Category Archives: science writing

The winter solstice – a day of sunshine – with flowers, butterflies and bumblebees

When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold which is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.

(from Little Gidding, the last of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets)

low midwinter sun behind pine trees at Roundham Head
Low midwinter sun behind pine trees at Roundham Head – silhouettes and shadows

 

We had a lot of grey, wet weather towards the end of last year, and very little sunshine. A few days before Christmas, however, the forecast predicted a bright, dry and relatively mild day, so I took the opportunity to get over to Roundham Head in Paignton to see what flowers and wildlife might be about. It’s a journey of about ten miles and that morning I took the bus, enjoying the long views across the surrounding countryside. Paignton is a seaside holiday resort but it looked distinctly “out of season” when I arrived, despite the sunshine and blue sky. A few people were walking along the promenade; they were well wrapped up even though it wasn’t a cold day. The little harbour was quiet; small boats bobbed on the water protected by the old stone walls and a gang of turnstones skittered like mice at the water’s edge. Molly Malones food shack was closed for the winter and the booths normally touting fishing excursions were empty.

I walked up suburban streets to get on to the northern side of Roundham Head, the flat-topped, cliff-lined, grassy promontory that protrudes into the waters of Torbay. A line of tall pine trees straddles the first part of the headland and the low sun rendered these as silhouettes casting long shadows across the grass. The path around the promontory follows the cliff edge with views to the sea below and a seal teased me by briefly raising its shiny black head above the water. Eventually I came to southern side of the Head and the gardens that were built in the 1930s partly to stabilise the cliffs. Steep zig zag paths track up and down between flower beds planted with exotic species that, between them, provide colour throughout the year. There are benches should you wish to rest or enjoy the views over Torbay and the shelter, the proximity of the sea and the south facing aspect of the gardens generate a mild microclimate.

low midwinter sun over Goodrington Sands
The low midwinter sun over Goodrington Sands

 

It was the winter solstice that day, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, the day when darkness begins to give way to light. From the southern edge of Roundham Head, above the gardens, I could see the sun hanging very low in the pale wintery-blue sky casting its light across the beach at Goodrington Sands creating a silvery mirror on the water. Even though this was midwinter, there were plenty of flowers around me in the gardens and the low sunshine created surprising effects. Its intense golden light gave a softness to the air and enhanced flower colours to an almost psychedelic extent. Banks of bergenia acquired a pink brightness worthy of late 1960s San Francisco and the scorpion vetch (Coronilla valentina) that flourishes all over the gardens glowed with a lemon-yellow light.

I paused by a clump of bergenia, enjoying the warmth of this sheltered spot. A small bumblebee, ovoid and furry with black, white and yellow stripes, soon appeared, moving among the bright pink flowers looking for food. Quickly tiring of the bergenia, it flew to one of the white funnel-shaped flowers in a large clump of shrubby bindweed (Convolvulus cneorum), burying its head in the base of the bloom where it stayed, drinking nectar. Based on size and appearance this was probably a buff-tailed bumblebee worker. A drone fly also took advantage of these flowers resting near the mass of golden yellow stamens. Soon after, I got a surprise when a butterfly landed briefly on the bergenia before flying off. It circled for a while before settling on a wall to bask in the sunshine showing me that it was a painted lady, with its characteristic wing coloration of orange/buff, black and white. An insistent buzz announced the arrival of a large bumblebee, black with orange/buff coloured bands. This was a queen buff-tailed bumblebee and she proceeded to feed from the bergenia. I had two more sightings of large furry queens on these pink flowers.

Another plant that flourishes here is rosemary and extensive curtains of the herb cascade from several borders, their slate blue flowers glinting in the sunshine like diamond chips. Rosemary is in flower here for several months across winter providing pollen and nectar for insects and I saw several buff-tailed bumblebee workers moving quickly about the flowers, their pollen baskets well loaded. They were very jumpy and flew off when I got too close. For a short time, they were joined by another queen carrying a small amount of grey pollen, also a basking, but rather worn, red admiral butterfly with its bright red and white patterns on a black background.

By mid-afternoon, cloud began to bubble up to the south, and eventually a slab of grey cloud obscured the sun. The temperature dropped noticeably, the wind got up and the bees went off to shelter, bringing observations to a close. I made my way back to the bus station pondering what I had seen.

It still surprises me to see butterflies in the winter. I have seen them here before in December and January but in my mind these brightly coloured insects signify summer. Although most red admirals are thought to migrate to the UK from North Africa and continental Europe, a few are thought to be resident now that mild winters are becoming more common. These residents can be seen flying and feeding on gentle winter days. The painted lady also migrates into the UK but is thought to be unable to survive our winters, so the one I encountered is unlikely to see our spring.

What about the bees, aren’t they supposed to be in hibernation at this time of year? Well yes, most bees are, but based on my observations of buff-tailed workers collecting pollen in December, there must be winter active colonies at Roundham Head. I first saw worker bumblebees here in January about five years ago and since then I have seen them at a similar time each year, so this is a well-established phenomenon. There are presumably queens in their nests laying eggs supported by these workers. These queens would have been produced in the previous October to mate with males at emergence. Last year I did see male buff-tails here in December so perhaps these were survivors of the late autumn emergence.

