Here is a fine study by Jefferies of the behaviour of rooks en masse, from ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’ (1879). His close observations of their habits eventually lead him to conclude that they, like humans, have their own history etched into the landscape.

“As evening approaches, and the rooks begin to wing their way homewards, sometimes a great number of them will alight upon the steep ascent close under the entrenchment on the downs which has been described, and from whence the wood and beech trees where they sleep can be seen. They do not seem so much in search of food, of which probably there is not a great deal to be found in the short, dried-up herbage and hard soil, as to rest here, half-way home from the arable fields. Sometimes they wheel and circle in fantastic flight over the very brow of the down, just above the rampart; occasionally, in the raw cold days of winter, they perch, moping in disconsolate mood, upon the bare branches of the clumps of trees on the ridge.

After the nesting time is over and they have got back to their old habits – which during that period are quite reversed – it is a sight to see from hence the long black stream in the air steadily flowing onwards to the wood below. They stretch from here to the roosting-trees, fully a mile and a half – literally as the crow flies; and backwards in the opposite direction the line reaches as far as the eye can see. It is safe to estimate that the aerial army’s line of march extends over quite five miles in one unbroken corps. The breadth they occupy in the atmosphere varies – now twenty yards, now fifty, now a hundred, on an average, say fifty yards; but rooks do not fly very close together, like starlings, and the mass, it may be observed, fly on the same plane. Instead of three or four layers one above the other, the greater number pass by at the same height from the ground, side by side on a level, as soldiers would march upon a road: not meaning, of course, an absolute, but a relative level. This formation is more apparent from an elevation – as it were, up among them – than from below; and looking along their line towards the distant wood it is like glancing under a black canopy.

Small outlying parties straggle from the line – now on one side, now on the other; sometimes a few descend to alight on trees in the meadows, where doubtless their nests were situated in the spring. For it is a habit of theirs months after the nesting is over, and also before it begins, to pay a flying visit to the trees in the evening, calling en route to see that all is well and to assert possession.

The rustling sound of these thousands upon thousands of wings beating the air with slow steady stroke can hardly be compared to anything else in its weird oppressiveness, so to say: it is a little like falling water, but may be best likened, perhaps, to a vast invisible broom sweeping the sky. Every now and then a rook passes with ragged wing—several feathers gone, so that you can see daylight through it; sometimes the feathers are missing from the centre, leaving a great gap, so that it looks as if the bird had a large wing on this side and on the other two narrow ones. There is a rough resemblance between these and the torn sails of some of the old windmills which have become dark in colour from long exposure to the weather, and have been rent by the storms of years. Rooks can fly with gaps of astonishing size in their wings, and do not seem much incommoded by the loss – caused, doubtless, by a charge of shot in the rook shooting, or by the small sharp splinters of flint with which the birdkeepers sometimes load their guns, not being allowed to use shot.

Near their nesting-trees their black feathers may be picked up by dozens in the grass; they beat them out occasionally against the small boughs, and sometimes in fighting. If seen from behind, the wings of the rook, as he spreads them and glides, slowly descending, preparatory to alighting, slightly turn up at the edges like the rim of a hat, but much less curved. From a distance as he flies he appears to preserve a level course, neither rising nor falling; but if observed nearer it will be seen that with every stroke of the wings the body is lifted some inches, and sinks as much immediately after-wards.

As the black multitude floats past overhead with deliberate, easy flight, their trumpeters and buglemen, the jackdaws – two or three to every company—utter their curious chuckle; for the jackdaw is a bird which could not keep silence to save his life, but must talk after his fashion, while his grave, solemn companions move slowly onwards, rarely deigning to “caw” him a reply. But away yonder at the wood, above the great beech trees, where so vast a congregation is gathered together, there is a mighty uproar and commotion: a seething and bubbling of the crowds, now settling on the branches, now rising in sable clouds, each calling to the other with all his might, the whole population delivering its opinions at once.

