Category Archives: conservation

Long-horned bees on the south Devon coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bees

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

The state of the site across spring and summer

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

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

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

 

 

The week the Swifts departed

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

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

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

Swifts near our house

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

Swifts over Totnes seen from our kitchen window in 2020

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

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

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

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

The Exminster Marshes showing the flat watery landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Dorset surprises

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

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

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

The old railway cutting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A jewel of a bee on a shingle beach

It felt like an unexpected gift, a warm, dry and mostly sunny day after so much dull, wet weather.  I had been feeling very constrained and was determined to get out to enjoy this different day and it looked as though the non-human world felt the same. The wisteria at the front of our house caught the morning sun, wafting its distinctive sweet fragrance on to the air and bees were busily foraging from the greyish-mauve flowers.   Bumblebees, honeybees and two red mason bees (Osmia bicornis males) were among the insects working the blossom.  The Osmia came from one of the nearby bee houses and it was good to see them about after the spell of poor weather.

Hazel had a meeting in Kingsbridge that afternoon, so I dropped her off and took the opportunity to make a quick trip to the coast.  It took me about 20 minutes, passing through several small villages, to reach Torcross and the sea.   The sun shone optimistically as I then began the two and a half mile drive from Torcross along what is known locally as the Slapton Line.  The geography here is very unusual with the road running northwards in a straight line along a narrow bank bordered on both sides by water.  On one side of the road a shingle beach slopes down to the sea and on the inland side a narrow area of rough grass and vegetation separates the road from an extensive lagoon, Slapton Ley.   The situation of the road makes it very vulnerable to storms, high tides and rising sea levels and, in 2018 it had to be closed and rebuilt after damage by Storm Emma.

That day, though, the sea was calm, a deep blue shading to a darker steely blue.  Sunlight sparkled on the surface of the lagoon and generous clumps of thrift decorated the edges of the road as if splashed with pink paint.  When the road turned inland to climb away from the water, I located the car park that gives access to the northern part of Slapton Sands, as it is known locally. 

The beach here is a broad flat plateau of fine, pale brown shingle that eventually slopes down to the sea from a low ridge.  The landward side is backed by densely wooded cliffs giving the beach an enclosed feel and providing some shelter from winds.  This can be an elemental place especially when a westerly gale blows and fierce waves attack the beach. That afternoon, though, there was just a light breeze from the west and spells of sunshine warmed the air.  A few clouds were moving about overhead and as they shifted, mobile pools of light and shade tracked across the shingle.  I paused to stand on the beach for a short time and looked across the water towards Start Point and its lighthouse listening to the sound of the water lapping on the beach and the occasional cry of a passing gull.

The islands of vegetation on the shingle beach showing some red valerian. The wooded cliffs at the back of the beach are just visible and the sea is to the right.

Shingle beaches are rare environments and this one is unlike any other I have encountered, not only for its size but for the special selection of plants that grows here.    The section of beach near the land featured many small islands of vegetation, a green archipelago in a sea of pale shingle.  Often, these islands contained a clump of red valerian, a plant introduced into the UK in the 16th century and now widely naturalised in the west.  Each island also contained a variety of other plants including sea campion, bird’s foot trefoil, forget me not and hawksbeard.  One contained a colony of rosy garlic with its charming pale pink flowers, others supported small shrubs.  The red valerian flowers looked very fresh and many were not yet open.  In a few weeks, though, huge numbers will be in flower casting a distinctive reddish-pink sheen across the beach.

Towards the sea, the green flowery islands petered out leaving a sparsely vegetated zone of shingle populated by plants capable of coping with harsher conditions.  Sea spray and some large waves reach this part of the beach and only specially adapted plants can grow here.  These often have leaves with waxy coatings to prevent water loss and long roots to reach fresh water deep below the shingle.  Sea kale is one of these and imposing clumps of this plant grew towards the shingle ridge.  The clumps were several feet across with fleshy, dark green, cabbage-type leaves tinged with pink, and overlaid with copious sprays of white flowers.  Sea kale is an impressively architectural plant that dominates this part of the beach and perhaps it encourages people to build the beach sculptures with flat stones that I saw nearby.

