We’ve been in lockdown in the UK for nearly a week. I was glad when it was announced as it was the first decisive step our government has taken during the coronavirus crisis. We’re supposed to stay in our homes except for essential outings (work, food or medical) and one “exercise” walk each day. Hopefully the lockdown will reduce the spread of the coronavirus by limiting social interaction but it does require people to follow the new rules.
It has been a beautiful week for weather, mild and spring-like with bright sunshine and blue skies, the sort of weather where the air is filled with birdsong and you can almost hear the buds swelling. When I have been out on my exercise walks, I have been taking photographs when I see something that catches my eye. I thought I would post these here, partly for interest as spring arrives in the west country and partly to show how much wildlife there is about us.
The picture at the head of this post is of some Anemone blanda growing among leaf litter in the Leechwell Garden. These blue flowers are native to southeastern Europe but seem to do well here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It had been a good week but very intense. Our exhibition, entitled Observation, had come to an end and the combination of Hazel’s paintings and my photographs brought many interested people into the gallery leading to good conversations. When the exhibition finished, just over a week ago, we were both tired and needed to recharge. So, on the Sunday after, with the weather looking good, we set out on a walk in the countryside. Part of our route took in a quiet riverside path with meadows along one side spreading up the gentle slope away from the river. Buttercups and catsear lent the meadow a midsummer look and beneath the nodding yellow flowers were lush grasses, globes of white clover, a few pink orchids and some good stands of yellow rattle with its hooded lemony flowers and black beaks. It was a fine meadow with plenty of insect life and we watched the many bumblebees feeding, clover being their favourite. We saw several cuckoo bumblebees which, as their name suggests, don’t make their own nests but parasitise those bumblebees that do make nests.
On the other side of the path, there was a band of trees, scrub and other vegetation bordering the river and among the shady greenery we noticed a tall plant with a skein of dark purplish-blue flowers (see picture at the top of this post) that reminded me of Dutch clogs. Neither of us had seen this plant before and, with its showy blue flowers, we speculated that it might have been a garden escapee. More of the unusual flowers appeared further along, in the same sort of environment, under shade and close to the river.
Back home I wanted to find out what this plant was and eventually I discovered that it was Aconitum napellus or monkshood. In the south west of the UK, where I live, some rare examples of monkshood may be native but most are introduced and naturalised. The unusual architectural look of the flowers has made it a popular garden plant and the name, monkshood, derives from the resemblance of the flowers to the hoods or cowls worn by monks in the past.
What surprised me most was the warning in my flower book that monkshood is the most poisonous plant found in the UK. All parts of the plant are highly poisonous, containing the substance aconitine, an alkaloid that causes death by disrupting the ionic balance across cell membranes leading to respiratory and heart failure. The dangers of monkshood have been known and exploited since ancient times resulting in the name “Queen of poisons”. Extracts of the plant were applied to spears and arrows to increase their killing ability and the poison was used in ancient Rome for executions. The plant is sometimes called wolfsbane owing to its use for killing wolves and its reputed ability to repel werewolves, but the name is more usually applied to the related, yellow-flowered, Aconitum lycoctonum.
Preparations of aconitine have also been used, mostly in the past, for their medicinal properties in treating pain and fever when taken orally or as a liniment for treating rheumatism, neuralgia and sciatica. Tinctures of aconitine were freely available in 19th century pharmacies in Europe and the US but although the drug is no longer used in conventional medicine in the west, it continues to be used in India and China in traditional herbal preparations. The problem with using the drug is balancing the apparent therapeutic effects against the lethal effects and cases of accidental aconitine poisoning are not unknown in China.
The plant is said to have arisen, according to Greek mythology, when Hercules, performing his 12th labour, dragged the three-headed dog Cerberus from the Gates of Hell. Here is Ovid’s description in his Metamorphoses:
“The dog struggled, twisting its head away from the daylight and the shining sun. Mad with rage, it filled the air with its triple barking, and sprinkled the green fields with flecks of white foam. These flecks are thought to have taken root and, finding nourishment in the rich and fertile soil, acquired harmful properties. Since they flourish on hard rock, the country folk call them aconites, rock-flowers.”
