Tag Archives: birds

A songbird makes a welcome return

The Cirl Bunting is an attractive songbird once found throughout the southern half of the UK.  Its numbers declined precipitously in the second half of the 20th century following changes in farming practice and, by the late 1980s, it was confined to coastal farmland in south Devon and might have become nationally extinct.  The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) recognised the problem and worked with farmers to support the bird resulting in a dramatic increase in its numbers. In a recent expansion of its range the bird has established itself in East Devon at Stantyway Farm near Otterton having been absent for more than 30 years.  I wanted to find out more so I went to Stantyway to see for myself.

Male cirl bunting (photo generously given by David R White)
Female cirl bunting (photo generously given by David R White)

The Cirl Bunting was first reported in the UK by Montagu in the winter of 1800 near Kingsbridge in south Devon in the west of the country.  It is roughly sparrow-sized and the male, in particular, is very distinctive with its black and yellow striped head and olive-green breast band.  The bird gradually spread across the southern half of the UK, its numbers peaking in the early years of the 20th century.  Since then it has declined and by the late 1980s only 118 pairs remained, confined to coastal farmland between Plymouth and Exeter.

With the Cirl Bunting facing national extinction, the RSPB identified changes in farming practice linked to agricultural intensification as responsible for the precipitous decline.  In the winter, the bird forages for insects and spilt grain in weedy stubble fields.  In the summer, it nests in hedges or scrub and forages on unimproved grassland rich in invertebrates with grasshoppers being important food for chicks.  With agricultural intensification, there was a shift from spring-sown cereals to autumn sowing so that far fewer arable fields were left as winter stubble; grubbing out of hedges took away nest sites and loss of the hay meadows and increased use of pesticides reduced invertebrate numbers and summer food for the bird.

Once the cause of the decline had been identified, the RSPB worked with farmers in south Devon to support the birds by reinstating some traditional agricultural practices, supported by government agrienvironment schemes.  The effect was spectacular and by 2016, numbers of Cirl Buntings had increased to over 1000 pairs. Most of the increase occurred in the bird’s core range but there was some spread along the coast and inland where habitat was suitable.   This was a major conservation success, also benefitting other species.

The coast of south Devon showing the core range of the cirl bunting and the location of Stantyway Farm across the Exe estuary in East Devon (from British Birds).

The bird has a reputation for being sedentary and it had been assumed that the estuary of the river Exe would be a barrier to further eastwards expansion of its range.   So, it was a surprise when, around the end of 2010, a single Cirl Bunting was seen at Stantyway Farm near Otterton in East Devon followed by several more sightings early in 2011.  Since then, the numbers at Stantyway have increased suggesting that the local conditions suit the birds and from 2015 it was clear that a breeding population existed.

Stantyway Farm is owned by Clinton Devon Estates and when the tenant, Mr Williams, retired in 2014, the farm was taken back into Clinton’s own Farm Partnership.   Clinton Devon Estates were keen to support Cirl Buntings and other species on their arable farm at Stantyway so they took advice from the RSPB and applied for agrienvironment support.  This was awarded in 2016 and supports planting hedges to provide more nest sites, leaving wildlife margins around fields to provide invertebrates as summer food, and planting spring cereal crops that are harvested in the autumn leaving weedy winter stubbles with seed as food.  These are all activities shown to be critical in supporting these birds in south Devon.  The farm was also put into organic conversion in 2016; organic farming by its nature supports wildlife and increases invertebrates.  Cirl Bunting numbers at Stantyway gradually increased across this time.

In 2017, Clinton Estates advertised for a new tenant farmer at Stantyway and Sam Walker was appointed.  Although the farm is still mainly arable, Sam keeps 52 cows whose calves are raised and sold on to beef finishers.  About a third of the land is now devoted to grass for silage production for winter animal feed.  Sam has, however, embraced the existing philosophy of the farm in supporting wildlife: he has maintained the organic status and intends to apply for further agrienvironment support when the current scheme runs out in 2021.

