Tag Archives: blackthorn

Hitch-hiking beetles and dancing bees – Lockdown Nature Walks 15

I had intended to go further afield for my next Lockdown Nature Walk but events drew me back once again to the Leechwell Garden, the community garden in the centre of Totnes.  I visited several times during the second week of March and discovered a fascinating story of bees, beetles and their mutual interactions. 

After my account, I have included part of a poem, “The Spring”, by William Barnes written in the dialect of the west country county of Dorset.

Immature leaves and catkins on weeping willow

A laughing sound, the yaffle of a green woodpecker, reached our house on several days and I thought it might be coming from the Leechwell Garden.  I went to look but I didn’t find the bird.  It’s no hardship, though, to visit the Garden at this time of year when the non-human world seems to be waking up and changing rapidly.  On early spring mornings, it’s a very peaceful spot and the combination of old stone walls and sunshine creates a warm microenvironment.  Noise from nearby roads can intrude but birdsong and the rushing of water from the stream overcome this.  There are often a few children enjoying the play area, their voices blending with the song of the chaffinches flitting around the Garden. 

Most shrubs and trees are in bud now but the weeping willows seem to be in the lead, their gracefully hanging branches grazing the ground in cascades of lime green.  Close up, the green haze covering the branches is a mixture of immature spear-shaped leaves and catkins.  The catkins are small green cigar shapes at present but will turn yellow as they mature.  Towards the back of the Garden, snowy splashes of blackthorn decorate the hedges and fleshy green tongues of ramsons make their way up through the leaf litter. 

One of the small bees, a male yellow-legged mining bee (Andrena flavipes)

Below the pergola is a sloping, southeast-facing grassy bank.  When I visited, a few dandelions and daisies were pushing through the grass and the underlying soil had been exposed on part of the bank by children’s feet running excitedly towards the play area.   It was March 9th, on a sunny morning, when I first noticed a few small bees flying about above this bare soil.  Occasionally one of the insects paused on a leaf or flower to take the sun or to feed on nectar and I could then see their well-marked stripy abdomen.  They were quite small, about two thirds the size of a honeybee and over the next few days, especially when the sun shone, the numbers increased.  There were also several holes in the bare soil, some surrounded by soil spill and the bees occasionally stopped to investigate, disappearing inside the hole for a short time. 

By the middle of March, a mobile cloud of the insects, at least 100 I estimated, would fly just above the soil.  They moved back and forth and from side to side, circling, dancing, the urgency of movement increasing when the sun shone, like water simmering, threatening to boil over.   My photos of the insects highlighted the prominent creamy hair bands around the abdomen, the pale hairs that decorate the face and sides of the thorax and the haze of pale yellow hairs coating the legs, confirming that they were male Yellow-Legged Mining bees (Andrena flavipes), one of our earliest spring solitary bees.    

One day I noticed a slightly larger but otherwise similar bee pausing on a dandelion.  The size suggested this might be a female and before I could take a photo my hunch was confirmed as one of the smaller bees hopped on top of the larger bee.  They stayed clasped together for about two minutes, his legs twitching before they separated.  She stayed on the flower whereas he moved to a nearby blade of grass. If this mating was successful, the female now starts the job of nest building.  Within one of the tunnels in the bare soil she will construct a series of cells each equipped with one egg and a mixture of pollen and nectar collected from flowers. The eggs will develop into new bees.   Each mated female works alone without cooperation so that these insects are referred to as solitary bees.

One of my visits to the Garden was on a sunny Sunday morning and, after I had looked at the bees, I wandered about glancing at the flowers.  My attention was captured, though, by a large black beetle (about 2.5cm long) among a mass of ivy beneath a hawthorn tree.  I found a second similar insect close by on a separate leaf.  Both were motionless and seemed to be taking the sun.  These are unusual creatures with a small head and thorax compared to their much larger abdomen.  Wing cases were visible but they were too small to cover the abdomen, rather like a portly Victorian gentleman unable to secure his jacket across his belly.  The prominent legs and antennae of the beetles seemed to be comprised of many small segments so that they resembled tightly coiled wire. In the sunshine, their bodies, legs and antennae sparkled a beautiful iridescent dark blue.  After a bit of searching and with some kind help from John Walters, I worked out that these were female violet oil beetles (Meloe violaceus).  This was a surprise as these rare insects have not been spotted in the Leechwell Garden before.

