Beavers live here! Rewilding on the River Otter in East Devon

Four years ago, a family of wild beavers were spotted on the river Otter in East Devon.  This was the first report of the animal breeding successfully in the wild in England since the species had been hunted to extinction more than 400 years ago.  No one knows how the animals came to be on the river but their prospering population is now the subject of a scientific trial providing a unique opportunity to monitor the re-introduction of a native species, or “rewilding” as it is sometimes called. 

Otterton Bridge with Himalyan Balsam
The old stone bridge over the River Otter at Otterton, with Himalyan Balsam

 

I wanted to find out more, so one evening in mid-September, I met Kate Ponting, Countryside Learning Officer for Clinton Devon Estates, at the village green in Otterton.  Kate has been closely involved with the beaver re-introduction trial, taking place as it does on land largely owned by her employer.  We headed to the river, crossed the old stone bridge and walked upstream along the muddy riverside path.  Banks of Himalayan balsam and nettles dominated the river bank while, on the landward side, clover leys spread as far as the low embankment that once carried the railway.  Prominent official signs warned that “Beavers live here” and Kate explained that there had been some local problems with dogs.

The river was full after recent heavy rain but the scene was tranquil in the low evening sunshine.  We paused on the wooden bridge where Kate pointed out one beaver lodge, a semi-organised jumble of mud, sticks and branches protruding nearly a metre from the river bank and covering the entrance to a burrow where the beavers live.   Further up the river we stopped to watch a second lodge on the far bank.  Kate had warned me that the beavers had become less “reliable” as the autumn progressed and, although a wren flittered about the sticks making up the lodge and a grey wagtail passed through, we saw no beavers. Kate did, however, show me some signs of beaver activity including severed branches and one felled tree.

The beaver is Europe’s largest rodent and until the 16th century was found widely on UK rivers.  They are impressively large animals covered in brown fur, measuring up to 100cm (head and body) and with scaly black tails.  Beavers are strict herbivores with strong teeth allowing feeding on many species of river and bank plant as well as woody vegetation from trees.  They are strong swimmers adapted for life underwater, and skilful aquatic engineers able to regulate water levels by building dams.  When they build dams by felling trees they remodel the wetland landscape creating habitat for many other plants and animals and, for this reason, they are referred to as “keystone” species.

In the past, they were hunted to extinction for their fur, meat and castoreum, a secretion from their scent gland used for medicinal purposes.  Early in the 21st century, however, free-living populations of beavers were re-established in Scotland and there were anecdotal sightings of wild beavers on the river Otter in East Devon.  These reports were confirmed early in 2014 when two adults and one juvenile beaver (kit) were filmed near Ottery St Mary.  This was the first confirmed report of wild beavers breeding in England for 400 years.

At first, DEFRA were concerned that the animals might harbour disease and wanted to remove them but their plan was opposed by wildlife experts and local people.  So, towards the end of 2014, Devon Wildlife Trust applied to Natural England for a licence allowing the beavers to remain on the river as part of a five-year trial to monitor their effects.  The licence was granted on the condition that the beavers were shown to be the native UK species and disease free and in March 2015, nine beavers living in two family groups were returned to the river Otter.  The licence included a management plan for monitoring the health of the beaver population and its effects on the local landscape and ecology; also for making good any damage.  The River Otter Beaver Trial is led by Devon Wildlife Trust working in partnership with the University of Exeter, the Derek Gow Consultancy and Clinton Devon Estates.

Since the trial began, beavers have been seen along almost the entire length of the river Otter.  Breeding has been successful each year but there were concerns that the population might be becoming inbred so in 2016, two additional beavers, unrelated to the existing animals, were released on to the river. By 2017 the population had grown to more than 20 and watching the adult beavers and their kits on a summer’s evening became a popular pastime attracting many visitors to the area.  So far, the presence of these large aquatic animals has caused few difficulties.  Feeding signs have been detected all along the river in terms of severed shoots and felled trees but this was mainly confined to small diameter willow shoots.  Earlier this year, fields near Otterton were flooded when beavers dammed one of the streams feeding the Otter but mitigation measures were put in place.

Female beaver with kits, on the River Otter. Photo by Mike Symes, Devon Wildlife Trust

 

These are, however, early days and, as the number of beavers continues to rise, their presence in this managed East Devon landscape may cause tensions.  There is good evidence from Bavaria, where the animals were re-introduced 50 years ago, that beavers can have a beneficial influence on rivers.   They support wildlife by opening up the landscape, creating coppice and diversifying the wetland habitat.  Their dams regulate river flows and remove sediment and pollutants. Sometimes, however, they can be a nuisance to those who live and work by rivers, causing flooding, blocking ditches, undermining river banks and felling important trees.   There are now as many as 20,000 beavers on Bavaria’s rivers and their beneficial effects are clearly recognised alongside the need to manage the animals when their activity has a negative impact.   Hopefully, a similar resolution can be reached for the East Devon beavers as their population grows.  Whatever the outcome, the River Otter Beaver Trial will be closely watched by those interested in “rewilding” the landscape.