Rosettes of furry, pale grey-green leaves were also emerging from the shingle in this zone.  These are from yellow-horned poppy, yet to flower.  Later in the year, these plants will light up the beach with their papery, lemon-yellow flowers and enormously long scimitar-shaped seed pods.  Also struggling through the shingle were many long ropes of a plant with fleshy, green, spade-shaped leaves arranged geometrically around a central stem with a slight helical twist.  This is sea spurge another of the plants that frequents these salty, harsh environments.  It has very unusual flowers (see pictures below).

I spent the rest of the time wandering about the beach looking at the flowers, hoping I might see some interesting insects given all the floral resource about.   I concentrated on the bird’s foot trefoil, a bee-favourite that grew well in several of the island clumps.  A few bumblebees were foraging from these bright yellow cushiony flowers and then suddenly another very different bee appeared, feeding from the bird’s foot trefoil, moving purposefully from flower to flower. It was quite small, about two thirds the size of a honeybee and a striking ruby red colour with prominent golden bands of hair around and across its abdomen (see picture at the head of this post and below). 

I had seen several of these insects here two years ago; they are gold-fringed mason bees (Osmia aurulenta) and this one was a female.  Not only are they very beautiful insects with their sparkling, jewel-like colouration but their life cycle sets them apart as they are one of the three UK bee species that nests in empty snail shells.  The female constructs cells within the abandoned snail shell using leaf mastic and provisions each cell with pollen and nectar before laying one egg.  Even more bizarrely, they decorate the outside of the filled shell with more leaf mastic.   Vegetated shingle is one of their favoured habitats and there were empty snail shells scattered sparsely across the beach.  Try as I might, though, I have yet to find one of these insects working on a snail shell!

I visited Slapton Sands on May 19th on a warm dry day but on May 20th, the cold, wet weather returned. After a week, however, something meteorological shifted and, thankfully, summer finally arrived. Many female red mason bees are now busily building nests in the bee houses.

Red valerian in one of the islands of vegetation showing the reddish-pink flowers
Bird’s foot trefoil growing on the shingle
Rosy garlic flowers growing in one of the islands pof vegetation
Sea Kale growing on the harsher part of the shingle beach
Sea spurge showing the rope-like stems and the unusual flowers. The flowers have no petals or sepals but are held in a cup formed from two bracts. The pale green tri-symmetric structure contains one small female flower. The yellow discs are glands that secrete nectar to attract insects and near the glands are several small yellow spherical stamens containing pollen.
A gold-fringed mason bee on bird’s foot trefoil

Sunday in the orchard with butterflies

It was still early when I looked out of the back window.   I had expected a clear morning but, instead, a veil of grey mist lay across the eastern hills.  The line of mist seemed to follow the course of the river Dart hidden beneath the lower town, softening and lending an air of mystery to the view.     A hazy orange glow emerged above the line of mist gradually shading into a clear, translucent blue sky.  This orange dawn light reminded me of one of the species of the butterfly about at this time of year.  The French call these butterflies “l’aurore”, (the dawn) and the Germans refer to them as “Aurorafalter”, (the dawn butterfly).  We English settle for the name “orange-tip butterfly” (from the bright orange wing tips of the male). 

Last year, during the first lockdown I found orange-tip butterflies (Anthocharis cardamines) in the Nursery Car Park, one of the town centre car parks.  The butterflies laid eggs on the garlic mustard growing along one of the borders, caterpillars developed and I presume they left chrysalises on vegetation in the car park.  Unfortunately, last December, the council carried out a “tidiness” raid on the Nursery Car Park cutting down most of the trees and all the plants and other vegetation, presumably destroying the chrysalises.  Some early spring flowers did grow but in the third week of April the “tidiness brigade” returned and strimmed the borders again.  This included destroying a bank of flowering three-cornered garlic that was popular with female hairy-footed flower bees last year.  I don’t bother to look in the Nursery Car Park now.

