John Miles has spent more than 30 years living and working near Hadrian’s Wall in Cumbria’s northern Pennines. His new book lifts the lid on the area’s wildlife.
Walltown Crags along Hadrian’s Wall
Very little remains of Hadrian’s Wall in Cumbria today. Tourists who come to the county expecting to see piles of stone sweeping to the Solway are disappointed. The occasional cluster of this Roman frontier remains. But there is still good reason to examine the area it once dominated. These days natural attractions abound in the 73 miles between Wallsend and Bowness-on-Solway. And John Miles has documented them in a new book. Hadrian’s Wildlife celebrates the landscape and its animal, plant and bird life. Ospreys, white wagtails, lapwings. Natterjack toads, badgers, foxes, roe deer – and the most northerly habitat of the dormouse. All these and hundreds more species live along and around the wall’s path. During Roman times, the wildlife was even more wild. Wild boar, wolves and bears used to live here. They remained until as late as the 16th Century before being hunted to extinction, a process the Romans played a part in. “Hunting was a pastime for the Romans,” says John. “There’s a letter sent by a soldier asking for nets to go hunting. It’s staggering to think that these animals were still there.”
The landscape has changed in other ways. Much of the region’s forest have been cleared. The commonest game bird in Roman times – and one of the tastiest to judge by its popularity as a meal – was the black grouse. It was more common than chicken in these parts. John, 58, grew up inYorkshire on the country estate where his father was a gardener. He moved to Cumbriain 1981 as warden of the RSPB’s nature reserve at Geltsdale, near Brampton. He helped manage the 12,000 acres which is home to dozens of species of birds and animals. But John left the job in 1991 after two pairs of hen harriers were shot on the reserve. He was disappointed by the RSPB’s response, which he felt could have been more rigorous in following up what had taken place.
Rowlands Gill Red Kite Viewing Point
John became a freelance wildlife consultant, spending much of his time hosting wildlife tours in the UK and as far a-field as Egypt, the USA, the Caribbean and across Europe. John has written several books, including Hadrian’s Birds, Exploring Lakeland’s Wildlife. Pharaoh’s Birds, Return of the Jacobite, The Solway – In the series Best Bird Watching sites covers the whole of Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway
He and his wife Thelma – a special needs teacher at William Howard School in Brampton – have three sons in their 20s and live at Castle Carrock.
One of John’s reasons for writing Hadrian’s Wildlife is to shout about the area’s attractions. John feels it is undervalued by locals and visitors, perhaps inevitably with theLake District so close. At least the wall is a World Heritage Site, ensuring this wild place remains a haven for wildlife and human kind. “Being a World Heritage Site helps protect it from things like wind farms,” says John. “The whole area could have been covered in them by now if it wasn’t for the wall.” His favourite parts are the high areas, out in the wilds, in the footsteps of wolves and Roman soldiers.
John writes about the end – or the beginning – of Hadrian’s Wall:
Bowness-on-Solway – Some of my best encounters here have included the big storm of 23 May 2011 when over 60 long-tailed skuas flew into the Solway on a massive south-west wind. A group of 44 were first seen dancing over the waves as their light, tern-like flight struggled with the high winds. This group of birds stayed for an hour in the bay before rising high and travelling past the bus shelter. Walkers from Holland were amazed to find so many birdwatchers crammed into the shelter, with one asking if we were watching for a ‘Scots invasion’. It was instead an invasion of birds, heading for the high Arctic. A further 120 long-tailed skuas were seen later in the week.
One amazing day brought an encounter with a female sparrowhawk. Only myself and my birding mate Clive were in the shelter for a spot of autumn watching. I was standing up close to the railing and Clive was sitting down. The bird flew between both of us with one wing brushing my jacket. It was probably in the habit of using the shelter as a flyway, trying to catch out an unsuspecting robin or blackbird as they darted along the track and through the shelter.
When the Solway moss exploded - Just north of the wall, acres of peat once exploded – killing animals and destroying homes. On the night of 16 November 1771 the tragedy known as the eruption of the Solway Moss occurred. Peat mosses act as a sponge soaking up water until they can hold no more and, on this particular night, 300 acres of peat exploded out of the 1,600 acres of moss and covered 400 acres of farmland. No one was killed but many cattle were lost, with 28 families losing their homes to the rush of peat and water. The peat was washed into the River Esk and later washed up on the shores of the Isle of Man. Several have erupted through their life around Britain and I am sure more will do so again in the future.
Short-eared owl flys by
John believes Britain is the worst place in the world for killing birds of prey.
One example came when he was warden at Geltsdale nature reserve I also remember when a merlin was shot. I had already found the nest but on the day in question could not get the female to fly from her nest. Female merlins, nesting on the ground, are well known for sitting tight in thick heather. All too often the bird is seen returning to the nest but it is often hopeless trying to locate it, the thick heather offering no landmarks to use as guides. In this case I did find her eventually but she was dead, sitting on her clutch of four eggs. I picked her up and saw that she was carrying lead shot. She had flown back to the nest to die. I summoned the two local keepers to one of their houses and put it to them that, either one of them had shot the bird, or that there were poachers operating on their moor. Nothing could be proven but at least they knew I knew, and the rest of the season was free of persecution.
Hadrian’s Wildlife by John Miles is published by Whittles Publishing at £16.99.