The featured image at the top of this post is of a female beaver on the River Otter, by Mike Symes, Devon Wildlife Trust.

I should like to thank Kate Ponting of Clinton Devon Estates for giving up her time to show me the beaver lodges and Steve Hussey and Mark Elliott of Devon Wildlife Trust for providing information and photographs.

This article appeared in the November 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Beaver Lodge on river Otter
Beaver lodge on River Otter

 

 

Tree felled by beavers near river Otter
Tree felled by beavers along River Otter

 

Himalayan Balsam by River Otter
Himalayan Balsam by River Otter – the bee was too quick for me and all I photographed was the leg!

 

 

Cormorant on river Otter
Cormorant on River Otter

 

 

river Otter view
A tranquil scene on the River Otter

 

What a difference a storm makes.

Here I am again at Leas Foot Sands near Thurlestone on the South Devon coast, a week after my first visit.  Storm Ophelia passed noisily through the area between the two visits, bringing very high winds and rough seas and I wanted to see how the beach had fared.

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 4
The sand dunes at the back of the beach with some debris

Mist accompanied me for most of the journey down but as I approached the coast, the gloom cleared and there was a hint of brightness in the sky.  To the west, the art deco hotel on Burgh Island glowed in a halo of white light and there was even a little milky sunshine at Thurlestone.  These luminous promises were destined to be unfulfilled as the sky quickly resumed its overcast state leaving the sea a uniform dull grey-blue.  At least it was calm; there was virtually no wind and the waves looked as though they couldn’t be bothered.  Perhaps because of the calm, there were birds about, on the beach and on the cliffs, wagtails, corvids and pipits.  Compared with my visit a week ago, the tide was much lower, exposing a larger area of beach with several concentric arcs of debris and a mass of dark seaweed at the water’s edge.

The beach at Leas Foot Sands is enclosed on either side by moderate red cliffs and backed by scrappy sand dunes that have suffered badly in previous years’ stormy weather.   Today these dunes resembled a piece of conceptual art dedicated to our throwaway culture.  All sorts of debris littered the rising sand:  many small fragments of plastic, wood and seaweed, feathers, plastic containers and many pieces of plastic wrapping. There was even a battered but colourful drink can that seemed to have come from the Far East.    It had obviously been fairly wild when the storm arrived, with high winds and waves reaching right up to the back of the beach; this area had been mostly clean a week ago.

Further down the beach, there were several arcs of debris presumably corresponding to the distance reached by different tides as the storm abated.  These strandlines contained small pieces of seaweed, cuttlefish shells, Portuguese Men O’War looking rather sad and deflated with some in pieces, cotton bud stems, colourful rope and fishing tackle.

One of the arcs of debris in the centre of the beach grabbed my attention.  It contained some of the same stuff but in lower amounts: a few feathers, small dry pieces of wood and seaweed and the occasional shard of plastic.  The big difference was the presence of nurdles, very easy to spot littered among the other debris here.  There must have been several hundred of the small, mostly grey, plastic particles spread across the beach in this arc.

Finally, near the water’s edge, there were substantial amounts of shiny dark brown seaweed partly submerged in the shallow water.  It looked as though this had been newly collected and dumped by the storm.  There was little or no plastic waste in this area.

So, what a difference a storm makes.  I wasn’t surprised to see all the litter at the back of the beach given the ferocity of the storm but the nurdles were a shock.  A week ago we had been hard pressed to find any nurdles at all whereas today they were plentiful.  The challenge now is to understand why the nurdles arrived and why they were apparently concentrated in one strandline.

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Our seas and our beaches are contaminated by nurdles, these small pieces of easily transportable plastic used as a raw material for making many of our plastic goods.  Nurdles pose many dangers but one obvious concern is that that they will be consumed by seabirds and by fish with dire consequences for their health.  Here is a link to more information about nurdles.

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 2
Debris at the back of the beach superimposed on one of the clumps of sea rocket

 

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 1
Debris at the back of the beach

 

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 3
A drink can seen at the back of the beach – it that may have travelled far.

