We perched on a stone wall overlooking the pebble beach and sea at Blackpool Sands to eat our sandwiches. Across the water, the Start Point peninsula was a moody, dark bluish grey outline while mobile pools of bright light wandered about Start Bay as gashes in the cloud cover opened and closed.
We had walked down the Blackpool Valley starting in bright autumn sunshine on the western edge of Dartmouth where a huge housebuilding project is now underway. Narrow country lanes took us away from the commotion into quieter places. Hedges were punctuated periodically with flushes of flowering ivy and the sun, following heavy rain, seemed to have brought the insects out. An elegant ichneumon wasp, largely black but with a few white markings and with reddish legs was cleaning its antennae, and nearby we spotted a mating pair of hoverflies. Their striped thorax reminded me of mid-20th century school blazers. A beautiful male wall butterfly basked briefly in the sunshine, its wings, the colour of paprika and cinnamon held the essence of the season changing around us. A few pollen-loaded female ivy bees joined the show while, on the road, two all black devil’s coach horse beetles wandered past giving us their scorpion-like, tale up, warning greeting.
At Venn Cross, we turned right along Blackpool Valley Road descending between dramatic hills and following the course of a stream in the valley bottom. Lane side hedges had avoided a vicious flailing this season; hazel and sycamore had grown prolifically together with a few sprigs of rowan and dog rose, giving the lane an enclosed feeling. Veteran beeches and oaks grew from the hedges and when the sun played across the beech leaves it accentuated their kaleidoscopic colour range of greens, yellows and browns. The lower trunk of one of the old beeches had become an impromptu local notice board including a carved declaration of love.
The water gathered force as we headed southwards with small streams joining the main flow from surrounding hills and, eventually we came to Riversbridge Farm, one of several old water mills situated along the valley. Altogether we counted five former mills before we reached the sea, each set in this landscape of trees, pastures and steep hillsides. Today it was a peaceful scene but I wondered how much it had changed over the years. The artist Lucien Pissarro worked and lived here a century ago producing a charming set of images of the valley, a record of country life in the first part of the 20th century and apart from the arrival of the motor car the landscape and buildings look very similar (see picture below). The mills, of course, are no longer used, they are mostly private dwellings but the buildings show signs of their former activity alongside 21st century incursions such as a small water driven hydro and a hot tub.
We left Blackpool Sands to complete the circuit back to our car. As we stopped to look back at the beach, as many as 30 house martins circled over the cove feeding, perhaps before leaving for warmer places.
We walked down the Blackpool Valley near Dartmouth in south Devon on October 8th 2020
Even before the recent storms there were signs of the changing season. Flushes of red berries had begun to appear in roadside hedges and subtle colour changes were permeating leaf canopies. One sign for me, though, that always heralds the arrival of autumn is the emergence of the ivy bees (Colletes hederae), the last species of solitary bee to appear in this country. It’s the time of year when I stand in front of clumps of flowering ivy gazing at these insects feasting on this final flush of food. So, here are two stories about my recent experiences with the ivy bees.
The first concerns a visit I made to Roundham Head, Paignton, south Devon in the second week of September:
Hidden away on one side of a residential street on Roundham Head is a curious area of rough grass and trees divided into rectangular spaces by old stone walls and loved nowadays by dog walkers. This was once the kitchen garden of a nearby Victorian villa, now a care home, set in a commanding position on the edge of the promontory overlooking Torbay. The kitchen garden is surplus to requirements but the land has not been developed and the old walls have been commandeered by ivy. At this time of year, this normally dark green and slightly sinister climber adopts a new persona covering itself with lime green globe flower heads creating a multi-sensory experience for anyone prepared to look.
I approach one of the old stone walls bathed in sunshine, and gradually I become aware of the sickly-sweet perfume emanating from the ivy flowers to pervade the surrounding air. This perfume attracts huge numbers of insects which move about the ivy flowers in all directions at high speed, occasionally pausing on a flower to sample the extraordinary, late-season canteen of pollen and nectar. This profusion of insect life means that a clearly audible buzz surrounds the ivy.
Today, I see honeybees, hoverflies, a speckled wood butterfly and a buff tailed bumblebee together with many, many ivy bees. These insects must have emerged very recently and with their pale chestnut-haired thorax and yellow and black-hooped abdomen they look very fresh. The slimmer, slighter males (about two thirds the size of a honeybee) outnumber the chunkier females who collect lumps of bright yellow pollen on their back legs. The pulsating movement of so many insects implies a huge kinetic energy fuelled by the sugary nectar provided by the ivy flowers.
Wherever there is ivy and sunshine there are ivy bees on the old walls and the same is true when I walk through the nearby public gardens built on the cliffs overlooking Goodrington Sands. The gentle microenvironment offered by this seaside garden supports succulents, palms and other tender plants and today the agapanthus are providing flashes of a bright steely blue. Ivy has also insinuated its way into the gardens growing along old walls and railings overlooking the sea.
At one end of the gardens is a partly concealed path leading downwards to the beach below and along one side of the path I find a long grassy bank. The grass has not been cut this summer, a result of the pandemic, but beneath the grass cover I can see bare red soil with open holes and many more male ivy bees. This is the main nest site for the ivy bees at Roundham Head. The males are even more excited here, dancing above the grass, flying backwards and forwards rapidly and from side to side in a tick tock movement. They occasionally explore the holes but emerge disappointed and fly off. Sometimes there is a little joshing between the males who seem overexcited but they are waiting for females to emerge so that they can mate.
Today, though, I don’t witness any matings but I do see a few females returning to the nest area carrying bright yellow pollen so some couplings have occurred. These mated females enter the nest holes and leave pollen as food for their larvae. It does feel, however, as though the main emergence of female ivy bees has not yet occurred here. The males will go on waiting by the nest site for that chance to mate, visiting the ivy occasionally for a top up of sugary nectar.
