In this third post on Nature Walks during the Lockdown, I want to take you on a very short stroll, only a few steps in fact, into our front garden. It’s a small garden but it’s south facing and sheltered and it comes to life in the spring, especially on a sunny day.
I stand in the garden and listen. Today is cooler and breezier than it has been for some days and, across the street, the wind wanders through the developing leaf canopy on the tall sycamore creating a low rushing sound. A buzzard mews as it circles overhead, a few gulls gossip on the roof tops and a greenfinch wheezes nearby.
But there is one sound I have become accustomed to that I can’t hear today. This is the continuous low buzz that has been coming from the front hedge on warmer, sunnier days. The hedge is a Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica) and for several weeks has been covered in small fleshy green leaves and bright orange-red, cup-shaped flowers filled with yellow stamens (see picture at the head of this post). The flame-coloured flowers flare brightly in the spring sunshine, but they tend to be partly buried by green foliage tempering their overall impact. Once the flowers fade this will be just another green hedge but, in the autumn, when the leaves fall, they reveal attractive pale green fleshy fruits that seem to have appeared from nowhere. For now, though, the flowers celebrate the spring by being a magnet for all kinds of bee. Unlike many flowers, there seem to be no preferences and I have seen honeybees, several species of bumblebee and several species of solitary bee, many loaded with yellow pollen; the almost continuous presence of bees working the flowers produces this spring buzz. I have tried to get pictures of the different bees feeding from the flowers but this has been unusually difficult. It feels as though when the bees see me, they move quickly to flowers deeper in the hedge although I did manage a couple of photos.
Spring has, however, recently moved up a gear. There are two small bee houses attached to the front of our house and, a year ago, these were occupied by red mason bees who filled some of the holes, topping them off with reddish mud. Just over a week ago, two of the mud plugs were broken and out came two red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) males. There are now at least six and they spend their time flying frantically about the bee houses dancing in the air, sometimes stopping to look in one of the holes, sometimes resting on the wall in the sun and sometimes feeding from nearby flowers. They are brimming with sexual energy, waiting for females to emerge from the bee houses, desperate to mate and their pent up excitement sometimes leads to mistaken male on male mating attempts. Male red mason bees are very attractive insects and it’s worth pausing to look. They are about two thirds the size of a honeybee, and notable for their long antennae, pale facial hair and striking bands of orange hair across the abdomen that sparkle in the sun.
It’s always an exciting time when the mason bees appear and busy themselves around the bee house. It’s a sign to me that spring has really arrived and summer will follow and I am reassured that nature is still following its plan.
As if to serenade the emergence of the mason bees, the cherry tree near the hedge also burst into flower this week. I had been watching the tree and thought there would be plenty of blossom and it is now covered in sprays of small white flower buds each clasped by five green sepals. Many of the buds have opened revealing five pure white petals on each flower, the sepals having bent backwards. Within the flower there is more to see, a mass of stamens each topped with a yellow anther, also a single thicker pale green pistil. Our tree is a Morello cherry, a cooking variety and self-fertile but pollination depends on insects to transfer pollen between anther and pistil. As if to underline this point, as more flowers have opened, I have noticed a stream of insects coming to feed from the flowers including hoverflies, solitary bees and even some of the mason bees from the bee houses. Some of the solitary bees went systematically from flower to flower so pollination should be fine and, providing the birds are kept at bay, we should enjoy a good crop of fruit in the late summer.
I don’t expect the flowers to last very long so it’s important sometimes to stop, stand back and admire the tree in its spring guise covered with pure white flowers, and remember the poem “Loveliest of Trees” where A E Housman saw his cherry “hung with snow”.
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.
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.
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 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.
