I had thought Day 4 would prove challenging for ‘wild’ experiences. The hustle and urgency of travelling combined with the sterility of international travel environments does not immediately lend itself to close encounters of the wild kind. Mooching around the Marco Polo airport I realised that the bursts of green that were lifting my mood were in fact plastic plants. Good replicas, complete with the imperfections of nature recreated in plastics and fabric, but no substitute for the perfect imperfection of living things. Instead looking down on the earth from above gives you a different, if disconnected, reminder of our natural and semi-natural environments. So much of the ground that we flew over was cultivated and, in a non-objective way, northern Italy appeared to have fewer hedges, scrubby woodlands and messy corners than southern England.
Arriving home at the end of a long journey is always a good feeling – no matter how good the break. To reacquaint yourself with your personal natural environment, your creature comforts and your ecosystem is comforting. The little things that have moved on, even in a few short days, stand out – perhaps I would not have noticed the darkening of the flowers and foliage in the hedgerow if I had been here to see the incremental change in shade.
If you have read my other blogs you will realise I love running outdoors – it is fast nature watching and you probably see less along the way but you cover more ground and you notice different things along the way. Having been coooped up in a car and a plane I was keen to get out to stretch my legs. The first thing I noticed today was a Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) growing alongside the river, in the verge. While the roads are generally quiet you do get a few cars from time to time and so I have often sidestepped into the greenery, tucking myself out of the path of the car, nestling among the vegetation. I will quite often brush a nettle but now that I am no longer four years old I can ignore the passing irritation from the sting. Hogweed is not in this category. The sap and hairs from this plant causes blisters almost immediately and will leave a scar. I remember a girl from school with a pink welt on the back of her shoulder, spreading out across her skin and down her arm. We talked about it in a Biology class – the toxins are called furanocoumarins and they damage the skin by making it more sensitive to sunlight – phytophotodermatitis.
It looks, to the uninitiated, like a very sturdy version of normal hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) or even a wild-carrot (Daucus carota) and if you are in doubt it is definitely worth assuming it is the dangerous one. But it really is so much bigger than either of those that there should be no confusion if you saw them next to one another. Standing at 5ft4 I am slightly below average height in the UK and this plant absolutely towers over me. It’s stem is meaty, the flower head is the size of a dinner plate and there are so many flower stems on each umbel it is tricky to count. I store away its location and run on.
Further along the path, where the hill slopes away and you can look out along the river basin I find a walker, two dogs and a pair of binoculars. Slowing so that I don’t alarm dogs or owner I approach at a walk. I am secretly thrilled at meeting someone who appears to be interested in wildlife – mostly I just meet dog walkers holding bags of poo – not much of an invitation to stop and chat. I ask if she has seen anything and, in what I take as a promising sign, she answers without dropping the bins. ” I think so”, she replies. “It’s not an otter” she says, in a manner that implies she really hoped it had been. “But it’s bloody big for a fish”. Turning to look at me for the first time she offers me the bins. I adjust the eyepieces and focus – these are good binoculars. I find the fish immediately. The dorsal fin is slightly proud of the surface of the water, leaving a ripple behind in the water. From this distance and with little knowledge of freshwater fish I can offer her no more insight than what she already knew. She is disappointed I cannot name the fish but I think, pleased to have shared her find. I know that feeling – by having shown it to someone it somehow becomes yours, your find, your sighting. The gulls have seen it too and for a boisterous bunch they are somewhat jittery around this aquatic intruder. At a relatively low tide, the wrong side of the dam, with only a moderate flow on the river I would say this was an unusual place to find such a big fish.
Down on the dam wall the crabbers are having no luck. Clearly they have been here before because they know how common these animals are and that with a little patience and raw bacon, a bucket of crabs can be caught within minutes. Not today, such is the way of things sometimes.
Travelling is fun for the new wildlife you see and the unexpected discovery of new species and encounters and I really enjoyed my few days away in Venice. But there is a good deal of enjoyment to be had from observing your local wildife – of getting to know them and observing the changes.