Tag Archives: Bird’s Foot Trefoil

West Dorset surprises

The minor road that climbs past the Spyway Inn near Askerswell was quiet that day, a welcome relief from the seemingly endless traffic clogging the A35.  Eventually, though, Eggardon Hill came into view, the road levelled out and our attention was captured by the stunning panorama laid out to the west.  Below, the land unfolded in a mosaic of fields, trees and hedges with different colours and textures, backed by the hills of west Dorset rising mysteriously in the slight haze that softened the air.  To the south west, the sea and the familiar ups and downs of the Jurassic Coast completed the image.  [The picture at the top of this post shows the view in a slightly spread out panoramic form] We drove on and, just before the road dipped under the old railway bridge, turned into the car park at the Powerstock Common Nature Reserve.

Trees surrounded the car park and bright early June sunshine filtered through the leaf cover casting dappled light across the parking area.  Birdsong echoed around us and the rippling sound of running water emerged from the nearby woodland.  Common vetch scrambled through the fences along the car park edge and its purplish-pink pea-type flowers were proving popular with plump, furry, pale brown bumblebees.

We set out along the woodland path taking a right fork to stay on the northern edge of the reserve.  The track felt enclosed but wildflowers grew along the margins including the inconspicuous bright blue speedwell and the purplish-blue spikes of bugle.  In time, the woodland melted away leaving the path to run between broad sloping banks topped by trees and scrub.  This is the Witherstone cutting, once the path of the Bridport branch railway as it ran between Powerstock and Toller stations.

The old railway cutting

This branch Line opened in 1857 linking Bridport to Maiden Newton and the main line.   The coming of the railway to West Dorset revolutionised social and commercial life in the area which, at the time, was poorly served by roads.   People could travel more widely and I tried to imagine trains passing through the cutting, drawn in a haze of smoke and noise by the small steam engines of the Great Western Railway.  I pictured people on the trains, travelling for work or for leisure or moving about during the two world wars.  The line was also important for the transport of milk, watercress and the net and twine produced in Bridport.  As motor transport came to dominate, traffic on the railway declined resulting in its closure in 1975.  Although the tracks were lifted, there are still signs of the old railway, notably the rusty fence posts that line the track.   The remains of an old brickworks can also be found in the nearby wood.  This was set up near the railway to take advantage of the clay that remained when the cutting was excavated.

On the day of our visit, the sloping banks on either side of the path were mostly clad in short rough grass although there were some areas of exposed grey soil, perhaps a result of slippage.  The former railway cutting felt very sheltered and the bright yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil grew across the grassy areas.  We also found many small flowers of milkwort, almost hidden in the grass.  Milkwort is a common plant on rough grassland and the flowers exist in several colours.  Pink and purplish-blue flowers grew at Powerstock Common but each flower also had one white petal divided into finger-like lobes giving it a passing resemblance to a miniature cow’s udder.  This may account for the name of the flower and its use in the past for increasing milk production.  We also found one common spotted orchid with beautiful purple markings but more will have appeared, along with many other flowers, as the season advanced.

The abundance of flowers attracted insects and several common blue butterflies flew past or around us displaying their sky-blue upper wings and intricately patterned lower wings.   Two yellow butterflies also passed by, dancing around one another in the air.  I hoped they would land so that I could identify the species but they did not oblige. Bumblebees moved lazily among the flowers but we made our most exciting observation on a slightly raised area of rough grass with some exposed grey soil not far from the main path. 

Here we found bees flying about at high speed, backwards and forwards and from side to side, just above the ground, accompanied by a clearly audible buzz.  There were perhaps a hundred or more of the insects, and with their incessant movement this was an impressive sight.   It was difficult to identify them at first owing to their frantic activity but they were honeybee-sized and I thought I could see shiny black abdomens.  Very occasionally, one would pause to feed from the bird’s foot trefoil revealing a yellow face, a pale brown-haired thorax and two very long antennae, each as long as the rest of their body. Such long antennae, resembling shiny black bootlaces, are seen only on one UK species of bee, the male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis).

