Sighting seals along the south west coast of the UK

A glistening black head suddenly broke through the surface of the water a metre or two offshore.  A long, dark, shadowy shape was also just visible and we realised that this was a seal.  We watched, captivated, as it swam slowly south westwards, staying roughly parallel to the beach, leaving a trail of ripples in its wake.  Along the beach, people were swimming and when they saw the seal coming, they quickly made their way to dry land but the seal had already disappeared. 

A grey seal swimming, (not the one referred to in the text whch took us completely by surprise)

This magical encounter occurred last year as we were walking along a shingle beach in south Devon, but chance sightings of seals can occur almost anywhere along the Dorset and Devon coasts in the south west of the UK and are unpredictable and surprising.   Each observation, though, is a reminder that these fascinating creatures live alongside us, and gives an insight, however brief, into their lives.

Seals are the largest land-breeding marine mammals found in the UK and two species may be seen around our coasts, the grey seal and the common or harbour seal.  The grey seal is the larger of the two with males up to 2.6 metres in length and 300kg in weight.  The grey seal is one of the rarest species of seal globally and the UK has more than a third of the world’s population, mostly found around the west coast of Scotland, also the Orkneys and the Shetlands with a few significant colonies along the East coast of England.  Common seals are smaller, with males up to 2 metres in length and 150 kg in weight.  Numerically, UK waters contain fewer common seals but the population is still significant amounting to 30% of the European sub species.  Common seals have a similar UK distribution to that of the grey seal. 

Grey seal

Should you sight a seal, it can be tricky to decide which species but if you can see the head, that may help.  Common seals have relatively smaller heads compared to body size with a clearly defined forehead and short snout.  Grey seals have larger heads with longer flat noses and no forehead.   Fur colour is deceptive as both species vary in colour from grey to pale brown and whether the animal is wet or dry.  Fur patterns, though, may help identification with grey seals having irregular darker blotches and common seals being more uniformly spotted.

Common Seal (photo by CJ Sharp from Wikimedia Commons)

Seals spend their lives partly on land and partly in the water.  They haul out, often in groups, on uninhabited rocky islands, secluded beaches and sandbanks to rest, to digest their food or to give birth.  More than half of their time, though, is spent in the water feeding and they can travel long distances to forage.  They are superb swimmers, capable of diving to a depth of up to 100 metres to find food on the sea bed and during a dive they slow their heart rate in order to conserve oxygen.    On land, seals can appear ponderous and ungainly, dragging themselves about using their front flippers, but once in the water they swim with grace, elegance and speed.  This ability to slip effortlessly between two distinct lives, one on land and the other in the water, seen and largely unseen, gives seals an aura of mystery. It is no surprise that a wealth of myth and story has attached itself to the creatures.

A grey seal hauled out on rocks

Because the majority of seals in the UK are found along northern and north western coasts, sightings as far south as Dorset and Devon are infrequent but of great interest.  There are no regular haul out sites along the Dorset and east Devon coasts so sightings are usually of seals moving about.  Most of these casual sightings are of grey seals although there are thought to be a few common seals resident in Poole Harbour.  The picture changes as we move into south Devon where several regular haul out sites are found along the coast.  Here grey seals gather in small numbers at low tide to rest although they can also be seen swimming nearby.  Seals are also seen in the Exe and Dart estuaries sometimes a distance from the coast. 

The Dorset Wildlife Trust Fine Foundation Wild Seas Centre at Kimmeridge is trying to build up a catalogue of seal sightings.  Individual seals have characteristic marking patterns on their fur, so that photos can be used, rather like a fingerprint, to identify seals seen regularly in Dorset or moving about along the coast.  By sharing their findings with other seal recorders, they already know that some seals seen along the Dorset coast have also been spotted in Hampshire, south Devon, Cornwall or France.   Should you see a seal, you can help this project by reporting your sighting (with photographs if available, see below for details).

There is increasing concern, however, that seals are being disturbed by encounters with humans.  They are large wild animals and, although they are curious creatures, they can be easily upset and disturbed.   Seals haul out to rest and digest food and this essential quiet time can be interrupted if humans get too close.  Disturbed seals may even panic, jumping from rocks into the sea so risking injuring themselves.   There are also sporadic reports of humans being bitten when trying to feed or pat seals.  Feeding seals additionally risks disturbing their natural feeding patterns.

The Dorset Wildlife Trust has compiled a code of conduct to try to deal with these problems.  This code should be followed at all times when encountering seals or taking photographs, to protect both seals and humans and to minimise disturbance of these wild creatures:

  • Keep well away from seals so that they can’t see, hear or smell you
  • Use a camera zoom or binoculars for a better view
  • Keep dogs on a lead if seals are known to be in the area
  • Never feed seals 
  • Take all litter home 
  • Do not seek out encounters with seals in the water 

Seals are iconic wild creatures and we are privileged to be able to see them along our coasts.  We must, however, treat them with respect.  They have their own lives, very different from ours, and they have as much right to occupy the environment as we do.  We should enjoy watching these beautiful creatures but make sure that they can live their lives undisturbed.

I should like to thank Sarah Hodgson of the Dorset Wildlife Trust for her generous help and guidance when I was preparing this article

All photos shown here were taken using a zoom lens.

To report seal sightings in Dorset, use this link: http://seals.dorsetwildlifetrust.net/  , seal sightings elsewhere in the south west can be reported by emailing:   sightings@cornwallsealgroup.co.uk

This article also appeared in the April 2022 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Lurking by lungwort and the spring’s first bee.

Here is a short piece I wrote after a visit to the Lamb Garden in Totnes on March 9th together with a poem by Thomas Hardy.

It’s that time of year when I spend more time than I should peering at patches of lungwort.   The wild variety (Pulmonaria officinalis) has been flowering for several weeks here in Devon and now has a mixture of pinkish-red and purplish-blue trumpet-shaped flowers above fleshy, white-spotted green leaves.   The weather has kept most insects away but this morning, there is a hint of warmth in the air and finally, I see what I have been anticipating. 