It seems entirely appropriate that such a lethally poisonous plant should be associated with the Gates of Hell. Indeed, it might be expected that a plant with such a reputation would have been used to commit murder but there are very few contemporary examples of this, perhaps because aconitine also has a very bitter taste and is difficult to disguise. This hasn’t stopped fiction writers from using the poison in their stories and here are a couple of examples: Agatha Christie, in her novel, 4.50 from Paddington, employs aconitine as a murder weapon, pills containing aconitine are substituted for the victim’s sleeping tablets; in one episode (Garden of Death, 2000) of the popular TV series, Midsomer Murders, aconitine is mixed with fettucine al pesto to dispose of the unfortunate victim. In 2010, however, a real murder was committed using the poison when Lakhvir Kaur Singh, nicknamed the “curry killer”, poisoned her former lover by mixing extracts of the related plant Aconitum ferox into his leftover curry.
There has been some speculation recently that simply brushing against the plant might be dangerous but this idea has been discredited. Nevertheless, should the sap of the plant come into contact with skin the poison may be transferred especially through cuts. Caution should, therefore, be exercised if the plant is encountered in the garden or in the wild as the following anecdote, taken from Richard Mabey’s book Flora Britannica suggests:
In 1993, there was an epidemic of poisoning at a florist’s in Wiltshire. “A flower seller was treated for heart palpitations in intensive care after handling bunches of a poisonous flower ……… staff at a flower shop in Salisbury suffered shooting pains after poison from a monkshood entered their bloodstreams. The shop’s owner bought 150 bunches from a wholesaler who has now withdrawn them. ” I wondered what was wrong – all of a sudden everyone was lethargic and getting pains.” ”
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold which is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
(from Little Gidding, the last of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets)
We had a lot of grey, wet weather towards the end of last year, and very little sunshine. A few days before Christmas, however, the forecast predicted a bright, dry and relatively mild day, so I took the opportunity to get over to Roundham Head in Paignton to see what flowers and wildlife might be about. It’s a journey of about ten miles and that morning I took the bus, enjoying the long views across the surrounding countryside. Paignton is a seaside holiday resort but it looked distinctly “out of season” when I arrived, despite the sunshine and blue sky. A few people were walking along the promenade; they were well wrapped up even though it wasn’t a cold day. The little harbour was quiet; small boats bobbed on the water protected by the old stone walls and a gang of turnstones skittered like mice at the water’s edge. Molly Malones food shack was closed for the winter and the booths normally touting fishing excursions were empty.
I walked up suburban streets to get on to the northern side of Roundham Head, the flat-topped, cliff-lined, grassy promontory that protrudes into the waters of Torbay. A line of tall pine trees straddles the first part of the headland and the low sun rendered these as silhouettes casting long shadows across the grass. The path around the promontory follows the cliff edge with views to the sea below and a seal teased me by briefly raising its shiny black head above the water. Eventually I came to southern side of the Head and the gardens that were built in the 1930s partly to stabilise the cliffs. Steep zig zag paths track up and down between flower beds planted with exotic species that, between them, provide colour throughout the year. There are benches should you wish to rest or enjoy the views over Torbay and the shelter, the proximity of the sea and the south facing aspect of the gardens generate a mild microclimate.
It was the winter solstice that day, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, the day when darkness begins to give way to light. From the southern edge of Roundham Head, above the gardens, I could see the sun hanging very low in the pale wintery-blue sky casting its light across the beach at Goodrington Sands creating a silvery mirror on the water. Even though this was midwinter, there were plenty of flowers around me in the gardens and the low sunshine created surprising effects. Its intense golden light gave a softness to the air and enhanced flower colours to an almost psychedelic extent. Banks of bergenia acquired a pink brightness worthy of late 1960s San Francisco and the scorpion vetch (Coronilla valentina) that flourishes all over the gardens glowed with a lemon-yellow light.
