Category Archives: Uncategorized

Death and destruction at Dawlish Warren

As we stepped off the train at Dawlish Warren station, we had our first glimpse of the river Exe, its waters a sparkling pale blue in the bright sunshine.  The weather was a welcome change after so many cold and snowy days but, during our short journey from Totnes, we had passed bright ridges of snow still piled against field hedges and, in low lying places, large lakes of standing water from snow melt.  Perhaps the weather was giving us a gentle reminder of its power to disrupt life.

We hadn’t intended to visit Dawlish Warren again so soon (see here for a description of our previous visit) but we wanted to get out for a walk and, hearing that some country roads were still snow-blocked, we chose somewhere easily accessible.  We also wondered how the recent extreme weather might have affected this beautiful sand spit.

The view from the promenade quickly told us part of the answer.  Sand was piled up on the retaining wall that slopes to the beach and, along the promenade, some of the benches were partly submerged in sand as if caught by a pale brown snow storm.  On the beach, huge quantities of wooden debris lay in random heaps, along with some very large plastic items; it will be a mammoth task to clear this.  A closer look showed that the debris was a mixture of wood and reeds along with bits and pieces of plastic and many industrial plastic pellets (mostly grey nurdles).  I don’t want to go on too much about these industrial pellets, I’ve written about them several times already, but we found them littering all the beaches at the Warren to a greater or lesser extent.  Near the promenade there must have been thousands.

As we were picking up a few of the pellets, a woman asked Hazel what she was doing.  After an explanation, the woman said:

“I thought you were picking up driftwood,” and after Hazel had shown her some pellets the woman continued “still they might be very nice for decorating a mirror.”


We then walked around the Dawlish Warren sand spit following the route I outlined in a previous post, which also gives some background information about this nature reserve.

The central area of the Warren was partially flooded but still passable.  No spring flowers were to be seen yet but small birds were performing florid mating displays while a group of black corvids sat judgementally in a nearby tree.  Vegetation along paths over the dunes was seemingly spray-painted with a coat of rough sand, probably a result of the blizzard sucking up material from the beach.   Near the bird hide, I disturbed a large flock of Brent geese feeding on the golf course.  These imposing birds took off as a group and circled low over us before moving to a quieter spot.

Warren Point at the end of the sand spit was as mysterious and beautiful as always, its pale marram grass covering glowing in the sunshine. A small flock of linnets, the males with their pink bibs standing out, fidgeted in the branches of a low bush.   A skylark rose from the ground, wings flapping frantically as it hovered in mid-air, singing, turning a tune over and over, changing it each time.  Then, without warning, it stopped flapping and deftly descended back to the ground with subtle, steadying wing movements.

The story on the beaches bordering Warren Point was less uplifting.  There was a slew of debris along the strandline, mostly wood and reeds but also many dead birds. We saw at least twenty casualties, mostly lapwings, identified by their largely black colouring combined with russet brown and white undersides.  During the storm there had been a mass movement of these birds across the Warren and a proportion didn’t survive.  We also saw one or two golden plovers with their exquisite pale brown and white herringbone patterns.  On the beach facing up the Exe, the low sand cliffs at the back of the beach had been damaged by high water and when we rounded the point to walk back, there were more signs of storm damage.  Areas of marram grass had been torn out and reddish soil had been deposited on the edge of the remaining marram grass.

The most significant damage, however, had occurred to the taller sand cliffs that abut the groynes on the sea-facing beach.  Sand had been washed away from the back of the groynes and several metres of sand cliff removed exposing, in some places, the old sea defences.  Some of the new fences built on the reinforced dune ridge had been torn out and now lay on the ground in casual heaps or hanging in mid-air, still partly attached.  The groynes themselves seemed to be intact but plastic notices attached to them lay in pieces among the other debris.  In a powerful demonstration of the scale of the storm and the water level reached, small pieces of wood and more plastic pellets lay along the wooden planks of the groynes and on top of the main support posts nearly a metre above the sand.

Despite all this, the Warren itself is intact and ready for the bloom of spring flowers. The scale of the damage to the new sea defences was shocking and a salutary reminder of the power of the sea, but at least the defences did hold.  Elsewhere in south Devon, the coast road linking Torcross and Slapton was almost completely washed away.  As in 2014, when the Dawlish railway line was destroyed, this year’s damage was the result of a combination of high winds and very high tides, perhaps combined with increased sea level.

As we waited at the station for our homeward train, I noticed willow trees by the platform with many plump, pussy willow catkins.  A medium sized buff-tailed bumblebee arrived to collect pollen from the lemon-yellow male flowers.