The obvious excitement of these male bees arose because they were anticipating the emergence of females and wanted to try to mate.  Indeed, on several occasions some left their frantic flying to coalesce into a small mobile cluster.  Others tried to join in, some left the melee.  This was a mating cluster and formed when a virgin female emerged from her nest chamber.  Many males then pounced upon her hoping to mate but only one was successful.  Once mated, females get on with nest building and laying of eggs to secure the population of next year’s long-horned bees. 

The long-horned bee was once a common sight in May and June across the southern half of the UK, unmistakeable from the long antennae of the males.  Agricultural intensification led to destruction of habitat used by these bees along with a loss of their favoured flowers such as wild vetches and peas.  As a result, the species is now quite rare being restricted to twenty or so UK sites many of which are along the southern coast.  The Powerstock colony is large and seems to be prospering; it was a treat to see it that day. 

Powerstock Common is a rich and varied nature reserve and we glimpsed only a small part during our visit.  Even so, we enjoyed the peace and the floral beauty of the old railway cutting and discovered a fascinating mixture of natural and industrial history. 

At the beginning of July, Natural England announced that the combined land at Powerstock Common and nearby Kingcombe Meadows, both managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, would become a National Nature Reserve recognising the unique character of these west Dorset sites and the rare wildlife they contain. 

Three short videos of the long-horned bees showing their behaviour that day can be seen on my YouTube channel  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvXWn_9QYdx0AU6guJ3iYLA

common vetch
milkwort (pink version) showing white petal
Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) in flight showing his long antennae
Female Eucera longcornis showing her pollen-collecting hairs on her back legs. The female also has antennae of a more conventional length.
mating cluster
mating cluster with male looking on
common spotted orchid

This article appeared in the August 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

A jewel of a bee on a shingle beach

It felt like an unexpected gift, a warm, dry and mostly sunny day after so much dull, wet weather.  I had been feeling very constrained and was determined to get out to enjoy this different day and it looked as though the non-human world felt the same. The wisteria at the front of our house caught the morning sun, wafting its distinctive sweet fragrance on to the air and bees were busily foraging from the greyish-mauve flowers.   Bumblebees, honeybees and two red mason bees (Osmia bicornis males) were among the insects working the blossom.  The Osmia came from one of the nearby bee houses and it was good to see them about after the spell of poor weather.

Hazel had a meeting in Kingsbridge that afternoon, so I dropped her off and took the opportunity to make a quick trip to the coast.  It took me about 20 minutes, passing through several small villages, to reach Torcross and the sea.   The sun shone optimistically as I then began the two and a half mile drive from Torcross along what is known locally as the Slapton Line.  The geography here is very unusual with the road running northwards in a straight line along a narrow bank bordered on both sides by water.  On one side of the road a shingle beach slopes down to the sea and on the inland side a narrow area of rough grass and vegetation separates the road from an extensive lagoon, Slapton Ley.   The situation of the road makes it very vulnerable to storms, high tides and rising sea levels and, in 2018 it had to be closed and rebuilt after damage by Storm Emma.

That day, though, the sea was calm, a deep blue shading to a darker steely blue.  Sunlight sparkled on the surface of the lagoon and generous clumps of thrift decorated the edges of the road as if splashed with pink paint.  When the road turned inland to climb away from the water, I located the car park that gives access to the northern part of Slapton Sands, as it is known locally. 

The beach here is a broad flat plateau of fine, pale brown shingle that eventually slopes down to the sea from a low ridge.  The landward side is backed by densely wooded cliffs giving the beach an enclosed feel and providing some shelter from winds.  This can be an elemental place especially when a westerly gale blows and fierce waves attack the beach. That afternoon, though, there was just a light breeze from the west and spells of sunshine warmed the air.  A few clouds were moving about overhead and as they shifted, mobile pools of light and shade tracked across the shingle.  I paused to stand on the beach for a short time and looked across the water towards Start Point and its lighthouse listening to the sound of the water lapping on the beach and the occasional cry of a passing gull.