It’s one of the first bees to emerge each year, and I get that first time thrill again.  I don’t see it arrive but suddenly it’s there hovering by the lungwort, hanging in the air as if working out which flower to sample.  As it hovers, I notice the mostly buff-haired abdomen and thorax, also the pale yellow mask-like face and is that the tongue hanging in readiness?  This chunky insect might be mistaken for a bumblebee but is a very fresh male hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes), usually the first solitary bee species to appear in Totnes each spring.

Having chosen a flower, he settles down to feed, pushing his head in deeply to access nectar.  His legs are splayed out gripping either side of the corolla, displaying the silky hairs that decorate them, celebrated in his common name.  He doesn’t stay long, darting to another flower with a brief hover in between, buzzing loudly. 

Lungwort flowers start out red and acquire the blue colour as they age.  Red flowers contain more nectar than blue and the Anthophora feed preferentially from these red, higher forage flowers.  This colour code means they don’t waste time visiting low-nectar blooms and may visit several plants looking for high nectar flowers, increasing the chance of cross pollination.

The male then notices me and hovers, buzzing loudly and aggressively in my direction before departing in a huff.  Other males appear and occasionally two find themselves together on the flowers. This also doesn’t go down well and they depart, carving circles in the air around one another.

………………………………………………………….

I wanted to include a poem to go with these spring observations so here is Thomas Hardy meditating on the topic in “The Year’s Awakening” .

How do you know that the pilgrim track

Along the belting zodiac

Swept by the sun in his seeming rounds

Is traced by now to the Fishes’ bounds

And into the Ram, when weeks of cloud

Have wrapt the sky in a clammy shroud,

And never as yet a tinct of spring

Has shown in the Earth’s apparelling;

     O vespering bird, how do you know,

          How do you know?

How do you know, deep underground,

Hid in your bed from sight and sound,

Without a turn in temperature,

With weather life can scarce endure,

That light has won a fraction’s strength,

And day put on some moments’ length,

Whereof in merest rote will come,

Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb;

     O crocus root, how do you know,

          How do you know?

Confusing life and death on the river Dart

A recent Sunday morning walk took us past the weir that crosses the river Dart about a mile upstream from Totnes.  A weir was built here as early as the 16th century to divert water from the river along a leat so that its energy could power corn mills in the town   The leat is still intact, but now meanders largely unnoticed through industrial estates and near supermarkets, though still attracting the occasional kingfisher.  The Town Mill also still stands and has variously been the Tourist Information Centre, a Coffee Shop and home for the Local Image Bank.  In the past decade, though, the weir has seen major change and rejuvenation with the construction of the Totnes Weir Hydro.  Its twin Archimedes Screw-driven turbines once more harness the energy of the upper river, this time to generate electricity.  [See picture of the weir and hydro at the head of this post]

Below the weir, the river is tidal and increasingly brackish with large sandbanks emerging at low tide.  Today, these are gull territory where they squabble and shout at one another while fellow birds continually join and leave the party.  Nearer the weir, small gangs of mallards, male and female, poke around in the water for food, taking little notice of children and their dogs playing nearby.

We pick our way downstream across the filigree of raised tree roots that covers the tidal area at the lower river’s edge.  Across the water, a large, well-marked bird is swimming back and forth despite the brisk current.  With its black head and long red beak above a largely white body this is a male goosander.   The bird is paying attention to something floating in the water and, from this distance, this looks like a dead bird.  I make out a chestnut head and grey body, possibly a female goosander, and my immediate reaction is that the male is mourning his dead mate.  But no, I was wrong because, after a little more manoeuvring, the male hops briefly on to the female and when he is finished, she miraculously springs into life and swims about rapidly.  My photos [see below] confirmed that she was far from dead but had adopted a submissive posture to encourage her chosen mate.

The pair of goosanders with the male attending and the female adopting a submissive pose. From a distance and without binoculars, the female looked like a floating dead bird.
The female goosander after mating.
Not sure what is happening here a few minutes after mating. There seems to be some significant interaction between female and male

Mooching about by mahonia

If, like me, you enjoy looking at flowers, then winter can be a pretty dismal time.  The plants that give colour to the autumn such as asters and sedums have long since faded and there’s a gap of several weeks before the winter flowers, snowdrops, aconites and pulmonaria show their faces.  It hasn’t helped this winter that the December weather, although very mild, brought many overcast days.  Ceilings of thick grey cloud hung overhead, keeping light levels low and draining the landscape of colour so that I yearned for some brightness. 

A large mahonia in full flower

But there is help at hand in the form of winter flowering shrubs and plants which bring welcome colour to the gloom.   These include winter honeysuckle and winter flowering heathers but my favourite is mahonia with its starbursts of lemon-yellow flowers and its spiky evergreen leaves.  Mahonia works hard, flowering from November with some varieties continuing to bloom well into the New Year.   A large stand of the shrub is a fine sight in winter, sometimes as much as three metres in height, covered with multiple plumes of flowers reaching upwards above sprays of spiky mid green holly-like leaves.  Even on the darkest winter day, the yellow flowers light up their surroundings like banks of fluorescent tubes and should the sun shine, both flowers and leaves glow in reply.  As an added bonus, stands of mahonia are often enveloped in a cloud of sweet fragrance said to resemble lily of the valley, a rare experience in these low months.   If all that wasn’t enough, as the flowers mature, they produce attractive blue-black berries dusted with a white bloom.

Sprays of mahonia flowers showing the developing unripe berries that will eventually turn black

Mahonia was first discovered during the Lewis and Clark expedition sent to explore the newly acquired north western territory of the United States during the early years of the 19th century.  The shrub was found growing extensively between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean.  The prominent Irish/American nurseryman Bernard McMahon based in Philadelphia was responsible for propagating the seeds and plants brought back from the expedition and mahonia was named in recognition of his work.  Mahonia is also referred to as Oregon grape after the resemblance of its berries to the vine fruit and the part of the US where the shrub was first seen.