There is abundant evidence now from a variety of sources that colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees are active in the winter across the southern part of the UK. Two factors seem to be important: winter weather should not be too harsh and there should be plenty of flowers to support the colonies.

worker bumblebee on shrubby bindweed
A worker bumblebee on a shrubby bindweed flower

 

drone fly on shrubby bindweed
A drone fly on a shrubby bindweed flower

 

queen bumblebee on bergenia
Queen buff-tailed bumblebee on bergenia

 

painted lady butterfly
painted lady butterfly

 

painted lady butterfly on bergenia
painted lady butterfly on bergenia with wings closed

 

worker bumblebee on rosemary
Worker bumblebee with pollen on rosemary

 

red admiral butterfly
red admiral butterfly – note the damaged wings

 

The 1918 influenza pandemic – the greatest global killer since the Black Death

As the First World War staggered towards its bloody conclusion 100 years ago this month leaving 17 million dead, the war-worn world suffered a second catastrophe. A lethal influenza pandemic swept the planet killing at least 50 million people.  Most towns in the UK have fitting memorials to the war dead but the many who died from influenza are neither commemorated nor remembered. The Spanish flu, as it came to be called, was the greatest global killer since the Black Death.  It is very important that its victims should not be forgotten and lessons learnt for dealing with future pandemics.

Detail of the war memorial in the tiny Dorset hamlet of Briantspuddle showing some of the names and regiments of the war dead. Even from somewhere as small as Briantspuddle seven men were killed in WW1 and six in WW2.

 

By June 1918, the fighting had been raging for nearly four years.  Already worn down by the privations of war and the deaths of so many young men, people in the UK began to suffer the symptoms of influenza.  Sore throat, headache and fever were typical but, after a few days in bed, people recovered and got on with life as best as they could.  The illness had already swept across the US in the spring, reaching the trenches of the Western Front by mid-April leading to a brief lull in the fighting while troops recovered.

A poster warning of the dangers of Spanish flu (from Wikimedia Commons)

By September, however, a second wave of influenza surfaced, now in a deadly new guise. The virus was highly infectious sweeping through populations and quickly reaching most countries around the globe, its lethal progress assisted by the movement of troops to and from war zones.  The majority experienced typical flu symptoms, perhaps a little more severe, and recovered quickly but, for about one in twenty of those infected, the effects were much more serious. Pneumonia-like symptoms caused by bacterial infection of the lungs were common leading to breathing problems and copious bloody sputum.  Sometimes, the face and hands developed a purple-blue colouration suggesting oxygen starvation.  This colour might spread to the rest of the body, occasionally turning black before sufferers died.    Post mortem examination revealed lungs that were red, swollen and bloody and covered in watery pink liquid; victims had effectively drowned in their own bodily fluids. There were no effective treatments, antibiotics had not been developed, and the death rate was high. By Christmas the second influenza wave had burnt itself out only for a third wave of intermediate severity to strike in the first few months of 1919.  The pandemic came to be called “Spanish flu” because Spain alone, not being part of the war and so not subject to censorship, reported its flu experience freely.

An influenza hospital in the US (from Wikimedia Commons)

 

In the UK, the Spanish flu killed 228,000 people in the space of about six months but this was a global pandemic and around the world the mortality was staggering.  There were 675,000 deaths in the US and up to 17 million in India; overall the illness killed at least 3% of the entire population of the world.  Unlike typical seasonal flu epidemics, deaths from Spanish flu were highest among 20-40-year olds with pregnant women being particularly vulnerable.  If World War 1 had consumed the flower of youth, Spanish flu cut down those in their prime.

The sudden, widespread occurrence of a major illness with such high mortality caused huge disruption to daily life in the UK, especially in large towns.  Medical services were overwhelmed as many doctors and nurses were on war service, funeral directors were unable to cope and there were reports of bodies piling up in mortuaries.   The response of the medical authorities was poor, underplaying the gravity of the situation and providing little guidance; the newspapers, wearied by war news, were reluctant to give this new killer much coverage.  Understanding of disease in the general population was rudimentary and a sense of fear and dread prevailed as people witnessed so many apparently random deaths.

In the West Country, the second wave of influenza killed at least 750 people in both Devon and Somerset and about 400 in Dorset but many thousands must have been unwell. Contemporary reports from Medical Officers of Health and local papers give some idea of how life was disrupted:

“In Lyme Regis, schools were closed for a fortnight in October 1918 as a large number of teachers as well as children were stricken down with the malady”

“The epidemic occurred when there was a great shortage of doctors and nurses across Devon and in the autumn of 1918 many cases succumbed before they could be visited; so bad was this in north Devon that, in answer to appeals from Appledore and North Tawton, two members of the School Medical Staff went to the aid of overtaxed doctors”

“Schools in Dartmouth were still closed in November 1918, social functions postponed and a Corporation soup kitchen opened to supply nourishing soup for invalids”

Here are two extracts from letters written to the author Richard Collier by people alive in 1918 describing their experience of the pandemic.  These were kindly given to me by Hannah Mawdsley.