 

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 5
Debris piled up at the back of the beach

 

Leas Foot Sands middle of beach after storm Ophelia 2
A mid beach shot with a sad-looking Portuguese Man’O War

 

Leas Foot Sands middle of beach after storm Ophelia 1
More unusual finds on a mid beach hunt

 

Nurdles on Leas Foot Sands after storm Ophelia 1
Nurdles on the middle of the beach along with natural debris. The nurdles are the small grey cylindrical pieces.

 

Nurdles on Leas Foot Sands after storm Ophelia 2
More nurdles in the middle of the beach.

 

Shoreline at Leas Foot Beach after storm Ophelia
Seaweed at the water’s edge.

 

Plastic waste and Portuguese Men O’War on a Devon beach

Last week, on a very windy day well before storm Ophelia arrived, we visited Leas Foot Sands, one of the small coves clustered around Thurlestone Bay in South Devon.  Thurlestone Rock, a stone arch or “thirled stone” is a prominent local landmark located in the Bay.  As well as being a popular attraction for canoeists and wild swimmers, the Rock gives the village of Thurlestone its name.

Leas Foot Sands
Leas Foot Sands

When we reached Leas Foot Sands, we stood and gazed across the water at the elemental scene.  A gusty, gale force wind blew from the sea, a powerful natural force affecting everything in its path. It had been hard enough to walk there, buffeted as we were from side to side and, now, above the beach and just about able to stand, we felt specks of sand flick across our faces.  The sea was a uniform grey under the overcast sky, but the wind created many white horses offshore and a sense of agitated movement.  Chunky waves continually attacked the curving apron of yellowish-brown sand, each one finishing in a foaming mass of white water that mingled with the wind giving the air a moist, salty essence.

At the southern side of the beach, the sand and rocks were coated with a slightly unsavoury looking, brownish foam.  I remember being alarmed, some years ago, when I first saw this spume on a beach in Cornwall and feared effects of detergents. I now know that it is a mostly natural phenomenon, caused by a high wind interacting with organic matter from marine phytoplankton.

A few hardy plants grew at the back of the beach beyond the strandline, bringing welcome colour on this mostly monochrome day.  Brash yellow and white daisy-like flowers of sea mayweed bobbed in the wind and pale lilac blooms of sea rocket kept safely close to the sand along with their fleshy green leaves.  A few pink lollipop flowers of thrift struggled on exposed cliff edges.

Further down the beach, bands of dark seaweed stretched in broad arcs parallel to the shore.   The thickest band of seaweed was the result of the morning’s high tide; here the seaweed sparkled, seawater dripping off dark fronds as the tide receded.  Mixed with the seaweed were various colourful examples of plastic waste, mostly bits and pieces of fishing tackle or rope, but I also saw an old plastic yoghurt container, a bright green plastic straw and several smaller shards of plastic.  A bright pink balloon-like object clung to a flat stone nestling among the damp seaweed.  I wondered if this was some kind of joke as it vaguely resembled an inflated condom but I abandoned that idea when, further along, I came across several similar objects.  Hazel put me right, telling me that these were Portuguese Men O’War, very colourful but dangerously stinging organisms that float on the sea surface trailing long tentacles, until driven in by high winds.  There have been reports of swarms of these colourful creatures on several beaches along the south coast and warnings that the number will increase with storm Ophelia.

Behind the wet strandline was a sparser band of dry, black seaweed, presumably resulting from sporadic higher tides.  I started looking around this sector digging up the sand with a garden trowel to see what I could find.  This was too much for a woman who had recently arrived on the beach with her child and friend.

“What are you looking for?” she asked me.

“I’m trying to find plastic nurdles, have you heard of them? “ I replied

“Do you mean those small bits of industrial plastic?”

“That’s right, but I can’t find any here” I continued.

“I suppose that’s good” she suggested.

I carried on looking but was unsuccessful.  Hazel, however, found six of the lentil-sized plastic pellets, a mixture of grey and blue, on the other side of the beach.  Earlier in the year, someone had reported collecting hundreds of plastic nurdles from this beach; perhaps we were unlucky or perhaps conditions had changed.

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Marine plastic pollution is one of the major environmental challenges of our time and something I want to return to in future posts.

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Sea Mayweed at Leas Foot Sands
Sea Mayweed

 

 

Sea Rocket at Leas Foot Sands
Sea Rocket

 

Plastic beach waste at Leas Foot Sands 1
Plastic waste

 

 

Plastic beach waste at Leas Foot Sands 2
Plastic fragments

 

 

Portuguese Man O'War on Leas Foot Sands
Portuguese Man O’War with fragments of dark blue tentacles

 

Plastic nurdles collected at Leas Foot Sands 11 10 17
nurdles

 

Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath

Mistaken marriages, passionate affairs, tragic deaths, richly interwoven with folklore and superstition.  This is the complex concoction contained in The Return of the Native, one of Thomas Hardy’s great novels.  Hardy set his narrative on the semi-fictional Egdon Heath, a “vast tract of unenclosed wild” that assumes a claustrophobic, controlling influence on his characters.  Hardy’s Egdon Heath has many of the features of the heath landscape that once filled the space between Dorchester and Bournemouth.  I wanted to experience Egdon so, on a warm, humid day towards the end of July, I went to Winfrith Heath one of the surviving fragments of this Dorset heathland.