The islands of vegetation on the shingle beach showing some red valerian. The wooded cliffs at the back of the beach are just visible and the sea is to the right.

Shingle beaches are rare environments and this one is unlike any other I have encountered, not only for its size but for the special selection of plants that grows here.    The section of beach near the land featured many small islands of vegetation, a green archipelago in a sea of pale shingle.  Often, these islands contained a clump of red valerian, a plant introduced into the UK in the 16th century and now widely naturalised in the west.  Each island also contained a variety of other plants including sea campion, bird’s foot trefoil, forget me not and hawksbeard.  One contained a colony of rosy garlic with its charming pale pink flowers, others supported small shrubs.  The red valerian flowers looked very fresh and many were not yet open.  In a few weeks, though, huge numbers will be in flower casting a distinctive reddish-pink sheen across the beach.

Towards the sea, the green flowery islands petered out leaving a sparsely vegetated zone of shingle populated by plants capable of coping with harsher conditions.  Sea spray and some large waves reach this part of the beach and only specially adapted plants can grow here.  These often have leaves with waxy coatings to prevent water loss and long roots to reach fresh water deep below the shingle.  Sea kale is one of these and imposing clumps of this plant grew towards the shingle ridge.  The clumps were several feet across with fleshy, dark green, cabbage-type leaves tinged with pink, and overlaid with copious sprays of white flowers.  Sea kale is an impressively architectural plant that dominates this part of the beach and perhaps it encourages people to build the beach sculptures with flat stones that I saw nearby.

Rosettes of furry, pale grey-green leaves were also emerging from the shingle in this zone.  These are from yellow-horned poppy, yet to flower.  Later in the year, these plants will light up the beach with their papery, lemon-yellow flowers and enormously long scimitar-shaped seed pods.  Also struggling through the shingle were many long ropes of a plant with fleshy, green, spade-shaped leaves arranged geometrically around a central stem with a slight helical twist.  This is sea spurge another of the plants that frequents these salty, harsh environments.  It has very unusual flowers (see pictures below).

I spent the rest of the time wandering about the beach looking at the flowers, hoping I might see some interesting insects given all the floral resource about.   I concentrated on the bird’s foot trefoil, a bee-favourite that grew well in several of the island clumps.  A few bumblebees were foraging from these bright yellow cushiony flowers and then suddenly another very different bee appeared, feeding from the bird’s foot trefoil, moving purposefully from flower to flower. It was quite small, about two thirds the size of a honeybee and a striking ruby red colour with prominent golden bands of hair around and across its abdomen (see picture at the head of this post and below). 

I had seen several of these insects here two years ago; they are gold-fringed mason bees (Osmia aurulenta) and this one was a female.  Not only are they very beautiful insects with their sparkling, jewel-like colouration but their life cycle sets them apart as they are one of the three UK bee species that nests in empty snail shells.  The female constructs cells within the abandoned snail shell using leaf mastic and provisions each cell with pollen and nectar before laying one egg.  Even more bizarrely, they decorate the outside of the filled shell with more leaf mastic.   Vegetated shingle is one of their favoured habitats and there were empty snail shells scattered sparsely across the beach.  Try as I might, though, I have yet to find one of these insects working on a snail shell!

I visited Slapton Sands on May 19th on a warm dry day but on May 20th, the cold, wet weather returned. After a week, however, something meteorological shifted and, thankfully, summer finally arrived. Many female red mason bees are now busily building nests in the bee houses.