I wanted to see the farm for myself so, on a mild early April day, I went to Stantyway.  I left the car on the rough ground across from Stantyway Farmhouse and stood for a few moments enjoying the sunshine.  The air was filled with the endlessly inventive song of the skylark and occasionally a buzzard mewed as it circled lazily overhead.  Sometimes a low buzz cut through all of this and when I looked, I realised this was from all the insects about.

I walked away from the farm along the gentle downhill slope of Stantyway Road with views developing over rolling East Devon countryside on one side and to the hazy mid-blue sea on the other. The lane descended between wide grassy verges backed by luxuriant hedges. Spring flowers grew through the thick grass including stitchwort, celandine, dandelions, violets and white dead nettle.  The dominant flowering plant was, however, alexanders, with its fleshy green stems, copious shiny dark green foliage and pale mop head flowers.  This was proving very popular with many kinds of fly and a selection of solitary mining bees, some collecting large lumps of white pollen on their back legs.

My walk included a long section of the coast path skirting the edge of Stantyway fields.  Thick scrubby hedges, mainly flowering blackthorn, lined the cliff edge along with more alexanders. The occasional hedge break afforded spectacular views along the red cliffs of the Jurassic Coast towards Ladram bay with its crumbling stacks, past the white elegance of Sidmouth and finishing in the chalk of Beer Head (see picture at the top).   Again, there were many solitary mining bees taking advantage of the flowers.    I did not see any Cirl Buntings on my walk but, on two occasions I heard their distinctive, rattling, metallic trill telling me the birds were about.

It’s a beautiful place made all the better by glorious early April weather and I was surprised to see so many insects along the paths.  Perhaps this reflects the methods used at Stantyway, showing that productive farming and wildlife can coexist and prosper. Around the farm, each field gate has an information board giving the crop and some other useful information.  An Honesty Café has been installed near the farmhouse providing continuous hot water for tea or coffee and homemade cakes that I can strongly recommend.  All of this suggests an outward looking, open approach to farming.  When I met Sam Walker, the farmer, he explained that, in addition to the provisions of the agrienvironment scheme, he has put skylark plots in cereal fields, created wild bird seed corridors and put up swift boxes to support wildlife.  I came away feeling that at Stantyway, Cirl Buntings were getting the best support they could.  His methods have already benefitted other farmland birds with numbers of skylarks and reed buntings doubling over the past year and in a further twist to the Cirl Bunting story, some of the birds have now been seen to the east of Sidmouth.

I should like to thank Sam Walker, Doug and Joan Cullen, Kate Ponting and David White for generous help in preparing this article which appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

 

sign
One of the farm gate signs

 

Alexanders and blackthorn
Alexanders (greenish-yellow) and blackthorn (white) along the coast path. The cliff edge is behind the hedge!

 

Solitary mining bee on Blackthorn
A solitary mining bee (probably Andrena flavipes) feeding from blackthorn.

 

Solitary mining bee on Alexanders
A solitary mining bee (probably Andrena nitida) feeding from Alexanders

 

Honesty Cafe
The Honesty Cafe at Stantyway Farm

 

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.

What a difference a storm makes.

Here I am again at Leas Foot Sands near Thurlestone on the South Devon coast, a week after my first visit.  Storm Ophelia passed noisily through the area between the two visits, bringing very high winds and rough seas and I wanted to see how the beach had fared.

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 4
The sand dunes at the back of the beach with some debris

Mist accompanied me for most of the journey down but as I approached the coast, the gloom cleared and there was a hint of brightness in the sky.  To the west, the art deco hotel on Burgh Island glowed in a halo of white light and there was even a little milky sunshine at Thurlestone.  These luminous promises were destined to be unfulfilled as the sky quickly resumed its overcast state leaving the sea a uniform dull grey-blue.  At least it was calm; there was virtually no wind and the waves looked as though they couldn’t be bothered.  Perhaps because of the calm, there were birds about, on the beach and on the cliffs, wagtails, corvids and pipits.  Compared with my visit a week ago, the tide was much lower, exposing a larger area of beach with several concentric arcs of debris and a mass of dark seaweed at the water’s edge.

