Nature’s timetable

I’ve been up to London on the train several times this week; well, someone’s got to keep South West Trains in business haven’t they?

Yesterday’s trip was enlivened with an unscheduled stop at Micheldever, next to the oil terminal siding. That, and the sight of a pheasant poking around the track edge, brought back memories by association of that great but sadly neglected naturalist Jim Sidings. Jim worked for South West Trains.

It was Sidings who discovered a new species of egret which was the result of interbreeding with the redshank. To his great pride, these hitherto unknown birds became officially recognised by ornithologists as South West regrets.

“One of my favourite creatures,” he once wrote, “is the dung beetle. The attractive thing about this little chap is that he keeps his personal belongings with him at all times. Then there is the sleeper beetle, so-called because it makes its home next to the sleepers on railway lines. The sleeper beetle has an amazing ability to disguise itself as a crushed Irn Bru can and thus deter predators.”

Sidings wrote a whole book about snails. “I don’t know why, but I’ve always been attracted by their slowness,” he once told me. “You feel pretty sure that they will get where they are going, but you couldn’t say when.”

The most remarkable native gastropod must be the giant wozere snail. It is often to be found near railway lines where its dark, slimy trail leaves most extraordinary elaborate swirling patterns on walls, sometimes almost resembling words. Some naturalists believe they can make out actual groups of letters saying “woz ere,” and this is how the snail got its name.

Grateley station

I remember the time many moons ago when Jim Sidings kindly took me on one of his quiet zone nature rambles. It was very early on a cold, drizzly day when we crouched with our binoculars under a dripping bush adjacent to Grateley station. Unfortunately, a selection of snacks and hot and cold beverages was not available, Jim whispered, due to staff shortages.

He then briefed me on what glories of nature we could expect to see. “The elaborate courtship ritual of the pied wagtail has been cancelled,” he said. “This is due to an earlier plumage failure. I regret any inconvenience this may have caused. You are advised to remain under this bush and await further announcements.”

After half an hour he said: “Due to essential engineering works in its sett, there will be no badger today. Customers wishing to see a badger should take the buzzard replacement service.”

I don’t know why the buzzard never showed up, but after another 40 minutes Jim said he had a “special” announcement which was obviously something exciting. It seemed that the sight of fox cubs playing, timed for 7.17 that morning, had been delayed and would now be combined with the 7.23 viewing of stoats mating to form the 10.48 glimpse of a rather tired off-peak rabbit.

“It’s a pity there is not a river near here or we might have been able to see some deer coming to the bank at dawn for a cold beverage,” Jim whispered knowledgeably. “Or perhaps a kingfisher rushing past without stopping.”

As we waited under the dripping bush Jim regaled me with his fund of stories about wildlife ways. He let me into the secret of the extraordinary mating habits of the corn bunting. In spring the male corn bunting starts to sing his special “mating announcement”. This is a confused and garbled song which bewilders the female corn bunting. Gradually, she edges closer to the source of the announcement, hoping to make sense of it. The song becomes more garbled and she moves even closer. And this is how the male corn bunting attracts his mate. A good place to hear this ritual unfold is at Waterloo.

He told me about the migratory birds that in winter take advantage of special offers on eight-month saver returns to warmer countries and how rabbits have white patches on their tails which they can use as a warning in case of emergency. Obviously, improper use of the tail is regarded as a serious offence.

It was a truly fascinating day out under that bush. I got home later than intended, but this was because of something really dramatic, an example of the cruel side of nature. Unfortunately I’ve no idea what it was, save for a typically vague announcement that “British Transport Police were in attendance at Andover”.