Europe’s answer to the tropical rain forest

Back in June, I went on a walk across some flower-rich chalk grassland in west Dorset (a county in the south west of the UK).  The article below describes the walk  and was published in the September edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.  It is a very “Dorset” article and some readers may not be familiar with a few of the allusions.  So, the Cerne Giant (or the Rude Man of Cerne) is a massive figure carved in the grass upon a chalk hillside above the village of Cerne Abbas.  Gabriel Oak is a sheep farmer who features strongly in Thomas Hardy’s novel “Far from the Madding Crowd”, immortalised, for me, in the 1967 film starring Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.  Gabriel Oak keeps his sheep on a chalk grassland hillside.  A “coombe” is a local name for a valley.

 

Wild Thyme
Some of the species found on the chalk grassland including wild thyme (purple), black medic (yellow) and salad burnet (dry brown).

 

Chalk grassland with its colourful wildflowers and multitude of insects was once a common sight in a Dorset summer.  It is the landscape defended by the Cerne Giant and where, in Far from the Madding Crowd, we first meet sheep farmer Gabriel Oak.  In the 20th century, however, much of Dorset’s chalk grassland disappeared following changes in farming practice, although small areas survived, usually where ploughing was too difficult.  So, when I heard about the visit to Higher Coombe, an area of chalk grassland above Litton Cheney, as part of the South Dorset Ridgeway Festival of Discovery, I jumped at the chance to see this ancient landscape and its exuberant floral displays.

We gathered near the entrance to Coombe Farm just off the busy A35.  Despite this being only a few days away from the summer solstice, the sky was overcast and a cold, blustery wind cut across the ridge sending many of us to grab warmer clothing.   The coombe fell away to the south, a deep gash in the chalk with precipitous grassy sides and extra folds and creases giving the landscape the look of a rumpled duvet.  A farm track clung to the eastern side of the coombe and higher up, near Coombe Coppice, sheep dotted the hillside.  Beyond the coombe, occasional shafts of sunlight illuminated the Bride Valley and its patchwork of green fields.  The sea should have been visible but a distant mist had taken its place.

Local expert Nick Gray, from the Dorset Wildlife Trust, was our guide for the afternoon. He began by shepherding us through a farm gate on to the western slope of Higher Coombe to follow a rough contour along the hillside.  Walking was difficult, there was no distinct path in the long, thick grass and the steepness of the hillside made it awkward to pause to observe.  But there was plenty to see: architectural clumps of thistles with their purple mop heads, many different species of grasses and, where the turf became shorter, a mosaic of colourful wild flowers lighting up the hillside.  My attention was drawn by the violet-purple splashes of wild thyme with its distinctive tubular flowers but Nick made sure we also noticed the tiny white trumpet flowers of squinancywort with their delicate pink stripes.   The buttery yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil were also scattered about the hillside together with frothy lemon-yellow clumps of lady’s bedstraw and the delicate golden globes of black medic.  A few lilac-mauve discs of scabious and pink-purple pyramidal orchids added to the display.  These were just a few of the diverse plants growing here and it has been estimated that chalk grassland can support up to 40 different species of flowering plant per square metre.  It is one of Europe’s most diverse habitats, the European equivalent of the tropical rain forest.

So, why is chalk grassland such a rich habitat?  The soil that covers the underlying chalk hills is a great influence, as Nick explained to us. Thin, lime rich and nutrient poor, it holds little water especially on steep slopes and dries out quickly in the summer.  These stressed conditions mean that lush grasses cannot dominate and a wide range of chalk loving species can flourish.  Good management with controlled grazing is also essential to keep the turf short, stop scrub developing and at the same time allow chalk grassland plants to grow.  The land on both sides of Higher Coombe is managed through a stewardship agreement with the farmer whereby, for about six months each year, grazing animals are excluded on one side.  When grazing stops, the grassland explodes into flower and this year the western side is getting its chance.  Next summer it will be the turn of the eastern side which will be ablaze with orchids.

With this profusion of flowers, I had expected to see many invertebrates but, that afternoon, there were very few flying.  Bees in particular were scarce and we saw only two bumblebees all afternoon.  Perhaps the cool air, the lack of sunshine and the encroaching sea mist were restricting their activity?  We came across two large golden-ringed dragonflies resting among the vegetation on the hillside, unable to fly in these weather conditions. This did, however, give us the chance to examine these normally mobile creatures with their striking yellow bands on a black background.  Later on, as we walked through another field on the eastern side of the coombe, we disturbed many small butterflies which seemed to be sheltering in the long grass.  In part compensation for the lack of flying insects, there were some beautiful bee orchids and common spotted orchids on this second chalk hillside.