The beach at Leas Foot Sands is enclosed on either side by moderate red cliffs and backed by scrappy sand dunes that have suffered badly in previous years’ stormy weather.   Today these dunes resembled a piece of conceptual art dedicated to our throwaway culture.  All sorts of debris littered the rising sand:  many small fragments of plastic, wood and seaweed, feathers, plastic containers and many pieces of plastic wrapping. There was even a battered but colourful drink can that seemed to have come from the Far East.    It had obviously been fairly wild when the storm arrived, with high winds and waves reaching right up to the back of the beach; this area had been mostly clean a week ago.

Further down the beach, there were several arcs of debris presumably corresponding to the distance reached by different tides as the storm abated.  These strandlines contained small pieces of seaweed, cuttlefish shells, Portuguese Men O’War looking rather sad and deflated with some in pieces, cotton bud stems, colourful rope and fishing tackle.

One of the arcs of debris in the centre of the beach grabbed my attention.  It contained some of the same stuff but in lower amounts: a few feathers, small dry pieces of wood and seaweed and the occasional shard of plastic.  The big difference was the presence of nurdles, very easy to spot littered among the other debris here.  There must have been several hundred of the small, mostly grey, plastic particles spread across the beach in this arc.

Finally, near the water’s edge, there were substantial amounts of shiny dark brown seaweed partly submerged in the shallow water.  It looked as though this had been newly collected and dumped by the storm.  There was little or no plastic waste in this area.

So, what a difference a storm makes.  I wasn’t surprised to see all the litter at the back of the beach given the ferocity of the storm but the nurdles were a shock.  A week ago we had been hard pressed to find any nurdles at all whereas today they were plentiful.  The challenge now is to understand why the nurdles arrived and why they were apparently concentrated in one strandline.

…………………………………………………..

Our seas and our beaches are contaminated by nurdles, these small pieces of easily transportable plastic used as a raw material for making many of our plastic goods.  Nurdles pose many dangers but one obvious concern is that that they will be consumed by seabirds and by fish with dire consequences for their health.  Here is a link to more information about nurdles.

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 2
Debris at the back of the beach superimposed on one of the clumps of sea rocket

 

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 1
Debris at the back of the beach

 

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 3
A drink can seen at the back of the beach – it that may have travelled far.

 

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 5
Debris piled up at the back of the beach

 

Leas Foot Sands middle of beach after storm Ophelia 2
A mid beach shot with a sad-looking Portuguese Man’O War

 

Leas Foot Sands middle of beach after storm Ophelia 1
More unusual finds on a mid beach hunt

 

Nurdles on Leas Foot Sands after storm Ophelia 1
Nurdles on the middle of the beach along with natural debris. The nurdles are the small grey cylindrical pieces.

 

Nurdles on Leas Foot Sands after storm Ophelia 2
More nurdles in the middle of the beach.

 

Shoreline at Leas Foot Beach after storm Ophelia
Seaweed at the water’s edge.

 

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

 

An autumn sunshine walk in South Devon – Salcombe to Gara Rock

East Portlemouth Ferry
The ferry arrives at East Portlemouth from Salcombe

 

Steep steps descend from a narrow passageway off Salcombe’s Fore Street.   At water level there is a stone jetty, the Ferry Pier, and above and to the right the Ferry Inn enjoys almost perfect views across the estuary.   A clinker-built motor boat, with the skipper standing up, is already making its way across the water to pick up the few waiting passengers.  Once we are all safely on board, he backs out and turns before heading across the estuary to East Portlemouth; it’s a calm day so this is an easy crossing.   The view from the boat always impresses me, low in the water, a cormorant’s perspective.  Looking towards the mouth of the estuary, the sea is a dark blue but, in the light breeze, ripples caught in the low sunshine cast a dancing light across the water.

The journey takes only a few minutes but it’s transformative.   Salcombe is all cafes and posh clothing shops but across the water we find peaceful long beaches with fine sand.  The tide is very low so we follow the strandline, leaving a record of our footsteps in the soft sand.  Beachside houses cast long shadows in the low sunshine but, where the sun reaches the beach, it creates pale blues and greens in the seawater, shallow over golden sand, and I imagine the Mediterranean.