Winfrith Heath 1
Looking across the heath showing the subtle colour effect of the heather flowers

 

I followed a sandy soil track on to the heath, descending gradually between borders of gorse and low trees.  As I gained distance from the road, long views opened up across the gently undulating terrain surrounding me and an eerie quiet descended, broken only by trains passing on the heath-edge line.  Apart from the occasional stunted tree and a few drifts of pale green bracken much of this part of the heath appeared featureless and barren.

Closer inspection, however, revealed some of the heath’s special wildlife.   Near the path edge, the cheerful purples, pinks and violets of the three common species of heather showed well.   These heathers flourish across the heath alongside rough grasses and gorse, and their bright pastel-coloured flowers lend a purple-pink tinge to long views at this time of year, the colour augmented by sunshine but lost in a mass of dull browns and greens when cloud covers.   Large, metallic blue and green emperor dragon flies, the size of small birds, were attracted to the ponds scattered across the heath.  They swept back and forth across the water making repeated, aerial, hairpin turns in a constant search for insect food.  Heather spikes dipped momentarily when yellow-striped bumblebees moved among the flower-bells collecting pollen and nectar.

The sandy path levelled out. Heathland now spread extensively on both sides and, together with the grey cloud cover, created a claustrophobic feeling.  Ahead of me was a band of trees with a gate and standing water.  The trees mark a drainage ditch feeding into the Tadnoll Brook, a chalk-stream tributary of the River Frome.  I crossed the ditch on a very solid brick bridge, and was transported to a different world, one of damp meadows and thick rushy grass.  The wet meadow, soggy underfoot, was dominated by untidy stands of shoulder-high marsh thistles with multiple, prolific, spiny stems.  Each stem was topped by a starburst of flower heads, a mixture of shaggy purple flowers and brown and white fluffy seed heads.  Between the thistles, the lemon-yellow cushion flowers of bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the undergrowth and, as I walked, pale brown grasshoppers soared in long arcs from the rough grass, seeking safety away from me.

Butterflies danced around the unruly thistle flowers like confetti caught in the breeze, pausing occasionally to take nectar.  Small tortoiseshell, marbled white and peacock resembled colourful modernist stained glass and a pair of gatekeepers performed an airborne ballet.   This enclosed wetland felt like a land of plenty, a land of unconstrained, fulsome growth.  Even in high summer, however, the meadow was wet and marshy so that after winter rain the area will become boggy and treacherous.  A group of cows lurked in a corner of the meadow watching me; they help to control growth of vegetation but create further hazards for the unwary walker.

These two very different habitats, the larger lowland heath and the smaller wet meadow make up the majority of the Winfrith reserve as we see it today but the area hasn’t always looked like this.  Until the Bronze Age, this land was covered with forest (birch, pine, hazel, elm, oak) but 3-4000 years ago trees began to be felled exposing the underlying soil.  Nutrients were gradually washed away from freely draining soils leaving behind a relatively acidic surface where heathers and gorse flourished, eventually creating the heath we see today.  This landscape was maintained and scrub encroachment prevented through a combination of grazing by cattle and ponies and by heathland practices such as furze, turf and peat cutting.

Heathland once stretched from Dorchester in the west to the Avon Valley in the east but much has been lost following changes in agricultural practices or through building; a large part of Winfrith Heath was swallowed up when the nuclear research facility was built in the 1950s and still lies behind forbidding fences.  Today, only 15% of the original heath is left but what remains is a very important and rare landscape and part of Dorset’s history.  Its importance as a special habitat supporting rare species such as the Dartford warbler and the nightjar is recognised by its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest but the heathland is still threatened directly or indirectly by development.

But did I get any sense of what Hardy’s Egdon Heath was like from my visit?  Even on a small area like Winfrith, there was a definite sense of isolation in the central part of the heath, and that feeling was only partially lifted when the sun shone and the heath took on some colour.   So, if it’s solitude you are after, then it’s a perfect place.  One person’s solitude is, however, another person’s loneliness and it’s not difficult to see how Egdon might have depressed some of Hardy’s characters.  Neither is the heath a benign environment; care is required in all seasons but in winter, it is bleak, brown and very windy with boggy areas dangerous especially after wet weather.  Having said all that, the heath does have an undeniable grandeur but its very rarity as a landscape nowadays means that we may not know how to react to it.  Perhaps like Hardy’s “survivors” we should simply accept and embrace the heath for what it is, foibles and all.