I paused by a clump of bergenia, enjoying the warmth of this sheltered spot. A small bumblebee, ovoid and furry with black, white and yellow stripes, soon appeared, moving among the bright pink flowers looking for food. Quickly tiring of the bergenia, it flew to one of the white funnel-shaped flowers in a large clump of shrubby bindweed (Convolvulus cneorum), burying its head in the base of the bloom where it stayed, drinking nectar. Based on size and appearance this was probably a buff-tailed bumblebee worker. A drone fly also took advantage of these flowers resting near the mass of golden yellow stamens. Soon after, I got a surprise when a butterfly landed briefly on the bergenia before flying off. It circled for a while before settling on a wall to bask in the sunshine showing me that it was a painted lady, with its characteristic wing coloration of orange/buff, black and white. An insistent buzz announced the arrival of a large bumblebee, black with orange/buff coloured bands. This was a queen buff-tailed bumblebee and she proceeded to feed from the bergenia. I had two more sightings of large furry queens on these pink flowers.
Another plant that flourishes here is rosemary and extensive curtains of the herb cascade from several borders, their slate blue flowers glinting in the sunshine like diamond chips. Rosemary is in flower here for several months across winter providing pollen and nectar for insects and I saw several buff-tailed bumblebee workers moving quickly about the flowers, their pollen baskets well loaded. They were very jumpy and flew off when I got too close. For a short time, they were joined by another queen carrying a small amount of grey pollen, also a basking, but rather worn, red admiral butterfly with its bright red and white patterns on a black background.
By mid-afternoon, cloud began to bubble up to the south, and eventually a slab of grey cloud obscured the sun. The temperature dropped noticeably, the wind got up and the bees went off to shelter, bringing observations to a close. I made my way back to the bus station pondering what I had seen.
It still surprises me to see butterflies in the winter. I have seen them here before in December and January but in my mind these brightly coloured insects signify summer. Although most red admirals are thought to migrate to the UK from North Africa and continental Europe, a few are thought to be resident now that mild winters are becoming more common. These residents can be seen flying and feeding on gentle winter days. The painted lady also migrates into the UK but is thought to be unable to survive our winters, so the one I encountered is unlikely to see our spring.
What about the bees, aren’t they supposed to be in hibernation at this time of year? Well yes, most bees are, but based on my observations of buff-tailed workers collecting pollen in December, there must be winter active colonies at Roundham Head. I first saw worker bumblebees here in January about five years ago and since then I have seen them at a similar time each year, so this is a well-established phenomenon. There are presumably queens in their nests laying eggs supported by these workers. These queens would have been produced in the previous October to mate with males at emergence. Last year I did see male buff-tails here in December so perhaps these were survivors of the late autumn emergence.
There is abundant evidence now from a variety of sources that colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees are active in the winter across the southern part of the UK. Two factors seem to be important: winter weather should not be too harsh and there should be plenty of flowers to support the colonies.
It was a luminous spring morning in early May when I trekked up Hardown Hill in west Dorset in the south west of the UK. Hardown rises steeply above Morcombelake and the surrounding countryside affording fine views of the coast and of the Marshwood Vale. Compared with its well-known cousin, Golden Cap, across the valley (see picture above), this flat-topped hill is unjustly ignored but its heathland summit boasts a rich ecology supporting several rare species and, for many years, Hardown Hill was a busy semi-industrial site where building stone was mined.
It’s a steep climb to the top of Hardown Hill but finally the stony track flattens out and I enter a heathland landscape, rare in this part of Dorset. The summit is broad and flat and typical low-growing heathland plants such as gorse and several species of heather flourish here on the acid soil. Pale sandy tracks cut swathes across the heath but, even on a sunny morning in springtime, the feeling is sombre, dominated by dark browns and greens. A few mature birch trees and a small copse of pine trees provide relief and I come across a pond surrounded by tall clumps of pale, dried grass and a struggling sallow. This heath habitat is also the home of rare nightjars, sand lizards and Dartford warblers.
Standing on the Hardown summit is an elemental experience. Today, a moderate wind blows from the west, rising and falling like the sound of surf on the strand. The heath vegetation rustles and fidgets in response, accompanied by skylarks trilling high overhead. I watch a spirited storm tracking across Lyme Bay and prepare to shelter but, in the end, it mostly avoids the land leaving the sun to return. All of this is overlaid on the southern side by the ebb and flow of traffic noise from the busy A35 some distance below.