Eventually, we reach Mill Bay, a football pitch-sized expanse of undulating, pale sand stretching from the sea to the coast road.  Very popular for family holidays in summer, today it is all but deserted.  On one side of the beach, the low tide has exposed a long, green, seaweed-covered slipway with prominent metal rails and stone teeth.  This was built in 1943 by the US navy to support landing craft during the Normandy landings.  It’s hard to imagine the beaches and the estuary filled with ships awaiting the assault on occupied France.

The rear of the beach is fringed with sand dunes bound together with scrubby grass.  One exposed vertical face is peppered with holes, burrows for insects, and several black and yellow striped wasps are moving about the nest area in a proprietorial manner.  Longer and sleeker than the better known common wasp, these are field digger wasps, solitary insects that dig tunnels in the sand and provision them with dead flies as food for their larvae.  A large buff-tailed bumblebee queen is scrabbling in the sand wall as if she is trying to burrow.  She looks in good condition but behaves as if something is wrong.

The path leaves the beach to head gently upwards through coastal woodland in the direction of the estuary mouth.  The autumn leaf-strewn track meanders through the woods with tantalising views of beaches below.  In today’s light, the colours of the sand and water glimpsed through the trees look more southern European than south Devon.  We emerge from woodland cover into brilliant sunshine and spectacular but slightly hazy views across the mouth of the estuary to the vast green headland of Bolt Head and the sandy beach at South Sands with its boutique hotels.  A red, yellow and blue boat passes by purposefully; it may look like a toy, but it is the Ferry that links South Sands with Salcombe town.

The path turns gradually eastwards seemingly cut into the hillside so that we walk with the land falling away to the sea below us and, on the landward side, rising steeply to rocky outcrops.  There is much bracken in evidence, already showing the effects of autumn; bright sparks of yellow gorse shoot upwards.  We pass a single spike of mullein, a few yellow toadflax and clumps of sheep’s bit with their unruly mops of blue petals.  Several stonechats entertain us, fluttering up and down, tail flicking, chatting.

The sea is calm today. From this vantage point, it is a deep blue but where it meets the rocky coastline, the surface shatters into bright fragments in the sunshine.  I scan the coastal waters for seals but get a surprise when I see what looks like a person standing on a rock just above the sea.  A closer look reveals a large cormorant, sunning itself.   Further away, sailing boats take advantage of the good weather and a fishing boat moors close enough for us to read its name through our binoculars.

Eventually, ahead of us we see a curious, white-painted, cylindrical hut, topped with a thatched roof and perched high above the path upon one of the rocky outcrops.  Far below the hut is a secluded stretch of sandy beach and in the distance lies another headland, Gammon Head.  The thatched hut is the former coastguard lookout at Gara Rock and we leave the coast path to head up to investigate.   Behind the lookout there is a new resort/hotel/apartment complex with people sitting in the sunshine enjoying a drink.  A row of coastguard cottages was built here in the 19th century and converted into a popular hotel early in the 20th century.  Laurence Olivier, John Betjeman and Margaret Rutherford are said to have stayed here, not necessarily at the same time.  The old building was knocked down in the last ten years and rebuilt as the new complex.

The old coastguard lookout has glorious views across the sea and coast and it is surrounded by huge banks of ivy.  Much of the ivy is in full flower, filling the air with its distinctive sickly-sweet smell.  Perhaps it is something to do with the light today but the flower heads on these clumps of ivy appear as almost perfect globes.  Multiple pale green lollipops extend from the centre of each flower head in perfect symmetry, like pins in a pin cushion.  Each lollipop is decorated with a frieze of pale yellow-headed stamens, creating, from a distance, a sunny halo around the green globe.  The ivy flowers attract many insects including more field digger wasps but it is the ivy bees that I am looking for and I am not disappointed.  Many of the elegant yellow and black striped-females move quickly about the flowers together with a few hopeful males.  The females are carrying large amounts of bright yellow pollen but still feeding.