But should we care about the decline of this special and once common habitat?  The loss of wild flowers will certainly have affected the beauty of our countryside, as well as contributing to the well-documented decline in insects and farmland birds.  There is also evidence that florally-rich chalk grassland provides healthier forage for grazing animals as compared to contemporary feeding on heavily fertilised rye grass.  Perhaps, had we been aware of the importance of the chalk grassland landscape, we might have valued it more?

If you want to see some of the remaining pockets of this special landscape then try Eggardon Hill or Maiden Castle or the Cerne and Sydling Downs or, further afield, visit Ballard Down in the Purbecks or Hambledon Hill and Hod Hill north of Blandford.  Chalk grassland is glorious at any time of year but the best time for flowers is from spring until early autumn.

Nick Gray talks to the group on Higher Coombe
Nick Gray talks to the group on Higher Coombe with the Bride Valley in the distance.

 

Wild Thyme
wild thyme

 

Squinancywort
squinancywort

 

Bird's Foot Trefoil
One flower and three seed heads of bird’s foot trefoil. The shape of the seed heads is responsible for the “bird’s foot” part of the name and also  for one of the plant’s local names, granny’s toenails.

 

Pyramidal orchid
pyramidal orchid

 

Golden-ringed dragonfly
golden-ringed dragonfly

 

Bee orchid
bee orchid

It’s a daffodil, but not as we know it.

Two sea daffodils at Dawlish Warren
two sea daffodils

Last week I made the short train journey along the Devon coast to Dawlish Warren hoping to see some of the special late summer flowers that flourish on the nature reserve.  Dawlish Warren is also a very popular holiday spot in August and, as I walked from the station, I joined shoals of people making their way to the beach laden with bags and body boards.  It was all very good humoured and, as I sat on the promenade drinking my coffee and dodging wasps, children played on the beach below, shrieking as they ran in and out of the water.

[For more information on Dawlish Warren look here]

It was a gentle day with sunshine and cotton wool clouds as I followed the sandy boardwalk away from the promenade across the narrow line of dunes and down to the quiet of the nature reserve.  The uneven, wooden walkway meandered across swathes of rough grass where many evening primrose stood on tall reddish-green stems, their papery flowers fluttering in the breeze like clouds of lemon-yellow butterflies.

The central part of the reserve used to be a lake, Greenland Lake, long since drained but never really having lost its watery feel. There were still a few puddles remaining after recent heavy rain and the profuse flora was dominated by damp-loving plants, especially tall, thick rushy grasses.   Drifts of purple loosestrife, spiky and colourful, stood above the dark green grassy understory.  Fluffy lilac globes of water mint and creamy cushions of meadowsweet also shone, along with large numbers of the yellow daisy-like fleabane. Late season insects enjoyed the many food sources.

Further on, as the ground became a little drier and the grass shorter, I was surprised to see one or two spikes of marsh helleborine.  They had been flowering in their hundreds when I visited about six weeks previously but I thought they would have been finished by now.  These unusual flowers are members of the orchid family and each pinkish flower stem carries several white flowers with delicate pink veins and a frilly lip, backed by pink sepals.  There is something unsettling about marsh helleborine when they appear in large numbers, casting their pale colours across the damp green grassland.

There’s another orchid I have seen growing here in profusion in previous years.  It’s the last of the season’s orchids to appear and I had almost given up hope of finding any when, finally, I stumbled across a few.  Each vertical spike is very distinctive, a slightly hairy grey-green spiral, looking as though several strands of fine rope had been wound around one other.  Perhaps it’s just the name, autumn lady’s tresses, but they also remind me of the plaits the girls wove from their long hair when I was at school.  The white tubular flowers emerge from this grey-green spiral to decorate the spike in a helical manner, either clockwise or counter clockwise.  Bumblebees pollinate the flowers and apparently, they prefer the counter clockwise arrangement.

My next stop was the inner bay, with its views up the river Exe towards mudflats popular with wading birds.  Today the water had retreated, leaving the semi-circular bay a shining sheet of dark mud, revealing many clumps of bright green glasswort (marsh samphire).  Groups of glistening, jointed stems pushed up from the mud, their multiple branches resembling miniature versions of the giant cacti often seen in Western Movies.  Each stem was also dotted with particles that resembled grains of sand but in fact were tiny yellow flowers.