My second story comes from a visit we made to West Sussex in the third week of September to deliver our daughter to University. We had a few days walking in the county including this visit to the coast:
Autumn had arrived with a vengeance in West Sussex, the temperature had dropped by nearly ten degrees overnight and there were heavy squally showers at West Wittering where we had planned to walk. Rain fell as we made our way along quiet lanes between houses to access the track along the water’s edge leading to East Head a huge sand spit projecting into Chichester Harbour. Long views across the flat watery surroundings made approaching storms easy to spot adding an elemental feel to the day. East Head is coated in marram grass which must help to stabilise its structure but, as we walked along the beach, there were signs of erosion at the sides of the spit and much of it is cordoned off to prevent further damage. Near the tip, it was possible to look at plants growing away from the edge such as sea holly, its prickly blue flowers faded to grey, sea rocket with its pale violet flowers and sea spurge its grey green leaf-covered stems tipped with greenish yellow complex flowers.
Behind East Head is a lagoon with salt marshes and the path along this side eventually curves round to meet shingle beaches on the edge of the harbour. Oaks grew along the edge and a few generous clumps of ivy overhung the beach. Much was in flower and here I saw the first ivy bees of the day, all males with clear yellow and black hoops moving backwards and forwards with high speed despite the lack of sun.
This kind of watery environment with extensive salt marshes should also favour the close relative of the ivy bee, the rare Colletes halophilus which Steven Falk refers to as the sea aster bee owing to its preference for the flower. I looked around for sea aster and found some, rather pale and faded but I saw no insects on the flowers. Then we came to a grassy open area by the side of the water. Large stands of gorse were growing by the edge and one of these was smothered by Russian vine, an invasive scrambling climber with many racemes of small white flowers. I have seen this used by ivy bees in Devon, even when flowering ivy is abundant and the same was true here, or so I thought. Insects that looked like ivy bee males were moving about the flowers rapidly, barely resting to feed but I managed a few photos as it was otherwise difficult to see the details of the insects. In the photos, to my surprise, all of the bees I captured on camera had black and white hoops.
The sea aster bee looks very similar to the ivy bee only its hoops are white compared to the ivy bee’s yellow hoops. So, could I have seen the rare sea aster bee here? The environment is certainly right for the insect and it has been recorded at this site before but it is impossible to draw a firm conclusion based on colouration. Male ivy bees can fade, losing their yellow colour and microscopic analysis of the mouth parts is required to distinguish males of the two species unequivocally but that is beyond my capability.
Females are easier to distinguish from photographs as there are yellow furry patches, like epaulettes, at the top of the abdomen of the ivy bee that are lacking in the sea aster bee. You can see these furry patches in the picture of the ivy bee at the end of this post. Unfortunately, I saw no females that day but it provides a good reason to return to this fascinating place with its mosaic of environments.
Many of the lockdown restrictions imposed across the UK to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have now been removed or relaxed but life still feels very different from what we were once used to. It does, though, seem inappropriate to continue referring to Lockdown Nature Walks and this will be my last one with that name. So, for my tenth walk I want to come back to where I started back in March by walking round some of the town centre gardens and car parks looking at what is out and about in late August/early September.
Let’s start at the Leechwell Garden, a peaceful, green oasis in the centre of Totnes open to all. There is always plenty to see here and it changes week by week. Many flowers grow and I pop in regularly to look at the insects that have been attracted. During my lockdown visits to the Garden, I have talked to many people and I came to realise what an important lifeline the Garden has been for those without green spaces of their own or for people wanting a physically distanced conversation. The Garden has also echoed with children’s laughter and the sandpit and play area have been a much-needed diversion for families.
Here are a few highlights from my recent visits:
It’s a short walk from the Leechwell Garden to the Nursery Car Park, one of the town centre car parks, surrounded by tall stone walls, grassy banks and soil borders. In April and May, one of the soil borders was unexpectedly enlivened by colourful wildflowers that commandeered its scruffy surface. Insects were attracted and in Lockdown Nature Walk 5, I described how I found beautiful orange-tip butterflies here. As spring gave way to summer, the first flush of flowers was replaced by large clumps of spear thistle occupying the border with their architectural presence as if the triffids had taken over. These thistles proved very popular with bees:
In mid-August, the local council decided to mend the fence along the back of this border and in the process cut all the flowers and trees down to ground level. This did seem rather drastic but most of the plants had finished flowering for the year so perhaps the damage was mostly cosmetic. I do, though, wonder what happened to the chrysalises of the orange-tip butterflies?
The other borders were unaffected by this scorched earth policy and a large buddleia in one corner is currently covered in its purple plume-shaped flowers that perfume the air with their distinctive but slightly sickly fragrance. In another corner, brambles still retain a few late flowers. Both are currently attracting butterflies.
Finally, I want to go to the Heathway Car Park, also close to the Leechwell Garden. Along one side of the parking area there is an old stone wall covered in dark green-leaved ivy and now is the time of year that I begin to peer at stands of this climber. It’s the developing flower heads that interest me and they currently show considerable variation: some still resemble tiny, pale green golf balls composed of a tight cluster of small spheres. In others, slightly more mature, the individual spheres are held on extended stalks like a clutch of ice cream cones. Then on August 23rd, in the Heathway Car Park I found that some of these ice cream cones were showing yellow-tipped stamens, the ivy had flowered. Insects come immediately to take advantage of this new canteen of nectar and pollen and a stand of ivy in full bloom and covered with insects can be an awe-inspiring sight. So far, I have only seen wasps and hoverflies on the flowers but I hope to see some ivy bees, the last of the solitary bees to emerge each year and a sure sign of the changing season.
The picture at the head of this post shows a small white butterfly (Pieris rapae) on globe thistle (Echinops) in the Leechwell Garden
Flower-rich hay meadows were once a major feature of our countryside but from the mid-20th century onwards a tidal wave of agricultural intensification swept across farmland taking away 97% of the hay meadows along with the colourful flowers that once grew there. Together with increased use of chemicals and pesticides, the effect on wildlife has been devastating with farmland birds such as the linnet and the yellowhammer declining by more than 50% since the 1970s. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, when Hazel recently returned from one of her solo walks to tell me she had discovered a flowery meadow on the outskirts of the town with many interesting insects. So, for my ninth Lockdown Nature Walk I want to take you to this hidden, rather magical place. (For my previous Lockdown Nature Walks, click here).
Our starting point is Harper’s Hill, the old road to Plymouth and the West (see Lockdown Nature Walk 7), that heads steeply upwards away from the town and the main Kingsbridge road. The walk I shall describe was done on an overcast morning in mid-July.