It is an assemblage of a hundred republics. We know how free states indulge in speech with their parliaments and congresses and senates, their public meetings, and so forth: here are a hundred such nations, all with perfect liberty of tongue, holding forth unsparingly, and in a language which consists of two or three syllables indefinitely repeated. The din is wonderful – each republic as its forces arrive adding to the noise, and for a long time unable to settle upon their trees, but feeling compelled to wheel around and discourse. In spring each tribe has its special district, its own canton and city, in its own trees away in the meadows. Later on they all meet here in the evening. It is a full hour or more before the orations have all been delivered, and even then small bands rush up into the air still dissatisfied.

This great stream of rooks passing over the hills meets another great stream as it approaches the wood, crossing up from the meadows. From the rampart there may be seen, perhaps a mile and a half away, a dim black line crossing at right angles – converging on the wood, which itself stands on the edge of the tableland from which the steeper downs arise. This second army is every whit as numerous, as lengthy, and as regular in its route as the first.

Every morning, from the beech trees where they have slept, safe at that elevation from all the dangers of the night, there set out these two vast expeditionary corps. Regularly, the one flies steadily eastwards over the downs; as regularly the other flies steadily northwards over the vale and meadows. Doubtless in different country districts their habits in this respect vary; but here it is always east and always north. If any leave the wood for the south or the west, as probably they do, they go in small bodies and are quickly lost sight of. The two main divisions sail towards the sunrise and towards the north star.

They preserve their ranks for at least two miles from the wood; and then gradually first one and then another company falls out, and wheeling round, descends upon some favourite field, till by degrees, spreading out like a fan, the army melts away. In the evening, the various companies, which may by that time have worked far to the right or to the left, gradually move into line. By-and-by the vanguard comes sweeping up, and each regiment rises from the meadow or the hill, and takes its accustomed place in the return journey.

So that although if you casually observe a flock of rooks in the daytime they seem to wander hither and thither just as fancy leads, or as they are driven by passers-by, in reality they have all their special haunts; they adhere to certain rules, and even act in concert, thousands upon thousands of them at once, as if in obedience to the word of command, and as if aware of the precise moment at which to move. They have their laws, from which there is no deviation: they are handed down unaltered from generation to generation. Tradition, indeed, seems to be their main guide, as it is with savage human tribes. They have their particular feeding-grounds; and so you may notice that, comparing ten or a dozen fields, one or two will almost always be found to be frequented by rooks while the rest are vacant.

Here, for instance, is a meadow close to a farmstead – what is usually called the home-field, from its proximity to a house – here day after day rooks alight and spend hours in it, as much at their ease as the nag or the lambs brought up by hand. Another field, at a distance, which to the human eye appears so much more suitable, being retired, quiet, and apparently quite as full of food, is deserted; they scarcely come near it. The home-field itself is not the attraction, because other home-fields are not so favoured.

The tenacity with which rooks cling to localities is often illustrated near great cities where buildings have gradually closed in around their favourite haunts. Yet on the small waste spots covered with cinders and dust-heaps, barren and unlovely, the rooks still alight; and you may see them, when driven up from such places, perching on the telegraph wires over the very steam of the locomotives as they puff into the station.

I think that neither considerations of food, water, shelter, nor convenience are always the determining factors in the choice made by birds of the spots they frequent; for I have seen many cases in which all of these were evidently quite put on one side. Birds to ordinary observation seem so unfettered, to live so entirely without rhyme or reason, that it is difficult to convey the idea that the precise contrary is really the case.

Returning to these two great streams of rooks, which pour every evening in converging currents from the north and east upon the wood; why do they do this? Why not go forth to the west, or to the south, where there are hills and meadows and streams in equal number? Why not scatter abroad, and return according to individual caprice? Why, to go still further, do rooks manoeuvre in such immense numbers, and crows fly only in pairs? The simple truth is that birds, like men, have a history. They are unconscious of it, but its accomplished facts affect them still and shape the course of their existence. Without doubt, if we could trace that history back, there are good and sufficient reasons why rooks prefer to fly, in this particular locality, to the east and to the north. Some¬thing may perhaps be learnt by examining the routes along which they fly.

The second division – that which goes northwards, after flying little more than a mile in a straight line – passes over Wick Farm, and disperses gradually in the meadows surrounding and extending far below it. The rooks whose nests are placed in the elms of the Warren belong to this division, and, as their trees are the nearest to the great central roosting-place, they are the first to quit the line of march in the morning, descending to feed in the fields around their property. On the other hand, in the evening, as the army streams homewards, they are the last to rise and join the returning host.