The native US shrub was imported into the UK in the 19th century and different varieties were also found in Asia at about the same time.  These and their hybrids are now very popular in this country contributing architectural interest to gardens as well as winter colour.  They are often planted around the edges of car parks and outside buildings where their potential size can be readily accommodated. 

It’s not just humans, though, who take pleasure from mahonia in winter.  Both insects and birds relish the profusion of flowers and berries on the shrub.  The long arching racemes thrown upwards by mahonia are densely packed with small flowers, each shaped like an upturned bell and formed from concentric rings of petals and sepals. The flowers are rich sources of pollen and nectar providing important forage for insects on mild winter days and, as the insects feed, they contribute to pollination. 

Among the insects visiting mahonia in winter, bumblebees are regular foragers in the south of the UK and I have seen both workers and queens even in late December, sometimes liberally dusted with yellow pollen.  Honeybees and hoverflies will also venture out to feed on milder winter days and they may occasionally be joined by red admiral butterflies.   It’s fascinating to watch bumblebees working the flowers, moving systematically along a raceme, dislodging yellow petals which fall to decorate nearby leaves and create a yellow “snow” on pavements below.  Birds such as blackcaps and blue tits also take sugar-rich nectar from mahonia flowers.  When they visit, they may pick up pollen on their beaks contributing to pollination.

Close-up view of mahonia flower showing the ring of stamens just inside the petals (see also the picture at the head of this post).
The same mahonia flower but after stimulation causing stamens to move inwards

The flowers have a special mechanism for increasing the efficiency of pollination by visiting insects and birds.  In each flower, the pollen-loaded stamens are arranged in a ring just inside the petals.  Stimulating the flower, as would happen if a pollinator visits, causes the stamens to move inwards increasing the likelihood that the pollinator will pick up pollen to transfer to the next flower.  Pollination leads to formation of the berries, each about the size of a blackcurrant which start green and mature to blue-black with a white bloom.  The berries provide winter food for birds later in the season and blackcaps, blackbirds and song thrushes may be seen feeding.

Although mahonia was a new discovery for colonists in the US in the early 19th century, the native American tribes of the north west were already familiar with its properties.  Some ate the berries, either raw or cooked and some used preparations of the shrub for medicinal purposes.  Yellow dyes derived from the plant were also used by the tribes for colouring fabrics and basketry.   Preparations of mahonia have been employed in traditional Chinese medicine over many years and are used by some contemporary herbalists but rigorous scientific studies of their effects have not been performed. 

It is interesting to reflect on how mahonia, a shrub native to parts of the US and Asia, has successfully travelled to the UK where not only does it brighten our winters but it also supports wildlife across this low season.

Worker buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) on mahonia flower with pollen (November 25th 2021)
Queen buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) on mahonia flowers (December 4th 2021)
Red admiral butterfly on mahonia (November 25th 2021)

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

A Saturday afternoon with the grey seals of south Devon

Back in September last year I spent a pleasant afternoon watching grey seals at Peartree Point in south Devon. It was fascinating to observe these creatures in their natural environment, lounging on the rocks and swimming in the water nearby. What I hadn’t expected, though, was that I would spend part of the time watching humans and their reactions to the seals.

I wrote an article about my afternoon with the seals and this has just been published on the Land Lines blog. Click here to read.

Both of the pictures of seals shown here were taken at Brixham Harbour using a zoom lens.

The Holly and the Ivy

Even amid the glitz and glitter of our commercialised Christmas, certain seasonal songs have surprising power.  For me, The Holly and the Ivy is one of those songs.  I probably first heard the carol and began to internalise the words and tune before I was ten years old.  Now, although I am not religious, all it takes is a mere mention of the title or a hint of the tune to set the carol going in my head evoking memories of past Christmases.  The carol has an interesting history and although the words are staunchly Christian, references to holly and ivy come from much earlier pre-Christian times. 

In case you need reminding, here is the first verse of the carol, with the refrain:

The holly and the ivy

When they are both full grown

Of all the trees that are in the wood

The holly bears the crown

Refrain: The rising of the sun

               And the running of the deer

              The playing of the merry organ

              Sweet singing in the choir

The most popular version of this carol, the one you will most likely encounter this Christmas, was first published as recently as 1911.  The folk song collector, Cecil Sharp was visiting the Cotswolds in January 1909 and heard this version sung by Mary Clayton of Chipping Campden.  Sharp transcribed the words and tune and published them together for the first time in his book English Folk-Carols and this has become the accepted version.   Here is a link to a recording:     

The words of the song can be found before that time in several early 19th century and one early 18th century Broadsides (early forms of printed lyrics).   None of these versions, though, gives the tune and, most likely, the carol was sung to different melodies with local modifications of the words in different parts of the country, and passed between generations as part of the oral tradition. 

One of these local melodies has recently become very popular with folk singers.  It was first recorded in 1952 by Maud Karpeles and Pat Shaw from the singing of Peter Jones of Bromsash in Herefordshire.  I remember hearing this version myself for the first time about twenty years ago sung in a very lively manner by Magpie Lane and it transforms The Holly and the Ivy into a celebratory Christmas song that is great fun to sing.   Here is a link to a recording by the Oxford Waits and the Mellstock Band:

The existence of different versions of the song passed on orally in different parts of the country suggests that The Holly and the Ivy is a very old, possibly medieval song. We tend to think of all Christmas songs as timeless accompaniments to traditional Christmas festivities but many were, in fact, written in the 19th century or later.  A few, including The Holly and the Ivy, are much older.

Ivy with its shiny, dark green leaves, covered in autumn with pale flowers that attract many insects including this red admiral butterfly

But why holly and why ivy?   Holly can grow as a tree or it may be part of a hedge restrained by cutting and shaping.  Its dense mass of prickle-edged leaves acts as a barrier, a natural barbed wire, and its red berries glitter with welcome colour even on the darkest winter day.   Ivy with its prolific climbing habit can, given the chance, rapidly overwhelm walls and hedges and is often treated as a nuisance or simply ignored.  It is, though, covered in flowers in the autumn providing late season pollen and nectar for insects and its dark berries are relished by birds in the winter.   