Winfrith Heath lies to the west of Gatemore Road in Winfrith Newburgh and a Dorset Wildlife Trust information board marks the entrance. 

 

Bell heather and ling with gorse on Winfrith Heath
Bell heather, ling and gorse on Winfrith Heath

 

Cross-leaved heath.
Cross-leaved heath

 

 

Emperor dragonfly on Winfrith Heath
A pond on the heath with an emperor dragonfly

 

 

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on marsh thistle.
Small tortoiseshell butterfly on marsh thistle

 

Peacock butterfly on Winfrith Heath
Peacock butterfly on marsh thistle with bumblebee

 

Nuclear research centre Winfrith Heath
The former nuclear research facility seen through trees and behind forbidding fences on the other side of Gatemore Road.

 

 

This article appeared in the September 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

The long-horned bee in Devon – and its endangered friend

South Devon coast looking towards Prawle Point
The south Devon coast looking towards Prawle Point (June 16th 2017)

 

It’s been a good summer. We’ve had some fine weather and I’ve been able to spend time on a beautiful part of the south Devon coast looking for the long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis).  It’s one of my favourite insects and one of our rarest bees and there is a strong colony on the coast between Prawle Point and Start Point where low, soft-rock cliffs meander around headlands, in and out of rocky coves and along seaweed-covered beaches.  I visited this area several times between May and July but my most interesting day was on June 23rd, just after the summer solstice.

It was breezy and warm but partly cloudy when I arrived at the coast.  The sea was a uniform grey-blue although now and then the sun broke through the cloud, creating shimmering areas of white water. I started by following the coast path eastwards along the cliff top from Prawle Point.  The sea-side of the path was fringed with scrub and rough grass along the cliff edge whereas the landward side was fenced and mostly used for arable farming.  Many kinds of wild flower grew along both sides of the path including a few generous clumps of purple tufted vetch scrambling through the scrub. After about a mile of easy walking, the enclosed path reached a gate giving on to a broad, open area, not farmed for some years, as far as I know.

I was completely unprepared for the view that greeted me after I closed the gate.  Here was a meadow where thousands of the small, dandelion-like flowers of cat’s ear moved with the breezes to create a mobile yellow canopy above the grass.  Lower down were many tiny yellow globes of hop trefoil and bright pink semi-circles of common vetch.  This is a paradise for insects and I saw many red-tailed bumblebee workers moving purposefully about the chrome-yellow flower heads.

But that wasn’t all: the area along the cliff edge was a kaleidoscope of purples, yellows and pinks, mostly flowering legumes such as bush, kidney and tufted vetches, bird’s foot trefoil and meadow vetchling, restharrow and narrow-leaved everlasting pea.   The number and variety of flowers was greater than I can remember from previous years, perhaps the warm spring had suited the legumes.

The range of flowers, especially the legumes is ideal for the long-horned bee.  I had seen one or two males back along the enclosed path and now I saw several more, also nectaring on the curving, purple, tubular florets of tufted vetch.   There is something other-worldly, almost primeval about these insects with their yellow mask-like face, orange-chestnut hair (in fresh insects) and their impressively long antennae, resembling stiff black bootlaces and about the same length as rest of their bodies.  They are particularly striking in flight, antennae held so that the bee can negotiate whatever obstacle it meets;  controlling those antennae must involve some impressive micro-engineering.   There were also females about feeding on lemon yellow pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling.  Chunkier than the males, they have shorter antennae and, on their back legs, generous pollen brushes resembling golden harem pants.

I scrambled down a rough track to the main Eucera nest area, a section of reddish, soft-rock cliff, pock-marked with hundreds of pencil-sized holes.  Behind me the sea soughed rhythmically on nearby rocks and an oystercatcher sang its plangent song. Female Eucera arrived at the nest site bringing pollen and nectar to provision their nests but they were not alone and I saw several other bee species that seemed to be using the nest area.

One species I had hoped to see was the very rare Nomada, and I had nearly given up hope when the bee suddenly appeared; I was so surprised, I nearly fell backwards off the rocks.  Like others of its kind, it is wasp-like, with a yellow and black-banded abdomen and orange legs and antennae. It was the pattern of the bands, six yellow bands on a black body that told me that this was Nomada sexfasciata, the six-banded nomad bee, one of Britain’s rarest bees.  This site on the south Devon coast is the only place where it is found in the UK; it is nationally endangered so it was very exciting to see it.