So that there are often rooks in and about the Warren later in the evening, after those whose habitations are farther away have gone by, for, having so short a distance to fly, they put off the movement till the last moment. Before watches became so common a possession, the labouring people used, they say, to note the passage overhead of the rooks in the morning in winter as one of their signs of time, so regular was their appearance; and if the fog hid them, the noise from a thousand black wings and throats could not be missed.

By Richard Jeffries, Visionary Author and Naturalist (1848-1887)


It’s Time to End Cairn Building

Stones: We’ve built pyramids and castles with them and painstakingly cleared them out of farm fields, using them to build low walls for fencing. We marvel at the rocks in the Grand Canyon, Arches and Grand Teton national parks. Yet a perplexing practice has been gaining ground in our wild spaces: People have begun stacking rocks on top of one another, balancing them carefully and doing this for unknown reasons, though probably as some kind of personal or “spiritual” statement.

These piles aren’t true cairns, the official term for deliberately stacked rocks. From middle Gaelic, the word means “mound of stones built as a memorial or landmark.” There are plenty of those in Celtic territories, that’s for sure, as well as in other cultures; indigenous peoples in the United States often used cairns to cover and bury their dead. Those of us who like to hike through wilderness areas are glad to see the occasional cairn, as long as it’s indicating the right way to go at critical junctions in the backcountry.

Stone piles have their uses, but the many rock stacks that I’m seeing on our public lands are increasingly problematic. First, if they’re set in a random place, they can lead an unsuspecting hiker into trouble, away from the trail and into a potentially dangerous place. Second, we go to wilderness to remove ourselves from the human saturation of our lives, not to see mementoes from other people’s lives.

We hike, we mountain bike, we run, we backpack, we boat in wilderness areas to retreat from civilization. We need undeveloped places to find quiet in our lives. A stack of rocks left by someone who preceded us on the trail does nothing more than remind us that other people were there before us. It is an unnecessary marker of humanity, like leaving graffiti — no different than finding a tissue bleached and decaying against the earth that a previous traveler didn’t pack out, or a forgotten water bottle. Pointless cairns are simply pointless reminders of the human ego.

I’m not sure exactly when the practice of stacking stones began in the West. But the so-called Harmonic Convergence in 1987, a globally synchronized meditation event, brought a tighter focus on New Age practices to Sedona, Arizona, just south of my home. Vortexes, those places where spiritual and metaphysical energy are reputed to be found, began to figure prominently on national forest and other public lands surrounding Sedona. Hikers near these vortexes couldn’t miss seeing so many new lines of rocks or stacks of stones.

Since then, the cairns, referred to as “prayer stone stacks” by some, have been multiplying on our public lands. Where there were just a dozen or so stone stacks at a much-visited state park on Sedona’s Oak Creek 10 years ago, now there are hundreds. What’s more, the cairn craze has mushroomed, invading wilderness areas everywhere in the West.

Why should we care about a practice that can be dismantled with a simple foot-push, that uses natural materials that can be returned quickly to the earth, and that some say nature will remove eventually anyway?

Because it’s not a harmless practice: Moving rocks increases erosion by exposing the soil underneath, allowing it to wash away and thin soil cover for native plants. Every time a rock is disturbed, an animal loses a potential home, since many insects and mammals burrow under rocks for protection and reproduction.

But mainly, pointless cairns change the value of the wilderness experience by degrading an already beautiful landscape. Building cairns where none are needed for route finding is antithetical to Leave-No-Trace ethics. Move a stone, and you’ve changed the environment from something that it wasn’t to something manmade. Cairn building might also be illegal, since erecting structures or moving natural materials on public lands often comes with fines and/or jail time. Of course, I doubt the Forest Service will hunt down someone who decided that his or her self-expression required erecting a balanced stone sculpture on a sandstone ridge. Yet it is an unwelcome reminder of humanity, something we strive to avoid as we enjoy our wild spaces.