“Mrs Frances Smith wrote from Brixham, Devon about her flu memories.  She remembered funerals taking place late into the evening by lamplight, as there wasn’t enough time in the day to bury everyone. She caught the flu herself and was convinced that she was going to die. She had a very high fever and her hair fell out as a consequence of the flu, as well as severe aches in her back and legs.”

“Mr Bebbington was at Blandford Camp, Dorset during the pandemic. He remembered the huge numbers of flu victims there, as well as the depression that followed many flu cases, which seemed to result in a significant number of suicides in a nearby wood.”

 

This advertisement appeared in the Totnes Times in November 1918. There were no treatments for Spanish flu but claims for cures abounded at the time. This is one of the milder ones.

Given the high mortality and the disruption to normal society I find it surprising that the pandemic was not commemorated and seems to have been forgotten quickly.   Perhaps after four long years of carnage abroad and disruption at home, another horror was just too much, and the only way to cope was to forget?

But what was it about the 1918 flu virus that made it so virulent producing symptoms unlike any seen before and killing so many people? We still don’t know but scientists in the US have made some headway by studying the virus extracted from corpses of people who died during the second wave of the infection preserved in Alaskan permafrost. This showed, surprisingly, that the 1918 virus had a structure similar to a bird flu virus.  This partly accounts for its virulence: its bird flu-like structure would have been alien to the immune system of people at the time. Because it also had the ability to infect human cells, it was a lethal vector of disease causing, in some patients, severe damage to the lining of the respiratory tract leading to bacterial infection and pneumonia, engorged lung tissue and bloody sputum. A flu virus normally found in wild birds had acquired the ability to infect humans and the pandemic was the result.

Could history repeat itself? Could the world experience another lethal influenza pandemic?  There is certainly concern among experts that this could happen and the Government recognises pandemic influenza as “one of the most severe natural challenges likely to affect the UK”.   Current concern is focussed on two bird Influenza viruses circulating in the Far East.  Since 2003, these have infected more than 2000 people and nearly half have died.  Almost all the human infections have come from close contact with poultry or ducks but should one of these viruses change so that person to person transmission becomes possible, then we could be facing another major pandemic.  How would we react? Our health care systems, at least in the developed world, are more sophisticated compared to 1918 and surveillance is better so that we should have early warning of the start of a pandemic.  The UK Government has an Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy, we have antibiotics and vaccines to combat bacterial pneumonia and some antiviral drugs to reduce flu symptoms. There is still the likelihood that health care systems would be overloaded and perhaps our best long-term hope is the development of a universal flu vaccine to protect against all strains of the virus.

This article appeared in a slightly modified form in the November 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The picture at the head of this post shows a group of women in Brisbane, Australia wearing masks as a protection against Spanish flu (from Wikimedia Commons).

I should like to thank Hannah Mawdsley for giving me the two letters from people remembering the flu pandemic.

It’s a daffodil, but not as we know it.

Two sea daffodils at Dawlish Warren
two sea daffodils

Last week I made the short train journey along the Devon coast to Dawlish Warren hoping to see some of the special late summer flowers that flourish on the nature reserve.  Dawlish Warren is also a very popular holiday spot in August and, as I walked from the station, I joined shoals of people making their way to the beach laden with bags and body boards.  It was all very good humoured and, as I sat on the promenade drinking my coffee and dodging wasps, children played on the beach below, shrieking as they ran in and out of the water.

[For more information on Dawlish Warren look here]

It was a gentle day with sunshine and cotton wool clouds as I followed the sandy boardwalk away from the promenade across the narrow line of dunes and down to the quiet of the nature reserve.  The uneven, wooden walkway meandered across swathes of rough grass where many evening primrose stood on tall reddish-green stems, their papery flowers fluttering in the breeze like clouds of lemon-yellow butterflies.

The central part of the reserve used to be a lake, Greenland Lake, long since drained but never really having lost its watery feel. There were still a few puddles remaining after recent heavy rain and the profuse flora was dominated by damp-loving plants, especially tall, thick rushy grasses.   Drifts of purple loosestrife, spiky and colourful, stood above the dark green grassy understory.  Fluffy lilac globes of water mint and creamy cushions of meadowsweet also shone, along with large numbers of the yellow daisy-like fleabane. Late season insects enjoyed the many food sources.

Further on, as the ground became a little drier and the grass shorter, I was surprised to see one or two spikes of marsh helleborine.  They had been flowering in their hundreds when I visited about six weeks previously but I thought they would have been finished by now.  These unusual flowers are members of the orchid family and each pinkish flower stem carries several white flowers with delicate pink veins and a frilly lip, backed by pink sepals.  There is something unsettling about marsh helleborine when they appear in large numbers, casting their pale colours across the damp green grassland.

There’s another orchid I have seen growing here in profusion in previous years.  It’s the last of the season’s orchids to appear and I had almost given up hope of finding any when, finally, I stumbled across a few.  Each vertical spike is very distinctive, a slightly hairy grey-green spiral, looking as though several strands of fine rope had been wound around one other.  Perhaps it’s just the name, autumn lady’s tresses, but they also remind me of the plaits the girls wove from their long hair when I was at school.  The white tubular flowers emerge from this grey-green spiral to decorate the spike in a helical manner, either clockwise or counter clockwise.  Bumblebees pollinate the flowers and apparently, they prefer the counter clockwise arrangement.

