Category Archives: conservation

The good, the bad and the ugly at Charmouth in west Dorset

In the first week of November, we spent a few days in west Dorset.  On the way over we stopped at Charmouth, a coastal village we know very well from many visits, to take a walk and to eat our sandwiches.  It was a luminous, very mild, sunny day with mostly blue skies and a light but cool west wind. 

The view from the west cliff at Charmouth across Lyme Bay to Lyme Regis, also showing the scrub and bramble that cover the cliff-top plateau

From the beach car park, we walked along Higher Sea Lane, a residential road which heads up the cliffs that rise to the west.  An enclosed grassy path then led us to the cliff top with fine views to the west across Lyme Bay to Lyme Regis. Looking to the east, we could see the cliffs rising steeply from the other side of the beach and the distinctive flat-topped bulk of Golden Cap (see picture at the head of this post).  The sea was calm and a steely blue, transformed in places to tracts of liquid silver by the sun.  Although the sea appeared to be calm, two surfers were lurking in the water with their boards so good waves must have been expected that day.  The mild weather had also encouraged four hardy swimmers to take a dip, clad only in swimming costumes.

The cliff top to the west starts as a gently sloping plateau wreathed in thick scrub and brambles, fenced off for safety and a perfect haven for wildlife.  Many insects were flying and one large queen bumblebee landed on a bramble leaf in front of us.  At the edge of the plateau the cliff drops more steeply in soft mobile rock containing fossils and Charmouth attracts many visitors keen to sift through rocks hoping to find the perfect fossil.

We walked back down the grassy slope to the promenade and beach. It was  high tide and waves were attacking the concrete sea defences dissipating their energy in a mixture of noise and spray, lending the air a distinctive salty seaside odour.  The beach at Charmouth is a mixture of sand and shingle and stretches to the east under high cliffs.  The river Char also reaches the sea here and before it crosses the beach a long lagoon forms separating the beach into east and west sections connected by a bridge.

Large amounts of woody debris were spread across the west bank of the lagoon and when I looked carefully I found small, ridged, cylindrical blue plastic pellets (about 0.5cm across) scattered among the debris.  The same pellets were also apparent in debris on the east bank. I have seen these pellets here before: they are biobeads used by South West Water in sewage treatment at their Lyme Regis works but released into Lyme Bay through poor husbandry.  The company were supposed to have put in filters to prevent this release but it is possible that a reservoir of pellets exists on the seabed and storms bring them on to the shore.

We also walked on the beach and cliffs on the east side of the river and as we turned back into the wind to return, we were greeted by a very unpleasant smell, something I have never encountered here before.   Rotting seaweed can create unpleasant smells by the seaside but this was not rotting seaweed and smelt more like sewage. 

There is an ongoing problem, a crisis even, in the UK with water companies discharging untreated sewage into the sea and into rivers, especially after storms.  There were reports of sewage being discharged at Charmouth on November 3rd and we visited on the 4th.   After we had detected the smell, we noticed that the water in the lagoon was rather cloudy (a potential sign of sewage pollution) and wondered how this might affect the resident population of gulls and ducks and the aquatic invertebrates that live there.  We also watched dogs going in and out of the water and shaking themselves dry, sometimes on to their owners.  And what about the swimmers and surfers?

The queen bumblebee that stopped in front of us on the cliff top

View across the lagoon formed by the river Char at Charmouth with the bridge linking the west and east beaches (picture taken a few years ago)

Woody debris on the west bank of the Char showing blue biobeads. There is a piece of smooth blue plastic in the top left hand corner which is not a biobead. If you look around carefully in the picture you may see some black pellets. These are also biobeads.

Blue biobeads among debris on the east bank of the Char.

The myth and the magic of hares

The minor road headed roughly northwards, climbing gradually across chalk downland towards Ansty Cross. At least that’s what we had planned until a large red and white placard loomed ahead of us at a four-way junction declaring “Road Closed” in capital letters.  It didn’t specify which road was closed and we could see no sign of roadworks so we decided to take the risk and press on past the sign.  At the next junction, though, another sign was more specific.  The road ahead, our planned route, was closed and, this time, we could see the roadworks blocking our way.  A few minutes of frantic map reading revealed that an alternative was possible and soon we were on our way northwards again.   We were now following a very quiet one car’s width-road lined by hawthorn scrub and low fences with grassy downland rising on the western side, a pleasant if unanticipated place to be on this mild, sunny early May morning.

Suddenly as we drove on, two animals, the size of medium dogs, shot out from the hedge and proceeded to chase one another up the road ahead of us.  We slowed down to avoid upsetting them and watched, transfixed. My initial reaction was “two deer, possibly muntjac”.    I was wrong, though, because just as suddenly as they appeared, they turned and ran back into the hedge and it became clear that these were hares, running fast.  One came out again on to the road briefly before returning through the hedge on to the downland.