Let’s end this invasive practice. Fight the urge to stack rocks and make your mark. Consider deconstructing them when you find them, unless they’re marking a critical trail junction. If you must worship in the wild, repress that urge to rearrange the rocks and just say a silent prayer to yourself. Or bring along a journal or sketchpad to recall what you felt in the wild.

Let’s check our egos at the trailheads and boat launches, and leave the earth’s natural beauty alone. Her geology, as it stands, is already perfect.

Article by ROBYN MARTIN in HIGH COUNTRY NEWS   |   27 JULY 2015

#2. River Wharfe Part 1: Burley to Ilkley

The lovely River Wharfe is a major river in Yorkshire, England which for much of its length it forms the county boundary between West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire. Its name probably comes from the Saxon ‘guerf‘ meaning ‘swift’ but it could even be named after the Old English word ‘weorf‘or Old Norse ‘hverfr‘ – both meaning ‘winding river’.

It is 65 miles (104.6 km) long before it joins the Ouse – making it the 21st longest UK river. It is navigable from Tadcaster weir at to its confluence with the Ouse near Cawood and is tidal from Ulleskelf to the Ouse.

The valley of the Wharfe – Wharfedale – is one of the best known, and popular, of the Yorkshire Dales. Starting above the village of Buckden at Beckermonds in Langstrothdale in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the river flows through KettlewellGrassingtonBolton AbbeyAddinghamIlkleyBurley-in-WharfedaleOtleyWetherby and Tadcaster. It then flows into the River Ouse near Cawood.

The narrower, faster-flowing upper section of the river from its source to around Addingham is in Upper Wharfedale and passes many beautiful old stone built villages. Thereare a number of waterfalls – the best known being Linton Falls close to Grassington and The Strid near Bolton Abbey, a spectacular natural feature where the river is forced through a narrow channel. The wider, slower-flowing and more meandering river in the flatter downstream section has a very different character.

This first batch of photos taken between July – September 2017 covers the 6.2 km stretch from the Burley-in-Wharfedale stepping stones @ N 53 55.360W 1 44.960 to Ilkley new bridge @ N 53 55.679 W 1 49.409.

1. The weir at Burley-in-Wharfedale with the river in moderate flow but with several trees washed down after heavy rains a few days earlier (20/8/17).
2. The leat (or goit) flowing from the edge of the Burley weir full after heavy rains. This man-made channel supplied water to a water-wheel powering Greenholme Mill – at one time the largest water-powered cotton mill in England – and now powers a new hydro-power station (17/8/17)
3. The partially submerged stepping stones at Burley looking across to the north bank. The Burley Bridge Association has campaigned since 1996 for a footbridge across the river here to ensure a reliable and safe river crossing. (20/8/17)
4. Looking south-east towards the dry Burley stepping stones from the north bank at a time of lower river flow (23/8/17)
5. Looking south-west upstream from the Burley stepping stones towards the weir. Part of Rombald’s Moor above Ilkley is just visible in the right background (23/8/17)
6. Looking across the Burley stepping stones towards the north bank from where the public footpath continues across the fields to Askwith village (23/8/17)
[Compare with photo #3 taken a few days earlier]
7. Rosebay willowherb flourishing on the edge of the lagoon at Ben Rhydding Gravel Pits Nature Reserve (BRGPNR) adjacent to the Wharfe (29/7/17 @ N 53 55.474 W 1 46.793)
8. Looking north-east down river from the edge of Ben Rhydding Gravel Pits Nature Reserve (29/7/17)
From here, otters have been observed.
9. View north across the Wharfe from the bench on the eastern edge of BRGPNR (29/7/17)
10. Looking north-east from the eastern end of the BRGPNR towards The Chevin, a beautiful wooded hill overlooking Otley (29/7/17)
11. Denton Road bridge 1 of 5 river crossings (2 road bridges, one old stone pack-horse bridge, one suspension footbridge and 1 set of stepping stones) linking Ilkley on the south bank (in West Yorkshire) with the north bank of the river (North Yorkshire). Looking south-east with the river in low flow conditions. After severe floods in December 2015 the river overflowed the roadway and the bridge was struck and damaged by huge tree trunks washed down-stream (19/9/17)

Photo #11 shows one of the many Wharfe river crossings – see here for an illustrated list of these from its source to its confluence with the Ouse.