After crossing the busy Kingsbridge road, we trudged slowly up the steep hill, soon entering the tree-enclosed part of the track that felt dark, damp and cool that morning. As we passed a small open area on the right of the track, though, the sun broke through the cloud for a short time, illuminating a large patch of brambles. Many small brown butterflies flitted about the flowers in the warm sunshine together with bumblebees and one beautiful demoiselle.
In time, the lane levelled out and along the damp, shaded banks on the left were several patches of an unusual plant with large elongated heart-shaped leaves and bright red candle-shaped flowers. This is red bistort, probably a garden escapee as my wildflower books don’t consider it suitable to include. Several black and yellow wasps were nectaring from the flowers that morning.
At Tristford Cross, we turned right along the old road above Windmill Down. As befits a ridgeway road, there were fine views across countryside towards Dartmoor, and this part of the walk felt bright, breezy and fresh, a perfect antidote to the gloomy national news. Although the verges were dominated by thuggish swathes of nettles, there were plenty of other flowers. Common red soldier beetles, popularly referred to as hogweed bonking beetles, were performing on the white, tea plate-sized flowers of their favoured plant whilst honeybees wallowed in frothy, creamy clumps of meadowsweet.
We soon reached a clutch of caravans and outbuildings by the roadside, marking the start of a stony track descending downhill, away from the ridgeway road. The man who lives here keeps chickens and cultivates vegetables and below his neat and tidy settlement there was a large stand of brambles with several white butterflies feeding.
This stony track is a continuation of Jackman’s Lane (another section was featured in Lockdown Nature Walk 7), a typical green lane with woodland on the left and high Devon hedges on the right. When I walked here about two weeks previously, the hogweed had just come into flower attracting many black and yellow long-horned beetles. Since then the vegetation had increased making the lane feel more enclosed. The hogweed was also past its best but wasps, hoverflies and more soldier beetles were enjoying what remained of the flowers.
Despite the increased vegetation and the variable cloud cover, plenty of light reached the lane but this changed when tall trees began to enclose the track. Some way into this darker section we passed an enclosed compound on the right-hand side of the lane, surrounded by sturdy metal fences; this is the Permaculture Centre based around an old concrete water reservoir.
Hazel carried on down Jackman’s Lane for a longer walk while I located a makeshift path through the line of trees away from the lane, just beyond the Permaculture Centre. This path is like a portal between two worlds and it transported me from a mostly monochrome green lane into an open grassy meadow set on a steeply sloping hillside and full of colourful flowers and insects. A bench has been installed at the top of the hill so that people can sit and enjoy the meadow and the views across the town of Totnes and to the hills of Dartmoor. Follaton Oak, a recent housing development, lies at the bottom of the meadow.
I walked slowly downhill, passing a copious clump of brambles where a few bumblebees were feeding from the pinkish flowers. At first, yellow was the dominant flower colour in the meadow with large amounts of bird’s foot trefoil growing across most of the area. Although bird’s foot trefoil grows widely in the UK, I don’t remember having seen so much of the plant growing in one place. There were also some yellow heads of a dandelion-family flower bobbing in the breeze (cat’s ear or hawkbit perhaps); a few clumps of thick rushy grass suggested underlying dampness. Purple began to compete with yellow further down the slope where large stands of thistle and knapweed flourished. White clover dominated some areas.
Now and then, the sun broke through the cloud and the mosaic of meadow flowers sparkled in the bright sunlight as though many small, coloured lights had suddenly been switched on. With all these flowers, I expected to find many insects and I wasn’t disappointed. Red-tailed bumblebees fed from the knapweed and thistles, and crickets and grasshoppers scattered in sudden leaps to avoid me as I walked. The stars of the insect show were, however, the distinctive black and red burnet moths (Zygaena). These medium-sized, day-flying moths have a wingspan of about 3cm and are unmistakeable. With their shiny black forewings decorated with red spots, they look as though they have put on smart black jackets with bright red buttons. Their black, club-shaped antennae are another notable feature. (See pictures at the end of this post)
I came across the burnet moths all over the site, often when they were feeding on knapweed or thistles and occasionally on bird’s foot trefoil. From my photos and counting the spots on their forewings, they seem to be a mixture of five-spot and six-spot burnets. When they find a good flower to feed from, they stay there for some time but I did see a few flying about the site. They fly slowly, almost hovering, exposing their black abdomen and bright red hind wings. The selection of flowers here is ideal for these moths: bird’s foot trefoil is the preferred food plant of the caterpillar and knapweed and thistles are liked by the adults for nectaring.
The burnet moths were not having it all to themselves, though, as there were butterflies enjoying the meadow as well. A tortoiseshell and a ringlet were flying and on two occasions an orange-brown small skipper butterfly and a burnet moth quietly coexisted on the same knapweed flower head (see picture at the top of this post).
This is an extensive area of meadow grassland on this hillside above the recent Follaton Oak housing development and I was intrigued to know how it came to be here. The original proposal for the development shows pictures of the area as rough pasture before it was developed but indicates that it should become “ecological grassland”, as it clearly has. The proposal also suggests the planting of fruit trees on the site and there are several apple trees now bearing fruit.
I wanted to know how the site was maintained so I spoke to Carol Owen of the Follaton Oak Residents Group. She told me that the meadow is being left to be as wild as possible, mowed and cleared just twice each year. Docks are becoming rather too prevalent so the residents try to cut these where possible. For the most part, though, no additional seeding had taken place so the many flowers we see now are those that have grown naturally. Insects have colonised the area showing how easy it can be to achieve a form of rewilding. The result is this wonderful natural area on the edge of the town.
From the meadow, there is a precipitous stony path descending between the houses with some good stands of ragwort growing nearby. Go straight ahead from here to access a path leading to the Follaton Arboretum or walk along the roads between the houses to reach the Plymouth Road for a return to the town centre.
The Lockdown may be easing but with coronavirus still circulating and with little sensible guidance coming from central government, life is far from normal. So, I am continuing my Lockdown Exercise Walks and avoiding large gatherings where possible. In this eighth Walk, I want to take you to one of my favourite parts of the south Devon coast near Prawle Point, Devon’s southernmost headland.