My next stop was the inner bay, with its views up the river Exe towards mudflats popular with wading birds.  Today the water had retreated, leaving the semi-circular bay a shining sheet of dark mud, revealing many clumps of bright green glasswort (marsh samphire).  Groups of glistening, jointed stems pushed up from the mud, their multiple branches resembling miniature versions of the giant cacti often seen in Western Movies.  Each stem was also dotted with particles that resembled grains of sand but in fact were tiny yellow flowers.

There was quite a bit of woody, reedy debris on the beach although very little plastic at this time of year.  I found a suitable log and sat down to have my sandwiches.  Boats puttered across the river between Starcross and Exmouth and a few seabirds moved about the mud.  Then suddenly, as if from nowhere, a cloud of small grey birds appeared above the bay.  There were perhaps as many as two hundred, moving as a group backwards and forwards above the water but continually changing formation, the outer members of the group visibly accelerating before a turn.  It felt like a deliberate performance and, as they banked and changed direction, the sun caught their wings transforming them momentarily into mobile shards of silver.  Suddenly it was all over and without warning they landed on the beach to my right, disappearing from view as they merged with the mud.  Some passing birders told me they were mostly dunlin with a few sanderling.

After lunch I pressed on past the inner bay to the fist-shaped end of the sand spit, Warren Point, that nearly reaches the east bank of the Exe at Exmouth, but doesn’t quite make it.  This part of the peninsula is fringed by sloping sandy beaches and marram grass-coated dunes but the central area is quite different.  Here the land is covered with rough grass and vast mats of the tiny succulent, white stonecrop, a mass of white flowers six weeks ago but now just fleshy green growth.  The dry sandy ground also supports unruly clumps of brambles and many shafts of evening primrose topped with yellow flowers.  Large blue-green dragonflies swooped backwards and forwards in search of prey.

I have to admit that my visit to this part of Warren Point was not entirely unprompted.  Before I left, I had read about a very rare flower appearing here and, as I passed the information centre, I asked for guidance as to where they might be found.  I followed the directions and on a small rise surrounded by rough brambles I found them, several clumps of brilliant white flowers above thick strap-like leaves.  These are sea daffodils, found all around the Mediterranean often on sandy beaches but very rare in this country.  There are only three sites where these plants flower in the UK and Dawlish Warren is one.

In groups, the flowers look very spiky and disorganised but closer examination reveals the true beauty of the blooms.   Each flower has a very large white corona, trumpet-like with a deeply serrated edge, containing six prominent yellow pollen-loaded stamens around a long white style.  Behind the corona are six narrow sepals arranged symmetrically like a white star.   As I stood examining the flowers a light breeze wafted their sweet fragrance up to me.  I was so entranced that I failed to notice a rabbit hole and nearly fell over; it’s not called Dawlish Warren for nothing.

Sea daffodils clearly do resemble the flowers that are such potent symbols of spring in this country, but it is the late summer flowering of the sea daffodil that is so disconcerting.  They are also plants of very hot climates.  The Dawlish Warren specimens failed to flower last year and there has been some speculation that with this year’s long, hot, dry summer the plants felt more at home.

 

 

Evening primrose at Dawlish Warren
evening primrose

 

Meadowsweet and purple loosestrife at Dawlish Warren
meadowsweet and purple loosestrife among the long thick rushy grass

 

Water mint at Dawlish Warren
water mint with common carder bee

 

Solitary bee on fleabane at Dawlish Warren
fleabane with solitary bee (possibly silvery leaf-cutter bee)

 

Marsh helleborine at Dawlish Warren
marsh helleborine

 

Autumn lady's tresses at Dawlish Warren
autumn lady’s tresses

 

Glasswort growing in the inner bay at Dawlish Warren
glasswort (marsh samphire)

 

Sea daffodil with pollinator at Dawlish Warren
sea daffodil with pollinator

 

Solitary bee on sea rocket at Dawlish Warren
solitary bee on sea rocket

 

A thug on the Lamb’s Ears

I walk through our local community garden (The Leechwell Garden) most days in summer just to have a look at the flowers and insects but I know that, if I am there late morning, the sound of children playing will brighten the air.  The older children, sometimes along with mum or dad reliving their youth, will be enjoying the fine new play area with its exciting slide.  The younger ones may be messing about on the watery edge of the stream that passes through the garden but it is the sand pit that really hits the spot.   Children love playing in the sand and I often see several family groups clustered about the sand pit; the only thing that seems to deter the children is heavy rain.  It’s a real tribute to the vision of the garden committee that they created something so popular.

Pair of wool carder bees
Male (left) and female wool-carder bees having a rest. One leaf has been well “carded”.

 

The flowers I come to see are across the other side of the garden and, for the past few weeks, I have been loitering near the old stone wall where there’s a large patch of the plant Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina).  It covers the ground with a jumble of silvery-green, velvety leaves and sends up stout, silvery stems bearing clutches of smaller leaves and understated pink-purple flowers.  It’s a pleasant, restful sort of plant creating an old-style, cottage garden feeling but what goes on around these Lamb’s Ears in midsummer is far from restful.