There was quite a bit of woody, reedy debris on the beach although very little plastic at this time of year.  I found a suitable log and sat down to have my sandwiches.  Boats puttered across the river between Starcross and Exmouth and a few seabirds moved about the mud.  Then suddenly, as if from nowhere, a cloud of small grey birds appeared above the bay.  There were perhaps as many as two hundred, moving as a group backwards and forwards above the water but continually changing formation, the outer members of the group visibly accelerating before a turn.  It felt like a deliberate performance and, as they banked and changed direction, the sun caught their wings transforming them momentarily into mobile shards of silver.  Suddenly it was all over and without warning they landed on the beach to my right, disappearing from view as they merged with the mud.  Some passing birders told me they were mostly dunlin with a few sanderling.

After lunch I pressed on past the inner bay to the fist-shaped end of the sand spit, Warren Point, that nearly reaches the east bank of the Exe at Exmouth, but doesn’t quite make it.  This part of the peninsula is fringed by sloping sandy beaches and marram grass-coated dunes but the central area is quite different.  Here the land is covered with rough grass and vast mats of the tiny succulent, white stonecrop, a mass of white flowers six weeks ago but now just fleshy green growth.  The dry sandy ground also supports unruly clumps of brambles and many shafts of evening primrose topped with yellow flowers.  Large blue-green dragonflies swooped backwards and forwards in search of prey.

I have to admit that my visit to this part of Warren Point was not entirely unprompted.  Before I left, I had read about a very rare flower appearing here and, as I passed the information centre, I asked for guidance as to where they might be found.  I followed the directions and on a small rise surrounded by rough brambles I found them, several clumps of brilliant white flowers above thick strap-like leaves.  These are sea daffodils, found all around the Mediterranean often on sandy beaches but very rare in this country.  There are only three sites where these plants flower in the UK and Dawlish Warren is one.

In groups, the flowers look very spiky and disorganised but closer examination reveals the true beauty of the blooms.   Each flower has a very large white corona, trumpet-like with a deeply serrated edge, containing six prominent yellow pollen-loaded stamens around a long white style.  Behind the corona are six narrow sepals arranged symmetrically like a white star.   As I stood examining the flowers a light breeze wafted their sweet fragrance up to me.  I was so entranced that I failed to notice a rabbit hole and nearly fell over; it’s not called Dawlish Warren for nothing.

Sea daffodils clearly do resemble the flowers that are such potent symbols of spring in this country, but it is the late summer flowering of the sea daffodil that is so disconcerting.  They are also plants of very hot climates.  The Dawlish Warren specimens failed to flower last year and there has been some speculation that with this year’s long, hot, dry summer the plants felt more at home.

 

 

Evening primrose at Dawlish Warren
evening primrose

 

Meadowsweet and purple loosestrife at Dawlish Warren
meadowsweet and purple loosestrife among the long thick rushy grass

 

Water mint at Dawlish Warren
water mint with common carder bee

 

Solitary bee on fleabane at Dawlish Warren
fleabane with solitary bee (possibly silvery leaf-cutter bee)

 

Marsh helleborine at Dawlish Warren
marsh helleborine

 

Autumn lady's tresses at Dawlish Warren
autumn lady’s tresses

 

Glasswort growing in the inner bay at Dawlish Warren
glasswort (marsh samphire)

 

Sea daffodil with pollinator at Dawlish Warren
sea daffodil with pollinator

 

Solitary bee on sea rocket at Dawlish Warren
solitary bee on sea rocket

 

A thug on the Lamb’s Ears

I walk through our local community garden (The Leechwell Garden) most days in summer just to have a look at the flowers and insects but I know that, if I am there late morning, the sound of children playing will brighten the air.  The older children, sometimes along with mum or dad reliving their youth, will be enjoying the fine new play area with its exciting slide.  The younger ones may be messing about on the watery edge of the stream that passes through the garden but it is the sand pit that really hits the spot.   Children love playing in the sand and I often see several family groups clustered about the sand pit; the only thing that seems to deter the children is heavy rain.  It’s a real tribute to the vision of the garden committee that they created something so popular.

Pair of wool carder bees
Male (left) and female wool-carder bees having a rest. One leaf has been well “carded”.