The forecast for the coast was good so, towards the end of the third week of June, we headed off across the rolling hills of the South Hams towards Kingsbridge. The weather, though, seemed to be unaware of the forecast. Great slabs of grey cloud loomed ahead and there were clear signs of recent rain. I began to wonder if this trip were such a good idea but we pressed on, knowing how quixotic the Devon weather can be. At Kingsbridge we picked up the coast road turning right at the village of Frogmore across a watery inlet to follow four miles of narrow, winding lanes.
Not only are the lanes narrow here, they are enclosed by Devon hedges, creating a narrow corridor with steep banks. At this time of year, the banks are smothered with lush vegetation, mostly green but enlivened by splashes of white cow parsley, yellowing Alexanders and bright pink foxglove remnants. In just one spot, a large patch of rosebay willowherb coloured the bank coral pink as if paint had been spilt and when we stopped to let an oncoming car pass, a few spikes of purple tufted vetch cried out to be seen.
As we approached the village of East Prawle we passed the duckpond with its large clumps of chrome yellow monkey flower and parked by the village green. Hazel wanted a longer walk, whereas I wanted to spend time looking at flowers, so we agreed to meet later. I began by heading towards the coast down a steep road edged by rough stone walls. Fulsome clumps of red valerian clung to the stone, rain-remnant drops of water hanging from the flowers like tiny glass globes. The sun began to break through the cloud that had brought the rain, the water droplets sparkled like fairy lights and butterflies flickered among the flowers. Now and then, I glimpsed the coast spread out below and the sea, a uniform misty blue.
Near a row of coastguard cottages, I entered a narrow lane lined by green hedges coloured by more valerian, also honeysuckle and bramble. The lane turned sharp left to descend more steeply across slippery exposed bedrock and through scrub and woodland. A chiff chaff called and I stopped to gaze at the flowers and insects on a bank of bramble caught in the morning sunshine. Suddenly a woman appeared down a nearby path that joined the lane looking surprised to find me standing there.
“Are you alright?” she asked
“I’m just looking at the flowers” I replied, trying to reassure her.
“Yes, there are lots of flowers about. Have you seen the pink sweet peas on the coast, they don’t smell like the garden variety?” she continued.
“That’s narrow- leaved everlasting pea, a perennial wild form of the garden variety and coincidentally its pink flowers are part of the reason I’m here today, some rare bees feed from them” I replied.
“It’s so difficult to identify wild flowers from books” she worried.
“Yes, I sometimes leaf through the entire book to identify something I have seen.”
I told her I could wait if she wanted to go ahead down the lane so that we maintained physical distancing but she said there was no need as she was taking another path to the right and promptly disappeared.
Leaving the woodland, I passed between arable fields along another enclosed path with the sea now ahead of me. These fields occupy a gently sloping coastal plain stretching between steep inland cliffs with rocky outcrops and the present low cliffs above the sea. The steep inland cliffs give the area an enclosed, almost claustrophobic feeling whilst creating a gentle microclimate. Barley grows in these fields, spring sown so that its seed and stubble can be left after autumn harvest to provide winter food for the rare cirl buntings that now flourish here. As I walked, the distinctive rattle of one of the birds echoed around the inland cliffs. The barley was a soft, uniformly yellowish-green carpet so I assumed it had been well sprayed with herbicide.
When I reached the coast, I headed westwards along the coast path between the cliff edge and the barley field. The cliff edge was fringed with bracken and blackthorn, the latter providing good nest areas for the cirl buntings. Tall stems of hemp agrimony grew here along with a profusion of narrow-leaved everlasting pea scrambling through the bracken and the scrub, grabbing on with fine tendrils. Large, mostly pink, pea-type flowers (see picture at the head of this post) were scattered about the plants, not in large numbers but frequently enough to make an impact. The large upper petals, like bright pink sails decorated with fine green striations, stand out above the smaller lower petals that resemble miniature boxing gloves, with an unusual bluish-pink hue.
Silvery bees patrolled the area around the flowers weaving their way deftly and quickly among the vegetation and I wondered how they were able to navigate so easily. Sometimes they stopped to take nectar and from their very long black bootlace antennae I recognised these as male long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis). This part of the south Devon coast contains the largest UK colony of these very rare and very distinctive bees. The sun had now come out making it feel quite warm and I stayed by the flowers for a while. A few female long-horned bees soon appeared carrying large chunks of pollen so I presume they were coming to collect nectar. They share only a passing resemblance to their male counterparts: they have short antennae and are covered in thick pale hairs. They hang below the pink flowers holding their body in a tightly curved crescent as they feed and the flowers of narrow-leaved everlasting pea seem to be a very important pollen source for the insects.
I moved on through two latch gates to enter a narrow but long coastal meadow stretching between cliff tops fringed with bracken and scrub and the inland cliffs that tower above. The meadow hadn’t been cultivated or grazed and was thick with knee-length grasses and wild flowers. Grasshoppers rose as I walked and small brownish butterflies danced around me. This is a floral paradise, a mosaic of colour and form.
The predominant flowers at the beginning of the meadow were the white hemispheres of sea carrot rising like so many large mushrooms through the thick grass to dominate the landscape. There were also some of the nodding yellow heads of cat’s ear, popular with red-tailed bumblebees, and the pinkish-purple flowers of common vetch. Partially buried in the grass I noticed the small, bright pink flowers of centaury with their prominent yellow stamens. Narrow-leaved everlasting pea climbed through the cliff-edge bracken attracting more long-horned bees to its pink flowers, so I stopped to watch.
I dragged myself away and further on, a rough path took me down the low cliff to an area of soft rock riddled with small pencil-sized holes, thought to be the principal nest site of the long-horned bees. As I waited to see the insects returning to their nests, I was conscious of the sea grumbling around the rocks behind me and the patchwork of colours it held. The water was mostly a shimmering deep blue but with darker areas hiding submerged rocks and tinged green where it washed over shallow sand. My reverie was interrupted when the woman I met earlier appeared on the rocks around the cliff corner. She seemed keen to talk and I learnt that she lived in London but had come down to stay in her cottage when the lockdown was imposed.
