Nature trails like this are so useful and interesting that it is very easy for the leisure-bent visitor to miss a very obvious point. That is, without the maps and markers, the wildlife brochures and the pathside notices describing the trail’s more interesting features, these are all ordinary walks in the country. Think about it — a nature trail could be laid down anywhere. It could be in a town park, in the verges and gardens of a busy city, through the back garden of a tiny Victorian terrace or on the wild, windy tops of moorlands. Even in a window box, fifteen storeys above a city street are those same clues to the cycle of plant and animal life. The only difference is that there are no maps and signboards – the observer has to learn how to look, recognise and appreciate.
It is surprising how quickly you can assimilate the knowledge to make a start on your do-it-yourself nature trail. The names and form of a few plants found on an official trail may be your starting point but you can follow up your researches at the local library. Most libraries have abundant shelves of natural history books but what you should really search for are the slim volumes and pamphlets contributed by local natural history clubs and amateur and professional biologists. These will tell you the real curiosities to look for in your district.
Some places, of course, are much more interesting than others. While it may be possible to identify half a dozen plants and a few animals and insects when walking to work in a city street, there are literally thousands of species to be found along footpaths, woodland rides or green lanes. The less disturbed an environment remains, the more the variety of flora and fauna and the more the natural patterns of interdependency develop. Your DIY nature trail should include some habitats where man has rarely trodden and where you, too, do not need to disturb the environment to make your observations.
This is not such a paradox as it may at first appear. Perhaps the most natural place of all which is never disturbed is the hedge bottom and this is somewhere that you need not enter to observe. Similar completely wild habitats are to be found at disused canal fringes (and the other side of the towpath), established coppices and shooting boxes, roadside and field ditch bottoms and in worked-out quarries.
Hedges are particularly good. They are usually very old and the fact that they are usually the only cover for quite a distance makes them ideal sanctuaries between tracts of open ground or roads for many species of wildlife. The hedge itself is a showcase of natural flora. The long, silver-grey stems of ash carry their distinctive black buds above spiky hawthorn and tangled masses of dogrose and bramble. Protected saplings spring from seeds and fruits dropped by birds and the whole bouquet may be bound by the sinuous strands of columbine, hop or honeysuckle.
Smaller, less shrub-like plants grow in the darkness of the underhedge and in the grass-shrouded depths of the ditch which usually runs alongside.
Like any other environment or habitat, the seasons wreak their changes on the hedgerow. Spring brings pale primroses and violets among the moss tufts and songbirds nest in the blossoming thorn. By summer the ditch and verge are hidden by great trunks of cow parsley bearing their dusty umbels of flowers and sometimes surmounted by a towering stand of the look-alike hogweed. In autumn, the nut bushes and blackberry bear their fruit, which with the scarlet splash of briony and rowan berries, present a rich harvest for finches, tits, occasional squirrels and wintering mice.
As the green drops away at winter’s approach, evidence of the hedgerow’s larger inhabitants comes to light. Fresh burrows dug by a new generation of rabbits, the small excavations of mice and rats and the quick scurry of the hunting weasel may be seen.
River banks are equally fascinating places to the observer with a few minutes to spare. The fringe of mud between water and bank is a strange no-man’s land where plants and animals which are neither completely aquatic nor entirely comfortable on land can be found.
After spring spawning, tiny frogs no bigger than halfpenny pieces prey to fish and fowl alike make their appearance. Coots and moorhens quietly patrol their forests of yellow flag, reeds and water iris and busy mallards escort their yellow charges from cover to cover. You may spot the beautifully woven nest of a reed warbler, the predatory shadow of a pike patrolling the boundary between deep water and the fry-infested shallows or the superfast electric-blue flash of the kingfisher. Keep your ears as well as your eyes open to catch the distant booming call of the bittern, the rasping bellow of the toad and the rustle of the busy water rat.
On hot summer days the sweet, pervasive scent of watermint lies on the water like a mist and the great yellow bowls of water lilies float among the enormous green pads of their leaves.
Woodland walks are full of rustlings and quick movements just caught from the corner of the eye. The mature deciduous trees, usually oak or beech in natural woodlands, provide a broad green canopy alive with noise of invisible birds. Dead branches and rotten patches of wood open up the holes that are used by woodpeckers, nuthatches, starlings and tree-creepers – birds of the mid-forest habitat. High overhead are the untidy twig piles of a rook colony, while amid the thicket of birches and holly, spindly saplings and outgrown hazel coppice are tight nests of smaller birds. In the crotches of trees are the balls of leaves which form the grey squirrel’s winter home and among taller thorny trees such as the crab-apple, magpies and jays make their untidy bases. Wood pigeons entrust their safety to small flat twig platforms.
The forest floor is usually a damp, shady place where the delicate wood anemone blooms, where Solomon’s seal hangs its small, pearl-like flowers from curved stems winged with paired leaves and where thick bracken undergrowth masks the secret journeys of foxes, badgers and deer. Man’s coniferous plantations – largely Sitka spruce – offer different attractions. The grey flash of a sparrow hawk may be caught as it hunts its tiny dashing quarry at head-height through the leafless pine trunks. On the needle-carpeted ground are the thin, delicate Christmas tree of a rare helleborine or the compact and highly detailed pyramid of an English orchid.
These are the ingredients of the DIY nature trail which can be followed in places near home or when away.
The seashore is a unique environment, chemically and climatically different to anywhere else in the country and full of highly specialised plants and creatures. Mountains and downlands have their own highly individualistic links between the colonies of flora and fauna on their slopes, as have open meadows, the vast lakelands of the Norfolk Broads and the microcosm of the village pond.
The keys to the enjoyment of your own nature trail are within the reach of everyone w’tth the help of a hand book.