We visited Dawlish Warren on March 6th 2018

Debris on Dawlish Warren Beach
Sand heaped on the retaining wall and debris piled on the beach at Dawlish Warren


Debris on Dawlish Warren Beach close up
Some plastic debris on Dawlish Warren Beach


Plastic pellets Dawlish Warren
A selection of plastic pellets found on Dawlish Warren Beach. If you enlarge this picture and look around you will see several clear plastic nurdles, several yellow ones and many cylindrical pellets (grey, pale blue and white). Also a few biobeads noted for the fine ridges around the outside. The larger plastic balls are not nurdles or biobeads.


Brent Geese take flight at Dawlish Warren
Brent Geese take flight above the inner bay at Dawlish Warren (photo by Hazel Strange)



Dead lapwings at Dawlish Warren
Several dead lapwings
Damaged sand cliffs at Dawlish Warren
Damaged dune cliffs and fences


Debris on groyne post at Dawlish Warren
Debris on top of groyne post


Dune fences destroyed at Dawlish Warren
Damaged dune cliffs and fences


The elemental and the mysterious at Dawlish Warren

I wasn’t sure what to expect today. Major engineering work had been carried out at Dawlish Warren over the past year to stabilise the beaches and dunes and this was our first visit since the project had been completed. I hoped the area hadn’t been changed too much as it’s a special place.

Dawlish Warren is a massive sand spit that extends north-eastwards for about 2km across the mouth of the River Exe from its western bank. It reaches out like a giant hand towards the town of Exmouth but fails to make contact, leaving a narrow channel where tides and the waters of the Exe flow in vast amounts each day. The sand spit is about 500m wide but incomplete; a huge bite has been taken out of the inner side creating the inland bay, leaving the tip of the spit, Warren Point, attached by a thin strip of dunes. Some of the recent stabilisation work was aimed at strengthening this dune strip against future increases in sea level. Much of the Warren is now a nature reserve with several rare habitats including vegetated dunes, mud flats and salt marsh and has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Aerial view of the Dawlish Warren sand spit, showing the inner bay and the dune strip connecting to Warren Point, also the proximity to Exmouth at the top. (from the Exeter Daily)

The Warren was once used for breeding rabbits for food, hence the name, but with the arrival of the railway, it became a popular holiday resort. It now also has a golf course, fun fair, shops, cafes and a pub although these are concentrated at the western end and do not detract appreciably from the nature reserve.

Despite heavy overnight rain, the day was dry, and warm for the time of year (11 degrees) but feeling cooler in the stiff sea breeze. Layers of dark cloud dominated the sky but occasional linear shafts of sunlight broke through towards the steel-grey sea. There were clear views from the promenade along the outer sea-facing beach with its many groynes and across the water to Orcombe point, the start of the East Devon/Dorset Jurassic Coast.

We left the promenade via a boardwalk descending to the central, low-lying part of the reserve, once a tidal lake but long since filled in. Today the area was puddle-strewn and barren; later in the year, it will be a colourful mosaic of wild flowers. A large pond with wildfowl lay behind a tree screen where an exquisitely pink male bullfinch showed for a while. On the water, two swans performed like synchronised swimmers.

A sandy track led us up to the marram grass-fringed path along the crest of the outer dunes with views over the golf course and inner bay to the north and across the outer sandy beach and sea to the south. A large flock of Brent Geese were feeding on one of the greens, no doubt to the irritation of the golfers. Dropping down to the inner bay we walked along the stony foreshore, finding it littered with large amounts of debris, mostly wood and reeds but also industrial pellets and shards of plastic.

On one side of the inner bay there is a large bird hide that looks across mud flats and salt marsh at low tide. Huge numbers of waders can be seen here. Yellow gorse sparkled near the hide together with several small stands of flowering ragwort; fuzzy, lime green lichen coated some bushes. From the hide, we watched ghostly black cormorants on a mud bank spreading their wings to dry and saw hundreds of oystercatchers huddled together, the colours of their plumage merging into discrete layers of black and white. A little egret flew across displaying its yellow feet and a curlew probed the mud with its long curving beak.