I scrambled back up to the coast path and as I walked westwards in the direction of Prawle Point, the floral mix in the meadow changed. Cat’s ear now dominated lending the meadow a yellow cast. Along the cliff edge, the bracken had been replaced by tracts of yellow bird’s foot trefoil and purple tufted vetch. I also noticed lady’s bedstraw and hedge bedstraw and the bright reddish-purple flowers of bloody cranesbill. This kaleidoscope of colour brought more bumblebees and solitary bees although I thought the vetches looked past their best, perhaps a result of the dry spring.
Hazel appeared, having finished her walk and we made our way back up to East Prawle starting along a field-edge wall where brambles and other wildflowers grew. Cirl buntings sang and, in the sunshine, a male long-horned bee fed from one of the flowers, butterflies danced together and a fine mason wasp collected nectar.
In this seventh Lockdown Nature Walk, I want to take you along more of the ancient lanes that crisscross the countryside around Totnes rather like the lines on the palm of my hand. The walk I describe was done in the last week of May on a sunny, warm day when there was a distinct feeling that the seasons were changing.
I begin at the foot of Harper’s Hill on the western side of town where an ancient trackway strikes steeply upwards in a south-westerly direction into trees and away from the busy Kingsbridge Road. This is hard walking especially on the uneven surface and quite soon the lane becomes deeply sunken, bordered on both sides by steep banks, up to four metres in height. Ferns and pennywort grow along these banks and a jungle-like tree canopy cuts out most of the light so that even on a sunny day the lane has a gloomy, slightly sinister feeling. Today, small insects are caught, dancing like dust motes in the few shafts of light that make it through the canopy. Earlier this year, fleshy green ramsons carpeted the pathside banks but their leaves are now yellowish and a vague garlicky odour hangs in the air as they decay.
It’s difficult to believe that for hundreds of years, until the inception of the turnpikes, Harper’s Hill was the main route out of Totnes towards Plymouth and the west. As I trudge up the steep hill, I imagine the countless others who walked this way with heavy loads, or animals or rickety carts. It’s as though I am “slipping back out of this modern world” (after W H Hudson).
Eventually, though. the lane levels out. A gateway on the right offers a brief window through the curtain of vegetation and I see the land falling away steeply into a deep valley and Dartmoor lurking in the distance. I continue along the track as it becomes more open between tall trees and a few caravans used for housing to reach Tristford Cross.
In the past, those who had laboured up Harper’s Hill bound for Plymouth and the west would have turned right at Tristford Cross on to the old ridgeway road along the brow of Windmill Down. But I go straight ahead at this crossroads along a paved lane avoiding the occasional car to reach Cholwell Cross where another track, Jackman’s Lane, crosses at right angles. Signs announce that this is an unmetalled road and it is indeed a deeply rutted, reddish soil track used by farm vehicles and muddy after rain but today bone dry and hard as concrete.
I turn right along one section of Jackman’s Lane. Superficially, this appears to be just another country track but from the first time I came here, I realised that this was a place with its own particular character and charm. Unlike so many local lanes, it is flat, light and airy and surrounded by rolling countryside stretching into the distance. Although it is bordered by Devon Hedges, these seem to have been maintained, restricting their height and allowing light to reach both sides of the track especially when the sun shines as it does today. Many flowers grow along the lane, bees, butterflies and hoverflies dart about and there is a general buzz in the air.
Here are a few of the insect species I saw:
As I enter the lane, I notice thick rope-like skeins of a scrambling plant in the right-hand hedge with dark green, glossy, heart-shaped leaves that look as though they have been coated with shiny paint. This is black bryony and its pale yellow insignificant flowers are now showing. Insignificant they may be but they will give rise to trailing strings of plump, shiny red berries in the autumn. Several tree species are present in the hedges including elder, hazel, holly, rowan and sycamore, suggesting that this is a very old hedge. In several places, foxgloves grow from the top of the bank in large groups (see picture at the head of this post) creating a vivid pink display against the clear blue sky, reminiscent of the colourful banners displayed at music festivals. Large buzzy bumblebees systematically work the individual foxglove flowers.
Banks of lacy white cow parsley line the lane in places but the insects seem to ignore this umbellifer. The same is not true for hogweed and one or two tall stands of this robust plant with its white pompom flowers are proving irresistible for hoverflies and solitary bees. Then I come to the toilet! Someone has dumped an old toilet in the right-hand hedge and scrawled “R Mutt” on it in black letters. This may be fly-tipping but I also think it is an “hommage” to Marcel Duchamp, and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on the value of this piece of conceptual art.
A gateway into a field appears on the left so I stop to take in the view. I work out that I am looking roughly south west and an image unspools ahead of me of fields and hedges, a few cows, repeating into the distance, disappearing into a blue haze. For a short time, I am transfixed by this view, it’s so unusual for this part of Devon to encounter a landscape free from hills and valleys. It feels as though the sea should lie somewhere in the distant blue haze but that’s beyond what I can see.
In the middle section of the lane, I find flowers that speak more of summer than of spring so despite the limbo imposed on human lives by the lockdown, seasonal change carries on regardless. Foxgloves are part of this seasonal shift but I also see large amounts of a yellowish plant that grows almost horizontally from the side of the hedges. It has greenish-yellow, hairy leaves arranged symmetrically in whorls of four with clusters of small fragrant yellow flowers at the bases of the leaves. I initially thought this was lady’s bedstraw but it is in fact crosswort, a relative. Vetches are also showing. Bush vetch with its untidy mauve flowers has been about for a while but I also find the yellow, pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling. Both vetches attract bees but another favourite of these insects is hedge woundwort. This plant has just come into flower in the lane displaying its burgundy red flowers decorated with fine white hieroglyphics.
Further on, nettles begin to dominate the hedges and a few tall trees appear before the lane reaches the old ridgeway road on Windmill Down. The section of Jackman’s Lane that I have described is quite short, barely half a mile in length, but it has a very particular character. It is also very rich in wildlife and unexpectedly, it contains an interesting piece of conceptual art.
There are various ways to complete a circular walk from here but perhaps the most interesting is to turn left along Windmill Down until a stony track leaves the ridgeway road to bear right, downhill. This is another section of Jackman’s Lane which eventually reaches the Plymouth Road at Follaton for an easy return to the town.