The male orange-tip butterfly is one of the clear signs that the new season has arrived and, at this time of year, they can be seen meandering about the countryside searching for females.  In flight, they mostly appear white making them awkward to distinguish from other “white” butterflies although hints of the orange wing tips can sometimes be seen.  This year, I had seen several of the males in different places around the town despite the markedly cool weather.  I had only seen one female so, last Sunday afternoon, with sunshine forecast, I decided to have another attempt at finding orange-tip females, this time in an orchard on the western side of Totnes.

Colwell Wood is owned by the Woodland Trust and located a short distance up Harper’s Hill.  It occupies a sloping site with good views towards Dartmoor and was planted nearly 25 years ago.  Now there is an area of woodland with a good selection of broadleaf native trees and an orchard stocked with heritage fruit trees: apple, plum, pear, cherry, medlar and mulberry.

A mature horse chestnut tree greeted me when I walked through the wooden gate off Harper’s Hill into Colwell Wood.   The tree was covered in floppy lime-green leaves and there were plenty of white candle-like flowers flecked with pink.  The woodland area is a short distance away and, with the trees now fairly mature, this a lovely spot.  A path took me through the rows of mature trunks, sunlight percolated through the partially leafed trees and above me a chiff chaff sang among branches that chattered as the breeze made them tremble.  The lesser celandine that had given the woodland floor a yellow sheen a few weeks ago were on their way out, the colour being replaced by a fulsome green growth with ferns unfurling and hogweed leaves spreading. 

Apple blossom in the orchard

The woodland ended and I walked a little way down the slope into the orchard, now a mass of flowers with most of the trees in blossom.  Apple predominated with its pink and white flowers and a steady stream of pollinators were visiting.  I saw bumblebees, honeybees and hoverflies and above the trees a few St Mark’s flies.

I also began to see an intermittent passage of white butterflies across the orchard in the sunshine.  With their undulating, slightly uncertain flight these insects often remind me of fragments of paper blowing in the wind but here a better comparison would be with the pale petals of apple trees.  These were blowing about in the breeze and on more than one occasion I jumped thinking that a butterfly had passed me only to find it was just a fragment of apple blossom.    

Several species of butterfly appear white in flight, so it’s important to look carefully at individual characteristics to identify the species. Most of the “white” butterflies passing through the orchard that afternoon, though, were elusive and accelerated away when they saw me. Then two appeared dancing around one another in the air.  I watched, thinking this might have been a mating pair but one flew off leaving the other to land on some cow parsley.  I got a quick glimpse of orange as the butterfly landed so I knew this was a male orange-tip.  He tolerated me approaching and looking, even when I knelt down and inadvertently sat on a stinging nettle.  His wings were closed for most of the time, revealing the beautiful green and yellow mottled underwing patterns (see picture at the top of this post and also below).  Slight traces of orange bled into the pattern but the dominant mottling blended well with the colours of the cow parsley.  When he had finished feeding, he flew off giving me another quick flash of brash colour.

Then another “white” butterfly appeared and landed on one of the pear trees.  This insect fed with wings half open, also exhibiting the mottled underwing pattern characteristic of orange-tip butterflies.   It lacked the orange upper wing markings but in their place were black wing tips and spots showing this to be a female of the species.  I was able to watch for a while before she flew off.

My third close encounter with a “white” butterfly that afternoon occurred as one landed on apple blossom and rested with its wings closed.  The underwings of this individual were mostly yellowish green with a beautiful pattern of darker, radiating veins rather like the branches of a tree.  This was a green-veined white butterfly (Pieris napi).

The weather changed, cloud covered the sun and the temperature fell a little.  The butterflies took this as a signal and I saw no more that afternoon but I returned a few days later on a sunny but rather windy day.  Walking through the woodland section, I came across several clumps of garlic mustard, the larval food plant of the orange-tip butterfly (and also the green-veined white).  I examined each plant carefully and very gently and was pleased to find one tiny, orange, ovoid structure attached just under the flower head on one flower stem (see pictures below).  This “mini rugby ball” was the egg of an orange-tip butterfly.  It has a much better chance of producing a new butterfly next year in this environment compared to those I saw last year in the Nursery Car Park.

Thanks to Dr Claudia Garrido who identified the medlar tree for me (see picture below).

