A year of closely observed wildlife and weather

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ONE pair of eyes. Extreme conditions have made this a difficult year for a wildlife artist on the Yorkshire Wolds. Robert Fuller reports.

This was Yorkshire, we were told, through the eyes of an artist.

As a professional wildlife artist, I was itching to add the odd hare, red squirrel, black grouse or badger to the scene.

From the wildest moor on the Dales to the remotest fold of the Wolds and from the furthest reach of Yorkshire’s rugged coastline to its densest forests, Yorkshire teems with wildlife.

In the east of the county, and not far from my home and gallery in Thixendale, are some of the paramount spots in the country to watch birdlife.

Bird watchers flock to Spurn Point, east of Hull, every autumn for the chance to spot some of Europe’s rarest migrating birds as they arrive. And Bempton Cliffs, just north of Bridlington, hosts the only mainland gannet colony in Europe and is also a prime spot from which to watch puffins.

In the west are the Dales where it is still possible to see red squirrels.

Although native to the British Isles, these colourful squirrels are increasingly rare nationally.

This spring I was lucky enough to photograph a thriving colony near Hawes.

The Dales is also a place where you can watch one of the most fascinating courtship rituals in the world: the black grouse lek.

This unusual grouse is in serious decline across Europe. Its strange mating dance takes place every April and this year I faced howling winds and freezing fog for a week to watch it.

As the seasons come and go, there is always something special lurking in the undergrowth of this remarkable county.

Allerthorpe Common, near Pocklington, is one of the best places in the UK to spot adders and this February they were out early, sunning themselves when the frost was still on the ground.

And around Valentine’s Day each year, as if on cue, the great crested grebes perform their incredible love dance.

These birds have the most elaborate mating ritual of any in the British Isles. You can watch them bob and twist their heads in unison at Castle Howard.

Spring is the busiest time for wildlife and if I was to create a wildlife show garden for Chelsea next year I would fill it with a wide variety of species.

From the cuckoo, sounding out the first calls of spring before laying its eggs in another’s nest, to hares boxing in the fields and ponds teeming with spawning frogs and toads.

My own pond at Fotherdale Farm is usually as far as I need go to see these amphibians. This March there were more than 80 toads and frogs fighting for the opportunity to mate there.

As the year progresses, the wildlife action continues. Last July, I watched a pair of curlews nest on the Yorkshire Wolds and after seeing the way they fiercely protect their young, I’d like to paint them into my wildlife show garden too.

These waders fly in from the coast to nest on the Wolds and moors each spring and the sound of their call as it rings over the countryside symbolises the sound of warmer days to come.

Studley Royal, near Ripon would also need inclusion in a wildlife show garden.

I go there in October to watch red stags strut in the annual deer rut. Last year I was lucky enough to find myself right in the middle of a roe deer courting ritual.

Roe deer perform an unusual mating dance in which they circle around each other in a trance, trampling what are known as roe rings into the ground.

But just as there are winners and losers in the Chelsea Flower Show, there are times when this abundance of wildlife suffers and the rich scenery of my personal Yorkshire show garden begins to fade.

This year has been one of real extremes. We have had a viciously cold winter followed by a very dry, warm spring.

In January, I recorded an 80 per cent drop in my local barn owl population after I watched bird after bird succumb to the white-out.

These birds weigh just 12oz and cannot survive long when deep snow covers their prey.

Thankfully a few did survive and this week I discovered that a pair that I fed through the winter had bred five chicks. So there is hope that the population will begin to recover.

The dry spring has also spelt bad news for the country’s badger population.

Badgers mainly feed on earthworms, but in dry weather these worms retreat deep underground to find moisture.

Any badger cubs that were born in February could be severely affected by the lack of earthworms.

The good news is that there are cubs at a badger sett that I have been watching for years.

This sett is particularly close to my heart – I have painted many of its members – so I will be keeping a close eye on the cubs this year and hoping they continue to grow.

Swallows and house martins have arrived as usual, but this year has been so dry that the RSPB has appealed to us all to “make muddy puddles” in our gardens for them to build their nests with.

Kingfishers too suffered more than usual last winter. Many fled from our inland waterways to the coast to try to find water to hunt in that wasn’t frozen.

But kingfishers cannot survive long hunting in salt water as their metabolism hasn’t adapted to the salt in the way that the metabolism of sea birds have.

Two weeks ago, however, I saw seven fledglings at some lakes close to my gallery. It was heartening to see these jewel-like birds surviving despite the odds.

The dry weather has been a positive thing for ground-nesting birds such as waders however.

Their young have to learn to forage as soon as they are born and the tiny chicks are adversely affected by heavy rain.

And I have benefited from the harsh weather conditions too since severe winters and a dry spring actually tend to provide better wildlife viewing opportunities.

This winter, for instance, because of the freezing temperatures, I got to see a woodcock, one of Europe’s most elusive birds, as it foraged close to a fresh water supply.

And during the bitterest weeks of the big freeze, I witnessed one of the most unusual wildlife spectacles I have yet encountered.

I saw more than 50 hares grouped together, boxing on a snowy hillside.

Hares are usually solitary and only group to mate. Although they are known to box all year round, and not just in spring, I have never seen quite so many together.

The incredible photographs that I took during this time formed the studies for a new collection of paintings which I will be exhibiting at my summer exhibition from today.

Summer exhibition, June 4-19, Robert Fuller Gallery, Fotherdale Farm, Thixendale, East Yorkshire, YO17 9LS. Open 11am-4.30pm.

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