Tag Archives: blackthorn

Signs of spring?

Dull, wet and mild has been the prevailing story for the winter weather so far this year in the south west of the UK.  Much needed winter sunshine has been in short supply and we’ve woken up to frost on only a handful of days. And then the storms:  in February alone, two consecutive weekends of severe weather brought heavy rain and gale force winds but very mild temperatures.   Local roads were blocked by water but flooding in other parts of the UK was much worse.

Even before the storms, walking in the rain-saturated countryside was particularly difficult but we managed to get out, although this sometimes meant paddling through mud and water.

Westcombe Beach

One of these walks was on a sunny February 1st when we took the opportunity to walk to Westcombe Beach near Kingston in south Devon.  This is an isolated sandy cove bisected by a sprightly stream and enclosed by some impressively jagged shiny grey rock formations.  The beach was largely clear of plastic waste, a rare find nowadays, but on one side I came across several unusual pale blue and pink inflated objects.  Although these might look as though they are made from plastic, they are in fact living creatures, Portuguese Men o’ War, driven on to the beach by south westerly winds.   They normally float on the surface of the sea, trailing dark blue tentacles with the capacity to deliver a very nasty sting, their pink sail catching the wind.

Portuguese Man o’War (some of the features of these organisms are lost when they are beached)

During our walk to and from Westcombe Beach we came across several flowers usually associated with the spring including primroses, violets and celandine.  As we were near the coast, the dark green fleshy leaves of Alexanders also flourished along the path sides but I was surprised to see one plant already in flower.

The flowers of Alexanders with a fly (probably a Yellow Dungfly)

Then as we walked back along the cliff tops in the low, late afternoon sunshine, we encountered a large caterpillar crossing the coast path.  It was very furry with orange-brown hairs along the top and darker grey-brown hairs below.  This is a larva of the fox moth and on sunny winter days they come out of hibernation to bask.

Fox moth caterpillar

Just under a week later, on February 6th, a day of sunny intervals, we walked to Mansands near Brixham.  Mansands is another isolated cove but with a stony beach and backed by a substantial body of water that attracts both waterfowl and bird watchers.  The land rises steeply either side of the beach with cliffs and there had been some falls of the soft rock on the eastern side over the winter which may have affected the solitary bees that nest there. [The picture at the head of this post shows the eastern side of Mansands beach and cliffs.]

Our biggest surprise of the day was finding a pair of toads (male and female) on the path along Mansands Lane as it descended towards the beach.  Hazel spotted the pair and had to take quick evasive action to avoid squashing them.  They were most likely on their way to the water below the path to spawn.  The males are opportunists and hitch a lift on the back of the larger females when they pass.  Once the female arrives at the water, more males will jump on her, competing for her attention.  Eventually, she will choose one male to fertilise her eggs as she deposits strings of them in the water.  We managed to persuade the pair to move to the path edge where they were more likely to avoid the danger of passing human feet.

Male and female toads

There were more surprises in store as we walked up the very steep Southdown Cliff away from Mansands where we saw several flowers often associated with spring.

Blackthorn flowers on Southdown Cliff above Mansands

 

Greater stitchwort on Southdown Cliff above Mansands

I hadn’t expected to see these flowers so early in the year but perhaps the generally warm weather has encouraged them.  There have also been reports of solitary bees emerging earlier than expected and I have seen queens of the bumblebee Bombus pratorum in two places in Devon, on January 15th and 20th so both very early.

Bombus pratorum queen (January 20th 2020)

A simple explanation for these findings is that our climate is changing.  Warmer, wetter winters with unstable weather are becoming more likely as a result of global temperature increases with corresponding effects on the flora and fauna.  But one person’s observations in one year don’t go beyond the anecdotal and we need much more comprehensive data to draw conclusions.