The Christmas significance of the two plants derives from their evergreen nature.  Both bear shiny green leaves seemingly brimming with life throughout the winter when most other plants and trees are leafless. Holly and ivy were popularly gathered along with mistletoe and other evergreens to decorate churches, houses and streets at Christmas time from at least as early as the 16th century and probably before.  This custom may be a relic of pagan midwinter celebrations with the evergreens symbolising rebirth, the return of the light and the greening of the landscape in spring.  The custom survives and holly and mistletoe, both preferably with berries, are still used as Christmas decorations although ivy seems to have fallen out of fashion.

But what about the words of the carol?  Perhaps we shouldn’t delve too deeply into such a traditional song but the first verse does seem counterintuitive.  Holly is rarely a large tree and unlikely to dominate all others and this verse contains the only reference to ivy in the entire song.    The refrain contains some pleasant imagery but it also seems out of place and the editors of the New Oxford Book of Carols believe it may have been a later addition to older medieval words.

Holly flowers

Overall, though, the carol tells the story of Christ’s life interwoven with the life of the holly tree.  So, verse 2: “The holly bears a blossom as white as the lily flower” refers to the white flowers borne on the bush in late spring with white signifying the purity of Mary and Jesus.  Verse 3: “The holly bears a berry as red as any blood” refers to Christ’s blood.  Verse 4: “The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn” refers to the crown of thorns.  Verse 5: “The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall” is another reference to the crucifixion.

Holly with its red berries and shiny, spiky leaves

The Holly and the Ivy is also one of several carols from medieval England that tells of the rivalry between holly and ivy for mastery of the forest, a contest with its origins in ancient folklore.  In The Holly and the Ivy, the holly “bears the crown” so winning the contest; perhaps that’s why we hear no more about the ivy.  Holly was also traditionally seen as a masculine symbol perhaps because of its stouter prickly leaves and ivy a feminine symbol with its softer leaves.  The carol may, therefore, contain a gentle reference to the ups and downs of relationships between men and women. 

So, in The Holly and the Ivy, we have a much-loved, traditional Christmas carol suffused with Christian and pre-Christian symbolism.  Even among the approaching Christmas clamour, the song never fails to bring pleasure whichever version we choose to sing.

I wrote this piece for the December 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Long-horned bees on the south Devon coast

One of my favourite parts of the coast path in south Devon is the section between Prawle Point and Start Point.   Between these two imposing coastal landmarks the path follows the meandering line of the low cliffs and, unusually for this part of Devon, there are few hills and walking is easy.  The area inland of the coast path is notable for the line of steep rocky cliffs that, many years ago, formed the coastline when sea levels were higher.  Between these inland cliffs and the present coastline is a flattish area, about a field’s width across, mostly used for pasture and arable farming.  One section, a long curving coastal meadow (above Horseley Cove), is left uncultivated and many wild flowers grow here and, to a lesser extent, along the edges of other parts of the coast path.   With the rocky coastline and rugged inland cliffs, the area retains a wildness and I come here to be close to the sea and to immerse myself in nature in all its fullness.     

View of part of the site looking towards Peartree Point and the east, showing the rugged inland cliffs, the flattish arable fields and the present coastline with low cliffs. The flowery coastal meadow is to the right, just out of the picture.
View of part of the site looking west to Prawle Point showing the inland cliffs and the present coastline.

The stretch of coastline between Start Point and Prawle Point is a nationally important site for rare invertebrates and was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1986.   For some years now, I have been coming here in early summer to watch the rare long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis) (see here as well) that use the soft rock cliffs for nest sites and forage from the wild peas and vetches that flourish in this environment.  The area is also a stronghold for the cirl bunting and I often see and hear these rare birds when I visit.   If I am lucky, I may also see seals swimming nearby or basking on the rocks at Peartree Point .

Earlier this year, in April, I walked along this section of the coast path and was alarmed at what I found.  The long curving coastal meadow, filled with wildflowers later in the year, was intact but outside of this area there was considerable evidence of herbicide use.  Some fields to the east of the meadow and the paths around them had been drenched with herbicide prior to planting new crops. The chemicals had reached the hedges that line the sides of the coast path and the area looked barren and dried out (picture below).   To the west, where the coast path runs between the cliff edge and arable fields, there had been spot spraying of “weeds”.  It looked as though attempts were being made to eliminate wildflowers alongside areas where crops are grown.

Wildflowers are very important for supporting the insects and, indirectly, the birds that flourish here and I was concerned by this apparent degradation of the site.  I decided to make several visits across the summer to see how the site recovered and how the insects fared.

My first visit was in late May and I found good numbers of male long-horned bees in the coastal meadow, foraging mainly on bush vetch.  This flower scrambles through the bracken that lines the cliff edge of the meadow.  With its slightly untidy looking flowers that start a deep purple  but open to pale lilac petals, bush vetch provides excellent early forage (picture below).  The long-horned males looked very fresh with their yellow face, bright russet thorax, shiny black abdomen, legs coated with fine hairs and their trademark very long, shiny, black antennae.  They are such iconic, beautiful creatures and it was a pleasure to see them moving swiftly about the site between flowers.   I also went to look at the nest area in the soft rock cliffs below the meadow where the vertical, reddish surface is peppered with pencil-sized holes.  Males appeared here regularly looking about the site for females.  They arrived and performed a meandering flight across the nest area, sometimes repeating this before flying off.  There was some play-fighting and a few overexcited males got tired of waiting and tried to mate with their male cousins. 

