It’s mid-July and the last significant rainfall in this corner of Dorset was over six weeks ago. All the grass has turned to hay, and the only colour in this beige-blond land is the soft mauve of thistle. The dark green leaves of the trees lining the Hooke valley looked prematurely tired and frayed at the edges, and as I walked across the meadows, the ground underfoot crunched like spilt crisps and smelled of digestive biscuits.
The hottest, driest June on record had simply extended unbroken into July, and apart from one brief downpour, which barely managed to soak the topsoil, looked set to unroll till the end of summer.
Farmers had already resorted to using their winter feed for the cattle, having cut the grass for hay, but with no sign of new growth coming back. The little wooden jetty over the pond at Kingcombe was nothing but a viewing platform for reeds and rush, with not a glint of water to be seen, and in the wildflower garden, the central pond was a desiccated cremation ground where dock and hogweed had keeled over to die.
These are tough times for the resident amphibians, though the butterflies and moths seem to be thriving in the drought. A few days before my visit, I was told that a group of visiting lepidopterists had identified no fewer than 134 species in just four days.
The Dorset Wildlife Trust Centre is much more than just a car park and a tea-room – the vital nodal points for anyone engaged in that ultimate British pastime of ‘going for a walk in the countryside’. Throughout the year, it is also a venue for courses and workshops, like the one for butterfly-spotters that had just finished. Most are run by the Trust itself, but many are organised independently. The majority fall into either the ‘arts and crafts’ category or are directly to do with wildlife conservation and natural history. Last month, I was here at the same time as the Clifton Art Group, a posse of (mainly) older ladies dotted around the place armed with watercolour palettes and blessed with ferocious skill and an almost Samurai-like sense of purpose. There are also courses on drawing, photography and print-making. In summer, there are courses for birdwatchers, orchid-spotters and bat enthusiasts, fossil hunters and amateur archaeologists.
I got chatting to Andy Jefferies, who had just led his group of tired but satisfied working holidayers back from a long hard day of Himalayan balsam bashing. This invasive, if pretty, weed can run riot on river banks and marshes if it’s left unchecked, pinging its seeds far and wide from fat pods that seem to be set on a hair-trigger. Brush past balsams in August and they burst like a million tiny piñatas. Jefferies runs a company called Wild Days Conservation that organises and runs holidays with an ecological and practical slant. “We combine the really practical stuff – like pulling out Himalayan balsam – with the more scientific or research-based work.” So when they’re not balsam bashing or badger watching, the group has been helping out with a small mammal survey. “It takes about three hours to set and place the traps in the evening,” explained Andy, “and at least another three the following morning finding the animals, taking down and logging the data. It’s really time and labour intensive, and it needs skill, training and equipment – it’s not the kind of thing you can just decide to do on your own. But just imagine: a little wood mouse or shrew on the palm of your hand, instead of something the cat brought in – it’s magic.”
I left Andy and his team to do the washing-up and unload the van, and sat on a picnic bench to have a bite. I suddenly realised that I was not alone. Hopping along the fence towards me was a bird, a little smaller than a crow, black all over apart from its neck which was dark grey, eyeing my peanut butter sandwich with vividly curious, intelligent, pale blue-grey eyes. “Drumstick? Is that you?” I said.
It was indeed the little jackdaw that had been rescued by Sam Hamer as a three-week old nestling. Sam is no sentimentalist when it comes to nature’s tooth and clawy aspect, but “Well, I couldn’t just let him die.” Last time I was here I’d found Sam in his office with the bird on his shoulder. Drumstick had moved in and redecorated liberally with artistic streaks of white.
No longer a fledgling, he was doing well, though still a little unsure about what do with wings and how to negotiate the tricky business of flying. His tail feathers were a bit ragged, suggesting he might be being bullied. I suspected the big, fat guinea fowl who usually rule the roost at Kingcombe with a characteristic blend of belligerence and paranoia. On that day, though, they like the sheep were hunkered down in the shady corner of a wood, silently waiting out the heat of the day.
The Ancient Greeks viewed the jackdaw as a harbinger of rain. I looked around at the cracked and parched ground, the wilting trees and drooping buddleia, and hoped Drumstick was bird enough to live up to his ancestral calling.