amongst the stiff leaves of sedges.

wrenA pair of wrens are checking out the crevices in the lichen-splashed drystone wall, pausing between sorties to meet up again, bobbing and perking up their tails as they face each other, perching on adjacent capstones.

pipitfltA meadow pipit emerges from the mist in bouncing flight, twenty feet above the moor, calling as it goes: “Pi-pit! Pi-pit! Pi-pit!”

We hear but don’t see a red grouse calling “G-bak! G-Bak! G-bak!” from somewhere down near the beck.

cock pheasantMore startling is the cock pheasant that explodes with indignant grockling in wall-top height flight as we reach the tree-lined drive to Swarthgill. Its rhythm is like a bicycle with badly damaged spokes careering along, alarmingly out of control as it passes us by:

“GerrROK! GerrROK! Gerr ROK!”

Reed Bunting

reed buntingA small group of reed bunting fly to the tops of the small trees in the shrubbery around the garden of the farmhouse. There’s a male in winter plumage – brown cap, black bib – with at least two brown streaky companions: juveniles or females.

The reed bunting feeding technique this morning is to gently hop up a twig, carefully inspecting both sides of it and picking off food items (probably insects, spiders and any other invertebrate that they come across).

On this still, humid morning, a little cloud of mosquito-sized insects, probably winter gnats, hovers above us just after we’ve passed the shelter belt of trees growing alongside one of the gills (streams in a sometimes deep channel on the hillside) which give Nethergill its name: the farm sits between two gills.


Oughtershaw Beck2.30 p.m.: We get a good view of a dipper as it sits for a few minutes on the end of a mossy rock in Oughtershaw beck. It’s motionless except for its nictitating membrane: an inner eyelid, which keeps flashing white as it moves across the eye. To me this ‘third eyelid’ appears to pass over the eye from bottom to top but I believe it actually crosses from back to front. Diving birds use their transparent nictitating membrane underwater. The dipper’s eyelid appears to be white but I suspect that it is transparent or semi-transparent from the point of view of the dipper.

dipperI didn’t catch the bird in my  photograph of the beck (above), but tried to memorise the shapes and colours by watching it with binoculars for as long as possible and drawing it from memory later (left).

There are no grey wagtails or sandpipers, which we frequently saw along the beck during our visit here in June.

Goosander Fishing

Oughtershaw Beckgoosander3 p.m.: A red-headed goosander (a female or a first year bird) waddles up through the rippling shallows of the wide, rocky stretch of the beck where the Nethergill sheep find their way across.

It dives as it continues into deeper water above the riffles then on a narrower, deeper bend, it dives midstream, emerging by the steep, undercut bank on the outside bank of the meander.

goosanderThere’s a lot of splashing – as if it’s bathing – but it wouldn’t be doing that under an overhanging bank. Is it driving small fish under?

It thoroughly investigates under the bank, swimming around right under the overhang. The only prey that I briefly catch a glimpse of in its bill is broad and brownish, perhaps a bullhead.

At the top end of this stretch, where the beck broadens out a little, it goes through a bathing routine, this time in the middle of the stream.

Lenticular Clouds

Ingleborough sunsetLate afternoon and I pull in at the viewpoint to photograph the cloudscape as we cross the moor top between Hawes and Langstrothdale.

Lenticular cloud
Lenticular cloud

“I think those clouds are caused by air rising as it moves over a hill,” I suggest to the man who has pulled in just behind us to photograph them on his iPad, “I’ve been reading The Cloudspotter’s Guide, but I can’t remember what they’re called.”

“Lenticular clouds?”

“That’s right; you are a cloud spotter?”

“No . . . just nutty!”

Just as I’ve got myself back in the car and out of the cool breeze, I notice another cloud-spotting feature to the left of the lenticular cloud that is hanging above Ingleborough and I grab my camera.

Sun Dog

Sun dog
One of these bright patches is not the real sun.
Sun dog
Sun dog

“Have you seen the sun-dog?” I ask the man with the iPad; “They’re caused by ice crystals in high clouds refracting the light and they always appear at a certain distance from the sun – I think it’s something like 23 degrees.”

“I wonder if that’s because we’re at 53 degrees north?” He surmises.

I wasn’t too far out, it’s 22° but the phenomenon is a halo effect caused by tiny ice crystals in translucent cloud, so the effect is independent of latitude.

Sunset over Langstrothdale

With 'sunset' setting.

Half an hour later I take the opportunity to photograph sunset over the top end of the dale from the first floor window of our barn conversion accommodation at Nethergill Farm.

sunset langstrothdale

It’s the first time that I’ve tried the ‘sunset’ setting on my camera. It might have warmed up the colours a little but it’s more successful than the camera’s default setting which attempts to adjust the exposure to make the scene resemble regular daylight.


Nethergill Farm

Cloud Appreciation Society

Signal Crayfish

beckClearing away vegetation from the side of this stretch of Coxley Beck, a neighbour came across what I guess must be a signal crayfish, a North American species which has become established in this country and which is ousting our native white-clawed species.

My neighbour described a living specimen he came across as ‘large’ and brown. He then turned over some vegetation and found a dead individual, which was upside down, revealing red markings on the underside of its claws.

This is bad news for any white-clawed crayfish that might have been present in the beck. A friend who remembers the beck as it was before any of the houses were built on the beck side of the road told me that there were crayfish there, but this would be about fifty years ago.