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

With such a complex life cycle, it’s surprising that oil beetles manage to survive, but survive they do.  They are, though, declining and part of the problem is a reduction in the number of solitary bees.  With urbanisation and the intensification of agriculture, wildflowers have disappeared from large parts of the countryside.  Solitary bees are unable to survive in such a degraded environment with obvious knock-on effects on oil beetles.

The Leechwell Garden has a good selection of flowers, both wild and cultivated, and there are several colonies of solitary bees including the Yellow-Legged Mining Bees mentioned earlier.  I hope these oil beetles will be able to continue their lives here and, as the season progresses, I shall be looking for the triungulins on flowers popular with solitary bees.

As a postscript, last Saturday morning we were walking down our street and were very surprised to find another female oil beetle.  This one was crossing the road, moving quickly, antennae flexing and moving all the time as the beetle sampled the air.  We stood nearby to prevent it from being squashed by cars or other passers-by.  I was able to get a reasonable photo and Andrew Whitehouse kindly confirmed that this was another violet oil beetle, newly emerged.  

Perhaps there are more of these insects about than I had realised?

…………………………….

“The spring” by William Barnes

When wintry weather’s all a-done,
An’ brooks do sparkle in the zun,
An’ naïsy-builden rooks do vlee
Wi’ sticks toward their elem tree;
When birds do zing, an’ we can zee
Upon the boughs the buds o’ spring, –
Then I’m as happy as a king,
A-vield wi’ health an’ zunsheen.

Vor then the cowslip’s hangen flow’r
A-wetted in the zunny shower,
Do grow wi’ vi’lets, sweet o’ smell,
Bezide the wood-screened graegle’s bell;
Where drushes’ aggs, wi’ sky-blue shell,
Do lie in mossy nest among
The thorns, while they do zing their zong
At evenen in the zunsheen.

[These are the first two verses of Barnes evocation of a 19th century Dorset spring.  Most of the dialect becomes clear if read aloud but here are three translations:  Vield – filled, graegle – bluebell, drush – thrush]

One of the smaller, male yellow-legged mining bees showing the haze of yellow hairs coating his legs and catching pollen grains.
Female yellow-legged mining bee (Andrena flavipes) showing the golden pollen hairs on her back legs.

Mating pair of yellow legged mining bees.

Holes in the bare soil forming entrances to nest tunnels.

The two female violet oil beetles (Meloe violaceus) in the sunshine. The upper beetle is also shown at the head of this post.

Signs of spring? – Lockdown Nature Walks 14

For my next Lockdown Nature Walk, I wandered about a community garden and a car park in the centre of Totnes looking at how spring was progressing in these semi-urban settings.   I made my observations over the weekend of February 27/28 during the short spell of warmer weather we enjoyed towards the end that month.  I have included a poem by Wordsworth “The lesser celandine” at the end of the account followed by some photos of the species I saw.

The sun rising on February 28th 2021 to the left of the houses with remnants of the apricot dawn light

After weeks of oppressive weather, grey, wet and then quite cold, these few days of sunshine and spring-like warmth were very welcome. I felt my spirits lift and I acquired a renewed sense of purpose despite the constraints of lockdown.   Several of the days dawned to cloudless skies accompanied by fuzzy white blankets of frost.  On one of these mornings, I went out early to watch the dawn light.  With sunrise still more than half an hour away and the sky an intense dark blue, a bright apricot glow rose behind the eastern hills.  The dawn chorus echoed across the valley and it was tempting to think that the birds were singing of the impending arrival of spring.  

The absence of cloud allowed me to watch the sun as it rose above the eastern hills and I began to see how this event in itself held indications of seasonal change.  Not only was the Late February sunrise more than an hour earlier compared to the beginning of the year, but the sun now rose closer to the east compared with roughly south east in early January.  The sun will continue its eastern trajectory, rising directly from the east on March 20th, the vernal or spring equinox, the astronomical start of spring.