 

The flowers I come to see are across the other side of the garden and, for the past few weeks, I have been loitering near the old stone wall where there’s a large patch of the plant Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina).  It covers the ground with a jumble of silvery-green, velvety leaves and sends up stout, silvery stems bearing clutches of smaller leaves and understated pink-purple flowers.  It’s a pleasant, restful sort of plant creating an old-style, cottage garden feeling but what goes on around these Lamb’s Ears in midsummer is far from restful.

From the middle of June, a dark, chunky bee can be seen patrolling the patch of silvery-green leaves and I spend more time than I should watching him.  Whereas most bees are gentle creatures keeping themselves to themselves, this one is a bit of a thug, oozing anger and aggression.  He is the male wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), mostly black but with yellow markings along the sides of his abdomen, head and legs, reminiscent of the warpaint worn by native American tribes.  He is about the same length as a honeybee but much broader making him quite imposing as he moves quickly about the patch of Lamb’s Ear.  His movement is distinctive, he hovers then moves rapidly to a new spot, hovers, moves, all the time buzzing noisily.  It feels like he is looking for something.  And that’s exactly what he is doing, looking.  Should he spot another male wool-carder bee or a different insect on his patch, he will chase it away by flying directly at it.  I have seen him attack a bumblebee at least twice his size and knock it to the ground.  But, not only is he aggressive, he is armed; the rear of his abdomen sports five stout spines which he will use to injure or kill the intruding insects and there are reports of male wool-carder bees disabling honeybees who dared to feed from their patch.

All this aggressive energy is directed towards protecting the patch of Lamb’s Ear for himself and his harem, for now and then a female wool-carder bee will appear.  She looks very like the male, only a bit smaller; the wool-carder bee is one of the only species in this country where the male bee is larger than the female.  When the male sees her feeding from the flowers he will pounce and, without any preliminaries, mating will ensue. This is a vigorous but brief activity sometimes causing the flower stem to vibrate before the two disengage and go about their business again.  Unlike most solitary bees, where females mate once, wool-carder females undergo multiple matings so that, after a short time, our male will mate with the same female again and should a different female appear he will attempt to mate with her.  One valiant observer went to the trouble of watching an individual male wool-carder in his garden and reported that the bee mated sixteen times in one day.

This focus on the aggressive behaviour of the male wool-carder bee tends to obscure the fact that it is the female that does all the hard work of nest building and egg laying.  The wool-carder bee is a solitary species so that individual mated females build their nests alone, unlike the more familiar social honeybees and bumblebees.  Nesting occurs in preformed aerial cavities in dead wood, in walls or in hollow stems, including the tubes found in bee hotels.  Once she has identified a suitable site, the female strips or “cards” woolly fibrous material from plant leaves with her mandibles (hence the name wool-carder) and takes it back to her nest to line and plug the cavity (see the pictures below).  Lamb’s Ear leaves are a popular choice for “carding” but Great Mullein or Yarrow can also be used.  If you look carefully at the leaves of these plants you can sometimes see bare areas where she has been actively collecting fibres.  Within the nest, she lays eggs and equips them with a mixture of nectar and pollen.  The eggs develop in the nest where they stay until new bees emerge next summer and the whole cycle begins again.

So, if you have a patch of Lamb’s Ear in your garden take a look, there’s a good chance that wool-carder bees will be using it and you too can be enthralled by their antics.

Male wool carder bee
Male wool-carder bee – look at his spines.

 

Male wool carder bee in flight
Male wool-carder bee in flight

 

Anthidium manicatum mating pair
Wool-carder bee – mating pair

 

Wool carder bee collecting fibres
Female wool-carder bee collecting fibres

 

Wool carder bee gathering fibres together
Leaning back gathering fibres together

 

Wool carder bee flying off with fibres
Female wool-carder bee in flight with ball of fibres

 

Possible female anthidium
Female wool-carder bee

 

Male wool carder bee showing spines
Male wool-carder bee

 

Bumblebee on Lamb's Ear
A brave bumblebee feeding from the lamb’s ears

 

High on Hardown Hill

It was a luminous spring morning in early May when I trekked up Hardown Hill in west Dorset in the south west of the UK. Hardown rises steeply above Morcombelake and the surrounding countryside affording fine views of the coast and of the Marshwood Vale. Compared with its well-known cousin, Golden Cap, across the valley (see picture above), this flat-topped hill is unjustly ignored but its heathland summit boasts a rich ecology supporting several rare species and, for many years, Hardown Hill was a busy semi-industrial site where building stone was mined.