From the middle of June, a dark, chunky bee can be seen patrolling the patch of silvery-green leaves and I spend more time than I should watching him.  Whereas most bees are gentle creatures keeping themselves to themselves, this one is a bit of a thug, oozing anger and aggression.  He is the male wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), mostly black but with yellow markings along the sides of his abdomen, head and legs, reminiscent of the warpaint worn by native American tribes.  He is about the same length as a honeybee but much broader making him quite imposing as he moves quickly about the patch of Lamb’s Ear.  His movement is distinctive, he hovers then moves rapidly to a new spot, hovers, moves, all the time buzzing noisily.  It feels like he is looking for something.  And that’s exactly what he is doing, looking.  Should he spot another male wool-carder bee or a different insect on his patch, he will chase it away by flying directly at it.  I have seen him attack a bumblebee at least twice his size and knock it to the ground.  But, not only is he aggressive, he is armed; the rear of his abdomen sports five stout spines which he will use to injure or kill the intruding insects and there are reports of male wool-carder bees disabling honeybees who dared to feed from their patch.

All this aggressive energy is directed towards protecting the patch of Lamb’s Ear for himself and his harem, for now and then a female wool-carder bee will appear.  She looks very like the male, only a bit smaller; the wool-carder bee is one of the only species in this country where the male bee is larger than the female.  When the male sees her feeding from the flowers he will pounce and, without any preliminaries, mating will ensue. This is a vigorous but brief activity sometimes causing the flower stem to vibrate before the two disengage and go about their business again.  Unlike most solitary bees, where females mate once, wool-carder females undergo multiple matings so that, after a short time, our male will mate with the same female again and should a different female appear he will attempt to mate with her.  One valiant observer went to the trouble of watching an individual male wool-carder in his garden and reported that the bee mated sixteen times in one day.

This focus on the aggressive behaviour of the male wool-carder bee tends to obscure the fact that it is the female that does all the hard work of nest building and egg laying.  The wool-carder bee is a solitary species so that individual mated females build their nests alone, unlike the more familiar social honeybees and bumblebees.  Nesting occurs in preformed aerial cavities in dead wood, in walls or in hollow stems, including the tubes found in bee hotels.  Once she has identified a suitable site, the female strips or “cards” woolly fibrous material from plant leaves with her mandibles (hence the name wool-carder) and takes it back to her nest to line and plug the cavity (see the pictures below).  Lamb’s Ear leaves are a popular choice for “carding” but Great Mullein or Yarrow can also be used.  If you look carefully at the leaves of these plants you can sometimes see bare areas where she has been actively collecting fibres.  Within the nest, she lays eggs and equips them with a mixture of nectar and pollen.  The eggs develop in the nest where they stay until new bees emerge next summer and the whole cycle begins again.

So, if you have a patch of Lamb’s Ear in your garden take a look, there’s a good chance that wool-carder bees will be using it and you too can be enthralled by their antics.

Male wool carder bee
Male wool-carder bee – look at his spines.

 

Male wool carder bee in flight
Male wool-carder bee in flight

 

Anthidium manicatum mating pair
Wool-carder bee – mating pair

 

Wool carder bee collecting fibres
Female wool-carder bee collecting fibres

 

Wool carder bee gathering fibres together
Leaning back gathering fibres together

 

Wool carder bee flying off with fibres
Female wool-carder bee in flight with ball of fibres

 

Possible female anthidium
Female wool-carder bee

 

Male wool carder bee showing spines
Male wool-carder bee

 

Bumblebee on Lamb's Ear
A brave bumblebee feeding from the lamb’s ears

 

High on Hardown Hill

It was a luminous spring morning in early May when I trekked up Hardown Hill in west Dorset in the south west of the UK. Hardown rises steeply above Morcombelake and the surrounding countryside affording fine views of the coast and of the Marshwood Vale. Compared with its well-known cousin, Golden Cap, across the valley (see picture above), this flat-topped hill is unjustly ignored but its heathland summit boasts a rich ecology supporting several rare species and, for many years, Hardown Hill was a busy semi-industrial site where building stone was mined.

Heathland track on Hardown Hill small
Heathland track across Hardown Hill

It’s a steep climb to the top of Hardown Hill but finally the stony track flattens out and I enter a heathland landscape, rare in this part of Dorset. The summit is broad and flat and typical low-growing heathland plants such as gorse and several species of heather flourish here on the acid soil. Pale sandy tracks cut swathes across the heath but, even on a sunny morning in springtime, the feeling is sombre, dominated by dark browns and greens. A few mature birch trees and a small copse of pine trees provide relief and I come across a pond surrounded by tall clumps of pale, dried grass and a struggling sallow. This heath habitat is also the home of rare nightjars, sand lizards and Dartford warblers.

Standing on the Hardown summit is an elemental experience. Today, a moderate wind blows from the west, rising and falling like the sound of surf on the strand. The heath vegetation rustles and fidgets in response, accompanied by skylarks trilling high overhead. I watch a spirited storm tracking across Lyme Bay and prepare to shelter but, in the end, it mostly avoids the land leaving the sun to return. All of this is overlaid on the southern side by the ebb and flow of traffic noise from the busy A35 some distance below.