It moved about the nest area furtively as if trying not to be noticed and after looking in to a few of the holes it moved on. Later that day I had more sightings of the Nomada; whether it was the same bee or several I cannot say.  As a nomad, the bee has no nest of its own but lays its eggs in the nest of another bee, in this case the long-horned bee.  The Nomada eggs develop into larvae and take over the nest, killing the host larvae and eating their pollen store.  It depends for its survival on a strong Eucera colony and this one in south Devon is one of the largest in the UK.

Long-horned bees and their Nomada used to be found widely across the southern part of Britain in the early 20th century.  They favour a range of habitats such as coastal soft rock cliffs, hay meadows and woodland rides for nest sites and require unimproved flowery grassland for feeding, being especially dependent on flowering legumes for their pollen sources.  With agricultural intensification leading to a loss of habitat, especially flowers, these bees have been squeezed out and are now confined to a very few sites.

It’s not difficult to see how they could be supported.  At the south Devon site, all that is required is to ensure a consistent source of flowering legumes along the coast, the soft rock cliffs already provide the nest sites.    I recently met Catherine Mitson who is working with Buglife on a project to support the south Devon colony of Eucera longicornis and Nomada sexfasciata  by increasing the number of flowers.  Catherine is very enthusiastic and I have great hopes now for the survival of both the long-horned bee and its nomad.

Yellow meadow Prawle Devon
The yellow meadow

 

Male long-horned bee on meadow vetchling
Male long-horned bee on meadow vetchling (June 16th 2017)

 

Male long-horned bee
Male long-horned bee on tufted vetch (June 23rd 2017)

 

Female long-horned bee
Female long-horned bee on meadow vetchling (June 23rd 2017)

 

Female long-horned bee by nest
Female long-horned bee at the nest site (June 16th 2017)

 

Female long-horned bee 2
Female long-horned bee with pollen on tufted vetch (July 2nd 2017)

 

Nomada sexfasciata
Nomada sexfasciata by Eucera nests (June 23rd 2017)

 

Nomada sexfasciata 2
Nomada sexfasciata by Eucera nests (June 23rd 2017)

 

Female long-horned bee
Very worn female long-horned bee on tufted vetch (July 23rd 2017)

 

The featured image at the top of this  post is a male long-horned bee on bird’s foot trefoil   (May 23rd 2017)

 

 

Flower-rich hay meadows on the Golden Cap Estate in west Dorset

For hundreds of years, colourful, flower-rich hay meadows were a defining feature of the British countryside and its way of life.  The 20th century saw a tidal wave of agricultural intensification sweep through the countryside accompanied by increased use of herbicides and pesticides.  The flower-rich hay meadows were a major casualty of this change and 97% of those present in the 1930s disappeared.  Dorset still has some traditionally managed meadows and, at the beginning of May, I went to Westhay Farm below Stonebarrow Hill on the Golden Cap Estate in west Dorset where the National Trust maintains this age-old agricultural system.

Westhay Farm Meadows
Westhay Farm hidden away in the Golden Cap Estate

 

I followed the narrow lane as it rose steeply between houses and through woodland along the course of the old ridgeway road towards Stonebarrow Hill.  Red campion, cow parsley, stitchwort and bluebells grew thickly along the grassy verges and bright sunlight filtered through the trees giving an unexpected transparency to overhanging leaves.  Emerging from the tree cover, the lane levelled out and, to the right, the land fell away steeply in a patchwork of fields, hedges and trees towards a calm sea with just a light surface stippling.

Hidden away in this landscape is Westhay Farm, with its long, mellow-stone farmhouse set in a lush garden and surrounded by hay meadows.  At this time of year, the meadows are richly carpeted with knee-high, yellow buttercups and tall, rough grass with prominent flaky seed heads.  When breezes meander across the valley towards the meadows, the grasses and flowers respond, moving together in waves, like the swell on the sea below.

Partly concealed within the rough grass were tight clusters of lemon yellow flowers above thick reddish green stems.  This is yellow rattle, a traditional meadowland plant, with its tubular flowers open at one end where the upper petal widens to a smooth, cowl-like structure above protruding purple stamens.   A black and yellow-striped bumblebee systematically visited each flower pushing the two petals apart so that its long tongue could reach the nectar at the base.   When it left with its sugary reward it also took away a dusting of pollen from the overhanging stamens to pass on to the next flower.

Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasite; although it can use sunlight energy itself by the process of photosynthesis, it does better when it also establishes physical connections to the roots of other plants in the meadow such as grasses.  The yellow rattle siphons off nutrients from the grasses, suppressing their vigour and creating space for other plants to thrive.  This is very important for establishing a meadow with a wide range of species.