Male orange-tip butterfly on cow parsley showing the mottled underwing pattern
Male orange-tip butterfly showing upper wings
Female orange-tip butterfly showing the mottled underwing pattern and upper wing with black tips and spots
Female orange-tip butterfly showing the mottled underwing pattern projecting through in the sunshine
Green-veined white butterfly
Garlic mustard showing the orange egg of the orange tip butterfly
Close up of the orange-tip butterfly egg
Flowers of the medlar tree

The Jurassic Coast – where do you start?

The East Devon and Dorset coast in the south west of the UK, popularly known as the Jurassic Coast, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 putting it on a par with the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef.  The Jurassic Coast is unique in being the only place on the planet where 185 million years of the earth’s history are sequentially exposed in cliffs, coves, and other coastal features.   Since 2001, museums and visitor centres have sprung up along its 95-mile length and a fine stone sculpture, the Geoneedle at Orcombe Point, Exmouth celebrates the beginning of the World Heritage Site in East Devon.  On a sunny day in early November, just before the second lockdown, I went to take a look.

The Geoneedle at Orcombe Point with the view towards the Exe estuary and Dawlish Warren

The sea front at Exmouth was quiet when I arrived, there were just a few people about taking morning walks or enjoying the beach and the sunshine.    I left the car and walked to the end of the promenade where red cliffs strike out across the beach.  From here, it is an easy walk up a zig zag path, past the café, to the cliff top and the area known as the High Land of Orcombe.  By now, the early mist had evaporated affording spectacular views from the cliff top across the Exe estuary, Dawlish Warren and the south Devon coast as far Torquay.  The mild sunny weather had also brought out late season insects including bumblebees, hoverflies and an ageing red admiral butterfly.  A short stroll then took me to an open grassy area above the cliffs where the Geoneedle stands and the Jurassic Coast begins.  

A hoverfly that I saw near the Geoneedle

An ageing red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)

The Geoneedle is an impressive modernist sculpture about 5 metres in height and one-metre square at the base tapering to a stainless-steel point that takes on the colour of the sky, a clear blue that day but catching the sun at certain angles.   It was designed by public artist, Michael Fairfax and is constructed from three kinds of Portland stone with insets of eight different rocks representing the principal building stones found along the Jurassic Coast. The site also includes a compass showing some of the local landmarks and a Jurassic Coast hopscotch, both made from stones set into the ground.  The sculpture was inaugurated by Prince Charles in 2002. 

Not only is the Geoneedle a beautiful object, it also cleverly encapsulates the story of the Jurassic Coast in its design.  The eight stone insets are arranged so that they correspond to the three different geological time periods of the many kinds of rock found along the 95 mile stretch of coast between Orcombe Point and Studland Bay.  Starting at the bottom, the first two stone insets come from the oldest time period, the Triassic (about 250 million years ago); the hard, red rocks and softer mudstones below Orcombe Point are from this time period and were formed as sediment accumulated when the earth was an arid desert.  The middle four insets are from the Jurassic period (about 170 million years ago) when southern England was under a tropical sea; some of the best-known coastal features in West Dorset, Portland and the Purbecks were laid down at this time.  Finally, the two topmost insets are from the Cretaceous period (about 65 million years ago) when sea levels fell and sediments from lagoons, swamps and rivers were deposited.  The Cretaceous rocks are the youngest along the Jurassic Coast and can be seen at various points notably in the white cliffs at Beer in East Devon and in the chalk stacks of Old Harry Rocks near Studland.  

The Geoneedle showing the eight stone insets

Much of our knowledge of the origins of the different rocks comes from studies of the fossils and minerals found along the coast giving important information on the plants and animals that lived there and the climatic conditions prevailing during the different time periods.  The findings of local geologists and palaeontologists were crucial in this and the most important of these was Mary Anning, working in the 19th century, discovering fossils dating from the Jurassic period in the mobile cliffs around Lyme Regis.  Her discoveries illustrated a hitherto unknown, bygone world dominated by massive marine reptiles swimming in a tropical sea.

When I had finished looking at the Geoneedle, I walked back down the zig zag path, across the promenade and on to the beach.   By now, the tide had receded leaving large swathes of pale, firm sand and the area was very busy with people, many walking dogs, all enjoying the gift of this sunny pre-lockdown day.  There were even two horses with riders at the water’s edge making for a very evocative image.  

