Nation Diary 1971: Small Wildlife Places in Lakeland

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January 4, 1971 Natural history will still be bad without its compatriots, past and present, and without retrospect for reference.

KESWICK: At this time of year, which belongs to Janus, the god of January, one can not help but take stock. Many items have a Janus component to them.

Recently a university lecturer told me that “natural history has left the era of the country priest far behind,” and although he is certainly correct in certain ways, even natural history will be bad indeed without its compatriots, past and present, and without their retrospection for reference.

I recently heard a Cumbrian say that the Derwent River, where it empties into Lake Bassenthwaite, used to be a “terrible little place for fish.” It’s no longer (for different reasons), but in another sense, I found the same word.

It was in the 1907 notes of a natural historian about his walks and talks with an elderly dry mason who lived in Keswick. The mason named the “ter’ble smittle places for dotterel to breed” hilltops – birds that seldom breed here today.

Foumarts (polecats) were scarce by 1907, but sweet marts (pine martens) were still abundant then. There are other comparisons. Otters (now rare) were numerous then, especially in Borrowdale, and used a variety of burrows, including one of their last under Shepherd’s Crag at Hollow Stones, where today only climbers thrive.

But – and this is a real rollercoaster – then badgers were almost extinct, and while I haven’t seen an otter for more than a year, now I could name a lot of “small” badger spots.

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