Red valerian in one of the islands of vegetation showing the reddish-pink flowers
Bird’s foot trefoil growing on the shingle
Rosy garlic flowers growing in one of the islands pof vegetation
Sea Kale growing on the harsher part of the shingle beach
Sea spurge showing the rope-like stems and the unusual flowers. The flowers have no petals or sepals but are held in a cup formed from two bracts. The pale green tri-symmetric structure contains one small female flower. The yellow discs are glands that secrete nectar to attract insects and near the glands are several small yellow spherical stamens containing pollen.
A gold-fringed mason bee on bird’s foot trefoil

Rewilding a flower-rich meadow – Lockdown Nature WalkS 9

Flower-rich hay meadows were once a major feature of our countryside but from the mid-20th century onwards a tidal wave of agricultural intensification swept across farmland taking away 97% of the hay meadows along with the colourful flowers that once grew there.  Together with increased use of chemicals and pesticides, the effect on wildlife has been devastating with farmland birds such as the linnet and the yellowhammer declining by more than 50% since the 1970s.  It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, when Hazel recently returned from one of her solo walks to tell me she had discovered a flowery meadow on the outskirts of the town with many interesting insects.  So, for my ninth Lockdown Nature Walk I want to take you to this hidden, rather magical place. (For my previous Lockdown Nature Walks, click here).

Our starting point is Harper’s Hill, the old road to Plymouth and the West (see Lockdown Nature Walk 7), that heads steeply upwards away from the town and the main Kingsbridge road.  The walk I shall describe was done on an overcast morning in mid-July. 

After crossing the busy Kingsbridge road, we trudged slowly up the steep hill, soon entering the tree-enclosed part of the track that felt dark, damp and cool that morning.  As we passed a small open area on the right of the track, though, the sun broke through the cloud for a short time, illuminating a large patch of brambles.  Many small brown butterflies flitted about the flowers in the warm sunshine together with bumblebees and one beautiful demoiselle. 

In time, the lane levelled out and along the damp, shaded banks on the left were several patches of an unusual plant with large elongated heart-shaped leaves and bright red candle-shaped flowers.  This is red bistort, probably a garden escapee as my wildflower books don’t consider it suitable to include.  Several black and yellow wasps were nectaring from the flowers that morning.

Red bistort with nectaring wasp

At Tristford Cross, we turned right along the old road above Broomborough Down.  As befits a ridgeway road, there were fine views across countryside towards Dartmoor, and this part of the walk felt bright, breezy and fresh, a perfect antidote to the gloomy national news.  Although the verges were dominated by thuggish swathes of nettles, there were plenty of other flowers.  Common red soldier beetles, popularly referred to as hogweed bonking beetles, were performing on the white, tea plate-sized flowers of their favoured plant whilst honeybees wallowed in frothy, creamy clumps of meadowsweet.

Hogweed with mating pair of common red soldier beetles (Rhagonycha fulva)

We soon reached a clutch of caravans and outbuildings by the roadside, marking the start of a stony track descending downhill, away from the ridgeway road.  The man who lives here keeps chickens and cultivates vegetables and below his neat and tidy settlement there was a large stand of brambles with several white butterflies feeding. 

This stony track is a continuation of Jackman’s Lane (another section was featured in Lockdown Nature Walk 7), a typical green lane with woodland on the left and high Devon hedges on the right.  When I walked here about two weeks previously, the hogweed had just come into flower attracting many black and yellow long-horned beetles.  Since then the vegetation had increased making the lane feel more enclosed.  The hogweed was also past its best but wasps, hoverflies and more soldier beetles were enjoying what remained of the flowers. 

Despite the increased vegetation and the variable cloud cover, plenty of light reached the lane but this changed when tall trees began to enclose the track.  Some way into this darker section we passed an enclosed compound on the right-hand side of the lane, surrounded by sturdy metal fences; this is the Permaculture Centre based around an old concrete water reservoir. 