The heath may look uninviting and barren, but this is springtime and there are many signs of renewal. A few clumps of yellow gorse stand out above fresh grey-green growth and heathers push feathery green and red shoots upwards. Submerged in the thick heath vegetation are the small bright blue and white flowers of heath milkwort piercing the darkness like stars in the night sky. In the past, the flowers were thought to resemble small udders and this may account for the plant’s name as well as its administration to nursing mothers by medieval herbalists. Along path edges on the northern side of the heath, I find several generous clumps of a shrub with pale fleshy leaves, green with a tinge of pink. This is bilberry, covered at this time of year with delicate, almost transparent, pale red, lantern-shaped flowers looking out of place in this harsh environment but proving popular with bumblebees and hoverflies. Late summer will see the plants covered with succulent black fruits.

I encounter only one other person on the heath but it hasn’t always been such a quiet place. From medieval times, Hardown Hill would have resounded to the clash of picks and shovels wielded by men mining the landscape for building materials. Beneath the thin layer of soil that covers the summit, there are layers of clay and a yellow/brown sandy material containing substantial lumps of flint-like, hard rock, the chert cobs. A mixture of clay, stone and sand was taken for road construction and the chert cobs were used for building. Mining occurred on the southern slopes of the Hill, either in open pits or in adits (mine shafts) cut into the hillside. Nowadays there are few traces of this busy activity. The mining area has mostly been colonised by rough grass and bracken, brightened today by a haze of bluebells.  One open pit has been preserved near the top of Love’s Lane displaying the layers of rock and the chert cobs. The adits are inaccessible for safety reasons but one serves an important role as a hibernation area for the rare lesser horseshoe bat.

The chert cobs were split using a small hammer on a long handle, the Hardown hammer. Cobs were held on an iron bar with three claws and covered in damp hessian to protect the eyes of workmen who also wore wire goggles. Split cobs were used to provide a tough outer surface, silvery-blue or yellowish, on domestic and farm buildings around the Marshwood Vale. Good examples of the use of Hardown chert can also be found on the 14th century abandoned chapel at Stanton St Gabriel beneath Golden Cap and on the tiny 19th century church at Catherston Leweston.

But it is to the height of Hardown Hill that I want to return. Its prominence above the surrounding countryside gives spectacular views with new perspectives on some of west Dorset’s notable landmarks. Looking southwards, we see Golden Cap and the darkly-wooded Langdon Hill rising steeply across the valley with a backdrop of the waters of Lyme Bay (see picture at the top of this post). Towards the east, Portland floats unsettlingly as if cast adrift. To the north, especially from Hardown’s rough grassy flanks, we look across the patchwork of fields and the ring of hills that make up the Marshwood Vale with the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum cradled in its green embrace. New perspectives challenge us to think differently and the relative isolation of Hardown fosters quiet contemplation away from the cares of everyday life.

Perhaps that’s what Thomas Hardy meant when he wrote in his poem “Wessex Heights”:
“There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, ………….”

Marshwood Vale and the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum, from Hardown Hill
Marshwood Vale and Whitchurch Canonicorum from Hardown Hill

 

Bilberry on Hardown Hill
Bilberry on Hardown Hill

 

Heath Milkwort on Hardown Hill
Heath Milkwort on Hardown Hill

 

Orange-tailed mining bee (A. haemorrhoa)
Orange-tailed mining bee (A. haemorrhoa) on Hardown Hill

 

Exposed chert on Hardwon Hill
Exposed chert seam on Hardown Hill

 

Hardown Chert on Catherston Leweston Church
Hardown Chert on Catherston Leweston Church

This piece was originally publsihed in the July 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Nurdle hunting in west Dorset

Charmouth Beach
Charmouth beaching looking towards Golden Cap

 

You may have never knowingly encountered a nurdle but these small plastic pellets are the raw material of the plastics industry and are ferried around the world in their millions.  About the size of a small pea, nurdles come in many colours and they’re finding their way on to our beaches, killing wildlife and polluting the environment.  I wanted to find out more about these unwelcome intruders, so I joined a nurdle hunt organised by the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.

Hunting for nurdles 2
Nurdle hunters getting down to work.

 

Charmouth beach was surprisingly busy that morning but it was half term and, for mid-February, quite warm in the low sunshine.  Many people were walking by the sea, taking advantage of the mild weather, perhaps hoping to find a fossil, but an expectant crowd had also gathered by the steps to the Heritage Coast Centre.  At precisely midday, Sophie Thomas, one of the Centre wardens, walked down the steps together with local volunteer Eden Thomson and gathered us together.   Sophie began by explaining what nurdles were and how they washed up on the beach from the sea.  She emphasised the dangers these plastic pellets pose to wildlife such as birds and fish who mistake them for food.  Each of us was given a pair of disposable gloves, to guard against toxic chemicals contained in the nurdles, and an empty margarine pot for nurdle collecting.  Then off we went, about thirty of us, to hunt among debris washed up on the west bank of the river Char between the two beach car parks.