Some of the meadows contained drifts of the glittering, brightly coloured flowers of green-winged orchids, standing defiantly in the grass on thick green stems.  Many of the orchids were purple, some were magenta, some violet and a few were white or pink, lending a mosaic of contrasting colour to the meadow.  Each flower was composed of several florets arranged around the stem like jewels on a bracelet.  The most visible and exquisite part of each orchid floret was the broad, apron-like, lower petal with its central white stripe contained within a coloured halo.  This white region was decorated with a pattern of eight or more irregular darker spots, the pattern unique to each floret and perhaps decoded by visiting pollinators.  Green-winged orchids are a speciality of these meadows and their name refers to the green-veined sepals that protect each developing floret, now thrown back like wings.

The Westhay meadows were a fine sight in early May with their colourful flowers and seemingly unfettered growth.  As the seasons progress, the meadows will mature, the yellow rattle and orchids will disappear, their place taken by other flowers.  By July the grasses will be dry and cheerful newcomers such as purple knapweed and buttery-yellow bird’s foot trefoil will bring their colours to the mosaic.  In late July, the hay will be cut, this joyous, abundant growth converted into winter animal feed.

Flower-rich hay meadows such as these were a feature of the British countryside in the spring and summer for centuries.  Cultivation followed the rhythm of the seasons.  Grasses and flowers grew in the warmth and wet of spring and early summer and a unique species-rich environment developed.   Hay was cut in late summer and removed for winter animal feed, after the flowers had set seed.  Animals grazed the fields in autumn taking advantage of the late-summer grass growth, the aftermath. No chemicals were used and the only fertiliser came from the autumn-grazing animals. The following spring, plants grew, seeds germinated and the cycle began again.  This was a carefully managed land cultivation system, in tune with the seasons and their weather.

Haymaking was an important part of the rural calendar, a natural part of each year’s cycle, celebrated in literature and art.  Here is part of William Barnes’ poem Haymeaken depicting a 19th century rural Dorset scene:

‘Tis merry ov a zummer’s day,

Where vo’k be out a-meaken hay ;

Where men an’ women, in a string,

Do ted or turn the grass, an’ zing,

Wi’ cheemen vaices, merry zongs,

A-tossen o’ their sheenen prongs

Wi’ earms a-zwangen left an’ right,

In colour’d gowns an’ shirtsleeves white

All this was set to change in the 20th century.  Fears for food security during the two world wars led to agricultural intensification and an increased dependence on artificial fertilisers.  Flower-rich hay meadows all but disappeared, a way of life evaporated and the look of the countryside changed.

It wasn’t just the look that changed.  Adoption of new methods coupled with increased use of herbicides and pesticides significantly affected wildlife in the countryside.  Loss of farmland birds and pollinating insects such as bees, butterflies, wasps, moths, flies and beetles has been severe.

This article appeared in the July 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Meadow with orchids 4

Yellow rattle 2
Yellow rattle

 

Gree-winged orchid (magenta)
Green-winged orchid, magenta form, showing pattern of spots on lower petal.

 

Gree-winged orchid (violet)
Green-winged orchid, violet form.

 

Gree-winged orchid (white)
Green-winged orchid, white form, showing green veins

 

Meadow with orchids 7 reduced

Have you seen the bee orchids?

There I was, standing up to my knees in the long grass trying to examine a flower, when a woman passing on the nearby path asked, “Have you seen the bee orchids?”  I turned and answered “No, but I was hoping to find them” and she continued “If you go nearly to the end of the reserve by the bridge, there’s a very nice one”.

Bird's foot trefoil
Bird’s-foot Trefoil

 

Common vetch
Common vetch

 

Aller Brook Nature Reserve in Newton Abbott is a place of contrasts.  It might reasonably be called an edgeland for it is on the edge of the town and the reserve starts where the Brunel Industrial Estate ends.  But it’s more urban than even that implies; the other main boundary of the reserve is the A380 trunk road making its presence felt through the continual loud rumble of cars and lorries speeding between Torquay and Exeter.  Between these two urban barriers is an extended triangular tongue of land with the water of Aller Brook running down the middle in a deep scrub-lined channel – this is the Nature Reserve.

Despite all the noise and light-industrial activity, this reserve is a perfect example of how nature can be coaxed in to a space if it is properly managed.  Kingfishers and otters are reported to visit the Brook and, when I was there, birdsong filled the air, at least when traffic noise allowed.  The main path along the boundary with the industrial estate was fringed with typical May flowers: red campion, cow parsley and brambles, all blooming beneath a thick tree canopy.  On the other side of the path, the Brook was occasionally visible through the scrub shield.