But perhaps there is some potentially good news as signal crayfish are eaten by otters. One of the members of our local natural history society, Wakefield Naturlists’, Francis Hickenbottom, showed me a photograph of an otter pellet he’d come across at a nature reserve by the River Aire. The pellet included a number of those distinctive red claws.

Harlequin Ladybird

harlequin ladybirdThis harlequin ladybird landed on the window this afternoon. It’s probably on the look-out for a suitable site to hibernate.

A map on the Harlequin Ladybird Survey website shows how this North American species, introduced to Europe in 1988, has spread from the south-east of England. From a couple of records in Yorkshire in 2003-2004, it has now been recorded across most of the county, with the exception of parts of the Dales, the North Yorks Moors and the Wolds. It’s apparent absence here may be the result of there being fewer people to record them.

Link: Harlequin Ladybird Survey

Shepherd’s Purse

shepherd's purseShepherd’s purse, like other members of the cress family, has four-petalled flowers but it’s easier to identify its heart-shaped seed pods which are the shape of the sporran-like purse worn by medieval shepherds.

This plant has so far survived our autumn weeding of the veg beds, hanging on in there in the last square metre of the L-shaped bed next to our little meadow area, growing alongside spurge, bush vetch, forget-me-not and creeping buttercup and a few rosettes of sow-thistle and foxglove.

Ivy Flowers

ivy flowers2.30 p.m., overcast, 58°F, 14°C: Warps are methodically working the pale yellowish green flowers of the ivy. These must rank as the dowdiest of flowers but the sweetish heady scent has also attracted a few bluebottles which have a more skittish approach to imbibing this autumnal supply of nectar.small fly One sunny morning last week, hoverflies and drone flies were also joining in this end of season feast.

Art Bags

art bags

It so good to be back in my studio and working again. I’ve just e-mailed my latest Wild Yorkshire nature diary off to the Dalesman, so it’s high time that I caught up with this online diary, which provides most of the raw material for my Dalesman articles.

It’s a month since my studio floor was taken up but there’s been a lot of work for me varnishing the new tongued and grooved timber floor and putting back my plan chest, art materials and book stock just as I’d like them (and there’s been even more work setting up our new kitchen in the room below, which is looking great).

The ‘Goldilocks’ Sketchbook

Improvements in my studio include these four Ikea Blecka hooks (above) for my small, medium and large art bags, which are hanging there ready for me to grab when I set off on a small, medium or large adventure, each complete with a selection of art materials and an A6, A5 or a square of the narrow side of A4 (that’s 8 x 8 inches) Pink Pig sketchbook. Like Goldilocks, I tend to feel that the middle sized bag is ‘just right’.

Tough Decision

On the fourth hook my new digital SLR is hanging, plus a camera bag holding my new macro and telephoto lens. It’s an Olympus OM-D E-M10II which has great possibilities for nature photography. I sold my trusty pocket-sized Olympus Tough muji on e-Bay and I’m missing it already but I’m holding off buying the latest Tough to replace it as I want to get thoroughly familiar with my digital SLR.

bamboo pen

The drawing is in bamboo pen using Winsor & Newton black Indian ink. I wouldn’t pack this combination in my art bags as the ink, where it has formed a blotty pool, takes days to dry.

A Strand of Woodland


Towering cumulonimbus over Smithy Brook valley, white against a blue sky in the morning sun.

Until a few years ago there were twin filling stations at the traffic lights at Shaw Cross but now one of them has closed and it’s surprising how soon the forecourt has reverted to a woodland glade.

Even the bund across its former entrance has already been colonised by sycamore saplings and buddleia bushes, in contrast to the still fresh-looking road markings on the stub of the entrance drive.



Perennial Cornflower

cornflower10.25 a.m., cumulo stratus 80%, 59°F, 15°C, back garden.

The perennial cornflower was originally a plant I introduced from my mum’s large, leafy and well-stocked garden. It has settled in well, scattering its seeds along our border. I’m sure that we never planted it at this end, by the corner of the patio next to the bird bath. There’s often a blackbird or sometimes a sparrow sitting on the edge of the patio here and I guess that’s how it found it’s way here, in a bird dropping. It also spreads via creeping rhizome.

cornflowerAs its scientific name, Centaurea montana, suggests, it’s a plant of subalpine meadows and open woodland in Europe, ranging from the Ardennes the Pyrenees and in the east as far as the Balkans.

calendulaWe’ve had more colour in the border this autumn than we had in the summer. The pot marigold, Calendula, which we planted a year or two ago at this end of the border has spread across the back garden, popping up in the veg beds and in the greenhouse.



As it flies – ‘as the crow flies’, in a straight line – this carrion crow makes a call that I describe as ‘Tchuik! Tuikk! Twik!’ in my sketch: not the harsh, croaking ‘Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw!’ that I associate with crows. The Handbook of British Birds describes this call as ‘a higher-pitched, complaining “keerk, keerk, keerk”.

 I hear the regular ‘caw’ half an hour later after a commotion with the local magpies at the edge of the wood, which have been making their chattering rattling calls in the tall ash trees.

The sparrows chirping in the hedge are a more homely soundtrack for my drawing. It’s feels like a treat to be out of doors drawing from nature again.