And what a fine sight we were! Young and old, locals and visitors, families and children, sitting or lying on the ground, enthusiastically scouring the debris for the plastic pellets.  It was a fascinating event, although we did get some funny looks.  Everyone found pellets in large numbers, not just on the surface but also buried a few centimetres down showing how pervasive they are.  Some were smooth, grey and cylindrical and a few were lentil shaped, white, yellow or green.  The vast majority, however, were bright blue cylindrical pellets, about 5mm in size, with fine ridges. The grand total for the group was 6650 pellets collected in 90 mins from this small section of beach, highlighting the extent of the contamination.

What do we know about nurdles and how they get into the sea to wash up on our beaches? These small plastic pellets are made from oil or natural gas to provide an easily transportable raw material for use in plastics factories all around the world.  Most of the plastic products that now dominate our lives are made from nurdles and huge numbers of the pellets are transported by ship, so there is always the potential for spills.  In October 2017, two containers of nurdles fell from a ship in the port of Durban leading to massive nurdle pollution along more than 1000km of beaches.    Closer to home, the storm-damaged container ship, Napoli was beached off Branscombe early in 2007 leading to hundreds of containers breaking free.  Two containers were filled with nurdles which washed up along many local beaches. These environmental disasters have been likened to oil spills, only worse as the nurdles do not break down.

Nurdles can also end up in the sea through careless handling at plastics factories.  The environmental charity, Surfers Against Sewage, visited several plastics companies in Cornwall and found nurdles littered around the sites.  These will inevitably be blown or washed into drains and into the sea.  Another kind of plastic pellet, wrinkly or ridged, has been found in large numbers on beaches in Cornwall by Rame Peninsula Beach Care.  These are biobeads, easily confused with nurdles but with a completely different purpose.  Some sewage works use biobeads as part of the wastewater treatment process and the pellets get into the sea through careless handling by water companies.

Why should we be concerned about nurdles and biobeads?  They are a totally unnecessary form of pollution in our seas and on our beaches and their presence shows a lack of respect for the environment.  They are now found all over the world wherever the sea meets the land: on beaches in industrialised countries or on isolated, sparsely populated islands.   Not only do they pollute our beaches, they are eaten by seabirds and fish who mistake them for food.  Once consumed, they block the digestive tract, lodge in the windpipe or fill the stomach leading to malnutrition and starvation.   For example, analysis of dead puffins on the Isle of May in Scotland, home to one of the UK’s largest breeding populations of these birds, showed they had consumed nurdles alongside their usual diet of sand eels.

Nurdles are also a source of toxic chemicals that may exacerbate their physical effects.  Freshly spilt nurdles may release chemicals such as plasticisers used in their manufacture.  Nurdles that have been in the sea longer attract toxic chemicals such as PCBs and DDTs.  These substances may have a toxic effect on seabirds and fish that consume them and have unknown effects on humans who encounter them on beaches.

What can we do about the nurdle problem? Industry needs to improve handling procedures and make sure nurdle spills are cleared completely.  Operation Clean Sweep is a plastics industry programme aimed at eliminating pellet losses but, as yet, it is only voluntary. In the longer term, we need to reduce our dependence on plastics, especially single use plastics.

Nurdle hunting can also help by raising awareness and by reducing pellet numbers in the environment.  As Sophie Thomas said to me “A nurdle collected is a nurdle out of the sea”.  Occasionally, it may be possible to infer the source of pellets based on their appearance and properties.  For example, the pellets found at Charmouth are unusual compared to those I have seen on other beaches.  Although some at Charmouth are true nurdles, the majority are the bright blue cylindrical type with fine ridges, more typical of a biobead.  If these are indeed biobeads, how are they getting on to Charmouth beach?

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

It was also a pleasure to meet Sarah West and her husband John that day.  Sarah is a blogging friend and she and John had also joined the nurdle hunt.  Sarah writes the blog “Down by the Sea” and has recently been heavily involved in organising the Bridport Green Fortnight.

Hunting for nurdles
Nurdle hunters at work

 

A nurdle collected is a nurdle out of the sea
Nurdle hunter at work
One happy nurdle hunter
A happy hunter with her hoard

 

One hunter's haul
One hunter’s findings. Note the majority are bright blue with fine ridges

 

I returned to Charmouth Beach on May 1st and picked up these in about five minutes on the east side of the river Char. The bright blue pellets predominate as before, note the fine ridges characteristic of biobeads. The grey pellets are mostly smooth, characteristic of a pre-production plastic pellet or nurdle. The lentil-shaped, pale pellets are also nurdles, commonly referred to as “mermaids tears”; they acquire colour if they stay in the sea a long time. The yellow and the one pale blue pellet are nurdles

 

 

Bumblebee on veronica
Couldn’t resist including this picture of a foraging bumblebee on a veronica bush near the car park.

 

An amazing natural phenomenon goes unnoticed

Brixham view

After so many cool, damp and grey days, spring arrived in a rush in the third week of April. Temperatures soared by nearly ten degrees and the sun shone strongly from a virtually cloud-free sky, filling the air with an unexpected brightness, at least for a few days. The sudden change in the weather demanded that I get outside so I drove the short distance to the fishing port of Brixham, parking on the clifftop road on the eastern edge of the town. A steep stone stairway took me down the hillside past curious, deserted, rectangular buildings and wide sweeps of concrete enclosed by thick scrub echoing with birdsong. These are remnants of the Brixham Battery, built in 1940 to guard Torbay against a German invasion, now Grade 2 listed and an informal, unplanned nature reserve. Dandelions and cowslips were dotted about grassy areas and fleshy-leaved green alkanet with its grey-blue flowers provided a contrasting colour. The stairway continued downwards among trees until I was just above the sea where I joined the coast path.