From the inner bay we accessed Warren Point and the soft sandy beach that leads around the tip of the sand spit. At the back of the beach there were dunes clad with marram grass, a subtle mixture of green and yellowish-brown spikes. This part of the Warren is both strangely beautiful and unsettling and as we circled the Point, we were conscious of the vast amounts of water passing at the foot of the sloping beach and the apparent proximity of Exmouth just across this turbulent channel. Again, there were huge amounts of debris on the beach, wood and reeds predominantly but mixed with plastic including more industrial pellets. On the inner beach, we also saw as many as eight green tennis balls, many plastic bottles, several golf tees and many fresh green leaves. I presume this waste had come down the Exe propelled by the heavy rain that had fallen inland over the past few days. Once we had rounded the Point and started walking back along the outer beach, the nature of the debris changed and we saw mainly plastic rope and twine, probably fishing-related.

By now it was mid-afternoon and the low tide gave us the chance to walk below the end of the newly reinstated groynes that stalk, triffid-like, across the wide sandy beach. The sea was calm but the gentle waves were enough to satisfy a lone, silhouetted surfer. Then, for a few minutes, the low sun broke through the layers of grey cloud, casting an intense yellow light across the dunes at the back of the beach, creating a mysterious, unnatural landscape where, surrounded by pink sand, the marram grass had turned to gold. At the same time, the western view was filled with an intense white light, bleaching grey out of the cloud and sprinkling silver across the sea.

Eventually, we reached the commercial part of the Warren where the mystery might have ended, but there was one final treat in store: a queen buff-tailed bumblebee as large as my thumb, collecting pollen from purple Hebe, presumably to stock her nest.

My concerns about the effects of the engineering work turned out to be mostly unfounded. Only one part of the Warren is visibly different, the narrow dune strip which is now topped with bare sand. The area has, however, been planted with marram grass which will take over in time. Overall, Dawlish Warren remains a special, elemental place.

The featured image shows the outer beach and groynes viewed from the dune strip, with, in the distance, Orcombe Point and the start of the East Devon/Dorset Jurassic Coast .

We visited Dawlish Warren on January 22nd 2018.

The sun breaks through
Shafts of sunlight breaking through


Dawlish Warren, the sandy dune track
The sandy dune path with views over the golf course


Cormorants on mud bank, river Exe
Cormorants on mud bank, river Exe – with friend


Oystercatchers on mud bank, river Exe
Oystercatchers on mud bank, river Exe


Debris by Warren Point
Debris on the sandy beach approaching Warren Point with dunes and marram grass to the right and Exmouth ahead


Debris by river Exe 2
beach debris


Debris by river Exe
beach debris with several industrial pellets


Warren Point and river Exe looking to Exmouth
Looking across the channel to Exmouth from Warren Point. The sand bears the marks of strong currents from the morning’s high tide combined with excess flow of water down the Exe


The sun turns the marram grass to gold
The sun turns the marram grass to gold


The sun breaks through - view to the west
The sun breaks through – bleaching grey out of the cloud and sprinkling silver across the sea


Queen buff-tailed bumblebee on shrubby purple hebe


A country walk, a clean beach and the fallacy of perpetual growth

The Christmas weather in south Devon was stormy and very wet so when we woke on December 27th to bright sunshine and clear, pale blue skies we had to get out for a walk.   We chose one combining countryside and sea, one we often walk after heavy rain as it mostly follows minor roads or paved paths.

We started at Townstal, a suburb on the edge of Dartmouth.  Townstal is noted for its leisure centre and two supermarkets but it does provide easy parking and quick access to open countryside.  Our route headed gradually southwards towards the sea along narrow roads edged by high grassy banks.   Volleys of gulls and crows rose from adjacent fields and the low sunshine created strongly contrasting areas of light and dark on the deep valleys and rolling countryside, emphasising even the slightest undulation.

Some steep ups and downs took us to Venn Cross where we turned to descend along the Blackpool Valley with its spirited stream, growing ever fuller as it gathered water from springs or from the sodden fields.  This part of the walk is tree lined and the minor road is cut into the hillside well above the stream.  Several former water mills are dotted along the valley; they are now rather grand private houses but one has installed a turbine to harness the power of the water once again.

Old Mill in the Blackpool Valley
Blackpool Mill, one of the old mills found along the Blackpool Valley. This hidden valley has changed very little over the years. Have a look at the painting below of a nearby farm to see how the area looked nearly a century ago.


Apple Blossom, Riversbridge Farm, Blackpool by Lucien Pissarro, 1921, from Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter


At this time of year, the trees are dark latticeworks of bare branches but pale brown immature catkins were showing well on some of the trees, readying themselves for the spring.  Patches of winter heliotrope spread along verges enclosing the ground with their fleshy, green, heart-shaped leaves.  Purple and white lollipop flowers struck through the leaves, broadcasting their characteristic almond odour.