The heath may look uninviting and barren, but this is springtime and there are many signs of renewal. A few clumps of yellow gorse stand out above fresh grey-green growth and heathers push feathery green and red shoots upwards. Submerged in the thick heath vegetation are the small bright blue and white flowers of heath milkwort piercing the darkness like stars in the night sky. In the past, the flowers were thought to resemble small udders and this may account for the plant’s name as well as its administration to nursing mothers by medieval herbalists. Along path edges on the northern side of the heath, I find several generous clumps of a shrub with pale fleshy leaves, green with a tinge of pink. This is bilberry, covered at this time of year with delicate, almost transparent, pale red, lantern-shaped flowers looking out of place in this harsh environment but proving popular with bumblebees and hoverflies. Late summer will see the plants covered with succulent black fruits.
I encounter only one other person on the heath but it hasn’t always been such a quiet place. From medieval times, Hardown Hill would have resounded to the clash of picks and shovels wielded by men mining the landscape for building materials. Beneath the thin layer of soil that covers the summit, there are layers of clay and a yellow/brown sandy material containing substantial lumps of flint-like, hard rock, the chert cobs. A mixture of clay, stone and sand was taken for road construction and the chert cobs were used for building. Mining occurred on the southern slopes of the Hill, either in open pits or in adits (mine shafts) cut into the hillside. Nowadays there are few traces of this busy activity. The mining area has mostly been colonised by rough grass and bracken, brightened today by a haze of bluebells. One open pit has been preserved near the top of Love’s Lane displaying the layers of rock and the chert cobs. The adits are inaccessible for safety reasons but one serves an important role as a hibernation area for the rare lesser horseshoe bat.
The chert cobs were split using a small hammer on a long handle, the Hardown hammer. Cobs were held on an iron bar with three claws and covered in damp hessian to protect the eyes of workmen who also wore wire goggles. Split cobs were used to provide a tough outer surface, silvery-blue or yellowish, on domestic and farm buildings around the Marshwood Vale. Good examples of the use of Hardown chert can also be found on the 14th century abandoned chapel at Stanton St Gabriel beneath Golden Cap and on the tiny 19th century church at Catherston Leweston.
But it is to the height of Hardown Hill that I want to return. Its prominence above the surrounding countryside gives spectacular views with new perspectives on some of west Dorset’s notable landmarks. Looking southwards, we see Golden Cap and the darkly-wooded Langdon Hill rising steeply across the valley with a backdrop of the waters of Lyme Bay (see picture at the top of this post). Towards the east, Portland floats unsettlingly as if cast adrift. To the north, especially from Hardown’s rough grassy flanks, we look across the patchwork of fields and the ring of hills that make up the Marshwood Vale with the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum cradled in its green embrace. New perspectives challenge us to think differently and the relative isolation of Hardown fosters quiet contemplation away from the cares of everyday life.
Perhaps that’s what Thomas Hardy meant when he wrote in his poem “Wessex Heights”:
“There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, ………….”
You may have never knowingly encountered a nurdle but these small plastic pellets are the raw material of the plastics industry and are ferried around the world in their millions. About the size of a small pea, nurdles come in many colours and they’re finding their way on to our beaches, killing wildlife and polluting the environment. I wanted to find out more about these unwelcome intruders, so I joined a nurdle hunt organised by the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.
Charmouth beach was surprisingly busy that morning but it was half term and, for mid-February, quite warm in the low sunshine. Many people were walking by the sea, taking advantage of the mild weather, perhaps hoping to find a fossil, but an expectant crowd had also gathered by the steps to the Heritage Coast Centre. At precisely midday, Sophie Thomas, one of the Centre wardens, walked down the steps together with local volunteer Eden Thomson and gathered us together. Sophie began by explaining what nurdles were and how they washed up on the beach from the sea. She emphasised the dangers these plastic pellets pose to wildlife such as birds and fish who mistake them for food. Each of us was given a pair of disposable gloves, to guard against toxic chemicals contained in the nurdles, and an empty margarine pot for nurdle collecting. Then off we went, about thirty of us, to hunt among debris washed up on the west bank of the river Char between the two beach car parks.
And what a fine sight we were! Young and old, locals and visitors, families and children, sitting or lying on the ground, enthusiastically scouring the debris for the plastic pellets. It was a fascinating event, although we did get some funny looks. Everyone found pellets in large numbers, not just on the surface but also buried a few centimetres down showing how pervasive they are. Some were smooth, grey and cylindrical and a few were lentil shaped, white, yellow or green. The vast majority, however, were bright blue cylindrical pellets, about 5mm in size, with fine ridges. The grand total for the group was 6650 pellets collected in 90 mins from this small section of beach, highlighting the extent of the contamination.