We moved forward, stopped the car and looked through a gap in the hedge on to the nearby field. It was like looking through a portal into another world as there on the downland were three hares with their long ears and sandy brown fur, almost golden in the morning sunshine.  One was very still and held its ears down but the other two proceeded to have a rough and tumble, squaring up aggressively, running about at high-speed, chasing, even jumping over one another.  After a few minutes, one ran off, “defeated” and we decided to leave the hares in peace.  We drove on, in total silence for some time but glowing, after one of the more surprising and emotional wildlife encounters we have ever experienced.    

hares “boxing”

 The animals we saw are more properly called brown hares to distinguish them from the other species found in the UK, the mountain hare, now mostly confined to the Highlands of Scotland.  Brown hares are large animals, about twice the size of a rabbit with sandy brown fur, long black-tipped ears, powerful back legs and staring eyes set so that they have almost all-round vision.  They are herbivores inhabiting grassland and open woodland, feeding mainly on young cereals, grasses and herbs.   In autumn and winter, brown hares are nocturnal, solitary creatures ranging widely and feeding at night.  They have no burrow and rest during the day in a hollow in the ground where from a distance they are largely invisible.  The lack of burrow makes them potentially vulnerable to predators such as foxes or birds of prey so they are always on the watch for threats, helped by their superb vision and hearing.  They can usually elude predators by being able to run at speeds up to 40 mph.

Their lives change in the spring months when mating becomes the driving force leading to the sort of daytime display we witnessed that morning.  The classic behaviour is “boxing” when two animals square up to one another and may exchange blows but chasing and jumping also often occur.  This pattern is now thought to reflect a persistent male encountering a reluctant female who tries to fend him off and the energetic leaping and wild chasing have given rise to the phrase “as mad as a March hare”.   The pattern may also be part of a ritual where the female selects a suitable mate based on his strength and endurance.

Female hares are receptive to males for much of the year, they can conceive even when already pregnant and can have up to four litters in a year.  Young hares, leverets, are born fully furred and with eyes open into a depression in the ground.   The adult female leaves the young during the day returning at night to give one feed.  The young leverets left like this are vulnerable to predators and some may also be killed by grass cutting equipment.  Other threats facing hares come from intensification of farming which has removed some food sources needed for good nutrition and there has also been an increase in the number of foxes. The result is a 75% reduction in the brown hare population since WW2.

With their lives lived mostly at night and often unseen there is something elusive and undefinable about hares.  Add to this their surprising behaviour during the breeding season and it’s easy to see why these creatures have become associated over the years with myth and magic.  One widespread belief in medieval times was that hares were shape shifters linked to witches and related stories of this transformation may be found in various parts of the country.  

A Dorset version of the shape shifter myth is told by local story teller Martin Maudsley.  It concerns a group of four farm labourers from the village of Littlebredy who went out at night hunting with dogs to catch animals for food.  While they went hunting, they left their farming tools by the house of an old woman whom some people in the village thought was a witch and others respected as a healer.  One evening when the men were out hunting, they glimpsed a mysterious and magical creature, a pure white hare and tried unsuccessfully to catch her.  Catching the white hare became an obsession for the men and one evening they were almost successful.  They cornered the white hare and she was thrown about and bitten by the dogs but still managed to escape.   

When the men went to collect their tools, they found the old woman lying on the floor in her cottage badly injured with her clothes ripped and bloody.  Most of the men left quickly, filled with fear and guilt, but one stayed with the old woman and nursed her back to health.  Chastened by this experience, the men vowed never to hunt the white hare again.  

The full story of the white hare may be read at https://www.dorsetaonb.org.uk/the-white-hare/.

This article appeared in the October2022 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The pictures are from Wikipedia

Flowers and moths lend a hint of the Mediterranean to Totnes

A cluster of red valerian flowers

Totnes is an ancient town with many old stone walls lining passageways, roads and the edges of gardens.  In spring and summer, the wintery-dark stone of these walls erupts with clumps of green leaves followed by dense, rounded clusters of tiny flowers, usually a bright pink, so that the clusters resemble scoops of strawberry ice cream.   This plant is red valerian (Centranthus ruber) and is thought to have been introduced from the Mediterranean in the late 16th century.  It is now naturalised in the UK and common in England and Wales, especially in the south west where it insinuates its roots into the mortar in the old walls wherever it can get a toehold.    Its colourful flowers lend a hint of the Mediterranean to some west country towns.  

Despite this summer’s very dry weather, some valerian flower heads still remain attracting insects looking for late season nectar.  Large furry bumblebees scramble about the colourful flowers and white butterflies perch on flower heads but the plant is a particular favourite of a spectacular day flying moth with a wingspan of about 5cm, the hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum).  Most years I see one of these moths but this summer I have had many more sightings especially in the last week of August and first week of September.  A long spell of warm southerly winds may have brought the moths northwards from their Mediterranean strongholds. 

A clump of red valerian hanging from an old stone wall in our street has been very popular with the moths.  On several recent days, a hummingbird hawk moth has appeared by a flower head, as if from nowhere, and hovered, its long proboscis deftly inserted into one tiny flower collecting nectar from the base of the corolla. The moth seems to hang in the air, its greyish body with black and white chequered rear showing well.  Its brown and orange wings beat so rapidly that they appear as a blur and create an audible hum.  When it has finished with one flower cluster, it jinks to another.

There is something magical about these elegant creatures and I feel privileged to be able to see them. My feelings, though, are tinged with sadness as their arrival in greater numbers is a reflection of our rapidly changing climate.

A short video of one moth on a windy day
Large white butterfly nectaring on red valerian

Hummingbird hawk moth nectaring on red valerian

Hummingbird hawk moth moving between flowers with its proboscis coiled up (you may need to enlarge the picture to see this)

Sighting seals along the south west coast of the UK

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

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

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

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

Grey seal

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

Common Seal (photo by CJ Sharp from Wikimedia Commons)

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

A grey seal hauled out on rocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos shown here were taken using a zoom lens.

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

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

Confusing life and death on the river Dart

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

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

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

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

A Saturday afternoon with the grey seals of south Devon

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

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

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

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