Catkins and running water in the Blackpool Valley
Catkins above running water in the Blackpool Valley


Winter Heliotrope in the Blackpool Valley
Winter heliotrope in the Blackpool Valley


Eventually, we reached Blackpool Sands, a popular shingle beach and café, surrounded by pine trees and sheltered by steeply rising hills.    The low winter sun created strongly contrasting colours: the yellowish- brown shingle, the fringe of frothy white waves, the sea a rich dark blue tinged with turquoise highlights, and there were clear views across the bay to Start Point with its lighthouse.   Near the café, a hardy group of swimmers were struggling on their wet suits in readiness for a dip.  They passed me as they ventured in to the sea accompanied by audible yelps and shrieks.

View across Start Bay from Blackpool Sands to Start Point
View across Start Bay from Blackpool Sands to Start Point


Swimmers at Blackpool Sands
Swimmers at Blackpool Sands …… with friend.


I was keen to have a look at the shingle beach for two reasons.  There had been a very successful beach clean four days previously organised by Amanda Keetley of Less Plastic.  We hadn’t been able to be there owing to family commitments but there had also been storms since then and I wondered how much more plastic had washed up.  I didn’t find any, the beach was still clean which should have been good news.

To be honest, however, I was feeling disheartened about efforts to reduce the load of plastic in our seas after reading two articles in the Guardian over the Christmas period.  It seems that the US, along with financial support from Saudi Arabia, is planning a huge increase in plastic production, the driver being cheap shale gas.  If we are to reduce the amount of plastic in our seas we need to reduce the amount in circulation and this new plan runs directly counter to this.

Here are links to the two articles:

$180 billion investment in plastic factories feeds global packaging binge

World’s largest plastics plant rings alarm bells on Texas coast

I am not sure how this can be stopped but I am convinced that the drive for perpetual economic growth, espoused thoughtlessly by so many of our politicians, is ultimately very damaging for our planet.

If we love our beaches and our seas, we have to talk about plastic

Towards the end of October, I spent a day at Cogden Beach, just east of Burton Bradstock in west Dorset.   It’s a beautiful, natural spot, a rich concoction of sea, sky and shingle where wildlife prospers despite the sometimes harsh conditions.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult, however, to ignore the scatter of plastic pollution on the beach and the potential effects of this manmade material on marine life.

Cogden Beach looking towards Golden Cap
Looking west along Cogden Beach towards Golden Cap, showing the clumps of sea kale and yellow horned-poppy


It felt unseasonably warm as I walked downhill from the car park, more like a late summer’s day, although the blood-red rose hips and smoky-black sloes decorating the leafless scrub spoke of a different season. The vast shingle bank of Chesil Beach dominated the long view, a yellowish-brown convexity edged with white waves sweeping eastwards towards a mistily mysterious Isle of Portland.  The sea was calm and a steely grey except where the low sun’s rays highlighted individual wavelets whose reflections merged in to a broad, silvery band of light.

When I reached the shingle bank I found traces of the special beach plants that grow so profusely here in spring and summer.  Well weathered, blue-green and brownish-grey leaves were all that remained of the sea kale that dominates in May whereas, beneath the brown remnants of this season’s vegetation, fresh glaucous leaves were showing from the yellow horned-poppies.  Small flocks of starlings skittered about puddles at the back of the beach like children in a school playground and, in a low sandy cliff, I was surprised to find bees busily filling nests.  These were ivy bees (Colletes hederae), the last of our solitary bees to emerge, the females collecting chrome-yellow pollen from nearby clumps of flowering ivy.  To the west, there were spectacular views of Burton Bradstock’s yellow cliffs and the distinctive flat top of Golden Cap.

It seemed like the perfect natural spot.  But was it?  Almost all the clumps of beach plants contained plastic waste including pieces of plastic wrap, colourful plastic rope or plastic fishing line.  On the shingle between the clumps, I saw the occasional plastic drink bottle, some were intact, some in pieces.   The prominent strandline about half way up the beach contained dark, dry seaweed and small pieces of wood mixed liberally with shards of plastic as though objects had shattered in their continual buffeting by the sea.  Plastic drink bottles or their fragments also appeared at regular intervals along the strandline.  This beach is no longer a completely natural, wild place, it has been contaminated by our throwaway plastic culture.   Perhaps the most poignant symbol of this tension was a chunk of expanded polystyrene covered with pale grey goose barnacles.