Blizzards, strong winds, drifting snow, bitter cold – that was the story in early March last year when the “Beast from the East” collided with storm Emma bringing extreme weather and disruption to life across large parts of the UK. Towards the end of June, by contrast, the sun began to shine and daytime temperatures climbed into the thirties and stayed that way across much of the country until August (the picture at the top of this post shows the effect of the long hot summer on the UK countryside). Elsewhere across the globe, reports came in of flooding, wildfires, severe tropical storms and unusually high and low temperatures. Many of these weather extremes can be attributed to climate change and there is considerable concern that the planet is heading for climate catastrophe. David Attenborough expressed this fear at a climate change conference in Poland: “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
In the UK, it was the long, hot summer, the joint hottest on record, that made people think most about a changing climate. The weather here is, of course, notoriously fickle and some will remember that in 1976, we experienced a similar long, hot, dry summer, so how can we disentangle normal weather variation from climate change? One way of looking at this was shown by Simon Lee, a PhD student at the University of Reading, who shared graphs on Twitter of the global temperature anomalies in June 1976 and in June 2018 (see pictures below). These show that in 1976 the UK was one of a few unusually hot spots in an otherwise cooler than average world whereas in 2018 much of the world, including the UK, was hotter than the average. The 2018 picture shows climate change in action: the planet is warmer making heatwaves more likely.
Careful measurements of the average surface temperature of the planet show that it is currently about 1oC hotter than in pre-industrial times. This may not seem very much but it is enough to disturb the complex systems that create our weather. As a result, heatwaves may be more frequent in summer and, in winter, polar air may be directed southwards bringing abnormal, freezing temperatures. Also, a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture so that rain and snow may be more severe. Climate breakdown might be an apt description of these changes.
This global heating is a result of human activity. The emission of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas, oil and petrol, traps heat in the atmosphere so the temperature of the world increases. We have known this for some time and we have also known that the solution is to reduce carbon emissions. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have, however, continued to climb because no government has had the will to introduce the extreme lifestyle changes required to curb emissions. Some governments, including our own, have even encouraged the continuing extraction of fossil fuels.
It is, therefore, significant that in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report containing a dire warning: we must make urgent and unprecedented changes to the way we live if we are to limit heating to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this target, we must reduce net global carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and to zero by 2050 – fossil fuel use must be drastically reduced by the middle of the 21st century but we must start the reduction now. Should we fail to achieve this 1.5oC target, the risks of drought, flooding, extreme heat, poverty and displacement of people leading to wars will increase significantly. The world will no longer be the place we know and love and parts of it will become uninhabitable for humans and the rest of nature.
How do we achieve this reduction in carbon emissions? Voluntary measures such as suggesting people fly or drive less will not work. The only way this reduction can be achieved is through coordinated government action based on recommendations made in the IPCC report. These include the planting of more forests and the chemical capture of carbon dioxide to reduce atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. There must also be a drastic shift in energy production and in transport away from fossil fuels and this can be driven in part by investment and subsidies directed towards clean technologies. A carbon tax can also help drive this shift but the tax will need to be high enough to force change, for example by taxing energy companies who burn fossil fuels so that they invest in cleaner technologies. In the short term, costs to consumers may rise, so politicians would need to keep the public on side, for example, through tax incentives. If we grasp the opportunity, the scale of change may have the unexpected bonus of allowing us to design more sustainable and equitable societies.
The IPCC report set out very clearly the changes required to avoid damaging global climate change so there was great anticipation when the UN Climate Change Conference convened in Katowice in Poland just before Christmas. Astonishingly, given the gravity of the situation, the 200 countries represented there failed to agree new ambitious targets for greater reductions in carbon emissions. Four countries (USA, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait) would not even sign a document welcoming the IPCC report; these countries are of course all oil producers.
It was at this conference that David Attenborough issued his warning about the collapse of civilisations but there was another hugely impressive intervention. This came from 15-year old activist Greta Thunberg from Sweden. She had already achieved some notoriety through her weekly climate strikes where she missed one day of school to protest about climate change. Her actions have stimulated many thousands of young people around the world to do likewise. Thunberg also spoke in London at the launch of the new grass-roots movement, Extinction Rebellion, which intends to use peaceful protest to force governments to protect the climate. These new trends offer some hope for the future since it is the young of today that will bear the climate of tomorrow.
Here is part of Greta Thunberg’s speech given at the Katowice conference:
“For 25 years countless people have come to the UN climate conferences begging our world leaders to stop emissions and clearly that has not worked as emissions are continuing to rise. So, I will not beg the world leaders to care for our future, I will instead let them know change is coming whether they like it or not.”
“Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago. We have to understand what the older generation has dealt to us, what mess they have created that we have to clean up and live with. We have to make our voices heard.”
I am grateful to Simon Lee for generously supplying the temperature anomaly graphs.
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.
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.