Heathland track on Hardown Hill small
Heathland track across Hardown Hill

It’s a steep climb to the top of Hardown Hill but finally the stony track flattens out and I enter a heathland landscape, rare in this part of Dorset. The summit is broad and flat and typical low-growing heathland plants such as gorse and several species of heather flourish here on the acid soil. Pale sandy tracks cut swathes across the heath but, even on a sunny morning in springtime, the feeling is sombre, dominated by dark browns and greens. A few mature birch trees and a small copse of pine trees provide relief and I come across a pond surrounded by tall clumps of pale, dried grass and a struggling sallow. This heath habitat is also the home of rare nightjars, sand lizards and Dartford warblers.

Standing on the Hardown summit is an elemental experience. Today, a moderate wind blows from the west, rising and falling like the sound of surf on the strand. The heath vegetation rustles and fidgets in response, accompanied by skylarks trilling high overhead. I watch a spirited storm tracking across Lyme Bay and prepare to shelter but, in the end, it mostly avoids the land leaving the sun to return. All of this is overlaid on the southern side by the ebb and flow of traffic noise from the busy A35 some distance below.

The heath may look uninviting and barren, but this is springtime and there are many signs of renewal. A few clumps of yellow gorse stand out above fresh grey-green growth and heathers push feathery green and red shoots upwards. Submerged in the thick heath vegetation are the small bright blue and white flowers of heath milkwort piercing the darkness like stars in the night sky. In the past, the flowers were thought to resemble small udders and this may account for the plant’s name as well as its administration to nursing mothers by medieval herbalists. Along path edges on the northern side of the heath, I find several generous clumps of a shrub with pale fleshy leaves, green with a tinge of pink. This is bilberry, covered at this time of year with delicate, almost transparent, pale red, lantern-shaped flowers looking out of place in this harsh environment but proving popular with bumblebees and hoverflies. Late summer will see the plants covered with succulent black fruits.

I encounter only one other person on the heath but it hasn’t always been such a quiet place. From medieval times, Hardown Hill would have resounded to the clash of picks and shovels wielded by men mining the landscape for building materials. Beneath the thin layer of soil that covers the summit, there are layers of clay and a yellow/brown sandy material containing substantial lumps of flint-like, hard rock, the chert cobs. A mixture of clay, stone and sand was taken for road construction and the chert cobs were used for building. Mining occurred on the southern slopes of the Hill, either in open pits or in adits (mine shafts) cut into the hillside. Nowadays there are few traces of this busy activity. The mining area has mostly been colonised by rough grass and bracken, brightened today by a haze of bluebells.  One open pit has been preserved near the top of Love’s Lane displaying the layers of rock and the chert cobs. The adits are inaccessible for safety reasons but one serves an important role as a hibernation area for the rare lesser horseshoe bat.

The chert cobs were split using a small hammer on a long handle, the Hardown hammer. Cobs were held on an iron bar with three claws and covered in damp hessian to protect the eyes of workmen who also wore wire goggles. Split cobs were used to provide a tough outer surface, silvery-blue or yellowish, on domestic and farm buildings around the Marshwood Vale. Good examples of the use of Hardown chert can also be found on the 14th century abandoned chapel at Stanton St Gabriel beneath Golden Cap and on the tiny 19th century church at Catherston Leweston.

But it is to the height of Hardown Hill that I want to return. Its prominence above the surrounding countryside gives spectacular views with new perspectives on some of west Dorset’s notable landmarks. Looking southwards, we see Golden Cap and the darkly-wooded Langdon Hill rising steeply across the valley with a backdrop of the waters of Lyme Bay (see picture at the top of this post). Towards the east, Portland floats unsettlingly as if cast adrift. To the north, especially from Hardown’s rough grassy flanks, we look across the patchwork of fields and the ring of hills that make up the Marshwood Vale with the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum cradled in its green embrace. New perspectives challenge us to think differently and the relative isolation of Hardown fosters quiet contemplation away from the cares of everyday life.

Perhaps that’s what Thomas Hardy meant when he wrote in his poem “Wessex Heights”:
“There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, ………….”