Plastic is, of course, both versatile and cheap.  It has transformed our lives but its very ubiquity and ease of use means that we don’t value it enough.  Think how much you throw away each week: plastic wrap or bags from supermarket produce, drink containers and lids, plastic trays, pots and so on.  We have embraced a “disposable” lifestyle where about half of the plastic we produce is used once and thrown away.   Some countries manage to recycle or energy-recover a large proportion of their plastic waste but the UK is not one of them.  In this country, more than 60% of plastic waste ends up in landfill where it does not break down and is effectively lost.  We are squandering resources and energy on a massive scale, an appalling indictment of our way of life.

But what about the plastic waste I found on Cogden Beach, how does it get there?  It comes from the sea and is left behind by the retreating tide.  We have turned our oceans into a “plastic soup” composed of plastic bottles and bags, plastic fragments formed by breakdown of these larger items, also microplastics (5 mm or less in size) such as industrial pellets, small fragments and very small fibres from clothing or from car tyres.  This is a huge global problem and shows no sign of abating.  A staggering 12 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. All countries contribute but a large proportion comes from several in the Far East with poor waste management systems.

The consequences for marine wildlife are alarming.  Consider, for example, the Northern Fulmar, a bird that forages exclusively at sea.  A study in the North Atlantic showed that 91% of dead Fulmars found on beaches had plastic in their gut, having mistaken the plastic for food, reducing their ability to feed and sometimes damaging their digestive tract.  At the other end of the food chain, zooplankton have been shown to ingest tiny microplastic fragments that may end up in fish and perhaps in humans.  Plastic fragments also attract toxic chemicals that may affect the creatures consuming them.  Our throwaway lifestyle is disturbing the entire global marine ecosystem. The problem is just as serious as climate change.

What can be done?  First, we must reduce the amount of plastic in circulation by moving away from single-use items such as plastic bottles, takeaway cups, plastic cutlery, plastic wrap and plastic packaging.  The introduction of the 5p charge on plastic bags led to an 85% reduction in use, so a levy on single-use takeaway cups and plastic cutlery may also be effective.    Second, we need to encourage a “circular economy” where as much plastic as possible is recovered and recycled and none goes to landfill.  A deposit return scheme for plastic drink bottles would increase recovery but greater recycling of other plastic containers must also be achieved.   It is encouraging that some government ministers are now talking about the problems of plastic waste, but their words must be translated into actions.

Individual decisions can also bring about change.  We can refuse to use plastic cutlery.  We can choose to drink only from reusable cups.  We can use and reuse our own shopping bag.  We can recycle all plastic bottles and containers. We can pressurise local businesses to reduce plastic waste.  We can participate in beach cleans.  If we love our beaches and our seas we must do this.


Plastic Bottle and Sea Kale, Cogden Beach
Plastic bottle and sea kale on Cogden Beach


Well travelled bottle fragment on Cogden Beach
A well-travelled plastic bottle remnant on Cogden Beach


Bottle and Yellow Horned-Poppy, Cogden Beach
New growth on yellow horned-poppy, with plastic bottle


Plastic on Cogden Beach
Plastic waste on Cogden Beach


Goose Barnacles on expanded polystyrene, Cogden Beach
Goose barnacles on expanded polystyrene


low cliff at Cogden
Low cliffs at Cogden Beach with ivy bee nests


Ivy Bee at Cogden Beach 2
Female Ivy bee (Colletes hederae) returning to her sandy burrow with pollen, at Cogden Beach


This article appeared in the January 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yellow meadow Prawle Devon
The yellow meadow


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Tis merry ov a zummer’s day,

Where vo’k be out a-meaken hay ;

Where men an’ women, in a string,

Do ted or turn the grass, an’ zing,

Wi’ cheemen vaices, merry zongs,

A-tossen o’ their sheenen prongs

Wi’ earms a-zwangen left an’ right,

In colour’d gowns an’ shirtsleeves white

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

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

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

Meadow with orchids 4

Yellow rattle 2
Yellow rattle


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


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


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


Meadow with orchids 7 reduced

Have you seen the bee orchids?

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

Bird's foot trefoil
Bird’s-foot Trefoil


Common vetch
Common vetch


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”

I visited Aller Brook Nature Reserve on May 30th 2017

Common spotted orchid
Cut-leaved cranesbill and common spotted orchid


Bee orchid 1
Bee orchid


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


Bee orchid 3
Bee orchids showing pollinia


Aller Brook
Aller Brook


Toby Carvery Car Park
The car park of the Toby Carvery