Chris van Schaick has a confession on his knowledge of local wildlife

He may have lived in the country for two decades but when it comes to his knowledge of local wildlife, Chris van Schaick has a confession

Meon Valley has been my home for 20 years now. But although it’s a great privilege to live so close to the deer, badgers, foxes and woodpeckers, I’ve a confession. For all of those 20 years I’ve been bluffing madly on the subject of nature and wildlife.

Like many Meon Valley Men (and women) I go over the horizon to urban places to earn a crust – Southampton, Portsmouth, Reading or London. It can leave you short of time to mug up on the difference between a Crested Grebe and a Bearded Tit.

My cycling mate Jeff sometimes shows similar tendencies – even though he was brought up in Hambledon. On one cycling trip, he stopped, solemnly ushered us both to the side of the road and pointed out what he sincerely believed were the distinctive markings of an adder on the grass verge. On closer inspection, it proved to be the distinctive markings of an elastic luggage tie from somebody’s roof rack.

Jeff has a favourite phrase for when a distant object passes overhead. “That’s a buzzard,” he’ll say. Usually, it is but once in a while it’s a FlyBe flight from Belfast on its final approach to Southampton Airport.

We’re all at it. The boiler man Alan was here recently. He came in holding a tiny creature he’d found outside. For several minutes we speculated whether it was a field mouse or a dormouse. We spoke with great, Attenborough-ish authority; but on the basis of no knowledge. The creature could equally well have been a vole, or an extremely small rat.

And the other day on another cycling trip, I Ieaned across the parapet of a lovely, ancient bridge over the Meon and saw the water was full of big edible-looking fish. Did I pause for verification before telling my cycling companion that they were trout? Course not. I did what I always do and bluffed.

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The seasoned Nature Bluffer needs a few stock species whose names he can trot out at key moments. On country walks, my Dad used the term Meadow Pipit to describe more or less any bird smaller than a kestrel. My own standby comes from the butterfly world. There’s nothing better for inspiring awe in the uninitiated city dwelling visitor than fixing your gaze on a spot a few yards away and saying: “I’m pretty sure that’s a Pearl-bordered Fritillary.” If you’re feeling brave, you add: “It’s a bit early for them.”

If I’m no Chris Packham, then Mrs v. S is certainly no Kate Humble. One night she was putting the dog out for a wee and accidentally trod on a hedgehog that had decided to curl up on the front door mat. There followed a serious incident of noise pollution, with Mrs. v. S. hopping on one foot yelping and the dog barking frantically. It was more You’ve Been Framed than Autumnwatch. It’s going to take a few more decades before we can bracket ourselves alongside Humble, K and Packham, C.


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