Marshwood Vale and the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum, from Hardown Hill
Marshwood Vale and Whitchurch Canonicorum from Hardown Hill

 

Bilberry on Hardown Hill
Bilberry on Hardown Hill

 

Heath Milkwort on Hardown Hill
Heath Milkwort on Hardown Hill

 

Orange-tailed mining bee (A. haemorrhoa)
Orange-tailed mining bee (A. haemorrhoa) on Hardown Hill

 

Exposed chert on Hardwon Hill
Exposed chert seam on Hardown Hill

 

Hardown Chert on Catherston Leweston Church
Hardown Chert on Catherston Leweston Church

This piece was originally publsihed in the July 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

A midsummer’s day surprise

Last week we saw this beautiful and surprising creature, a hummingbird-hawk moth, feeding from the red valerian that grows so profusely in Totnes.

Here are two more photos I managed before it flew away.

moth 4

moth 3

The wing span is about 5cm to give some scale.  These day flying moths come into the UK from southern Europe in the summer.

Seeing this insect was all the more surprising as I have recently had several conversations with people about how few moths they see nowadays and that is my experience as well. If you want to read about the general decline of insects in the UK here is an interesting article from the Observer.

Nurdle hunting in west Dorset

Charmouth Beach
Charmouth beaching looking towards Golden Cap

 

You may have never knowingly encountered a nurdle but these small plastic pellets are the raw material of the plastics industry and are ferried around the world in their millions.  About the size of a small pea, nurdles come in many colours and they’re finding their way on to our beaches, killing wildlife and polluting the environment.  I wanted to find out more about these unwelcome intruders, so I joined a nurdle hunt organised by the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.

Hunting for nurdles 2
Nurdle hunters getting down to work.

 

Charmouth beach was surprisingly busy that morning but it was half term and, for mid-February, quite warm in the low sunshine.  Many people were walking by the sea, taking advantage of the mild weather, perhaps hoping to find a fossil, but an expectant crowd had also gathered by the steps to the Heritage Coast Centre.  At precisely midday, Sophie Thomas, one of the Centre wardens, walked down the steps together with local volunteer Eden Thomson and gathered us together.   Sophie began by explaining what nurdles were and how they washed up on the beach from the sea.  She emphasised the dangers these plastic pellets pose to wildlife such as birds and fish who mistake them for food.  Each of us was given a pair of disposable gloves, to guard against toxic chemicals contained in the nurdles, and an empty margarine pot for nurdle collecting.  Then off we went, about thirty of us, to hunt among debris washed up on the west bank of the river Char between the two beach car parks.

And what a fine sight we were! Young and old, locals and visitors, families and children, sitting or lying on the ground, enthusiastically scouring the debris for the plastic pellets.  It was a fascinating event, although we did get some funny looks.  Everyone found pellets in large numbers, not just on the surface but also buried a few centimetres down showing how pervasive they are.  Some were smooth, grey and cylindrical and a few were lentil shaped, white, yellow or green.  The vast majority, however, were bright blue cylindrical pellets, about 5mm in size, with fine ridges. The grand total for the group was 6650 pellets collected in 90 mins from this small section of beach, highlighting the extent of the contamination.

What do we know about nurdles and how they get into the sea to wash up on our beaches? These small plastic pellets are made from oil or natural gas to provide an easily transportable raw material for use in plastics factories all around the world.  Most of the plastic products that now dominate our lives are made from nurdles and huge numbers of the pellets are transported by ship, so there is always the potential for spills.  In October 2017, two containers of nurdles fell from a ship in the port of Durban leading to massive nurdle pollution along more than 1000km of beaches.    Closer to home, the storm-damaged container ship, Napoli was beached off Branscombe early in 2007 leading to hundreds of containers breaking free.  Two containers were filled with nurdles which washed up along many local beaches. These environmental disasters have been likened to oil spills, only worse as the nurdles do not break down.

Nurdles can also end up in the sea through careless handling at plastics factories.  The environmental charity, Surfers Against Sewage, visited several plastics companies in Cornwall and found nurdles littered around the sites.  These will inevitably be blown or washed into drains and into the sea.  Another kind of plastic pellet, wrinkly or ridged, has been found in large numbers on beaches in Cornwall by Rame Peninsula Beach Care.  These are biobeads, easily confused with nurdles but with a completely different purpose.  Some sewage works use biobeads as part of the wastewater treatment process and the pellets get into the sea through careless handling by water companies.