To see my previous Lockdown Nature Walks please look here
With the easing of the Lockdown rules in the UK, we have been venturing further afield for our exercise walks. So, a few days ago we drove up to Two Bridges, high on Dartmoor, for a circular walk around the valley of the west Dart river via Wistman’s Wood, a rare example of ancient high-altitude oak wood. Our walk was graced by the sounds of many cuckoos.
We began by heading northwards away from the Two Bridges car park on an uneven track running roughly parallel to the west Dart river. With clear skies, strong sun and barely any breeze, it was much hotter than we expected for Dartmoor and sultry is probably the best word to describe the weather. Soon after we set off, however, as we walked up the dry stony path to Crockern Tor Farm, we heard the unmistakable call “cuckoo cuckoo”. A few sheep and one or two walkers were our only company and the song of the cuckoo instantly grabbed our attention as it echoed round the valley. Further on, a jumble of rocks, Crockern Tor, loomed on our right and then another cuckoo called. Eventually, we reached the top of a ridge and Wistman’s Wood came into view ahead, a green-leaved mass standing out above the summer-dry landscape on the eastern flank of the valley while the west Dart river lay in the valley bottom below. The dry grass around us was punctuated by neat yellow tormentil flowers and unruly clumps of heath bedstraw covered with tiny white flowers and, as we walked, small orange butterflies (Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus) flickered upwards, dancing around briefly before heading off. Another cuckoo called and I began to understand how the simple but beautiful music of their song had inspired so many composers.
We made our way along the edge of Wistman’s Wood looking in on the seductive jumble of moss- and lichen-covered twisted branches and smooth rocks. By now we had been walking for about an hour and were finding the temperature difficult so we decided to take a lunch break seated on smooth lumps of granite beneath one of the old oaks. A little cloud had helpfully bubbled up keeping the sun at bay. The river valley lay below us and the dense oaks of Wistman’s Wood and a few smaller clumps of trees stood out on the hillside. Sheep bleated fitfully and small birds flitted about. Then the cuckoos started to sing as if to provide us with lunchtime entertainment. Several birds called from different directions, some nearer, some further away and at least two cuckoos moved between the trees in the valley. We recognised them in flight from their pointed wings and long tail. Most of the song was “cuckoo cuckoo”, the call of the male bird and sometimes this was extended to “cuckcuckoo”, not far off the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth. We also heard the burbling, gurgling sound which the female cuckoo makes when she is excited.
Here is a short video of a male cuckoo calling:
The cuckoos had put on a real show for us that day but whenever I hear their call, whether it be one cuckoo or several, the sound has a profound effect on me. In my teens, living in small town Hampshire, near woodland, cuckoo calls were a standard fixture of spring, something I came to expect each year. With the decline of the bird, and having lived in large towns for many years I lost that expectation. Now when we come to Dartmoor and I hear cuckoos again, their song touches some deeply held memory for me.
After lunch, we headed down across open moorland to cross the west Dart river. Cotton grass with its fluffy, white cotton wool heads grew here, showing that the land is normally very boggy. I also saw a few delicate blue and white heath milkwort flowers, far fewer today than in previous years, perhaps a reflection of the dry weather. We crossed the river and scrambled up to the Devonport Leat, a narrow watercourse constructed in the 18th century to supply water from the Dart river to the growing community of Plymouth Dock 27 miles away. Nowadays it empties into the Burrator Reservoir which provides water for Plymouth itself. We followed the leatside path along the western side of the valley across the river from Wistman’s Wood to return to Two Bridges [The picture at the head of this post and the note at the end explain the location of the leatside path]. This should, by definition, be mostly easy walking but degradation of the path stones makes it less so. Marsh violet with its pale mauve flowers, pink lousewort and good amounts of bilberry flourish in the damp environment by the leat and a few small fish dart back and forth.
About half way along the leatside path, two male cuckoos began to sing from the trees across the river in Wistman’s Wood. At first, their calls came at different times from different locations. One bird sang “cuckoo” and a short time later the other bird did likewise as if providing an answer. This call and answer pattern was then repeated. But the two birds were actually “cuckooing” at different frequencies so that gradually their calls moved together, then began to overlap and for a short time they sang at the same time before one bird stopped. For a brief moment, as we listened, time stood still.
The song of the two cuckoos initially made me think of a musical round where different groups of people sing the same melody but start at different times. “Sumer is icumen in”, also known as the Cuckoo Song, is a good example of a round. A better analogy for the calls of the two cuckoos, however, comes from the phase music of Steve Reich. In his composition, Piano Phase, two pianos play the same tune but at slightly different tempi, giving rise to novel musical effects, rather like the two singing cuckoos.
When we decided to walk on Dartmoor that day, I had expected to hear one or two cuckoos but nothing like the extraordinary cuckoo chorus that graced our walk.
We walked on Dartmoor on May 27th 2020, our route is described here
The picture at the top of this post looks south down the valley of the west Dart. Wistman’s Wood can be seen on the left and the line on the western hillside is the Devonport Leat.
We’ve now been in Lockdown for eight weeks, although recently there has been a slight and rather confusing easing of the regulations. I have been continuing my exercise walks and sometimes I venture into the nearby countryside but more often I keep to the town centre gardens and car parks looking at the flowers and the wildlife. I thought I knew the town centre area well but, even here, so close to home, I’ve made some new and surprising discoveries. So, here is my fifth Lockdown Nature Walk.
One place I walk through regularly is the Nursery Car Park, notable for the wide grassy banks and tall, ivy-clad, stone walls that surround several sides of the parking area providing unplanned but welcome space for wildlife. There are many flowers early in the year and with the lockdown there are very few cars and even fewer people so it’s a surprisingly peaceful place. In my earlier Lockdown Nature Walks I saw bumblebees, butterflies and hairy-footed flower bees enjoying the flowers here.
One morning in late April, I was walking through the Nursery Car Park and noticed a white butterfly making its way above one of the grassy banks. I don’t normally pay much attention to the white butterflies. I think it must be engrained prejudice from childhood when “cabbage whites” used to spoil some of my father’s attempts at growing vegetables. Something, however, made me look again and this time I saw flashes of orange as the butterfly danced briskly along. It turned to follow another car park margin and paused, settling on one of the plants growing in the soil border below. With its wings spread wide, I could see its blue-grey velvety body, prominent antennae and the vivid orange patches that occupy the outer halves of each forewing showing that this was an orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines), a male as the females lack the orange colour. I approached carefully to get a better look but the insect flew off across the wall in the direction of the Leechwell Garden and was gone. An orange-tip butterfly seemed rather exotic for this semi-urban space and I couldn’t remember having seen one here before.