For this, I went to Nature’s Calendar, a citizen science project that records first flowerings, first sightings etc for many species across the UK.   When I looked at their report for 2019, I was surprised to see that blackthorn, to take one example, flowered 27 days earlier in the UK than it did in 2001.  In fact in 2019 all but one of Nature’s Calendar spring events were early, some considerably so.   Lorienne Whittle of Nature’s Calendar attributes these changes to the warmer winters we are now experiencing and the concern is that the long-established patterns of nature are being disturbed with potentially serious consequences.  For example, if frogs and toads spawn early, late frosts could kill their tadpoles.  Also, should insects emerge too soon they may not survive unless plentiful flowers are available for food.  We are entering uncertain times.

An amazing natural phenomenon goes unnoticed

Brixham view

After so many cool, damp and grey days, spring arrived in a rush in the third week of April. Temperatures soared by nearly ten degrees and the sun shone strongly from a virtually cloud-free sky, filling the air with an unexpected brightness, at least for a few days. The sudden change in the weather demanded that I get outside so I drove the short distance to the fishing port of Brixham, parking on the clifftop road on the eastern edge of the town. A steep stone stairway took me down the hillside past curious, deserted, rectangular buildings and wide sweeps of concrete enclosed by thick scrub echoing with birdsong. These are remnants of the Brixham Battery, built in 1940 to guard Torbay against a German invasion, now Grade 2 listed and an informal, unplanned nature reserve. Dandelions and cowslips were dotted about grassy areas and fleshy-leaved green alkanet with its grey-blue flowers provided a contrasting colour. The stairway continued downwards among trees until I was just above the sea where I joined the coast path.

This section of the coast path is enclosed by low scrub and, at this time of year, blackthorn dominates, its branches covered with a snow of small flowers, creating a curtain of white with occasional glimpses of the blue sea. In the bright sunshine, the delicate white petals were almost transparent below a confused mass of yellow-tipped stamens. Eventually, this enclosed path gave on to an open, grassy area roughly the size of a football pitch, overlooking the water of Torbay and backed by thick trees creating a sense of seclusion. Wooden benches positioned along the sea side were popular, occupied by people wearing sun hats and enjoying the spectacular view.  The full panorama of Torbay was spread out ahead like an enticing display in a travel brochure: the red cliffs, the white seafront buildings, the pine trees, the big wheel and, in the foreground, the Brixham breakwater with its white lighthouse. The sea was a bright, slightly greenish blue textured with patches of silvery sheen  and pleasure boats shuttled across the water to and from Torquay.  It was a holiday scene and felt almost Mediterranean.

Amongst all this human activity, no one seemed to be paying any attention to the many mini-volcanoes of crumbly soil partly concealed beneath the rough grass or to the many bees moving about the area just above the grass. Everywhere I looked there were bees flying about, backwards and forwards, swinging from side to side, as if they were trying to find something; a few were walking about on the red soil. There must have been thousands of bees, an amazing natural phenomenon and very exciting to watch. When I looked carefully, I saw that they were mostly black but with distinctive bands of pale hair. These are Ashy Mining Bees (Andrena cineraria), one of our more common solitary bees, and the soil volcanoes in the ground are their nests.

While I was taking in the scene, a couple arrived, both carrying plastic bags. He was in his sixties with long white hair roughly corralled into a pony tail. She was in her late fifties with copious dark hair. They threw down a blanket into the middle of the grassy area, stripped down to their underwear, cracked open some cans and proceeded to sunbathe. Like the other people, they didn’t notice the bees swirling about the grass around them and I wondered how they might react if they encountered the insects. Luckily for them, only the females of these kinds of mining bees possess a sting and they use it only when threatened.

I wanted to take some photos of the bees but, wishing to avoid any misunderstandings as I waved my camera about, I moved to the other end of the grassy area, passing a small turf-roofed building that used to contain the searchlight for the wartime Battery. I found an unoccupied bench, sat down, and providing I was still, the bees resumed their incessant movement around me. The bench turned out to be a front-row seat as, on several occasions, I saw one bee rush at another and the two struggled for a while on the ground. Two or three others tried to join in and it all got a bit confused and messy for a while. Eventually, however, only two were left coupled together, end to end. They stayed like this for a few minutes before separating and flying off. I presumed they were mating but it seemed rather sedate compared to the frantic copulatory behaviour of some solitary bees.