The low tide made it possible for me to walk around Orcombe Point to examine the red cliffs and their rocks. Starting from the beach road, red cliffs extend at right angles up to the jagged outcrop of Rodney Point.  The exposed rock here is a hard sandstone of the Triassic period with considerable honeycomb weathering caused by wind and rain.  Beyond Rodney Point, red cliffs continue but there is also a very striking red rock formation, the Devil’s Ledge, a broad wave-cut platform.    Orcombe Point lies a little further to the east with the Geoneedle just visible, high above.  These red Triassic rocks owe their colour to iron oxides and they continue with some interruptions along the coast to Ladram Bay, Sidmouth and beyond Seaton before Jurassic rocks take over near Lyme Regis.

The red cliffs near Orcombe Point showing the downwards tilt in the strata

To the east of Orcombe Point, the hard, red sandstone is overlaid by softer rocks and the strata exposed in the cliffs exhibit a pronounced downwards tilt to the east.  This tilt occurred after the Jurassic period and brought the older Triassic rocks to the surface.  Cretaceous material was then deposited and, after many millions of years of weathering, the Jurassic Coast of today was created with its distinctive pattern of exposed rocks from the three time periods. 

If, therefore, we take a notional walk along the entire length of the Jurassic Coast, starting at Orcombe Point and finishing at Studland Bay, we will encounter a multitude of different landforms including dramatic cliffs, stone stacks, pebble beaches and rocky coves.  These coastal features, and the rocks they contain, represent an almost continuous record of 185 million years of the earth’s history, rather like the pages of a book or the travels of a time machine. 

That day, of course, I had only skimmed the pages of the first chapter of the book.  As I walked back to the car, though, on that mild late autumn day, I reflected on how my visit had given me a renewed sense of the importance and of the unique nature of the Jurassic Coast.

This article appeared in the December 2020 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Rewilding a flower-rich meadow – Lockdown Nature WalkS 9

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.

Red bistort with nectaring wasp

At Tristford Cross, we turned right along the old road above Broomborough 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.

Hogweed with mating pair of common red soldier beetles (Rhagonycha fulva)

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.

View from the meadow to the recent housing development and beyond to the Follaton Arboretum and the town of Totnes

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. 

A section of the meadow with bird’s foot trefoil and knapweed

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.

Six-spot burnet moth ( Zygaena filipendulae) feeding on bird’s foot trefoil, note the proboscis probing the flower

Five-spot burnet moth (Zygaena trifoli or lonicerae) feeding on knapweed
Six-spot burnet moth in flight
Meadow grasshopper (Chorthippus parallelus)
Based on its long antennae this is a bush cricket but from the photo, I cant tie this down to a species.
Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus)

Lockdown Nature Walks 3

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.

A solitary bee resting on the quince leaves. This is probably a mining bee but it is impossible from the photo to determine the species.

 

Another solitary bee, this time feeding from the quince flowers. She is carrying plenty of pollen and when I first saw her I thought she was probably a furrow bee (Lasioglossum sp.).

 

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.

A male red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) resting on the bee house in the sunshine

 

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”.

A spray of cherry buds each clasped by green sepals.

 

Mature flowers on the cherry tree showing the five pure white petals. The yellow-tipped stamens and the thicker pale green pistil can be seen more easily if the picture is enlarged by clicking.

 

A hoverfly feeding from the cherry flowers and hopefully pollinating them. This may be a Tapered Drone Fly (Eristalis pertinax).

 

Lockdown Nature Walks 2

We are now well into the third week of lockdown in the UK. Totnes seems to be following the rules well, there are very few people about and when I encounter someone they mostly keep two metres away.  With the lack of traffic, an abnormal quiet seems to have settled across the town so that we now notice the singing of the birds. 

It’s a difficult time and perhaps reflecting this, a crop of supportive  messages appeared recently in chalk on houses and on the road on Kinsgbridge Hill and Maudlin Road. One of these heads this post and I have put another below.

