Short Form Nature Writing

Above Totnes, south Devon, January 2021

A bitterly cold wind blows from the west along the old ridgeway road.   To the north, the land falls away to a deep valley, a patchwork of fields, farms and woodland. The edge of Totnes lies to the east some 100 metres below.  It feels very exposed here and curious things are happening in the air above the valley as fragments of rainbow form and fade repeatedly like memories of past events attempting to replay.  These transient hints of colour really do feel spectral but, in reality, they are the result of a significant meteorological battle.  Thick grey cloud tries to dominate, even partly obscuring the hills of Dartmoor in the distance. Occasionally, though, the sun gets the upper hand, breaking through the cloud and transiently painting fields in the valley a luminous yellow-green.  Barely visible, mobile swirls of mizzle are also about, waiting to separate the sunlight into its constituent colours. 

Until the Turnpike was built in the valley below, this ridgeway road was the main route from Totnes to Plymouth and the west. Nowadays, it is very quiet and, in spring, colourful wild flowers decorate its roadside banks.   Even in mid-winter, I find a drift of fleshy heart-shaped green leaves with the occasional spike of shaggy white and mauve flowers pushing through.  This is winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), introduced into gardens in the early 19th century, loved by some for its almond-scented flowers, hated by others for its invasive nature.  Further along, a single chunky flowerhead, rather like a large bottle brush shows above the rough grass along with one round leaf. This is butterbur (Petasites hybridus), emerging very early, and I notice multiple pink and white florets covering the flowerhead.   

Winter heliotrope and butterbur are members of the same botanical family, Petasites, named after the Greek word petasos for a wide brimmed felt hat, a tribute to their large leaves.  Later in the year, butterbur leaves can grow up to a metre across and, in the days before refrigeration, were used to wrap butter, hence the name. 

A passing shower arrives from the west reminding me of the other use of mature butterbur leaves as impromptu umbrellas.

Fishchowter’s Lane, Totnes, south Devon, February 2021

After climbing steeply across a rising hillside, the lane levels out.  I stop to catch my breath and take in the views across Totnes towards the Dartmoor hills.  In spring and summer, this part of Fishchowter’s Lane is light and airy, its high hedges richly embroidered with wild flowers.  Today, though, the ground is frozen hard.  A bitter easterly wind cuts across and the plants growing along the banks look damaged.  Foxgloves and wall pennywort show this most with their leaves drooping uncharacteristically, probably a consequence of the persistent cold winds we have experienced recently.

The lane soon merges with a well-used farm track, scarred with deep muddy ruts glinting with shards of ice.  This is another mass of growth in the warmer seasons abounding with flowers and insects but today it looks apocalyptic.  The farmer has decided to rein in the vegetation, flailing the hedge and the plants growing there, spreading the cuttings across the high banks that line the lane.  An unsightly brown layer of coarse fragments of wood and leaves covers both sides smothering any new growth.    I don’t hang around here, there is nothing to see, the wind is bitter and a little snow is now falling.   At a four-way junction, I walk on to the minor road to descend across Totnes Down Hill. 

All this destruction, unavoidable or unnecessary, was dispiriting but there were reasons to be cheerful.  Earlier, as I walked along the lower, sheltered part of the lane, pointed leaves like small spears were pushing a few centimetres upwards through the hard soil.  Breaking a piece of leaf released a sharp oniony smell transporting me forwards to a time when these starry-flowered ramsons will capture the edges of the track, a time that may perhaps make this lockdown easier to bear. 

Also, as I walked downhill, I encountered a splash of snowdrops by the road and paused to admire the delicate green markings on the flowers.  A great tit sang a joyful “teacher, teacher” from a nearby tree, and a robin materialised not wishing to be left out and began to speak to me.

The Leechwell Garden, Totnes, south Devon, March 2021

The beautiful beetle basked on an ivy leaf in a shaft of sunshine as if to say “look at me!”  It was an impressive, otherworldly creature, about 2.5cm long, with a small head, square thorax, a large plump abdomen and prominent antennae.  Its rudimentary wing cases were too small to cover the abdomen, rather like a portly Victorian gentleman unable to secure his jacket. I found a second similar insect on another leaf nearby.   In the sunshine, both insects sparkled a striking iridescent dark blue and I recognised them as oil beetles. Their antennae were slightly kinked, characteristic of females, and local expert, John Walters confirmed that these were violet oil beetles (Meloe violaceus).  These rare insects have not been reported here before and finding two was very surprising.

