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Wildlife On The Wall

hadrians wall

On 13 March 2010 I was one of 1000 volunteers selected to help light one of 500 beacons which, at every 250m intervals along its 84 mile route, truly illuminated Hadrian’s walls’ position in the Tyne Valley. It marked the 1600th anniversary of the end of Roman rule in Britain too.

It was a very memorable event for many and being so close to it all, at my station above Haltwhistle, was not only a beautiful scene but something I also found moving, such dynamic celebration of this special landscape.

For me the wall and its corridor from coast to coast are not just a set of cultural landmarks, though I appreciate them and have visited regularly for the Roman and other history since childhood. The pure geology of the whole thing inspires, as I am a geologist by training. It is therefore brilliant to see the mighty Whin Sill and its dolerite rocks providing the border feature the wall is constructed on. We humans could not be happy with a massive geological feature alone forming a natural border, but had to create our own geological layer on top! So typical of the ego of our species and further reflecting our warring nature and territorial inclinations.

Beyond all that, the wall, its habitats and environs, from its unique loughs, with ospreys and whooper swans and much else, to the unique wildflowers of the whin sill grasslands, reproduced partially on the roof of The Sill, are a really interesting mix for any naturalist to explore.

Of course, there are many who say our National Parks, including the one in which it partially lies, should be even more wildlife rich and wilder in many ways and I would agree. But, I am involved in several very large initiatives that are aiming to bring back nature, such as at Greenlee Lough and other places, working with farmers and landowners to re-connect and help nature recover. I applaud the efforts of many already aiming to restore nature at scale, even though there is a way to go.

There is even the possibility of bringing back some lost species like wildcat and a live conversation about lynx, in the forest areas, alongside encouraging pine marten that are finding their own way, water voles and the possibility of eagles soon in our skies, almost as it was in Roman times!

We need to be able to dream and hope we can see wilder times again along the wall and across Northumberland, Cumbria and the Borders in future, and that we can bring back what has been lost even here in this, one of the wildest parts of England.

There is still a lot of wildlife to experience along the wall throughout its length. On that illuminating night that I spent tending the flames, another spectacle I watched struck me deep. Just as dusk descended, small grey ‘clouds’ started to appear briefly out of the conifer blocks nearby and disappear again. I thought I was seeing things, then, they got bigger, rising up, merging and swirling overhead. Suddenly we were watching a big murmuration of starlings, perhaps 10,000 of them, dramatically circling, before they finally went to roost.

I wanted to see if I could see I them around the wall again. I made a short walk up from Bardon Mill and up towards the wall one fine and reasonably still late afternoon in April. Sightings of my favourite small bird cheered me on, the stonechat, which seems synonymous with the rocky, scrubby slopes of the hills here, the males resplendent with dark heads and sunset orange chests. I disturbed a few snipe in the rushy areas and glimpse ‘Asio flammeus,’ the short eared owl, the owl of the flaming twilight. A good omen surely.

Indeed, it was, for later, as I sat with my back to the wall and looked out over the edge of Wark Forest in the distance, out of two smaller spruce blocks they rose, their silver, purples and greens catching the last light of day.

There’s only 500 or so this time, but it is a great sight to see at least a small remnant of former once massive populations I recall as a kid on Teesside, gatherings of a hundred thousand plus. At Wark last year, with my local guide Ian Armstrong, we saw maybe 30,000. There is hope.

Yes, we have lost so much abundance, but we still have its essence and I reckon we can kindle from this a wilder future along the wall and way beyond. These wall murmurating starlings are a talisman of that.

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