Hazel carried on down Jackman’s Lane for a longer walk while I located a makeshift path through the line of trees away from the lane, just beyond the Permaculture Centre.  This path is like a portal between two worlds and it transported me from a mostly monochrome green lane into an open grassy meadow set on a steeply sloping hillside and full of colourful flowers and insects.   A bench has been installed at the top of the hill so that people can sit and enjoy the meadow and the views across the town of Totnes and to the hills of Dartmoor.  Follaton Oak, a recent housing development,  lies at the bottom of the meadow.

View from the meadow to the recent housing development and beyond to the Follaton Arboretum and the town of Totnes

I walked slowly downhill, passing a copious clump of brambles where a few bumblebees were feeding from the pinkish flowers.  At first, yellow was the dominant flower colour in the meadow with large amounts of bird’s foot trefoil growing across most of the area.  Although bird’s foot trefoil grows widely in the UK, I don’t remember having seen so much of the plant growing in one place. There were also some yellow heads of a dandelion-family flower bobbing in the breeze (cat’s ear or hawkbit perhaps); a few clumps of thick rushy grass suggested underlying dampness.  Purple began to compete with yellow further down the slope where large stands of thistle and knapweed flourished.  White clover dominated some areas. 

A section of the meadow with bird’s foot trefoil and knapweed

Now and then, the sun broke through the cloud and the mosaic of meadow flowers sparkled in the bright sunlight as though many small, coloured lights had suddenly been switched on. With all these flowers, I expected to find many insects and I wasn’t disappointed.  Red-tailed bumblebees fed from the knapweed and thistles, and crickets and grasshoppers scattered in sudden leaps to avoid me as I walked. The stars of the insect show were, however, the distinctive black and red burnet moths (Zygaena).   These medium-sized, day-flying moths have a wingspan of about 3cm and are unmistakeable.  With their shiny black forewings decorated with red spots, they look as though they have put on smart black jackets with bright red buttons.   Their black, club-shaped antennae are another notable feature. (See pictures at the end of this post)

I came across the burnet moths all over the site, often when they were feeding on knapweed or thistles and occasionally on bird’s foot trefoil.  From my photos and counting the spots on their forewings, they seem to be a mixture of five-spot and six-spot burnets.  When they find a good flower to feed from, they stay there for some time but I did see a few flying about the site.  They fly slowly, almost hovering, exposing their black abdomen and bright red hind wings.  The selection of flowers here is ideal for these moths: bird’s foot trefoil is the preferred food plant of the caterpillar and knapweed and thistles are liked by the adults for nectaring.

The burnet moths were not having it all to themselves, though, as there were butterflies enjoying the meadow as well. A tortoiseshell and a ringlet were flying and on two occasions an orange-brown small skipper butterfly and a burnet moth quietly coexisted on the same knapweed flower head (see picture at the top of this post). 

This is an extensive area of meadow grassland on this hillside above the recent Follaton Oak housing development and I was intrigued to know how it came to be here. The original proposal for the development shows pictures of the area as rough pasture before it was developed but indicates that it should become “ecological grassland”, as it clearly has. The proposal also suggests the planting of fruit trees on the site and there are several apple trees now bearing fruit. 

I wanted to know how the site was maintained so I spoke to Carol Owen of the Follaton Oak Residents Group.  She told me that the meadow is being left to be as wild as possible, mowed and cleared just twice each year.  Docks are becoming rather too prevalent so the residents try to cut these where possible. For the most part, though, no additional seeding had taken place so the many flowers we see now are those that have grown naturally.  Insects have colonised the area showing how easy it can be to achieve a form of rewilding.  The result is this wonderful natural area on the edge of the town.  

From the meadow, there is a precipitous stony path descending between the houses with some good stands of ragwort growing nearby.  Go straight ahead from here to access a path leading to the Follaton Arboretum or walk along the roads between the houses to reach the Plymouth Road for a return to the town centre.