What do we know about nurdles and how they get into the sea to wash up on our beaches? These small plastic pellets are made from oil or natural gas to provide an easily transportable raw material for use in plastics factories all around the world. Most of the plastic products that now dominate our lives are made from nurdles and huge numbers of the pellets are transported by ship, so there is always the potential for spills. In October 2017, two containers of nurdles fell from a ship in the port of Durban leading to massive nurdle pollution along more than 1000km of beaches. Closer to home, the storm-damaged container ship, Napoli was beached off Branscombe early in 2007 leading to hundreds of containers breaking free. Two containers were filled with nurdles which washed up along many local beaches. These environmental disasters have been likened to oil spills, only worse as the nurdles do not break down.
Nurdles can also end up in the sea through careless handling at plastics factories. The environmental charity, Surfers Against Sewage, visited several plastics companies in Cornwall and found nurdles littered around the sites. These will inevitably be blown or washed into drains and into the sea. Another kind of plastic pellet, wrinkly or ridged, has been found in large numbers on beaches in Cornwall by Rame Peninsula Beach Care. These are biobeads, easily confused with nurdles but with a completely different purpose. Some sewage works use biobeads as part of the wastewater treatment process and the pellets get into the sea through careless handling by water companies.
Why should we be concerned about nurdles and biobeads? They are a totally unnecessary form of pollution in our seas and on our beaches and their presence shows a lack of respect for the environment. They are now found all over the world wherever the sea meets the land: on beaches in industrialised countries or on isolated, sparsely populated islands. Not only do they pollute our beaches, they are eaten by seabirds and fish who mistake them for food. Once consumed, they block the digestive tract, lodge in the windpipe or fill the stomach leading to malnutrition and starvation. For example, analysis of dead puffins on the Isle of May in Scotland, home to one of the UK’s largest breeding populations of these birds, showed they had consumed nurdles alongside their usual diet of sand eels.
Nurdles are also a source of toxic chemicals that may exacerbate their physical effects. Freshly spilt nurdles may release chemicals such as plasticisers used in their manufacture. Nurdles that have been in the sea longer attract toxic chemicals such as PCBs and DDTs. These substances may have a toxic effect on seabirds and fish that consume them and have unknown effects on humans who encounter them on beaches.
What can we do about the nurdle problem? Industry needs to improve handling procedures and make sure nurdle spills are cleared completely. Operation Clean Sweep is a plastics industry programme aimed at eliminating pellet losses but, as yet, it is only voluntary. In the longer term, we need to reduce our dependence on plastics, especially single use plastics.
Nurdle hunting can also help by raising awareness and by reducing pellet numbers in the environment. As Sophie Thomas said to me “A nurdle collected is a nurdle out of the sea”. Occasionally, it may be possible to infer the source of pellets based on their appearance and properties. For example, the pellets found at Charmouth are unusual compared to those I have seen on other beaches. Although some at Charmouth are true nurdles, the majority are the bright blue cylindrical type with fine ridges, more typical of a biobead. If these are indeed biobeads, how are they getting on to Charmouth beach?
It was also a pleasure to meet Sarah West and her husband John that day. Sarah is a blogging friend and she and John had also joined the nurdle hunt. Sarah writes the blog “Down by the Sea” and has recently been heavily involved in organising the Bridport Green Fortnight.
Mistaken marriages, passionate affairs, tragic deaths, richly interwoven with folklore and superstition. This is the complex concoction contained in The Return of the Native, one of Thomas Hardy’s great novels. Hardy set his narrative on the semi-fictional Egdon Heath, a “vast tract of unenclosed wild” that assumes a claustrophobic, controlling influence on his characters. Hardy’s Egdon Heath has many of the features of the heath landscape that once filled the space between Dorchester and Bournemouth. I wanted to experience Egdon so, on a warm, humid day towards the end of July, I went to Winfrith Heath one of the surviving fragments of this Dorset heathland.