When the butterfly paused, I felt as though it was urging me to take a better look at this soil border. This was a part of the car park I had ignored until now, probably because before lockdown, parked cars made the border virtually inaccessible. When I had a closer look, I was surprised to find that a range of native wild flowers had colonised the border and were growing prolifically, creating a mosaic of pinks, blues, whites and yellows: three species of cranesbill, pink purslane, red campion, green alkanet, cow parsley, garlic mustard, hedge mustard and buttercups. It had become a rather beautiful place, that is if you like unruly wild flowers!
I came back to the same car park border over the next few days and usually saw one or two orange-tips but other insects were also attracted to the profusion of flowers. Here are some of the species I saw:
But there is more to say about the orange-tip butterflies as on one of my visits, I noticed a male repeatedly flying upwards and then dropping down on to some garlic mustard flowers. When I looked more closely, I saw another butterfly on the cluster of small green and white flowers and realised that this was a female orange-tip butterfly. The male’s behaviour probably had something to do with mating but the female was showing no interest. The male eventually gave up and flew off but the female moved to another flower and basked in the morning sun allowing me to look. Unlike the male with his brash colouration, she is understated but just as beautiful with a grey patch and spot on each forewing in place of the male’s orange patches. As she flexed her wings, I was also able to see the pattern on her underwings. This is a complex design of green and yellow veining and mottling reminiscent of the marbled end papers of an antique book or a tie-dyed fabric from the hippie era. The male has the same underwing pattern providing both male and female orange-tips with excellent camouflage when they rest with their wings closed on a leaf or on flowers such as garlic mustard or cow parsley.
Garlic mustard is one of the principal larval foods of the orange-tip butterfly, along with cuckooflower, so I wondered if the female had been laying eggs before the male had disturbed her. There are two moderate clumps of garlic mustard growing along this border so I looked at the plants and found the tiny orange eggs on both clumps. They look like ridged rugby balls about a millimetre long and the female attaches each egg, usually one per plant, to a stem just below the flower head. They start off a pale greenish-white and as they mature, they turn bright orange. One or two weeks later, the larva emerges from the egg, eats the egg casing and starts its journey through different instar stages, gradually consuming the plant, preferring the seed pods, as the larva develops. After some searching, I was able to find one larva, a well camouflaged, yellowish caterpillar (about 5mm long) on one clump of garlic mustard about two weeks after I first saw the eggs. The larva will eventually form a pupa (chrysalis), from which the adult butterfly will emerge next spring.
I need to keep reminding myself that all this is happening on a scruffy border along one edge of a town centre car park and that my observations are underpinned by a series of coincidences. First, the insects I have described would not have come to the border had the flowers not grown here. In particular, the orange-tip butterflies would not have fed here and deposited eggs had there not been the two clumps of garlic mustard. Then there is the lockdown which emptied the car park of cars making more space for wildlife and gave me the time to wander about looking at the soil border. I believe there are lessons to be learnt from all of this if we choose to learn them: growing flowers, especially wildflowers, is good for insects and will support them and bring them into your garden; also it can be very rewarding, and good for our well-being, if we take time to look at the wildlife around us.
My previous Lockdown Nature Walks can be accessed here
For the fourth of my Lockdown Nature Walks, I want to take you along Copland Lane, one of the many old tracks that radiate like compass points from the town of Totnes. Copland Lane follows the westward compass point, roughly parallel to the busy railway line to Plymouth and Cornwall which lies some distance below in the valley. It takes me about 15 minutes, on foot, to reach the beginning of Copland Lane which lies between the gate to a popular group of allotments and a moderate sized, newish housing estate. I walked Copland Lane about a fortnight ago on a day of clear blue skies and warm sunshine tempered by a blustery cold wind.
A large stand of blackthorn, still covered in its small white flowers, grows near the start of the lane as if to herald the transition out of the semi-urban into a different world, a world of green, a world of growth, a world of colourful wildflowers.
At first, the lane drops gently downwards, bordered on the right-hand side by steep banks below the gardens of houses and on the other side by a bank of tightly packed soil perhaps stabilised by rubble, known locally as a Devon Hedge. Various kinds of vegetation including shrubs and coppiced trees, grow up prolifically from both sides not quite meeting above the lane but creating an enclosed, sheltered feeling. Sunlight percolates through the tree screen casting a dappled pattern across the track, but there is more to the light today. At this time of year, the trees have fresh, pale green, almost transparent leaves and as the sunlight filters between and through the leaves it acquires a subtle greenness that I only experience in spring.
Along the right-hand side of the lane, where sun warms the soil, I notice large stretches of yellow archangel with its many pale yellow flowers each with hooded, fringed upper lip and broader, three-lobed lower lip with intricate pale brown markings. Looking at the spear-shaped leaves, I see no silvery markings so this is likely to be the true native species rather than the garden cultivar. A worker early bumblebee with its pink-tipped abdomen feeds from the flowers.
The left-hand side of the lane sees less direct sunlight but growth seems just as prolific although the species that prosper are different. Banks of ramsons line the base of the Devon Hedge, starry white flowers just beginning to show. Several pale spathes of Lords and Ladies struggle through the thick ivy that covers the side of the bank. Fronds of hart’s tongue fern unfurl in groups as they push upwards and where the low sunshine catches their leaves, they become semi-transparent as if X-rayed. Navelwort (wall pennywort) grows in places covering sides of the lane with its circular, fleshy green leaves with their central dimple or navel. Its immature flower spikes push upwards getting ready to display many small white lantern flowers in a few weeks.
As I walk on, the lane changes, casting off its enclosed feel to become more open. The Devon Hedge loses its tree cover allowing the sun full access to the soil bank and the fertile conditions encourage the growth of a dense, tangled, green mass of plants (see picture at the head of this post and above). Without flowers, I can’t recognise many of these but I do see the fleshy stems and crimson flowers of red campion and the starry white flowers of stitchwort. I notice vetch-type leaves scrambling through the mass of greenery and one bright pink and white, pea-type flower reveals that this is common vetch. The low sunshine cuts across the bank and through the mass of greenery, highlighting the dense luxurious growth. Something about the light changes as it filters through the seemingly unfettered tangle of vegetation. It’s difficult to pin the effect down but there is a softening, a dispersion.