With these ideas of seasonal change in mind, I decided to take advantage of the short spell of warmer weather to visit some of the town centre gardens and car parks to look for signs of spring.  First stop was the Leechwell Garden, one of the community gardens in the centre of Totnes.   By the time I reached this town centre oasis, warm sunshine had dismissed the early morning frost and a peal of children’s voices rang out from the play area and sand pit.  The early flowers, the snowdrops and winter aconites, were already past their best but nearby I came across the first blackthorn blossom.  The porcelain-white flowers were not fully open but their red-tipped stamens were already on show.  Blackthorn is very popular with early solitary bees and that day I made my first sighting of the year.  A dandelion was the host and a small bee with a bright orange-brown thorax and yellow pollen hairs was feeding.  This was a female Gwynne’s Mining Bee (Andrena bicolor).  A few lesser celandines were showing around the Garden but it was a nearby car park that surprised with its impressive display of these flowers. 

The Nursery Car Park is enclosed by old stone walls and the parking area is lined by wide soil borders mostly covered in rough grass.    In the past, I have seen solitary bees nesting in the grassy borders and butterflies taking advantage of the flowers growing there.  During the winter, the local council decided to cut the vegetation on the soil borders and did so very harshly.  This is probably bad news for overwintering butterflies but the early flowers seem to have responded well, perhaps owing to lack of competition from grasses.  The long border along the north side is sheltered by a tall ivy-clad stone wall and when the sun shines this is a warm sheltered spot. A few lesser celandines (Ficaria verna) had been struggling into flower here earlier in February but the warm weather triggered an outpouring of these starry golden flowers as if the area had been spattered with yellow gloss paint.

A lesser celandine flower showing the two-tone petals and the central fuzz of pollen-loaded stamens

I stood there for a while, looking, listening; one of the few benefits of lockdown is that the car park is very quiet.  Blackbirds squabbled noisily over ivy berries, a wren trilled, heard but unseen, and a large bumblebee tracked across the border.  I admired the celandine flowers with their shiny two-tone petals, mostly lemon yellow but with a darker slightly brown section near the centre of the flower.   Also, their central fuzz of bright, buttery yellow, pollen-loaded stamens surrounding a nascent green seed pod. 

There is something about these golden flowers on a bright sunny day with their petals held horizontally that speaks of their close relationship with the sun.  Part of this is the sensitivity of the flowers to light levels.  On dull days when cloud obscures the sun, the flowers will close and even on sunny days, they do not open until about 9am and are closed again by 5pm.   Then there are the stamens, thickly coated with yellow pollen.  With its colour and its richness, for me this pollen symbolises the energy of the sun.  And of course, it does contain some of the sun’s energy but it acquires this indirectly via the shiny heart-shaped green leaves that form thick mats across the border.  Photosynthesis in the leaves captures the energy of sunlight transforming it and generating among other substances, pollen and nectar, energy for insects.  It is perhaps no accident that the Celtic name for the lesser celandine is grian, the sun.

The first insect I saw taking advantage of this floral energy store during the warm spell was a honeybee.  It moved from flower to flower, its pollen baskets accumulating sticky yellow lumps of pollen to take back to the hive as food.  Several hoverflies also appeared on the flowers.  Mostly these were Common Drone Flies (Eristalis tenax) a species that overwinters as an adult and comes out on warm winter days to top up with pollen and nectar.  They bear more than a passing resemblance to male honeybees as their name suggests.   Most of the Eristalis I saw were females, characterised by eyes separated at the top of their head.  Several Bumblebees also fed from the flowers but these were very jumpy and I manged only one photo.

In the past, the lesser celandine was referred to as the “spring messenger” being one of the first woodland flowers to show each year.  Gilbert White noted that in 18th century Hampshire the flowers first appeared on average on February 21st.  This year in Devon, based on my observations, they emerged several weeks earlier.  The lesser celandine is also one of the first flowers to appear during weather warm enough to tempt out many insects.  It will continue flowering into April providing support for many species including the solitary bees that emerge as spring unfolds.

………………………………………….

The golden flowers have Inspired poets including William Wordsworth.  The lesser celandine was his favourite flower and he wrote three poems about them.  Here is his poem entitled “The lesser celandine”

There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!

When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.

But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
“It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.

“The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue.”
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.

To be a Prodigal’s Favourite – then, worse truth,
A Miser’s Pensioner – behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!

Blackthorn flowers showing the red-tipped stamens

Gwynne’s mining bee (Andrena bicolor) on a dandelion

Honeybee on lesser celandine, note the yellow pollen accumulating

Common drone fly (Eristalis tenax) on lesser celandine. The prominent eyes do not meet on the top of the head, characteristic of a female

Bumblebee on lesser celandine. From this picture it is impossible to determine the species but based on size and the time of year it may be a queen Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum)

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.