Six-spot burnet moth ( Zygaena filipendulae) feeding on bird’s foot trefoil, note the proboscis probing the flower

Five-spot burnet moth (Zygaena trifoli or lonicerae) feeding on knapweed
Six-spot burnet moth in flight
Meadow grasshopper (Chorthippus parallelus)
Based on its long antennae this is a bush cricket but from the photo, I cant tie this down to a species.
Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus)

Magical midsummer meadows

Last summer, on one of the hottest days of the year, I joined a walk led by Nick Gray of the Dorset Wildlife Trust through some traditionally managed meadows in Dorset’s Marshwood Vale. We found fields filled with lush grasses, colourful wild flowers and a profusion of insects. This outpouring of joyous, exuberant growth seemed to embody the essence of high summer and the walk turned out to be one of my wildlife highlights of 2018.

Marshwood meadow 2
Lush grasses in the meadow

 

We started from Babers Farm below the village of Marshwood and, after a short walk across several fields clad only in a veneer of golden stubble, we crossed a field boundary to enter another world. Here a thick carpet of knee-high grasses dominated the sward, still green despite the long spell of hot weather. Richly coloured flowers were woven into the grassy fabric and many small brown butterflies danced among the seed heads. A transient flash of orange was probably a silver-washed fritillary butterfly. Grasshoppers leapt from the grass in broad arcs as we walked and brightly coloured insects fed from the flowers. As I looked up at the bowl of hills surrounding the Vale, a kestrel, pale brown in this brash light, swept silently across the field. It was the perfect summer moment.

Perhaps it was a reaction to all the doom and gloom I had been hearing about our treatment of the environment and the resulting loss of wildlife? Perhaps it was a deeply buried childhood memory of family picnics among flowers on Dorset hills? Perhaps it was simply all the natural beauty around me? Whatever the reason, it felt, for a few moments, as though this was the only place in the world I wanted to be.

These meadows are managed under a higher-level stewardship scheme which pays for the loss of income incurred through traditional, less intensive land cultivation. The meadow flowers and grasses grow during the warmth and wet of spring and summer and hay is cut and removed in mid-July when flowers have mostly set seed. The aftermath growth is grazed by animals in the autumn after which the land is left until the following spring. It was the last day of June when we visited and high summer sees these meadows liberally studded with the flattened white umbels of corky-fruited water dropwort, a member of the carrot family and a Dorset speciality but rare elsewhere. The flowers were very popular with insects, especially hoverflies which buzzed loudly in small groups while hovering by the flowers in a courtship display. A female would sit on a flower head while a male hovered above her; sometimes another male would hover above the first in a “stack”.

The bright yellow slipper-like flowers of bird’s foot trefoil were also very common in the meadows, sometimes growing so prolifically that the flowers merged into drifts of sunny colour. This is such a common flower that we tend to overlook it but perhaps its very familiarity leads to the many popular names attached to the plant such as eggs and bacon, hen and chickens or granny’s toenails. Nick also told us that the plant may have useful anti-worming properties if consumed by sheep.

Dotted around the meadows, sometimes in large clumps, were the unruly purple flowers of knapweed. These are popular with nectaring insects and I saw a colourful burnet moth and several marbled white butterflies. Knapweed is also one of the plants with the popular name of Bachelor’s Buttons and Nick told us how, in the past, young women played a love-divination game with the flower heads. A young woman wanting to know if her affections would be returned took a knapweed flower head and plucked off the open florets. She placed the flower head inside her blouse and if, after an hour, new florets had opened, then her love would be reciprocated.

Here is the story told by John Clare in his poem “May” from the Shepherd’s Calendar:

They pull the little blossom threads
From out the knapweeds button heads
And put the husk wi many a smile
In their white bosoms for awhile
Who if they guess aright the swain
That loves sweet fancys trys to gain
Tis said that ere its lain an hour
Twill blossom wi a second flower
And from her white breasts hankerchief
Bloom as they ne’er had lost a leaf

A short walk across open countryside took us southwards towards the centre of the Vale, where we found another large traditionally managed meadow. As before, a rich mixture of thick grasses and colourful flowers dominated but I was surprised to find drifts of yellow rattle and a few orchids, looking rather the worse for wear. I began to realise that each meadow has its own character, its own flora, its own colours reflecting the underlying geology and dampness.