Oil beetles have one of the most bizarre life cycles of all insects, one that is inextricably intertwined with the lives of solitary bees.  Each spring, mated female oil beetles dig shallow burrows in soil where they lay eggs in large numbers.  The eggs develop and the louse-like, early-stage larvae, called triungulins, eventually leave the burrow and look for flowers. They climb up the stems and wait in the flower for a passing solitary bee.  When an unsuspecting bee arrives seeking forage, the triungulin clambers on board and hitches a ride to the bee’s nest where it feeds on the pollen and nectar left by the bee for its own offspring.  After passing through several developmental stages, a new oil beetle emerges the following spring.

With such a complex life cycle, it’s surprising that oil beetles manage to survive, but the discovery last year of a fossilised triungulin attached to a primitive bee trapped in 99-million-year-old amber shows how enduring this mechanism is.  Oil beetles have, though, declined dramatically in the UK mainly owing to a reduction in the numbers of solitary bees. Urbanisation and intensification of agriculture have been the main drivers.    At least in this location there is some hope as about five metres away from the oil beetles that morning in a grassy bank was a very active colony of solitary mining bees (Andrena flavipes).

Peartree Point, south Devon September 2021

A grassy apron of land slopes towards the shore and overlooks a jumble of dark rocks emerging from the dark blue water.  I position myself on a flattish rock at the back of the apron and scan the rocks through my binoculars.  The tide is still quite high and four seals are hauled out across the rocks.  These are very large mature animals, pale brown in this light and well clad with blubber.  Mostly they lie still or lift a flipper languidly but occasionally they vocalise their wailing, mournful song that never fails to raise the hairs on the back of my neck.  There are more seals in the water between the rocks, swimming skilfully, playing, squabbling, visible when they snort and come up for air or when a long dark body tantalises just below the surface.   As the tide falls, more haul out, dragging themselves on to the rocks using their front flippers.   

It’s Saturday afternoon and there are a few walkers passing through on the coast path. Nobody has a neutral reaction when they notice the seals and I hear exclamations of “wow” and “look at those”.  Some sit quietly, others have to get closer and even clamber on to the rocks forcing one seal to flop into the water.  Then I notice a snorkeller swimming in seal waters and they seem to be approaching the animals.  The seals have noticed and swim to investigate and for a short time humans and seals are very close to one another.  We are urged locally to keep well away from these wild creatures to avoid disturbing them, so this doesn’t look wise.   

Why are humans drawn to seals like this?    Is it the ability of seals to slip easily between two worlds, on land and in the water, seen and largely unseen, that fascinates?  Is it the “zoo” effect where people imagine that large wild creatures are there for our entertainment? Or is it urge of humans to dominate the non-human world rather than respecting it, an urge that has led to the demise of so many species and now threatens the future of our planet?

Roundham Head, Paignton, south Devon.  October 2021

For a few weeks in early autumn, the banks of ivy lining the cliff edge conceal their sinister, dark green personality under a joyous cloak of pale green flower globes brimming with nectar and yellow pollen.   The flowers also broadcast a sickly-sweet perfume that greets me as I walk across the headland.  I find the smell cloying but insects love it and the spherical flower heads are a picture of continuous activity.  Many small bees, ivy bees, move edgily from flower to flower and the clump resonates with a clearly audible buzz.  There’s a mixture of smart, slim males and chunkier females, each with a russet furred-thorax and black and yellow-hooped abdomen. The males sample nectar and sometimes stop in the sunshine to preen.  The females gather chrome-yellow pollen in lumps on their back legs. 

Across the headland on its southern side, a path descends to Goodrington beach.  More flowering ivy grows here with many ivy bees feeding.  Some forsake the ivy to sample the small greenish-white flowers on an adjacent clump of maidenhair vine.   Near the flowers, just above the promenade, is a low soil bank about ten metres long, clad in rough grass.   This is the ivy bee nest area peppered with pencil-sized holes and red soil spill.  Females arrive regularly, circling briefly above the grass before entering their nests carrying nectar and pollen to nourish their larvae to ensure next year’s bees.

