Down and Brown in the Dene of Green

Perhaps I should blame the BBC.  Their annual series of Springwatch broadcasts are full of amazing wildlife photography capturing a myriad of creatures as they raise their young at this time of year.  Or maybe it’s my friend Louise’s fault who said:

I saw the most amazing heron today at Holywell Dene. You need to go for a walk there. Owls with babies too.

If I’m honest the owls probably clinched it, though I made the first of several errors in assuming that if Louise had spotted them the owls must be diurnal (little owls?) though of course as a regular dog walker she’s probably out at dusk which wasn’t an option for me today.  After reading several articles about the best ways to photograph these birds I discovered that the species seen at this location were tawny and barn owls.

Nevertheless I felt sure that a trip to this nature reserve would be worth my while.

In Northumberland and Durham, the word “Dene” means a steep-sided and wooded valley with a watercourse running through it.    Although I’d worked in the vicinity for Holywell for three years I’d not been aware of it until Louise’s recommendation which struck me as odd.  It lies close to Seaton Delaval Hall which of course I’ve been familiar with for years.

I learnt subsequently that in the years when I was near here the dene was not the place it is now though there have been settlement in the vicinity since Anglo-Saxon times, though following the Norman Conquest the de Laval family were granted ownership and the dene has been part of the Delaval estate since.  The area became industrialised when coal was discovered here, and an engine constructed to draw if from the mine as well as waggonways for its transportation.

When this ceased to be viable the land was predominantly used for farming, and the incursion of cattle into the dene destroyed much of the habitat in what is the area’s last remaining stretch of ancient woodland.  In 2001 a group of volunteers came together to clean the dene and make it safe for visitors and they must be thanked for the re-establishment of this natural habitat.

I didn’t photograph many birds.  There were plenty about despite the pouring rain; and I could hear numerous familiar and unfamiliar songs above the background cooing of wood-pigeon, but aside from the blackbirds and robins that taunted me on the pathways everything else gave me a wide berth.  The scarlet of my gore-tex jacket and the fact that I have the grace of a pig on castors saw to that.  What’s more the fact that there was so much movement around me as leaves twitched in response to the falling raindrops meant that I had little chance of spotting something animate.

I contented myself with shooting the river and some of the flora, which is when I made another mistake.  In trying to climb the river bank afterwards I should have put my camera away.  Instead I slipped and ended up with mud on my lens.  And trousers.  And hands.  And not so scarlet jacket.  Perhaps I should have stayed and taken advantage of my newly acquired camouflage!



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