Several recent studies have highlighted the decline of insect and bird life in the UK. Factors contributing to this decline include climate change, habitat loss, pollution and pesticide use. For example, the 97% loss of flower-rich hay meadows in the UK during the 20th century linked to agricultural intensification must have seriously affected insect populations as well as birds dependent on insects for food. Some have gone so far as to suggest that unless we modify farming methods, we shall face “Insect Armageddon”. This needs to be taken seriously owing to the important role insects play in, for example, maintaining soil health, digesting waste and pollinating our fruit and flowers.

The meadows that I visited last summer in the Marshwood Vale send a positive message showing that, with careful management, these important habitats can be restored to their former glory, supporting insects and providing food for birds. In more good news, the Magical Marshwood Vale Project (funded by National Grid and coordinated by Dorset AONB and Dorset Wildlife Trust) started in 2018 with the aim of enhancing traditional landscape features and helping to reinstate ecologically important wildlife habitats. This includes the restoration of more wildflower meadows.

I should like to thank Nick Gray for his advice and enthusiasm.

Black and yellow long-horn beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort, The beetle has lost nearly all of one antenna.
Black and yellow long-horn beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort, The beetle has lost nearly all of one antenna.

 

Swollen thighed beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort
Swollen thighed beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort

 

Birds foot trefoil
Bird’s foot trefoil (with a green insect on the upper right hand side of the picture)

 

Marbled white butterfly on knapweed
Marbled white butterfly on knapweed

 

Burnet moth on knapweed
Burnet moth on knapweed

 

Meadow Grasshopper
Meadow Grasshopper

 

This article appeared in the January 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Europe’s answer to the tropical rain forest

Back in June, I went on a walk across some flower-rich chalk grassland in west Dorset (a county in the south west of the UK).  The article below describes the walk  and was published in the September edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.  It is a very “Dorset” article and some readers may not be familiar with a few of the allusions.  So, the Cerne Giant (or the Rude Man of Cerne) is a massive figure carved in the grass upon a chalk hillside above the village of Cerne Abbas.  Gabriel Oak is a sheep farmer who features strongly in Thomas Hardy’s novel “Far from the Madding Crowd”, immortalised, for me, in the 1967 film starring Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.  Gabriel Oak keeps his sheep on a chalk grassland hillside.  A “coombe” is a local name for a valley.

 

Wild Thyme
Some of the species found on the chalk grassland including wild thyme (purple), black medic (yellow) and salad burnet (dry brown).

 

Chalk grassland with its colourful wildflowers and multitude of insects was once a common sight in a Dorset summer.  It is the landscape defended by the Cerne Giant and where, in Far from the Madding Crowd, we first meet sheep farmer Gabriel Oak.  In the 20th century, however, much of Dorset’s chalk grassland disappeared following changes in farming practice, although small areas survived, usually where ploughing was too difficult.  So, when I heard about the visit to Higher Coombe, an area of chalk grassland above Litton Cheney, as part of the South Dorset Ridgeway Festival of Discovery, I jumped at the chance to see this ancient landscape and its exuberant floral displays.

We gathered near the entrance to Coombe Farm just off the busy A35.  Despite this being only a few days away from the summer solstice, the sky was overcast and a cold, blustery wind cut across the ridge sending many of us to grab warmer clothing.   The coombe fell away to the south, a deep gash in the chalk with precipitous grassy sides and extra folds and creases giving the landscape the look of a rumpled duvet.  A farm track clung to the eastern side of the coombe and higher up, near Coombe Coppice, sheep dotted the hillside.  Beyond the coombe, occasional shafts of sunlight illuminated the Bride Valley and its patchwork of green fields.  The sea should have been visible but a distant mist had taken its place.