Occasionally, I encounter people walking along the lane towards me and we perform an elaborate dance to maintain social distancing which often involves one party sheltering in a hedge. Everyone is very polite and we usually say Hello but it feels so alien to shun others where we might normally have exchanged experiences, if only of the weather.
Now, gradually, the feel of the lane changes again. It becomes wider and bound by neat hedges and farmland on the left. There are cows in the fields and the lane takes on the persona of a farm track. The houses on the right eventually peter out, also giving way to farmland, but before they do, there are large grassy banks bathed in sunshine and scattered, confetti-like, with stitchwort. I also notice the violet-blue, funnel-shaped flowers and fleshy scalloped leaves, dark green but tinged red, of ground ivy showing well. Some wild strawberry flowers promise fruit to come and one or two spikes of cuckoo flower push through the grass displaying their delicate lilac flowers.
As I stand gazing at the flowers, a man emerges on to the lane through a gate from one of the houses with his wheelbarrow. He looks at me quizzically as I peer at the grassy bank and asks, not aggressively, what I am looking at.
“I’m looking at the flowers and the insects” I answer
“Ah yes, the flowers are much better now they clear the brambles” he replies before moving off.
The lane now has a short section where tall trees create a green corridor with much less sunlight. The vegetation changes accordingly and the path edges are again lined densely with ramsons and, on the right-hand side, where a little sunlight filters through, more yellow archangel seems to prosper. Not long after the tree cover ends, the open, hedged lane splits, offering a choice of two tracks. One is Higher Copland Lane which leads to the hamlet of Copland where someone with a sense of culture and a sense of humour has set up a Bed and Breakfast called Appalachian Spring. I take the other track, Lower Copland Lane, which provides me with the easier way to return to the town, but before I do, I look at the large clump of Alexanders that has colonised the junction of tracks. It stands in full sunshine today with its creamy mop head flowers above thick fleshy stems reminding me of scoops of Cornish Dairy Ice Cream enjoyed as a child on holiday. Alexanders grows mainly by the coast so it is a surprise to find it here. The flowers are proving very popular with hoverflies and almost every flower head is occupied by one of these insects.
Copland Lane itself is about a mile long, whether you take the Higher or Lower branch. It contains a variety of different environments and there are many interesting things to see. Today it also provided me with a much-needed distraction from the unusual and unsettling way of life now imposed upon us.
In this third post on Nature Walks during the Lockdown, I want to take you on a very short stroll, only a few steps in fact, into our front garden. It’s a small garden but it’s south facing and sheltered and it comes to life in the spring, especially on a sunny day.
I stand in the garden and listen. Today is cooler and breezier than it has been for some days and, across the street, the wind wanders through the developing leaf canopy on the tall sycamore creating a low rushing sound. A buzzard mews as it circles overhead, a few gulls gossip on the roof tops and a greenfinch wheezes nearby.
But there is one sound I have become accustomed to that I can’t hear today. This is the continuous low buzz that has been coming from the front hedge on warmer, sunnier days. The hedge is a Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica) and for several weeks has been covered in small fleshy green leaves and bright orange-red, cup-shaped flowers filled with yellow stamens (see picture at the head of this post). The flame-coloured flowers flare brightly in the spring sunshine, but they tend to be partly buried by green foliage tempering their overall impact. Once the flowers fade this will be just another green hedge but, in the autumn, when the leaves fall, they reveal attractive pale green fleshy fruits that seem to have appeared from nowhere. For now, though, the flowers celebrate the spring by being a magnet for all kinds of bee. Unlike many flowers, there seem to be no preferences and I have seen honeybees, several species of bumblebee and several species of solitary bee, many loaded with yellow pollen; the almost continuous presence of bees working the flowers produces this spring buzz. I have tried to get pictures of the different bees feeding from the flowers but this has been unusually difficult. It feels as though when the bees see me, they move quickly to flowers deeper in the hedge although I did manage a couple of photos.
Spring has, however, recently moved up a gear. There are two small bee houses attached to the front of our house and, a year ago, these were occupied by red mason bees who filled some of the holes, topping them off with reddish mud. Just over a week ago, two of the mud plugs were broken and out came two red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) males. There are now at least six and they spend their time flying frantically about the bee houses dancing in the air, sometimes stopping to look in one of the holes, sometimes resting on the wall in the sun and sometimes feeding from nearby flowers. They are brimming with sexual energy, waiting for females to emerge from the bee houses, desperate to mate and their pent up excitement sometimes leads to mistaken male on male mating attempts. Male red mason bees are very attractive insects and it’s worth pausing to look. They are about two thirds the size of a honeybee, and notable for their long antennae, pale facial hair and striking bands of orange hair across the abdomen that sparkle in the sun.
It’s always an exciting time when the mason bees appear and busy themselves around the bee house. It’s a sign to me that spring has really arrived and summer will follow and I am reassured that nature is still following its plan.
As if to serenade the emergence of the mason bees, the cherry tree near the hedge also burst into flower this week. I had been watching the tree and thought there would be plenty of blossom and it is now covered in sprays of small white flower buds each clasped by five green sepals. Many of the buds have opened revealing five pure white petals on each flower, the sepals having bent backwards. Within the flower there is more to see, a mass of stamens each topped with a yellow anther, also a single thicker pale green pistil. Our tree is a Morello cherry, a cooking variety and self-fertile but pollination depends on insects to transfer pollen between anther and pistil. As if to underline this point, as more flowers have opened, I have noticed a stream of insects coming to feed from the flowers including hoverflies, solitary bees and even some of the mason bees from the bee houses. Some of the solitary bees went systematically from flower to flower so pollination should be fine and, providing the birds are kept at bay, we should enjoy a good crop of fruit in the late summer.
I don’t expect the flowers to last very long so it’s important sometimes to stop, stand back and admire the tree in its spring guise covered with pure white flowers, and remember the poem “Loveliest of Trees” where A E Housman saw his cherry “hung with snow”.