 

A supportive message with a rainbow, seen on the Kingsbridge Hill in Totnes

 

It has been easier, at least for me, to endure the lockdown given the gentle weather we have been experiencing.  Mornings have been particularly glorious as the warm light of the rising sun is softened  through a thin veil of mist across the valley below our house.  

I have been continuing to enjoy my Lockdown exercise walks around the town centre gardens, car parks and lanes and here are a few notable observations.

This is a hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) I spotted on a grassy bank by the Nursery Car Park resting on a dead leaf. They are one of the earliest solitary bees to emerge each year (early March) and, for me, they signify the arrival of spring. They whizz about gardens buzzing loudly, occasionally hovering in front of flowers such as comfrey or lungwort before feeding. This is a male with his tawny body hairs and yellow face. The picture does not do justice to his signature hairy legs so I have included another photo below taken before the lockdown.

 

Another hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) male showing the silky hairs that decorate his legs. Photographed in the Leechwell Garden in mid March. The female hairy-footed flower bee, by contrast, is jet black with orange back legs.

 

Do look at the short video at the end of this post which shows a female hairy-footed flower bee feeding in the Nursery Car Park.  It illustrates her behaviour and her colouring.

 

I saw this this dark-edged bee fly (Bombylius major) along one of the walled passages behind the Leechwell Garden. With their round furry bodies they might be confused with bumblebees but at rest, unlike bumblebees, they hold their wings at right angles to the body and have a long straight proboscis. They are parasites of solitary bees, flicking their eggs into solitary bee nests where the bee fly larva takes over and consumes the supplies left for the bee larvae.

 

We are fortunate to live on the southern edge of Totnes close to  open countryside.  Just a short walk from our house lies Fishchowter’s Lane,  an ancient sunken lane, once thought to have been one of the principal southern routes out of Totnes towards Dartmouth.  Nowadays, it is very quiet making it a pleasant walk by woods and fields with various possibilities for longer or shorter loops back to Totnes.   Here are some pictures taken as we walked the lane recently.  For more images of the lane through the seasons, have a look here.

Fishchowter’s Lane is lined at this time of year by banks of ramsons with their fleshy green leaves and the merest touch will release a pungent garlicky smell. If you look down the lane in this picture you will see one of the two old stone bridges found along the track. These enabled animals to move under the lane from fields on one side to fields on the other.

 

We found a large patch of yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon) near the start of the lane. The pale flowers are popular with pollinators for early season feeding. The hooded upper lip has a fringe of hairs and the lower lip has attractive brown markings. The silvery marks on some of the leaves show that this is not the wild species, but  the garden cultivar, ssp argentatum.

 

A few of these attractive blue flowers were pushing up through banks of nettles. This is ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) a common wild flower of hedgerows and woodland.

 

There is a small paddock along the lane and this horse eyed us enigmatically

 

Finally, back to the town centre where one unanticipated effect of the lockdown has been the lack of strimming along car park edges allowing wild flowers to prosper.  This is particularly clear in the Nursery Car Park where there are now drifts of of golden dandelions and a large bank of three-cornered leek covered with its trumpet-like white flowers with their pale green stripes.  The flowers are very popular with female hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes); here is a short video clip I took yesterday morning of these insects  showing how they behave.

In search of the native daffodil

This year sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of the English romantic poet William Wordsworth.  One of his most famous poems, “Daffodils” was inspired by an extensive drift of the flowers he encountered growing along the shores of Ullswater in the Lake District.  Wordsworth’s flowers would have been our native wild daffodil, smaller and less showy than the many brightly coloured, cultivated varieties we are accustomed to seeing in our gardens and parks.  Native daffodils used to grow prolifically in the wild in many parts of the UK but woodland clearance and ploughing of meadows reduced their numbers.  The west country is still a good place to see the flowers in the wild so I went off to look for them in Devon and Dorset.

A native daffodil growing in our Devon garden showing the lemon yellow trumpet and cream coloured petals

I started my quest in our Devon garden where, a few years ago, we planted native daffodil bulbs obtained from a reputable supplier.  This year they began to flower in late February revealing blooms of an understated beauty compared to their less subtle cultivated cousins.  The trumpet is lemon-yellow and rather narrow with roughly parallel sides and the six petals are the colour of clotted cream, standing perpendicular to the trumpet, like an Elizabethan ruff.  The grey green strap-like leaves and flower stem holding its single flower are about 20cm long, quite a bit shorter than many cultivated varieties.