Local expert Nick Gray, from the Dorset Wildlife Trust, was our guide for the afternoon. He began by shepherding us through a farm gate on to the western slope of Higher Coombe to follow a rough contour along the hillside.  Walking was difficult, there was no distinct path in the long, thick grass and the steepness of the hillside made it awkward to pause to observe.  But there was plenty to see: architectural clumps of thistles with their purple mop heads, many different species of grasses and, where the turf became shorter, a mosaic of colourful wild flowers lighting up the hillside.  My attention was drawn by the violet-purple splashes of wild thyme with its distinctive tubular flowers but Nick made sure we also noticed the tiny white trumpet flowers of squinancywort with their delicate pink stripes.   The buttery yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil were also scattered about the hillside together with frothy lemon-yellow clumps of lady’s bedstraw and the delicate golden globes of black medic.  A few lilac-mauve discs of scabious and pink-purple pyramidal orchids added to the display.  These were just a few of the diverse plants growing here and it has been estimated that chalk grassland can support up to 40 different species of flowering plant per square metre.  It is one of Europe’s most diverse habitats, the European equivalent of the tropical rain forest.

So, why is chalk grassland such a rich habitat?  The soil that covers the underlying chalk hills is a great influence, as Nick explained to us. Thin, lime rich and nutrient poor, it holds little water especially on steep slopes and dries out quickly in the summer.  These stressed conditions mean that lush grasses cannot dominate and a wide range of chalk loving species can flourish.  Good management with controlled grazing is also essential to keep the turf short, stop scrub developing and at the same time allow chalk grassland plants to grow.  The land on both sides of Higher Coombe is managed through a stewardship agreement with the farmer whereby, for about six months each year, grazing animals are excluded on one side.  When grazing stops, the grassland explodes into flower and this year the western side is getting its chance.  Next summer it will be the turn of the eastern side which will be ablaze with orchids.

With this profusion of flowers, I had expected to see many invertebrates but, that afternoon, there were very few flying.  Bees in particular were scarce and we saw only two bumblebees all afternoon.  Perhaps the cool air, the lack of sunshine and the encroaching sea mist were restricting their activity?  We came across two large golden-ringed dragonflies resting among the vegetation on the hillside, unable to fly in these weather conditions. This did, however, give us the chance to examine these normally mobile creatures with their striking yellow bands on a black background.  Later on, as we walked through another field on the eastern side of the coombe, we disturbed many small butterflies which seemed to be sheltering in the long grass.  In part compensation for the lack of flying insects, there were some beautiful bee orchids and common spotted orchids on this second chalk hillside.

But should we care about the decline of this special and once common habitat?  The loss of wild flowers will certainly have affected the beauty of our countryside, as well as contributing to the well-documented decline in insects and farmland birds.  There is also evidence that florally-rich chalk grassland provides healthier forage for grazing animals as compared to contemporary feeding on heavily fertilised rye grass.  Perhaps, had we been aware of the importance of the chalk grassland landscape, we might have valued it more?

If you want to see some of the remaining pockets of this special landscape then try Eggardon Hill or Maiden Castle or the Cerne and Sydling Downs or, further afield, visit Ballard Down in the Purbecks or Hambledon Hill and Hod Hill north of Blandford.  Chalk grassland is glorious at any time of year but the best time for flowers is from spring until early autumn.

Nick Gray talks to the group on Higher Coombe
Nick Gray talks to the group on Higher Coombe with the Bride Valley in the distance.

 

Wild Thyme
wild thyme

 

Squinancywort
squinancywort

 

Bird's Foot Trefoil
One flower and three seed heads of bird’s foot trefoil. The shape of the seed heads is responsible for the “bird’s foot” part of the name and also  for one of the plant’s local names, granny’s toenails.

 

Pyramidal orchid
pyramidal orchid

 

Golden-ringed dragonfly
golden-ringed dragonfly

 

Bee orchid
bee orchid

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