The coastal meadow on a dull day showing the edge of the inland cliffs and the cliff top bracken
The coastal meadow on a sunny day showing the mass of wildflowers and grasses

The coastal meadow looked glorious.  A dense coating of knee-high grasses grew across the site lending it a sheen of pale browns, greens and muted reds.  Many flowers grew among the grasses in addition to the bush vetch, including buttercup, catsear, common vetch, speedwell, hop trefoil, wild carrot and along the cliff edge to the western end, bird’s foot trefoil, thrift and bloody cranesbill, a rich kaleidoscope of colours .   For the most part, herbicide-treated areas outside the meadow had grown back although some flowers had been eliminated.

Female Eucera longicornis appeared in June and by the third week of the month they outnumbered males.  One hot spot for females was a hedge along the sea side of the coast path where it skirted a field just to the east of the flowery meadow.  Narrow-leaved everlasting pea grew here in moderate amounts, its bright pink flowers proving very attractive to the females.  I watched them feeding from the flowers; they looked rather different from the males, their antennae were a more conventional length and they appeared chunkier with striking golden plumes of pollen-collecting hair on their back legs.  When they arrived, they landed on the lip of the flower pushing the large sail-like upper petal backwards to access nectar.  Narrow-leaved everlasting pea also grew through the cliff edge bracken in the coastal meadow and female long-horned bees were foraging there too.   Although many other flowers were growing here including several large patches of the yellow scrambling meadow vetchling, the females showed an absolute preference for the wild pea.  I also spent some time by the nest area watching a regular stream of females returning to their nest, some carrying large lumps of sticky pollen on their back legs.  A few males hung about the nest site and others foraged from bush vetch in the meadow but they paid little attention to the females, all mated by now. 

The rocky coastline just above the nest site showing bird’s foot trefoil and thrift

Although the coastal meadow was still looking outstanding with its rich fabric of grasses embroidered by so many wildflowers, the situation elsewhere on the site was not as encouraging.  Wilting plants in several locations indicated more herbicide usage and the path along the coastal hedge mentioned earlier had been strimmed on the sea side and treated with herbicide again on the field side (more wilting plants, pictures below).  To cap all of this, when I visited in the second week of July, cattle had been allowed into this area trashing the hedge and eating all the narrow leaved everlasting pea growing there.   In previous years, this hedge and the wild pea that grows here have been critical for the survival of the female long-horned bees so this could have been catastrophic.  Fortunately, this year large amounts of the wild pea with its bright pink flowers had grown up in the coastal meadow and many females were foraging there instead.   

So, based simply on this year’s observations and the numbers I saw, the long-horned bees seem to be doing well at this south Devon site.  The colony is moderate in size and numbers seem to be holding compared with observations made in previous years.

There has, though, been significant degradation of the local environment this year with loss of wildflowers following herbicide use and cattle damage to an extent I had not seen before.   In order to support these rare bees and perhaps to increase the size and extent of the colony of long-horned bees, the numbers of wild flowers should be increasing along the length of the coast path rather than being restricted to the coastal meadow as currently seems to be happening.   This degradation of the site surely runs counter to the legal protections associated with an SSSI?

Another concern at this site is the fate of the six banded nomad bee (Nomada sexfasciata), the UK’s rarest bee.   This bee is a parasite of Eucera longicornis and in the UK is only known at this south Devon site.  I last saw it in 2017 when I made several sightings.  Since then, it has been seen by others on only one occasion each subsequent year so it is very rare.  This year, I saw several Nomada species by the nest area in late June.  One stayed for a short time but was definitely not Nomada sexfasciata and the others disappeared too quickly for verification.  I believe there have been no other sightings this year. 

The south Devon site needs support to protect the unique flora and fauna present there, especially the rare bees and other insects that live in this special habitat.  Buglife and the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are developing a project termed Life on the Edge which aims to protect the site and increase the number of wildflowers.  It is currently seeking funding so we have to hope it gets that support.

The bees

Male Eucera longicornis on bush vetch (early June)
Male Eucera longicornis on narrow-leaved everlasting pea (late June)
Two males by the nest site in early June
Female Eucera longicornis on narrow-leaved everlasting pea showing pollen hairs on her back legs (late June)
Female Eucera longicornis approaching narrow-leaved everlasting pea flower (late June)

The state of the site across spring and summer

Herbicide damage in April (SX785360)
Strimming in June (SX785360)
Herbicide use in June (SX785360)

Cattle damage along hedge showing remains of narrow-leaved everlasting pea (July, SX785360))

The featured image at the head of this post shows a male Eucera longicornis on bird’s foot trefoil in late May.

 

 

A glimpse of ancient history in East Devon – Woodbury Castle

The Pebblebed Heaths in East Devon constitute the largest block of lowland heath in the county.  Named for the underlying pebble-rich geology, this extensive area of heathland lies along a ridge between the Otter and Exe rivers.   Many rare creatures flourish here and numerous remnants of past lives are also dotted about. These include prehistoric burial mounds and earthworks but the archaeological jewel in the crown of this special East Devon place is the Iron Age hillfort of Woodbury Castle.  Its extensive ramparts are at least 2500 years old but remarkably well preserved and holding a history well worth uncovering, as I found when I visited on a sunny day towards the end of August.

Woodbury Castle is situated on Woodbury Common, one of the tracts of heathland making up the Pebblebed Heaths and I parked in the visitors car park, set in a clearing surrounded by trees and scrub.  Rose bay willowherb also grew there, its bright pink flowers partly replaced by white cotton wool seeds, a rather unsubtle reminder of the impending approach of autumn.  The earthworks of Woodbury Castle were a short walk from the car park, partly concealed in a grove of broad leaf trees.

It was only when I got closer to the Castle that the size and extent of the earthen ramparts became clear.   The main fortification consists of two impressive soil ridges, separated by a deep ditch, that snake their way around the perimeter of the site (see plan below). Further soil barriers and ditches provide additional protection in some parts.  In the past, visitors were able to scramble across the earthworks leading to considerable erosion.  Recent repairs have added wooden stairways to protect the ramparts and provide easier access. 