We drag ourselves away from this extraordinary spot and head back down the inland valley to Mill Bay following an ancient, slightly sunken green lane with farmland either side.  This is a green tunnel with muted light, formed by overhanging trees including a long stretch of very old lime trees with dark, gnarled bark and multiple branching trunks.  When we reach Mill Bay, we take the coast road back to the jetty.  Many of the houses here are closed up; more than 40% of the houses in the Salcombe area are second homes.  The chimney of one of these homes is swarming with bees, probably honeybees.  The owner will be in for a shock when they next visit!

For a map and further information on this walk click here.

 

Mill Bay
Mill Bay

 

US Navy slipway, Mill Bay
The old US Navy slipway

 

 

Field Digger wasp
Field digger wasp (Mellinus arvensis)

 

South Sands Ferry
South Sands Ferry

 

Coast Path
The coast path and view across to Bolt Head

 

Sheep's Bit
Sheep’s Bit

 

Coastguard lookout Gara Rock
Coastguard lookout at Gara Rock

 

Inspecting the ivy
Inspecting the ivy at Gara Rock

 

Ivy with ivy bee
Female ivy bee (Colletes hederae) with ivy

 

View from Gara Rock lookout
View from the lookout

 

 

Ancient limes
Ancient Lime Trees

 

Bees in the chimney
Bees in the chimney

The oil well and the beach – a clash of the human and the natural at Kimmeridge Bay

The Isle of Purbeck in south east Dorset is an area of outstanding natural beauty but it is also Dorset’s oil country. I wanted to see how the demands of the oil industry could be reconciled with the demands of nature, so a few weeks ago I drove through the Purbeck Hills to Kimmeridge Bay.

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The view from the limestone ridge down to Kimmeridge Bay

 

The final stage of my journey took me over the coastal limestone ridge into open countryside where the views became wider, the colours and contrasts more intense. The wide sweep of Kimmeridge Bay lay below me in the sunshine: greens and blues, shadow and light, like an image from a travel magazine. From here the road descended, tentatively, through several broad arcs to reach the thatched, stone-cottaged village and the narrow beach access road. I left the car at the cliff-top car park and got out to look. The wide semi-circular bay, backed by moderate cliffs, spread either side of me and narrow, dark-stone ledges extended from the beach like giant fingers. A few white wavelets interrupted the surface of a deep blue sea and across the water, the vast mass of Portland loomed out of the mist.

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Kimmeridge Bay with the limestone ridges. The WW2 pill box shows prominently and its distance from the cliffs gives a rough indication of erosion.

 

I walked away from the cliffs and followed the access road westward around the row of 19th century, grey-stone cottages. The landward side of the road was lined by sodden arable fields enlivened only by a group of pied wagtails, jittering, fluttering. Soon I reached a large wire-mesh enclosure set back from the cliff edge. Inside the enclosure were pipe work, storage tanks and a “nodding donkey” oil pump, its huge black beam moving ponderously up and down as it sucked crude oil out of the reserves buried deep below the cliff.

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The oil well and pump

 

The pump has been working here since 1961 and is the oldest continuously working oil pump on the UK mainland. The oil-bearing rocks are located about 350 metres below the cliff, yielding 65 barrels of oil a day together with some natural gas. This is a modest deposit but it led to the discovery of the much larger Wytch Farm oilfield located ten or so miles away, stretching long distances under Poole Bay.

The oil pump itself is virtually noise-free as it is powered by electricity and, when I visited, there was nobody working nearby. The enclosure is some distance away from the centre of the Bay and partially screened by bushes so it is invisible to many visitors. Nevertheless, I find it incongruous to come across an oil well in this isolated, somewhat desolate and very natural place. To give myself some perspective I went to see more of the bay.

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One of the limestone ledges at low tide. Hen Cliff is prominent with the former fishermen’s huts below and the Clavell Tower above.

 

The beach is accessible down a precarious wooden stairway through a break in the cliffs, the Gaulter Gap, a narrow valley containing a fast-flowing stream. It’s a stony beach with pebbles, rocks and sand of many shades of grey, giving way to the dark stone ledges. These are visible at low tide reaching outwards into the sea and tilting slightly upwards to the west. The ledges provide great opportunities for rock-pooling and Ralph Wightman also speaks of a game of pebble bowls played along them.