Why should we be concerned about nurdles and biobeads?  They are a totally unnecessary form of pollution in our seas and on our beaches and their presence shows a lack of respect for the environment.  They are now found all over the world wherever the sea meets the land: on beaches in industrialised countries or on isolated, sparsely populated islands.   Not only do they pollute our beaches, they are eaten by seabirds and fish who mistake them for food.  Once consumed, they block the digestive tract, lodge in the windpipe or fill the stomach leading to malnutrition and starvation.   For example, analysis of dead puffins on the Isle of May in Scotland, home to one of the UK’s largest breeding populations of these birds, showed they had consumed nurdles alongside their usual diet of sand eels.

Nurdles are also a source of toxic chemicals that may exacerbate their physical effects.  Freshly spilt nurdles may release chemicals such as plasticisers used in their manufacture.  Nurdles that have been in the sea longer attract toxic chemicals such as PCBs and DDTs.  These substances may have a toxic effect on seabirds and fish that consume them and have unknown effects on humans who encounter them on beaches.

What can we do about the nurdle problem? Industry needs to improve handling procedures and make sure nurdle spills are cleared completely.  Operation Clean Sweep is a plastics industry programme aimed at eliminating pellet losses but, as yet, it is only voluntary. In the longer term, we need to reduce our dependence on plastics, especially single use plastics.

Nurdle hunting can also help by raising awareness and by reducing pellet numbers in the environment.  As Sophie Thomas said to me “A nurdle collected is a nurdle out of the sea”.  Occasionally, it may be possible to infer the source of pellets based on their appearance and properties.  For example, the pellets found at Charmouth are unusual compared to those I have seen on other beaches.  Although some at Charmouth are true nurdles, the majority are the bright blue cylindrical type with fine ridges, more typical of a biobead.  If these are indeed biobeads, how are they getting on to Charmouth beach?

This article appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

It was also a pleasure to meet Sarah West and her husband John that day.  Sarah is a blogging friend and she and John had also joined the nurdle hunt.  Sarah writes the blog “Down by the Sea” and has recently been heavily involved in organising the Bridport Green Fortnight.

Hunting for nurdles
Nurdle hunters at work

 

A nurdle collected is a nurdle out of the sea
Nurdle hunter at work
One happy nurdle hunter
A happy hunter with her hoard

 

One hunter's haul
One hunter’s findings. Note the majority are bright blue with fine ridges

 

I returned to Charmouth Beach on May 1st and picked up these in about five minutes on the east side of the river Char. The bright blue pellets predominate as before, note the fine ridges characteristic of biobeads. The grey pellets are mostly smooth, characteristic of a pre-production plastic pellet or nurdle. The lentil-shaped, pale pellets are also nurdles, commonly referred to as “mermaids tears”; they acquire colour if they stay in the sea a long time. The yellow and the one pale blue pellet are nurdles

 

 

Bumblebee on veronica
Couldn’t resist including this picture of a foraging bumblebee on a veronica bush near the car park.

 

An amazing natural phenomenon goes unnoticed

Brixham view

After so many cool, damp and grey days, spring arrived in a rush in the third week of April. Temperatures soared by nearly ten degrees and the sun shone strongly from a virtually cloud-free sky, filling the air with an unexpected brightness, at least for a few days. The sudden change in the weather demanded that I get outside so I drove the short distance to the fishing port of Brixham, parking on the clifftop road on the eastern edge of the town. A steep stone stairway took me down the hillside past curious, deserted, rectangular buildings and wide sweeps of concrete enclosed by thick scrub echoing with birdsong. These are remnants of the Brixham Battery, built in 1940 to guard Torbay against a German invasion, now Grade 2 listed and an informal, unplanned nature reserve. Dandelions and cowslips were dotted about grassy areas and fleshy-leaved green alkanet with its grey-blue flowers provided a contrasting colour. The stairway continued downwards among trees until I was just above the sea where I joined the coast path.

This section of the coast path is enclosed by low scrub and, at this time of year, blackthorn dominates, its branches covered with a snow of small flowers, creating a curtain of white with occasional glimpses of the blue sea. In the bright sunshine, the delicate white petals were almost transparent below a confused mass of yellow-tipped stamens. Eventually, this enclosed path gave on to an open, grassy area roughly the size of a football pitch, overlooking the water of Torbay and backed by thick trees creating a sense of seclusion. Wooden benches positioned along the sea side were popular, occupied by people wearing sun hats and enjoying the spectacular view.  The full panorama of Torbay was spread out ahead like an enticing display in a travel brochure: the red cliffs, the white seafront buildings, the pine trees, the big wheel and, in the foreground, the Brixham breakwater with its white lighthouse. The sea was a bright, slightly greenish blue textured with patches of silvery sheen  and pleasure boats shuttled across the water to and from Torquay.  It was a holiday scene and felt almost Mediterranean.

