ShortForm 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).

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