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When asked to write on the countryside, it would be necessary to dig into a lifetime of experience and connection with the great outdoors. Undoubtedly testing for me to know exactly where to begin. There are so many topics of interest to cover, however, what better place to start then here and now, summer in North Devon.
All our summer migrant birds are here and, with luck, when strolling along the Heddon valley there is a good chance of seeing a redstart, to my mind probably the most striking British bird. There are also blackcaps and even spotted and pied flycatchers and, you might possibly hear the last of the season’s cuckoos, too.
Best to get there early in the morning and head east, taking the old coach road to Lynton. I have spent many an hour there watching the Peregrines feeding their young. Their calling high over this valley and cliffs, gives them easily away. Adders and common lizards are often sunning themselves on the track or stone outcrops. This is also the only place in Devon I have come across wild cornflowers.
As July progresses, the heather comes into bloom on the cliff path to the west of Heddons Mouth, well worth the arduous walk up the zig zag scree path to nearly 1000 feet above the sea. Although sometimes difficult at first to spot, down on the water below, are rafts of adults and young Guillemot and Razorsbills. Just tiny specks with the naked eye, so it’s a must to take the binoculars. Having grown up in Combe Martin, when days seemed endless as they do in youth, I would walk to the coast and fish as much as was physically possible. Never, to this day, have I seen a whale, dolphin or harbor Porpoise from our shoreline. But, if you take a boat trip to Lundy at this time of year or go sea fishing from a charter boat or, join in my most recent, all consuming pass time, kayaking, the marine life is a mere hundred metres from the shore. It has to be flat calm for me to even venture out on my kayak, as anything resembling a wave means getting wet and losing fishing tackle. If I manage to stay dry on my way out, I may not be so lucky, damp and cramped, on my way back in. Out there, within 50 metres are harbour porpoises, so close you can hear them breathe.
Sun fish bask on the surface. Dolphins, too, but they usually are a long way out. Sadly, still, no whales, but they aren’t really to be expected in the Bristol channel… Or so I thought. Twice in recent years I have been taunted by tales from friends, one of a Minke whale close to a dive boat off Lundy and the other of a Killer Whale off Buck Mills. Encouraged by these sightings, I will keep looking. A Devon whale is very much on my bucket list!
From our largest marine mammals to our largest land mammal, the Devon red deer, although abundant, are not easily seen with the bracken growing rapidly. The hay and 2nd silage crops provide good cover as well. The hinds give birth to the calves from the beginning of June and if you are really lucky, by mid June, you may catch a glimpse of mother and her spotted baby grazing at dawn or dusk.
A walk in the country in June could well lead to an encounter with a lone calf, rest assured mum will not be far away and will return, so, best to pass-by, leaving well alone unless absolutely necessary… as happened to me.
Whilst out cycling one evening along the river Mole valley, I found a new born calf in the middle of the road. It was unable to return to the adjacent wood because of a near vertical 20 foot bank and, a similar precipitous drop into the river on the other side. I had no option but to protect it from the odd car using my bicycle, as if a sheep hurdle, whilst trying to decide exactly what action to take.
It was so young, it wasn’t stressed by my presence and so far I hadn’t touched it. The smell of a human is a sure way for them to be rejected by the hind. However, I had no choice but to break the rule in order to heave it up the bank, through brambles and nettles. It was difficult to get a foothold myself but, I persevered, eventually making the top and releasing it to reconnect with its mother who started squeaking as soon as all the exertion was over. I have no photographic evidence of that but, this photo is of a calf, still damp from birth which I encountered whilst walking a field of wheat.
July we like to associate with warmth, sun and summer. If this isn’t the case, most get a tad peeved. Specifically, Salmon and Sea trout fisherman who long for an unsettled summer which encourages these migratory fish to run our rivers. The fishing in North Devon rivers can be spectacular, if you catch it just right. All our rivers are known as spate rivers, meaning they rise rapidly after heavy persistent rain. If the water level stays high and milky brown to deep green in colour for three or four days, that’s when these fish start to enter our rivers and where many game anglers await their return. Next time, I will delve deep into fishing the Taw, Mole and Bray rivers where, now, salmon to 20lbs can be caught. Back in 1930, a salmon of 61lbs was recorded from the Taw!