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The World War 2 military pillbox

 

Near the Gaulter Gap the natural feel of the beach is rudely interrupted by a white cylindrical WW2 military pillbox standing on the beach looking as though someone planned to take it away but forgot. It used to sit on the cliff and its current position gives us an idea of how much erosion has occurred in the passing of 70 years.

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The rock layering in the cliffs

 

The beach is backed by grass-topped cliffs about 10 metres high containing distinct layers of rocks of different colours and textures. Bands of pale reddish brown and grey rock appear repeatedly in a semi-rhythmic pattern; differences in the hardness of the rocks and their resistance to erosion give the cliffs texture and a fascinating mosaic of colours. The rock layering in the cliffs make this both a geologist’s paradise and a geological time machine as each of the layers represents a discrete event in the Jurassic period, 200-150 million years ago.

Within the grey layers of rock is an oil shale for which Kimmeridge has been justifiably famous in the past. The richest deposits of oil shale, the “Blackstone”, are found in cliffs east of the bay. The Blackstone contains flammable hydrocarbons and used to be called “Kimmeridge Coal”. For many years it was used as a fuel, initially for cooking and heating and later for various industrial enterprises despite its high sulphur content and foul smell when burnt. In the 19th century it was mined here on an industrial scale and processed to make a range of petroleum products in Wareham and Weymouth in a series of short-lived enterprises.

The oil shale contains flammable hydrocarbons but it does not contain crude oil. Crude oil forms when the remnants of microscopic animals and plants accumulate at the bottom of the sea and are subjected to conditions of high temperature and pressure. Organic molecules are gradually converted to crude oil and this is what happened, many millions of years ago, in the rocks deep below the oil pump. The oil shale deposits exposed in the cliffs began in the same way but were never subjected to high enough temperatures or pressures to produce mature crude oil.
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The Clavell Tower

 

It’s a pleasant walk along the beach and out along the ledges towards the eastern end of the bay with its slipway, its jumble of boats and the cluster of black-painted, former fishermen’s huts. Behind the huts and partially hidden in the bushes is a scrub-lined, stone stairway heading steeply upwards to the top of Hen Cliff, standing 100m over the bay. This is a hard climb but worth it for the coastal views and for getting close to the Clavell Tower, a 19th century folly and observatory. This three story tower with its Tuscan colonnade stands on Hen Cliff with long views over the bay and the coast. Decked out in pink render and pale stone, it certainly looks very smart. But so it should, as starting in 2006 it was taken apart piece by piece and reassembled 25 metres away from the original site to prevent it falling in to the sea as the cliff eroded. It opened again in 2008 as an upmarket holiday rental. The Tower is now an integral part of Kimmeridge Bay but, in the past, reactions were divided. Frederick Treves, for example, referred to a “ridiculous tower” but to the Dorset dialect poet, William Barnes, in his poem “The Leady’s Tower”, it was “stately”.

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The view across Kimmeridge Bay from the cliffs near the Clavell Tower. If you click on the picture and enlarge it you will be able to see (from right to left) the tops of the former fishermen’s huts, the cliff top car park, the stone cottages and the oil well.

 

As I stood on the high cliff by the Clavell Tower, the full sweep of Kimmeridge Bay and its various landmarks were spread out below me. I had expected to be offended by the oil pump, fearing it might intrude on the natural world. But I was wrong: the oil pump is just one of several traces left by human hand at Kimmeridge Bay; it has little or no direct impact on the bay or its natural setting and is now part of the scenery. If you are looking to be offended by intrusions of the human on the natural, you could focus on the slew of wind-blown litter along the sides of the Gaulter Gap valley or the derelict, red fire engine gradually decaying behind the stone cottages.

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A more fundamental question does, however, arise about whether we should continue to extract this oil. Towards the end of last year the Paris Agreement recognised the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels to 2 degrees or less. Although the Agreement can be criticised for its lack of enforceability, it clearly defines the climate change problem as one of greenhouse gas emissions. A major contributor to these emissions is the burning of fossil fuels such as the oil extracted underneath Kimmeridge Bay.