The native daffodil is a member of the narcissus family, a genus often said to be named from the Greek myth whereby the young man, Narcissus, falls in love with his reflection seen in a pool of water.  Unable to resist the allure of his own image, in time he realises his love cannot be reciprocated and he wastes away turning into a gold and white flower.  Others believe the name comes from the Latin word narce, (numbness, torpor) a reference to the narcotic properties of the plant.   Daffodils contain many chemicals, some of which were probably responsible for these narcotic effects, and extracts of daffodil have historically been used in folk medicine.   The plant is now considered to be poisonous but one compound, galantamine, is purified from daffodils grown commercially in Wales for use as a therapy in Alzheimer’s disease.

The flowers growing in our garden provided me with a useful image to keep in my mind when I went into the countryside searching for native daffodils.  It wasn’t difficult to find flowers along lane-side verges in West Dorset and in Devon that resembled the native daffodil, but how could I be sure?  Simon Harrap in his beautifully illustrated book “Wild Flowers” warns against identifying roadside blooms as native because of the practice of garden dumping and of hybridisation with one of the thousands of garden cultivars, some of which have been deliberately planted to brighten up the countryside.  He suggests searching in deciduous woodland or old pasture where the flowers may have been long established.

So, where can we go to see our native daffodil growing in the wild?  The Lake District has strong populations with Wordsworth’s flowers still gracing the shores of Ullswater in late March and early April.  Another fine population can be seen near Farndale in North Yorkshire but it is on the Gloucestershire/Herefordshire borders that one of the most impressive displays occurs each spring.  The “Golden Triangle”, defined by the villages of Kempley, Oxenhall and Dymock, has for many years attracted large numbers of visitors to see the carpets of wild daffodils in woodlands, orchards and pasture.

A fine display of the wild flowers can, however, be found nearer to home.   Just a few miles to the west of Exeter in the Teign Valley in Devon lies Dunsford Nature Reserve and on a beautifully sunny mid-March day, we went to see the Dunsford daffodils. We parked near Steps Bridge where the Teign cascaded noisily over rocks creating showers of white water and sparkling light.  The riverside path took us away from the bridge and almost immediately we came across daffodils.  They were easy to find:  growing under the trees in deciduous woodland, scattered across riverside meadows and flourishing among coppiced hazel stools.  They were unmistakeably our native daffodil based on their stature, the shape of the flowers and their lemon and cream colour and, something I hadn’t noticed before, the tendency of individual flowers to be held at a slight angle downwards.  For the most part, they do not grow thickly, it’s as though they need their space, and dense drifts of the flowers are rarely seen here.  But this is compensated for by the sheer number of flowers so that for a few weeks at this time of year they own the land and it becomes very much daffodil territory.  This is one of the strong impressions I shall take away from our visit.

We did find one meadow with denser growth (see picture at the head of this post) where the colours of the flowers tended to merge into a sheen of yellow, shining like the sun and reminding us that spring is on its way.  Native daffodils are sometimes also called “Lent lilies” as they were said to bloom and fade between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  When we visited Dunsford on March 16th, the flowers were close to their peak but they should still be around for a few more weeks.

But let’s go back to that stormy day in April 1802 when William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy encountered the profusion of daffodils by Ullswater.  Dorothy described in her journal for April 15th how the flowers “tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake”.  William composed his poem two years later, inspired by her journal entry and his tribute to the daffodil has become one of the best-known pieces of verse in the English language.

Here is the last verse where Wordsworth remembers the events:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

 

For directions to Dunsford Nature Reserve look at:  https://www.devonwildlifetrust.org/nature-reserves/dunsford

I bought native daffodil bulbs from https://www.wildflowershop.co.uk/index.html

Native daffodils growing wild in the Teign Valley

 

A Teign Valley meadow with native daffodils

This article appeared in the April 2020 digital only edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.  The fieldwork was completed  before the lockdown came into force.  Hopefully the article will provide a reminder of the joys of Spring.