Amongst all this human activity, no one seemed to be paying any attention to the many mini-volcanoes of crumbly soil partly concealed beneath the rough grass or to the many bees moving about the area just above the grass. Everywhere I looked there were bees flying about, backwards and forwards, swinging from side to side, as if they were trying to find something; a few were walking about on the red soil. There must have been thousands of bees, an amazing natural phenomenon and very exciting to watch. When I looked carefully, I saw that they were mostly black but with distinctive bands of pale hair. These are Ashy Mining Bees (Andrena cineraria), one of our more common solitary bees, and the soil volcanoes in the ground are their nests.

While I was taking in the scene, a couple arrived, both carrying plastic bags. He was in his sixties with long white hair roughly corralled into a pony tail. She was in her late fifties with copious dark hair. They threw down a blanket into the middle of the grassy area, stripped down to their underwear, cracked open some cans and proceeded to sunbathe. Like the other people, they didn’t notice the bees swirling about the grass around them and I wondered how they might react if they encountered the insects. Luckily for them, only the females of these kinds of mining bees possess a sting and they use it only when threatened.

I wanted to take some photos of the bees but, wishing to avoid any misunderstandings as I waved my camera about, I moved to the other end of the grassy area, passing a small turf-roofed building that used to contain the searchlight for the wartime Battery. I found an unoccupied bench, sat down, and providing I was still, the bees resumed their incessant movement around me. The bench turned out to be a front-row seat as, on several occasions, I saw one bee rush at another and the two struggled for a while on the ground. Two or three others tried to join in and it all got a bit confused and messy for a while. Eventually, however, only two were left coupled together, end to end. They stayed like this for a few minutes before separating and flying off. I presumed they were mating but it seemed rather sedate compared to the frantic copulatory behaviour of some solitary bees.

Photographing the flying bees is difficult, but for the short time they were occupied in mating they were relatively still, making it easier. My photographs showed that the honeybee-sized females have shiny black abdomens with a blue sheen in some lights. Two thick, furry bands of grey-white hair line the front and back of the thorax and the face is white-haired with black antennae. The slimmer and smaller males also have black abdomens but differ from the females in having white hairs on the sides of the thorax and thick tufts of white hair on the face. With their pale hairs and contrasting dark abdomens, Ashy Mining Bees are one of the most distinctive and beautiful species of mining bee in the UK.

Despite all this excitement on the ground, I kept an occasional watch on the sea and got quite excited when I saw a shiny black head emerge from the water. This was one of the local colony of grey seals swimming towards Fishcombe Cove. The water was so clear and calm that the seal’s huge body was clearly visible as it passed.

When I had finished, I walked back past the lush banks of three cornered leek that grow along the low cliff edge. I saw male Ashy Mining bees nectaring from the delicate white-belled flowers. Further on, I stopped to look at the blackthorn flowers. Here there were more Ashy Mining Bees foraging together with one very different bee with a shock of orange-brown hair on the thorax and a largely black abdomen tipped with orange-red hair. I later identified this as an Orange-tailed Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa). With all this insect interest, there should be a good crop of sloes on the blackthorn here in the autumn.

If you are interested to learn more about these wonderful bees, here are three more descriptions:

https://standingoutinmyfield.wordpress.com/2018/04/25/a-nesting-aggregation-of-ashy-mining-bees/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/14/mining-bees-create-theatre-enchantments-shropshire

https://beesinafrenchgarden.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/under-the-plum-tree-again/

 

Soil mini-volcanoes
soil volcanoes

 

Female Ashy Mining Bee
Female Ashy Mining Bee showing thick bands of white hair

 

Male Ashy Mining Bee
Male Ashy Mining Bee showing thick tuft of white facial hair

 

Brixham view. 2jpg
The grassy area showing the “searchlight building” and the breakwater and lighthouse

 

Ashy Mining Bees mating
Mating bees with extra hopefuls

 

Ashy Mining Bees mating 3
Mating pair

 

Seal
grey seal

 

bee 2
orange-tailed mining bee on blackthorn

 

 

 

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