Photographing the flying bees is difficult, but for the short time they were occupied in mating they were relatively still, making it easier. My photographs showed that the honeybee-sized females have shiny black abdomens with a blue sheen in some lights. Two thick, furry bands of grey-white hair line the front and back of the thorax and the face is white-haired with black antennae. The slimmer and smaller males also have black abdomens but differ from the females in having white hairs on the sides of the thorax and thick tufts of white hair on the face. With their pale hairs and contrasting dark abdomens, Ashy Mining Bees are one of the most distinctive and beautiful species of mining bee in the UK.

Despite all this excitement on the ground, I kept an occasional watch on the sea and got quite excited when I saw a shiny black head emerge from the water. This was one of the local colony of grey seals swimming towards Fishcombe Cove. The water was so clear and calm that the seal’s huge body was clearly visible as it passed.

When I had finished, I walked back past the lush banks of three cornered leek that grow along the low cliff edge. I saw male Ashy Mining bees nectaring from the delicate white-belled flowers. Further on, I stopped to look at the blackthorn flowers. Here there were more Ashy Mining Bees foraging together with one very different bee with a shock of orange-brown hair on the thorax and a largely black abdomen tipped with orange-red hair. I later identified this as an Orange-tailed Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa). With all this insect interest, there should be a good crop of sloes on the blackthorn here in the autumn.

If you are interested to learn more about these wonderful bees, here are three more descriptions:

https://standingoutinmyfield.wordpress.com/2018/04/25/a-nesting-aggregation-of-ashy-mining-bees/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/14/mining-bees-create-theatre-enchantments-shropshire

https://beesinafrenchgarden.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/under-the-plum-tree-again/

 

Soil mini-volcanoes
soil volcanoes

 

Female Ashy Mining Bee
Female Ashy Mining Bee showing thick bands of white hair

 

Male Ashy Mining Bee
Male Ashy Mining Bee showing thick tuft of white facial hair

 

Brixham view. 2jpg
The grassy area showing the “searchlight building” and the breakwater and lighthouse

 

Ashy Mining Bees mating
Mating bees with extra hopefuls

 

Ashy Mining Bees mating 3
Mating pair

 

Seal
grey seal

 

bee 2
orange-tailed mining bee on blackthorn

 

 

 

A barbecue summer – but what about the charcoal?

 

Sunny days, long evenings, a barbecue at the beach? Sounds idyllic doesn’t it? But as we light the charcoal , do we ever think about where it comes from? I wanted to know, so I went to Higher Halstock in north Dorset to meet woodsman and charcoal burner, Rick Smith.

Halstock Vale
The countryside approaching Halstock

 

From Winyard’s Gap I followed a narrow lane downhill, past woodland and open pasture, between verges full with spring flowers. It was the first noticeably warmer spring day of the year and the low morning sunshine seemed to breathe new life in to the Dorset countryside. At the sign for Winford Rural Workshops I parked and went to look for Rick Smith. I found him leaning over one of his kilns, unloading charcoal in to sacks labelled “British Barbecue Charcoal”.

Rick Smith
Rick Smith by one of his kilns

 

The origins of charcoal

Most people nowadays know charcoal for the richly glowing fire it creates in their barbeque, but the fuel has a long history and enabled one of mankind’s earliest technologies, the smelting of metals. Charcoal is made by heating wood in a low oxygen atmosphere so that it carbonises but does not burn; moisture and other volatile substances are driven off and eventually the large molecules making up the structure of wood are broken down, leaving the carbon and a little ash. Because charcoal is largely carbon, it burns in the presence of oxygen at a much higher temperature than wood and that’s one reason why it’s good for the barbecue.