The ditch between the outer (right) and inner (left) ramparts at Woodbury Castle

I climbed the stairway over the lower ridge and paused at the bottom of the ditch to get a better view of the ramparts and to appreciate their size.   After scaling the second, higher ridge, I descended about 3 metres into a large, roughly oval, open area approximately the size of two football pitches.  This is the main enclosure protected by the fortifications. Dappled light filtered through the mature beech trees growing there creating a peaceful scene. 

The edge of the main enclosure (left) and the inner rampart (right) at Woodbury Castle

Helpful information boards with pictorial reconstructions were provided, giving some idea about contemporary life.  Large earthworks such as these were probably centres for tribal groups.  They would have required a huge effort to build and perhaps reflected the status of the community, being as much about display as defence.  Excavations have provided evidence that the enclosure contained several thatched roundhouses where people lived and a granary raised above the ground to protect the contents.  The site is interrupted by the road splitting it into two sections, making it difficult to envisage the full extent of the enclosure.  This apparent desecration of an ancient site is not, however, recent and a track is thought to have existed here for many hundreds of years.

A plan of how the Woodbury Castle hill fort is thought to have looked showing the two main ramparts and the track (now the road) that cuts through. (taken from the information board at the site).

I paused to stand in the enclosed area and tried to imagine life at the time.  I smelt woodsmoke from fires in the roundhouses and heard the chatter of people and the noises they created as they went about their work including fashioning wooden items and spinning wool.  A few were standing on the ramparts, perhaps watching for new arrivals or even invaders.  Woodbury Castle is set on the highest point on the Heaths, 185 metres above sea level, and there would have been little tree cover at that time.  Our lookouts would have enjoyed panoramic views across Woodbury Common – to the East over the Otter Valley, towards the sea at what are now Exmouth and Budleigh Salterton and to the west over the Exe Valley with views as far as Dartmoor and Exmoor on a clear day.

We know very little about what has happened at Woodbury Castle since prehistoric times but there are a few clues. In 1549 during the bloody Prayerbook Rebellion, armed forces may have camped in the earthworks before the inconclusive Battle of Woodbury Common.  During the Napoleonic Wars, the Castle was used as an army training camp and since then Woodbury Common has been exploited periodically for military preparation.  A large Royal Marines camp was built on the Common in the run up to the D-Day landings during WW2 and remains of the buildings can still be found among the heather.  To this day, parts of the Common are used regularly for training by Royal Marines from Lympstone Barracks.

Most of the time, though, Woodbury Common is quiet and a popular place for walking.  In the main, the landscape is undulating dry heathland with a low covering of gorse, bracken, heathers and a few trees but there are some small areas of wetland where the vegetation is richer.  The Common is criss-crossed by clear paths and walking is exhilarating with occasional views across Lyme Bay to the south.  Some paths are quite pebbly reflecting the underlying geology.  Many rare species including the Dartford warbler, the nightjar and the heath potter wasp can be seen on the Common and the area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In 2020, the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths were designated as a National Nature Reserve in recognition of their unique habitat and wildlife.

When I visited, the heathers were in flower lending the heath a subtle purple tinge.  Bell heather was beginning to turn but the ling (heather) was in full purplish-pink flower.  Cross leaved heath with its pink bells also showed well in places.   Whenever I stopped to look at the heather flowers, there was a background low buzz from the many honeybees foraging; local beekeepers were clearly doing well.  On one occasion, though, I had left the main path and walked a little way on to the heath to examine the heathers when a voice boomed out behind me: “There are quite a few adders about!  Just warning you!” I hadn’t seen any adders but I thanked the owner of the voice and retreated quickly back on to the path to continue my walk.  A good number of butterflies were on the wing in the sunshine including small tortoiseshell and gatekeeper but the highlight was several brimstone butterflies dancing about above the heath like fragments of bright greenish sunshine. 

Brimstone butterfly on bell heather showing how the butterfly might be mistaken for a leaf.
View across the heathland on Woodbury Common
Ling (purplish-pink) and bell heather (reddish-purple) flowering on Woodbury Common
Cross-leaved heath on Woodbury Common

This article also appeared in the October 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The week the Swifts departed

It’s become something of a ritual.  Each year in the first week of August, we scan the sky nervously.  We’re looking for birds but anticipating an absence.  It’s not that we want the swifts to go but we know they must.  The next part of their life is lived in Africa where they spend the months of September to April after their long migration.   When they leave us, it’s a sign that the year has moved on and summer is gradually giving way to autumn.

This year the swifts arrived at the beginning of May.  We had been watching out for them for several days and then finally we noticed a few birds swooping around in the sky above our house.  With that dark crossbow silhouette and those rapid bursts of wing beats interspersed with smooth glides, we were relieved and pleased to see that the swifts had returned.  Messages circulated on our local WhatsApp group celebrating their arrival and it was clear that our neighbours were just as interested as us.  Gradually their numbers built up as more birds arrived from Africa.  Numbers varied and, on some days, we saw none but at their peak this year up to 30 swifts were swooping and screaming across the valley below our house.  The valley contains a community garden with flowers and trees and most likely the swifts come to feed on the insects that breed there. 

Throughout late spring and summer we watched them flying backwards and forwards at high speed, changing direction as they banked and turned, sometimes going into steep dives pulling out at what seemed like the last minute, screaming as they went.  Sometimes a group flew about together, individual birds adjusting their relative positions before splitting into smaller groups like rockets at a firework display.  Sometimes the birds flew towards our terrace of houses, turning finally to avoid the brickwork or deftly navigating the gap between this and the next terrace.

Swifts near our house

The position of our house gave us a very privileged view of the birds.  It is one of a terrace of five houses built on a ridge on the southern edge of Totnes overlooking the valley and community garden so that our kitchen window is level with the tops of the trees below.  Sometimes, when the birds were flying about near the houses, they passed at speed very close to our kitchen window giving us views worthy of a nature documentary programme.  Sometimes, when we sat outside on the patio, the birds passed directly overhead screaming as they went, a joyous and very visceral experience.   