Early in the 20th century, the novelist EM Forster stood a few miles north east of Kimmeridge and wrote in Howards End: “If one wanted to show a foreigner England, perhaps the wisest course would be to take him to the final section of the Purbeck Hills, and stand him on their summit….”. From this vantage point, Forster saw the rivers and landscapes of Dorset and neighbouring counties as a microcosm of all that existed in England. It wasn’t all beauty as he also saw creeping suburbia and its ill effects. Today we might relocate Forster’s vantage point and stand him by the Clavell Tower to look down on an eroding coastline under attack from increased storm activity and rising sea levels. He would also look down on the oil pump working away to extract more fossil fuels. Perhaps this alternative Purbeck view would illustrate some of the tensions inherent in contemporary England.

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Kimmeridge Bay from the stairway up Hen Cliff. Click and enlarge the picture to see the Kimmeridge landmarks. The WW2 military pillbox can be seen standing on the beach below the stone cottages

 

The photographs were taken on February 24th 2016

A seal steals the show

The smooth sheet of water ahead of me alternates between sparkling and dull as the low sunshine and grey clouds compete on this mild, early December day. Across the water, bordering the beds of tea-coloured reeds at the river’s edge, a thin strip of brown mud holds on tenaciously against the high tide and a few curlews and one little egret take advantage of the drier land. I am standing on the raised viewing platform looking across the confluence of the Rivers Clyst and Exe just south of Topsham in east Devon; this is the western end of Bowling Green Marsh, a local nature reserve.

As I scan hopefully with my binoculars I hear someone nearby say “Did you see the seal?” I hadn’t, but when I lower the binoculars I can see great swirls of mud in the shallow water. Then, about twenty feet away, a shiny black shape breaks the surface; with its domed dog-like head this is unmistakably one of Devon’s grey seals. It looks about furtively and raises its head at an angle displaying thick, grey, wiry whiskers. Now we can also see a large flat fish in its mouth, still alive judging from the twitching tail. There’s a bit of a battle on; the pale fish is resisting and the seal is trying very hard to gulp it down with a little help from gravity. Eventually the seal gets its way; the fish disappears and I can almost hear the belch! It swims a short victory lap, dives and disappears but we count ourselves fortunate to be treated to such a display.

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The view from the road near the Bird Hide

 

The Bird Hide is a short walk away; it’s a new and rather luxurious building and I have never seen so many birders in one place. This human parade is trumped by the avian display outside the windows. Plump, brownish-grey wading birds with long legs litter the riverside grass across from the Bird Hide. There are up to a thousand of these Black-tailed Godwits on Bowling Green Marsh at present but I can’t see much detail from the Hide, the birds are too far away for my binoculars. From the nearby road I get a better view: the birds are rarely still, continually and edgily moving about probing the grass with their long spear-like beaks as they feed.

But the Black-tailed Godwits don’t have it all to themselves; I notice several elegant black and white birds picking their way cautiously among the flock as though trying to avoid something unpleasant on the ground. With their prominent black bibs over white chests and elegant swept-back, black crests these Lapwings look like a cross between a posh waiter and a 1920s flapper. On the edge of the main flock a few wigeon and teal are enjoying the shallow water. The teal spend much of their time searching for food from the river bed, paddling frantically to maintain this unorthodox tail-in-the-air position. When the low sun shines, their yellow, under-tail patch glows like creamy butter.

Before I leave, I walk back to the viewing platform. The tide is now falling rapidly, water giving way to mud and I almost miss the first major arrivals. A large group of waders, probably Black-tailed Godwits, appears suddenly as if from nowhere, descending rapidly, wheeling and banking as they come in to land. The low sunshine picks out their pale under-parts and once they are safely down, they create a dark slick on the shallow water and concentrate on the important job of feeding.

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Looking across the water from the viewing platform, the slick of waders is just visible

Bowling Green Marsh, Topsham, December 4th 2015.

The featured image is a view across the Exe near Topsham.