The big discovery, several thousand years ago was that not only was a charcoal fire hot enough to melt and work metals but that the fire released pure metals such as copper from their ores. This is smelting, a technology that allowed man to move from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age. The same basic technology continued to be used, with charcoal as a fuel, until the beginning of the 18th century when coke took over. Until that time, charcoal was made by skilled itinerant workers, charcoal burners, who lived solitary lives in woods where they could continually oversee their work. The craft of charcoal burning has been revived by a handful of people in Dorset, and Rick Smith is one of these.

Charcoal burning

Kilns

Rick showed me the kilns he uses for making charcoal (charcoal burning). These are large metal cylinders about 3 metres in diameter set in to the ground with several ports at ground level that allow air to enter and escape. Each kiln is filled with wood, dried outdoors for a year before use and arranged in the kiln so that air can circulate. The fire is started by pouring lighted charcoal in to the centre of the kiln and the lid is placed loosely on top. Rick watches the fire spread through the wood and once it is uniform, he seals the lid and places chimneys on half the ports to act as flues. Air in the kiln can be regulated through the other ports and kept at a low level so that the wood is carbonised but not burnt. The experienced charcoal burner knows the state of the fire from the colour of the smoke.

The kilns need to be watched carefully throughout this phase of the burn which lasts 12-18 hours, and Rick stays on site in a cabin for the entire period. I wondered how he felt about this commitment.
“It’s part of the job, but anyway, this is an amazing place to be, especially at night” he explained “no noise pollution, no light pollution, just imagine the stars!”
When the colour of the smoke changes from white to blue, Rick knows that the conversion of wood to charcoal is complete; he seals the kiln completely and allows it to cool for another 24 hours. The fuel is then ready to use, a jumble of pieces of charcoal, still retaining the original shape of the wood but now a mosaic of greys, blacks and silvers.

charcoal

Coppiced woodland

woodland 4
Coppiced woodland in the late spring

 

blackthorn
Blackthorn

 

Most of the wood used in Rick’s kilns comes from woodland adjacent to the site. This is ancient semi-natural broadleaf woodland containing mainly blackthorn and hazel, managed by the traditional technique of coppicing where trees are cut to the ground periodically and the stool left to regenerate. New shoots grow vigorously providing they are protected from browsing deer, forming multiple new stems which are ready to be cut again and used for charcoal burning after 7-10 years. Because there is continuous renewal, coppicing is a sustainable process; it also keeps the wood light and airy, encouraging wildlife among the trees and on the woodland floor. When I visited, the woods were a tapestry of bluebells and celandine, birds were singing and bumblebees were feeding from yellow archangel.

bumblebee2
Common carder bee on yellow archangel

 

Barbecue charcoal – think before you buy

charcoal sacks
British Barbecue Charcoal from Rick Smith’s kilns

 

The British love affair with the barbecue consumes a massive 60,000 tons of charcoal each year, 90% of that being imported. Namibia is the UK’s biggest supplier and much of this charcoal is produced under dismal circumstances using illegally harvested trees leading to deforestation and lack of sustainability; working conditions are deplorable and archaic equipment is used causing damage to both the environment and to workers’ health. Major supermarkets buy imported charcoal in bulk to drive down prices but at least they now require that the product bears the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) label; this provides some oversight of production methods but the labelling system seems far from watertight. Non FSC charcoal is still imported in to the UK for barbecues and the restaurant trade.

British Barbecue Charcoal, the sort Rick Smith produces, avoids all of these problems: it is produced using sustainable methods that support rather than destroy ancient woodland; it often contains a higher percentage carbon than the imported product so that it burns better and, when you buy locally, carbon emissions from transport are minimal compared with the 5000 mile journey from Namibia. Home-produced charcoal is widely available and buying the local product supports local employment. What could be better?

Lady's Smock
Lady’s Smock growing on the Winford Rural Workshops site at Higher Halstock – Rick leaves these plants to flower to provide food for the Orange Tip Butterfly

 

This article appeared in the July 2016 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine. It was chosen by Science Seekers as one of their Picks of the Week.