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Midsummer Night Life

PUBLISHED: 10:13 14 June 2016 | UPDATED: 10:14 14 June 2016

European Nightjar, Caprimulgus europaeus. Picture: David Tipling

European Nightjar, Caprimulgus europaeus. Picture: David Tipling

This image is proteced by copyright

The wonders of a June night in the countryside are captured by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Nick Acheson

Meadow saxifrage. Picture: David NorthMeadow saxifrage. Picture: David North

In June there is least night, most light, the sun lent to us for longest by the equator. Yet in June the short night is busiest and loudest with life and most worth visiting.

At dusk, June’s white day-flowers eerily shine in the last light or by the breath of the rising moon: meadow saxifrage, field mouse-ear, oxeye and more. In the gathering gloom the pheasants fire their shotgun calls and blackbirds chime their hatred of a stoat. Night, weighty with the honeysuckle’s scent, begins.

Roe deer. Picture: Josh JaggardRoe deer. Picture: Josh Jaggard

So stand in the cordon of birches at the edge of a heath or in a lost lane through a meadow and let June’s night encircle you, remembering the mammalian genes which make up you, inherited from distant night-dwellers led through the dark world by scent and sound. From the birches behind you will come the rasping repetitive bark of a roe deer, catching your scent on the evening’s breeze, stamping her sharp foot in the soft peaty soil. Once the deer is done, gone about her leaf-nibbling business for the night, you hear a high conspiratorial “pssst” above you. At first, though craning your neck, you see nothing. Five minutes later the same thing again: a bright squeak over the trees. Again nothing. The third time you see it: a round-bellied, long-billed bobble of a bird on bowed wings. A woodcock! He is roding, flying again and again the same route through the start of the night, calling to females his willingness to breed.

The next strange sound from a male bird on this warm night is not from above but from foot-level in a nearby field of barley: a quickfire liquid trisyllable. Rendered in books as “wet my lips”, this is the song of a quail, an African migrant just like our swallows and swifts, hoping to breed among our Norfolk cereals. There are more voices from Africa in this Norfolk night. From scattered tufts of birches or pines on the heath you hear the eerie drilling of nightjars, lent to us, like the long days and the warm sun, by the south. They are here for our summer moths and months and gone again as the nights grow long, leaving the bats to their dusty roosts in the hearts of aged oaks.

The woodcock. Picture: Margaret HollandThe woodcock. Picture: Margaret Holland

Near your stand at the woods’ edge, along a stream’s bank, there is more eeriness: a dropped constellation of minor lights, strewn across the damp heath or the meadow. Here are glowworms. Not worms, in fact, but beetles, as grubs they are voracious hunters of snails. As adults though they cannot feed, their lives bookended by starvation, the females mixing molecules in their abdomens to glow on June nights: a desperate call to the males to mate, to breed, to pass on genes before they die.

For this is a month of life, of breeding, of chicks, spores, seeds and cubs. In the purr of the nightjar, the squeak of the woodcock, the flower of the saxifrage, the June scent of the honeysuckle are these beings’ genes, clamouring to join another generation of life. We too are things of genes, part of a timeless flow from a wild past to an uncertain future. We neither fly from Africa to sing nor by alchemy make our abdomens glow, but our genes still clamour to be passed to the next generation, to be expressed as our children and their children.

Wild honeysuckle. Picture: Elizabeth DackWild honeysuckle. Picture: Elizabeth Dack

Uniquely as a species, we have the choice to pass more than genes to our inheritors. There is money, to be sure, and it is wise for us to store that for our children’s futures. Wiser still - imperative! - is for us to pass to our children a landscape in which day and night are full of other creatures, living still wild lives, singing strange African songs, glowing in the summer gloom, and passing their genes to the future too.

It has famously been said, by the Senegalese forester Baba Dioum, that, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught”. As much as in the classroom, this teaching is around us, in the nightjar’s song on a heath and the quail’s quip from the barley; it is in the bark and stamp of the roe in the birchwood and the strange glow of a snail-devouring beetle in the damp grass.

Go to the night this June and learn from the wild around you. And if you have a child, if your genes have been blessed with one, then take her or him too.

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