Further along the path, I came across several small areas of grassland managed as hay meadows.  Typical meadow plants were flourishing adding splashes of colour to the muted green grasses. Tall drifts of yellow and white ox eye daisies and unruly purple knapweed grew through the thick vegetation.  Common vetch, dotted with pink pea flowers, and buttery yellow bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the rough cover holding on wherever they could.  A few common spotted and marsh orchids added a little exoticism.  Along the edge of the brook there were stands of dog rose with their floppy, pale pink petals. With all these flowers about, bees were abundant.

The reserve ends at a bridge where the Brook empties into the estuary of the river Teign between huge swathes of tea-coloured reed beds and shiny pillows of brown mud.  The same reeds form a narrow border to the brook.  The bridge area was the part of the reserve where the Bee Orchids were supposed to be, so I looked very carefully within the grass.  They were quite easy to spot, six fine flower spikes standing about 20 cm above the ground with triple propeller-like, pinkish-violet sepals surrounding their complex flowers.

From the bridge, a path returns along the other side of Aller Brook and, at least at the beginning, the vegetation is quite similar.  Compact tracts of grassland sloped downwards to the Brook; common vetch scrambled through the grass accompanied by a few pyramidal orchids.  This side of the reserve, however, felt more contained with stands of brambles and thick tree cover attempting to mask the nearby main road.  It was still slightly unnerving to see glimpses of cars speeding past at 70 mph about 20 metres away.  Incongruously, near here I found another impressive group of Bee Orchids, five spikes in total, with two growing perilously close to the path edge.

As the reserve narrows, so does the path and for some time I walked along a green corridor beneath thick tree cover with relative shade and few flowers.  Eventually the path emerged into the light near a very busy roundabout and the car park of the Toby Carvery.  A ranger I had met earlier told me to look at the grassy area around the car park.  I had to ask a cuddling couple sitting on the edge of this area if they minded if I wandered around the grass but eventually I found thirteen flowering spikes of Bee Orchids looking very fresh, together with one pyramidal orchid.  This unlikely and rather bleak urban spot has a better population of Bee Orchids than the Nature Reserve itself!

There is something very beautiful and rather weird about the flowers of the Bee orchid when you look beyond the three pink sepals.  The most obvious part is the lower petal, the labellum, largely a rich dark red but decorated with variable, yellow horseshoe patterns.  Either side of the labellum are two spurs with a furry surface.  Above the labellum is a pale green arching structure containing two small yellow balls (pollinia) supported by fine threads so that when the wind blows these vibrate.  Above this pale green structure are two horns.

As the name of the orchid suggests, some people see a bee in the complex structure of the flowers.  They imagine the body of a chunky bee (the labellum, complete with furry extensions) with antennae (the two horns) and wings (two of the sepals).  To be honest, I don’t get this – all I see is a complex and idiosyncratic flower but perhaps I am being too literal.  I showed the pictures to Hazel, however, and she immediately saw the bee.

The apparent resemblance of the flowers to bees is also linked with theories of pollination whereby a male bee sees the orchid “bee”, thinks it is a female and tries to pseudo-copulate.  As it does so, it picks up pollen from the pollinia and when it leaves, disappointed, it tries again on another flower pollinating it at the same time.  In southern Europe, the Bee Orchid is cross-pollinated by bees of the Eucera genus but to me none of these bees looks anything like the Bee orchid.  But anyway, who knows what a bee “sees” and it has been suggested that the odour of the flower is more important in attracting the male bees.  To complicate things even more, Bee Orchids in the UK self-pollinate so they manage without bees.

Visiting a place like Aller Brook I can’t help but reflect on our relationship with nature.   I really like the Aller Brook Nature Reserve, there’s something special about the grassland with its profusion of meadow flowers and the Brook with its resident kingfishers and otters.  I love the orchids.  I can’t, however, help feeling troubled by the urban noise, the proximity of traffic and light industry.  This juxtaposition of modern urban life with some of the real glories of nature highlights our dysfunctional relationship with wildlife.  Is this tiny scrap of land the best we can do?  Surely we should be giving nature a higher priority rather than endlessly building roads and houses?

As I thought about this, Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi kept coming back to me, particularly the words:

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”

I visited Aller Brook Nature Reserve on May 30th 2017

Common spotted orchid
Cut-leaved cranesbill and common spotted orchid

 

Bee orchid 1
Bee orchid

 

Bee on knapweed
Bumblebee (male B.pratorum) on knapweed

 

Bee orchid 3
Bee orchids showing pollinia

 

Aller Brook
Aller Brook

 

Toby Carvery Car Park
The car park of the Toby Carvery

 

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