Swifts over Totnes seen from our kitchen window in 2020

Sitting outside, we could also see some of the birds swooping up to the eaves of two houses in adjacent terraces where they made nests.  They also nested in the roof space of one of the houses in this terrace and, for the first time, they occupied a wooden bird box fixed near the eaves on another house.  The box was put up several years ago by a neighbour.   It was occupied by sparrows one year and tree bumblebees in another but this year the swifts used it.  Swifts tend to return to the same places to nest each year so we have high hopes of seeing them in this box in the future. 

The second week of August arrived and the birds were still about.  Although we expected them to go any day, they still had the ability to surprise.   On the 10th just before 9 o’clock with the sun setting, I was standing outside looking across the valley, watching the light fade and the colours changing.  I hadn’t seen swifts that day and wondered if they had left.  The western sky was still bright, a luminous pale blue, and light cloud in the northern sky gathered pinkish-orange tinges from the setting sun.  Suddenly, above the general hum of human activity I heard the familiar screaming sound announcing the arrival of a volley of swifts.  About ten birds in groups of two or three were heading straight towards me just above head height.  At the last minute, though, they changed course to fly through the gap between the terraces. 

If all this wasn’t exciting enough, I had a second fascinating close encounter with the non-human world in the same week, this time with a very different species and some distance away from Totnes.

The second story began when, in the first week of August, Tim Worfolk, a local bird illustrator and naturalist, reported on social media that he had seen some rare and unusual bees on a nature reserve south of Exeter.  This was the first report of this species in Devon and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go to have a look.  So, on August 9th I made the 40-minute drive to the Exminster Marshes, part of the river Exe floodplain and a wetland nature reserve managed by the RSPB.   I had driven through a shower on my way over and rain threatened later but it was my only free day that week.    I parked in the reserve car park and made my way down a lane towards the Exeter Canal and the river Exe.  Signs of water were never far away.  Although the lane was enclosed by hawthorn bushes and other scrub, reeds grew through the vegetation and a ditch half full of water ran alongside the lane.  Late summer flowers grew in the hedges including bright yellow fleabane, the lemon-yellow snap dragon-like flowers of common toadflax and the pink cushions of hemp agrimony. 

The Exminster Marshes showing the flat watery landscape

I left the lane to cross open grassland criss-crossed by ditches with rough stony bridges.  Clumps of tussocky grass grew across the marshy land along with stands of creeping thistle that attracted small copper and small tortoiseshell butterflies and some chunky hoverflies.  Cows grazed nearby and this would have been a peaceful spot had it not been for the M5 motorway bridge crossing the marshes towards the north creating a continuous background hum of traffic noise.

At the end of the field path, I crossed the cycle track and scrambled up to the towpath at the edge of the Exeter Canal.  The pleasant town of Topsham with its Dutch-gabled buildings lay across the river Exe on the far side of the canal.  The towpath was quiet, most likely because of the weather, but a few walkers passed and two stand-up paddleboarders drifted lazily past on the canal. A little drizzle was now falling and I began to wonder if any bees would be about but I decided to press on.  Banks of reeds lined the towpath and flowers grew up through the vegetation.   I noticed the pink flowers of marsh woundwort with their intricately decorated lip and a few tall spikes of purple loosestrife.  Then, as I walked southward, thick clumps of yellow flowers appeared in the canal-side greenery.  This was yellow loosestrife, a plant that grows in wet places and, with its copious sprays of bright yellow cup-shaped flowers produced in late summer, it shone like a beacon of light on this gloomy day.   Each flower contained large amounts of grainy yellow pollen and the plant grew in many places along the canal up to the lock where the canal and river merge. (The picture at the top of this post shows some the yellow loosestrife flowers)

Vegetation by the side of the Exeter Canal showing yellow loosestrife and marsh woundwort. Topsham is in the background.

Light drizzle continued to fall and I had almost given up on finding bees when I spotted a medium-sized dark insect in one of the yellow loosestrife flowers.  Visually, I couldn’t see much to distinguish this insect except some white hairs on the hind legs. Photographs also showed the prominent white hairs on the back legs along with some black as well.  These characteristics together with the association of the insect with the yellow loosestrife flowers showed that this was a female Macropis europaea, the yellow loosestrife bee, one of the bees I had come to find.  The photographs also showed a few small drops of rain on the insect which was sheltering on this damp day and essentially immobile, making it easier for me to take pictures.  Further along the canal, I came across another dark insect also resting in a yellow flower and in this case, photos revealed its swollen hind legs and its prominent yellow face, characteristic of a male of the same species. 

Female Macropis europaea showing the white and black hairs on her hind legs. Look out for the raindrops.
Male Macropis europaea showing his swollen back legs
Male Macropis europaea showing his yellow face and swollen back legs

These are the bees reported by Tim Worfolk but why was I so interested in seeing them?  They are rare which is of course one reason. They also have some very unusual characteristics being the only UK species of bee that collects floral oils and they find these oils in the flowers of yellow loosestrife.   

Within the flowers there are tiny glands that secrete floral oils.  The glands, termed trichome elaiosomes, are found towards the lower part of the inside surface of the petals and along the stamen tubes and the oils collect near the glands.  The female Macropis bees have specialised brushes of hair on their front and middle legs that they use to collect these oils which are then transferred to the hairs on their back legs, sometimes mixed with pollen also collected from the flowers.  The female bees use the oils for two purposes, to waterproof the inside of the nest chambers they construct in wet places and, mixed with pollen, to provide food for their larvae. 

When I visited, the damp conditions prevented the females from flying so I was unable to observe them collecting pollen or oils.  Local naturalist John Walters has a nice video of the female bees collecting pollen where the bees look like they are wearing bright yellow pollen pantaloons.

I was glad to have made the trip to Exminster Marshes, despite my doubts about the weather.  Seeing these oil-collecting bees and understanding the close and reciprocal relationship they have with the yellow loosestrife flowers was an unexpected gift.   