I followed a sandy soil track on to the heath, descending gradually between borders of gorse and low trees. As I gained distance from the road, long views opened up across the gently undulating terrain surrounding me and an eerie quiet descended, broken only by trains passing on the heath-edge line. Apart from the occasional stunted tree and a few drifts of pale green bracken much of this part of the heath appeared featureless and barren.
Closer inspection, however, revealed some of the heath’s special wildlife. Near the path edge, the cheerful purples, pinks and violets of the three common species of heather showed well. These heathers flourish across the heath alongside rough grasses and gorse, and their bright pastel-coloured flowers lend a purple-pink tinge to long views at this time of year, the colour augmented by sunshine but lost in a mass of dull browns and greens when cloud covers. Large, metallic blue and green emperor dragon flies, the size of small birds, were attracted to the ponds scattered across the heath. They swept back and forth across the water making repeated, aerial, hairpin turns in a constant search for insect food. Heather spikes dipped momentarily when yellow-striped bumblebees moved among the flower-bells collecting pollen and nectar.
The sandy path levelled out. Heathland now spread extensively on both sides and, together with the grey cloud cover, created a claustrophobic feeling. Ahead of me was a band of trees with a gate and standing water. The trees mark a drainage ditch feeding into the Tadnoll Brook, a chalk-stream tributary of the River Frome. I crossed the ditch on a very solid brick bridge, and was transported to a different world, one of damp meadows and thick rushy grass. The wet meadow, soggy underfoot, was dominated by untidy stands of shoulder-high marsh thistles with multiple, prolific, spiny stems. Each stem was topped by a starburst of flower heads, a mixture of shaggy purple flowers and brown and white fluffy seed heads. Between the thistles, the lemon-yellow cushion flowers of bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the undergrowth and, as I walked, pale brown grasshoppers soared in long arcs from the rough grass, seeking safety away from me.
Butterflies danced around the unruly thistle flowers like confetti caught in the breeze, pausing occasionally to take nectar. Small tortoiseshell, marbled white and peacock resembled colourful modernist stained glass and a pair of gatekeepers performed an airborne ballet. This enclosed wetland felt like a land of plenty, a land of unconstrained, fulsome growth. Even in high summer, however, the meadow was wet and marshy so that after winter rain the area will become boggy and treacherous. A group of cows lurked in a corner of the meadow watching me; they help to control growth of vegetation but create further hazards for the unwary walker.
These two very different habitats, the larger lowland heath and the smaller wet meadow make up the majority of the Winfrith reserve as we see it today but the area hasn’t always looked like this. Until the Bronze Age, this land was covered with forest (birch, pine, hazel, elm, oak) but 3-4000 years ago trees began to be felled exposing the underlying soil. Nutrients were gradually washed away from freely draining soils leaving behind a relatively acidic surface where heathers and gorse flourished, eventually creating the heath we see today. This landscape was maintained and scrub encroachment prevented through a combination of grazing by cattle and ponies and by heathland practices such as furze, turf and peat cutting.
Heathland once stretched from Dorchester in the west to the Avon Valley in the east but much has been lost following changes in agricultural practices or through building; a large part of Winfrith Heath was swallowed up when the nuclear research facility was built in the 1950s and still lies behind forbidding fences. Today, only 15% of the original heath is left but what remains is a very important and rare landscape and part of Dorset’s history. Its importance as a special habitat supporting rare species such as the Dartford warbler and the nightjar is recognised by its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest but the heathland is still threatened directly or indirectly by development.
But did I get any sense of what Hardy’s Egdon Heath was like from my visit? Even on a small area like Winfrith, there was a definite sense of isolation in the central part of the heath, and that feeling was only partially lifted when the sun shone and the heath took on some colour. So, if it’s solitude you are after, then it’s a perfect place. One person’s solitude is, however, another person’s loneliness and it’s not difficult to see how Egdon might have depressed some of Hardy’s characters. Neither is the heath a benign environment; care is required in all seasons but in winter, it is bleak, brown and very windy with boggy areas dangerous especially after wet weather. Having said all that, the heath does have an undeniable grandeur but its very rarity as a landscape nowadays means that we may not know how to react to it. Perhaps like Hardy’s “survivors” we should simply accept and embrace the heath for what it is, foibles and all.
Winfrith Heath lies to the west of Gatemore Road in Winfrith Newburgh and a Dorset Wildlife Trust information board marks the entrance.