12. Ilkley stepping stones looking north (24/9/17 @ N 53 55.819 W 1 48.013)
13. Ilkley stepping stones looking south – in good condition for crossing! (19/9/17)
14. A quiet stretch west of Ilkley stepping stones favoured by this group of mallard (19/9/17)
15. Looking north-east down river from Beanlands Island (19/9/17 @ N 53 55.853 W 1 48.308))
16. Looking west up the small stream separating Beanlands Island from the river (19/9/17)
17. Ivy lattice embracing a sycamore trunk – good home for a geocache! (19/9/17)
18. Ilkley suspension bridge, built in 1934 – looking south-east (19/9/17) 
19. Ilkley suspension bridge looking north (19/9/17)
20. Ilkley suspension bridge looking west in late evening with Rombald’s Moor on the skyline (19/9/17)
21. Riverside path just east of Ilkley new bridge (19/9/17)
22. Looking east from Ilkley new bridge (26/9/17)
23. View west from Ilkley new bridge (26/9/17)
24. Ilkley new bridge looking north-east (26/9/17)

#1. Skipton Castle Woods – Ancient Natural Beauty (8/11/18)

This was a stimulating short stroll in beautiful, rare, ancient woodland with warm autumnal colours and multiple water features of interest. The 15-hectare woods were once part of a much larger forest in the Manor of Skipton, which for over 1,000 years provided the castle owners with timber for fuel, construction, hunting and fishing.

The excellent hunting, abundant timber and water convinced Baron Robert de Romille to build his castle here in 1090 which in turn established a town. Later the woodland helped power Skipton’s industrial revolution by supplying timber and water to the cotton, wool and corn mills in the area.

Seasonal highlights include spring wild garlic when the whole woodland is full of the heavy scents of this plant. At this time the woods also have colourful patches of bluebells, wood anemone and wild primrose. In autumn – one of the best times to visit – the paths are covered with golden leaves, and beech nuts and pines cones are scattered across the woodland floor.

Red kites and buzzards are regularly seen over the pine and spruce and woodpeckers often heard throughout the wood. Wagtails, dippers, ducks, herons and kingfishers frequent the various water features.

Links: See here and here for detailed and comprehensive information on the features and attractions of the woods and here for a useful trail map.

1. Looking north at the start of the trail near the Sawmill Entrance (main)
2. Info Board at start of trail
3. Lovely archer figure in willow installed in July 2018 points the way (artist unknown)
4. Sandy Goit, the high level channel on the left is supplied by a pond called Round Dam and used to supply power to the waterwheels at The Old Saw Mill and High Mill in Skipton town. To the right is Eller Beck.
5. A mature tree clings to the steep side of the wooded valley
6. A mighty moss-covered beech – one of the many impressive trees in the woodland
7. Bridge over Eller Beck
8. The Round Dam, holding water from above the weir on Eller Beck to feed the high level Sandy Goit which provided water to power various mills in Skipton
9. Reflections in Round Dam showing the high level path footbridge to the east
10. The weir on Eller Beck which forms Long Dam behind it and Round Dam to the right (east)
11. Looking north along the Long Dam valley with a semi-circular stone seat
12. Looking east along Long Dam
13. Autumn gold – leaf reflections in Long Dam
14. Looking south up towards the high level path skirting the wood and the fields of Storems Lathe
15. Looking east along the high level path running above the south side of the woods
16. Looking west down Eller Beck from the footbridge at the eastern edge of the woods
17. Looking north across the footbridge at the eastern edge of the woods
18. Looking north from Skipton Road (just east of the woods) towards Thorpe Fell. Note the goods train passing along the Swinden Quarry – Skipton Line
19. Skipton: looking NW up Raikes Road from the Holy Trinity church steps
20.  Holy Trinity church tower (restored in the 1650s after Civil War damage) – the church dates from around 1300
21. Looking north from Mill Bridge up the Springs Branch of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal
22. Looking north from Mill Bridge up Long Dam running under High Corn Mill (originally called Water Corne Mill established in 1310 and part of the Manor of Skipton) 
23. Looking south-east down Grassington Road towards Holy Trinity church with Skipton Moor beyond