This section of the coast path is enclosed by low scrub and, at this time of year, blackthorn dominates, its branches covered with a snow of small flowers, creating a curtain of white with occasional glimpses of the blue sea. In the bright sunshine, the delicate white petals were almost transparent below a confused mass of yellow-tipped stamens. Eventually, this enclosed path gave on to an open, grassy area roughly the size of a football pitch, overlooking the water of Torbay and backed by thick trees creating a sense of seclusion. Wooden benches positioned along the sea side were popular, occupied by people wearing sun hats and enjoying the spectacular view.  The full panorama of Torbay was spread out ahead like an enticing display in a travel brochure: the red cliffs, the white seafront buildings, the pine trees, the big wheel and, in the foreground, the Brixham breakwater with its white lighthouse. The sea was a bright, slightly greenish blue textured with patches of silvery sheen  and pleasure boats shuttled across the water to and from Torquay.  It was a holiday scene and felt almost Mediterranean.

Amongst all this human activity, no one seemed to be paying any attention to the many mini-volcanoes of crumbly soil partly concealed beneath the rough grass or to the many bees moving about the area just above the grass. Everywhere I looked there were bees flying about, backwards and forwards, swinging from side to side, as if they were trying to find something; a few were walking about on the red soil. There must have been thousands of bees, an amazing natural phenomenon and very exciting to watch. When I looked carefully, I saw that they were mostly black but with distinctive bands of pale hair. These are Ashy Mining Bees (Andrena cineraria), one of our more common solitary bees, and the soil volcanoes in the ground are their nests.

While I was taking in the scene, a couple arrived, both carrying plastic bags. He was in his sixties with long white hair roughly corralled into a pony tail. She was in her late fifties with copious dark hair. They threw down a blanket into the middle of the grassy area, stripped down to their underwear, cracked open some cans and proceeded to sunbathe. Like the other people, they didn’t notice the bees swirling about the grass around them and I wondered how they might react if they encountered the insects. Luckily for them, only the females of these kinds of mining bees possess a sting and they use it only when threatened.

I wanted to take some photos of the bees but, wishing to avoid any misunderstandings as I waved my camera about, I moved to the other end of the grassy area, passing a small turf-roofed building that used to contain the searchlight for the wartime Battery. I found an unoccupied bench, sat down, and providing I was still, the bees resumed their incessant movement around me. The bench turned out to be a front-row seat as, on several occasions, I saw one bee rush at another and the two struggled for a while on the ground. Two or three others tried to join in and it all got a bit confused and messy for a while. Eventually, however, only two were left coupled together, end to end. They stayed like this for a few minutes before separating and flying off. I presumed they were mating but it seemed rather sedate compared to the frantic copulatory behaviour of some solitary bees.

Photographing the flying bees is difficult, but for the short time they were occupied in mating they were relatively still, making it easier. My photographs showed that the honeybee-sized females have shiny black abdomens with a blue sheen in some lights. Two thick, furry bands of grey-white hair line the front and back of the thorax and the face is white-haired with black antennae. The slimmer and smaller males also have black abdomens but differ from the females in having white hairs on the sides of the thorax and thick tufts of white hair on the face. With their pale hairs and contrasting dark abdomens, Ashy Mining Bees are one of the most distinctive and beautiful species of mining bee in the UK.

Despite all this excitement on the ground, I kept an occasional watch on the sea and got quite excited when I saw a shiny black head emerge from the water. This was one of the local colony of grey seals swimming towards Fishcombe Cove. The water was so clear and calm that the seal’s huge body was clearly visible as it passed.

When I had finished, I walked back past the lush banks of three cornered leek that grow along the low cliff edge. I saw male Ashy Mining bees nectaring from the delicate white-belled flowers. Further on, I stopped to look at the blackthorn flowers. Here there were more Ashy Mining Bees foraging together with one very different bee with a shock of orange-brown hair on the thorax and a largely black abdomen tipped with orange-red hair. I later identified this as an Orange-tailed Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa). With all this insect interest, there should be a good crop of sloes on the blackthorn here in the autumn.

If you are interested to learn more about these wonderful bees, here are three more descriptions:

https://standingoutinmyfield.wordpress.com/2018/04/25/a-nesting-aggregation-of-ashy-mining-bees/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/14/mining-bees-create-theatre-enchantments-shropshire

https://beesinafrenchgarden.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/under-the-plum-tree-again/

 

Soil mini-volcanoes
soil volcanoes

 

Female Ashy Mining Bee
Female Ashy Mining Bee showing thick bands of white hair

 

Male Ashy Mining Bee
Male Ashy Mining Bee showing thick tuft of white facial hair

 

Brixham view. 2jpg
The grassy area showing the “searchlight building” and the breakwater and lighthouse

 

Ashy Mining Bees mating
Mating bees with extra hopefuls

 

Ashy Mining Bees mating 3
Mating pair

 

Seal
grey seal

 

bee 2
orange-tailed mining bee on blackthorn