The ivy bee is the last solitary bee to emerge each year, timing its appearance with the flowering of the ivy.  This year sees the 20th anniversary of the arrival of ivy bees on the south coast and since then. they have successfully colonised much of England and Wales.  Part of their success must depend on a lack of parasites but they do face other threats.  A large pale brown spider has built a web, a net of fine filigree, across the branches of the maidenhair vine.  The proud engineer sits in the centre displaying an ivy bee wrapped in silk like a precious gift but still recognisable by its yellow and black hoops.

River Dart, Totnes Weir, south Devon January 2022

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

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

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

Totnes, July 2022

There’s a path I often take on my way into town.   It runs between the backs of two rows of houses and is probably an ancient right of way.  Much of the path is lined by old stone walls, softened in summer with the pinks and purples of valerian and campanula. Walking along here one early June morning, I was surprised to find a dense mass of flower spikes, some up to a metre tall, rising from a bank usually covered in rough grass.  Whorls of purplish red flowers decorated with white art deco-style patterns grew around each stem above heart-shaped leaves, toothed and pale green, nettle-like but without the sting.  This is hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica).  To some, it’s an invasive weed but to me it’s a beautiful wild flower, attractive to insects and with interesting medicinal properties.

Small bumblebees were drinking nectar from the flowers in their lazily laconic manner, pushing their tongue between the three-lobed lower lip and the curving upper lip, acquiring an involuntary dusting of pollen from the hidden stamens.   Hedge woundwort is, though, a particular favourite of another smaller bee species, one with a very different personality.   One of these was moving edgily from flower to flower stopping very briefly to feed, emitting a distinctive high-pitched buzz as it went.  It was about half the size of a honeybee, a non-descript brown except for some orange hairs on the tail and a golden pollen brush on the back legs.  This was a female fork-tailed flower bee (Anthophora furcata).  While she was feeding, another small bee arrived at high speed, a similar brown colour but with prominent yellow hairs on the face.   This was the male fork-tailed flower bee; he hovered briefly behind the female buzzing loudly before pouncing. Both bees ended up falling to the ground. 

Hedge woundwort and the closely related marsh woundwort have a long history of use in folk medicine for wound healing. The 16th century surgeon Gerard once witnessed a man cut himself badly with a scythe.  Gerard offered help but the man refused and poulticed the injury himself with woundwort, stopping the bleeding; his wound healed in a few days.  Gerard went on to use the plant in his own practice but, his professional pride piqued by the man’s rejection, christened it “clown’s woundwort”.  

Totnes, August 2022

During the hot weather in the first few weeks of August, we took to sitting in the shade by our pond with our mid-morning coffee.  Butterflies, bees and hoverflies passed by, sometimes stopping on nearby flowers, but the main attraction was a large clump of lavender.  With its many purple flowers and grey green foliage, it lent a sweet scent to the air as it cascaded down a rough stone wall by the path and was thronged with medium sized bumblebees.  The heat seemed to stimulate them and they moved continuously from flower to flower, stopping only briefly to feed.  Each time they moved to a new flower head the stem dipped as it took their weight only to spring back as it adjusted.  Sometimes the light reflected off their wings like glittering fragments of glass.  With all this activity, the lavender clump appeared to be alive.

In the middle of the day, up to ten bumblebees could be seen moving about the lavender clump at any one time and with their black, yellow and white striped furry bodies they looked superficially to be of the same species, probably buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris).  Photographs supported this identification and examination of their back legs showed they were males.  These male buff-tailed bumblebees will have emerged from a nest that reached maturity during the summer and males, once out of the nest, cannot return and spend their time searching for virgin queens and feeding.  Dave Goulson has likened the gangs of male bumblebees drinking nectar on flowers such as lavender to groups of men propping up the bar in a pub. 

I wondered what they did at night and one evening I walked past the lavender and found three immobile male bumblebees attached upside down to flower heads.  This was their roost and one of more was there roosting on many subsequent evenings.  Male bumblebees have a short life, a few weeks, and by the third week of August numbers had dropped and those that were still about looked rather sluggish.  Small brown Common Carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) began to take over the clump but that was also beginning to show signs of age.

Totnes, September 2022

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

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

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

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

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