But what about the swifts?  August 13th was the last day we saw the birds near our house so we assume they are now on their long migratory journey.  Their presence has not only entertained us but has enriched our lives this year, bringing us closer to the non-human world.  It has been an excellent year for the birds in terms of numbers and it was good to see them reproducing so well, especially in this time of environmental crisis. 

Marsh woundwort with common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum)
Small copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeas)
Hoverfly (Helophilus trivittatus)

West Dorset surprises

The minor road that climbs past the Spyway Inn near Askerswell was quiet that day, a welcome relief from the seemingly endless traffic clogging the A35.  Eventually, though, Eggardon Hill came into view, the road levelled out and our attention was captured by the stunning panorama laid out to the west.  Below, the land unfolded in a mosaic of fields, trees and hedges with different colours and textures, backed by the hills of west Dorset rising mysteriously in the slight haze that softened the air.  To the south west, the sea and the familiar ups and downs of the Jurassic Coast completed the image.  [The picture at the top of this post shows the view in a slightly spread out panoramic form] We drove on and, just before the road dipped under the old railway bridge, turned into the car park at the Powerstock Common Nature Reserve.

Trees surrounded the car park and bright early June sunshine filtered through the leaf cover casting dappled light across the parking area.  Birdsong echoed around us and the rippling sound of running water emerged from the nearby woodland.  Common vetch scrambled through the fences along the car park edge and its purplish-pink pea-type flowers were proving popular with plump, furry, pale brown bumblebees.

We set out along the woodland path taking a right fork to stay on the northern edge of the reserve.  The track felt enclosed but wildflowers grew along the margins including the inconspicuous bright blue speedwell and the purplish-blue spikes of bugle.  In time, the woodland melted away leaving the path to run between broad sloping banks topped by trees and scrub.  This is the Witherstone cutting, once the path of the Bridport branch railway as it ran between Powerstock and Toller stations.

The old railway cutting

This branch Line opened in 1857 linking Bridport to Maiden Newton and the main line.   The coming of the railway to West Dorset revolutionised social and commercial life in the area which, at the time, was poorly served by roads.   People could travel more widely and I tried to imagine trains passing through the cutting, drawn in a haze of smoke and noise by the small steam engines of the Great Western Railway.  I pictured people on the trains, travelling for work or for leisure or moving about during the two world wars.  The line was also important for the transport of milk, watercress and the net and twine produced in Bridport.  As motor transport came to dominate, traffic on the railway declined resulting in its closure in 1975.  Although the tracks were lifted, there are still signs of the old railway, notably the rusty fence posts that line the track.   The remains of an old brickworks can also be found in the nearby wood.  This was set up near the railway to take advantage of the clay that remained when the cutting was excavated.

On the day of our visit, the sloping banks on either side of the path were mostly clad in short rough grass although there were some areas of exposed grey soil, perhaps a result of slippage.  The former railway cutting felt very sheltered and the bright yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil grew across the grassy areas.  We also found many small flowers of milkwort, almost hidden in the grass.  Milkwort is a common plant on rough grassland and the flowers exist in several colours.  Pink and purplish-blue flowers grew at Powerstock Common but each flower also had one white petal divided into finger-like lobes giving it a passing resemblance to a miniature cow’s udder.  This may account for the name of the flower and its use in the past for increasing milk production.  We also found one common spotted orchid with beautiful purple markings but more will have appeared, along with many other flowers, as the season advanced.

The abundance of flowers attracted insects and several common blue butterflies flew past or around us displaying their sky-blue upper wings and intricately patterned lower wings.   Two yellow butterflies also passed by, dancing around one another in the air.  I hoped they would land so that I could identify the species but they did not oblige. Bumblebees moved lazily among the flowers but we made our most exciting observation on a slightly raised area of rough grass with some exposed grey soil not far from the main path. 

Here we found bees flying about at high speed, backwards and forwards and from side to side, just above the ground, accompanied by a clearly audible buzz.  There were perhaps a hundred or more of the insects, and with their incessant movement this was an impressive sight.   It was difficult to identify them at first owing to their frantic activity but they were honeybee-sized and I thought I could see shiny black abdomens.  Very occasionally, one would pause to feed from the bird’s foot trefoil revealing a yellow face, a pale brown-haired thorax and two very long antennae, each as long as the rest of their body. Such long antennae, resembling shiny black bootlaces, are seen only on one UK species of bee, the male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis).

The obvious excitement of these male bees arose because they were anticipating the emergence of females and wanted to try to mate.  Indeed, on several occasions some left their frantic flying to coalesce into a small mobile cluster.  Others tried to join in, some left the melee.  This was a mating cluster and formed when a virgin female emerged from her nest chamber.  Many males then pounced upon her hoping to mate but only one was successful.  Once mated, females get on with nest building and laying of eggs to secure the population of next year’s long-horned bees. 

The long-horned bee was once a common sight in May and June across the southern half of the UK, unmistakeable from the long antennae of the males.  Agricultural intensification led to destruction of habitat used by these bees along with a loss of their favoured flowers such as wild vetches and peas.  As a result, the species is now quite rare being restricted to twenty or so UK sites many of which are along the southern coast.  The Powerstock colony is large and seems to be prospering; it was a treat to see it that day. 

Powerstock Common is a rich and varied nature reserve and we glimpsed only a small part during our visit.  Even so, we enjoyed the peace and the floral beauty of the old railway cutting and discovered a fascinating mixture of natural and industrial history. 

At the beginning of July, Natural England announced that the combined land at Powerstock Common and nearby Kingcombe Meadows, both managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, would become a National Nature Reserve recognising the unique character of these west Dorset sites and the rare wildlife they contain. 

Three short videos of the long-horned bees showing their behaviour that day can be seen on my YouTube channel  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvXWn_9QYdx0AU6guJ3iYLA

common vetch
milkwort (pink version) showing white petal
Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) in flight showing his long antennae
Female Eucera longcornis showing her pollen-collecting hairs on her back legs. The female also has antennae of a more conventional length.
mating cluster
mating cluster with male looking on
common spotted orchid

This article appeared in the August 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

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