As we stepped off the train at Dawlish Warren station, we had our first glimpse of the river Exe, its waters a sparkling pale blue in the bright sunshine. The weather was a welcome change after so many cold and snowy days but, during our short journey from Totnes, we had passed bright ridges of snow still piled against field hedges and, in low lying places, large lakes of standing water from snow melt. Perhaps the weather was giving us a gentle reminder of its power to disrupt life.
We hadn’t intended to visit Dawlish Warren again so soon (see here for a description of our previous visit) but we wanted to get out for a walk and, hearing that some country roads were still snow-blocked, we chose somewhere easily accessible. We also wondered how the recent extreme weather might have affected this beautiful sand spit.
The view from the promenade quickly told us part of the answer. Sand was piled up on the retaining wall that slopes to the beach and, along the promenade, some of the benches were partly submerged in sand as if caught by a pale brown snow storm. On the beach, huge quantities of wooden debris lay in random heaps, along with some very large plastic items; it will be a mammoth task to clear this. A closer look showed that the debris was a mixture of wood and reeds along with bits and pieces of plastic and many industrial plastic pellets (mostly grey nurdles). I don’t want to go on too much about these industrial pellets, I’ve written about them several times already, but we found them littering all the beaches at the Warren to a greater or lesser extent. Near the promenade there must have been thousands.
As we were picking up a few of the pellets, a woman asked Hazel what she was doing. After an explanation, the woman said:
“I thought you were picking up driftwood,” and after Hazel had shown her some pellets the woman continued “still they might be very nice for decorating a mirror.”
We then walked around the Dawlish Warren sand spit following the route I outlined in a previous post, which also gives some background information about this nature reserve.
The central area of the Warren was partially flooded but still passable. No spring flowers were to be seen yet but small birds were performing florid mating displays while a group of black corvids sat judgementally in a nearby tree. Vegetation along paths over the dunes was seemingly spray-painted with a coat of rough sand, probably a result of the blizzard sucking up material from the beach. Near the bird hide, I disturbed a large flock of Brent geese feeding on the golf course. These imposing birds took off as a group and circled low over us before moving to a quieter spot.
Warren Point at the end of the sand spit was as mysterious and beautiful as always, its pale marram grass covering glowing in the sunshine. A small flock of linnets, the males with their pink bibs standing out, fidgeted in the branches of a low bush. A skylark rose from the ground, wings flapping frantically as it hovered in mid-air, singing, turning a tune over and over, changing it each time. Then, without warning, it stopped flapping and deftly descended back to the ground with subtle, steadying wing movements.
The story on the beaches bordering Warren Point was less uplifting. There was a slew of debris along the strandline, mostly wood and reeds but also many dead birds. We saw at least twenty casualties, mostly lapwings, identified by their largely black colouring combined with russet brown and white undersides. During the storm there had been a mass movement of these birds across the Warren and a proportion didn’t survive. We also saw one or two golden plovers with their exquisite pale brown and white herringbone patterns. On the beach facing up the Exe, the low sand cliffs at the back of the beach had been damaged by high water and when we rounded the point to walk back, there were more signs of storm damage. Areas of marram grass had been torn out and reddish soil had been deposited on the edge of the remaining marram grass.
The most significant damage, however, had occurred to the taller sand cliffs that abut the groynes on the sea-facing beach. Sand had been washed away from the back of the groynes and several metres of sand cliff removed exposing, in some places, the old sea defences. Some of the new fences built on the reinforced dune ridge had been torn out and now lay on the ground in casual heaps or hanging in mid-air, still partly attached. The groynes themselves seemed to be intact but plastic notices attached to them lay in pieces among the other debris. In a powerful demonstration of the scale of the storm and the water level reached, small pieces of wood and more plastic pellets lay along the wooden planks of the groynes and on top of the main support posts nearly a metre above the sand.
Despite all this, the Warren itself is intact and ready for the bloom of spring flowers. The scale of the damage to the new sea defences was shocking and a salutary reminder of the power of the sea, but at least the defences did hold. Elsewhere in south Devon, the coast road linking Torcross and Slapton was almost completely washed away. As in 2014, when the Dawlish railway line was destroyed, this year’s damage was the result of a combination of high winds and very high tides, perhaps combined with increased sea level.
As we waited at the station for our homeward train, I noticed willow trees by the platform with many plump, pussy willow catkins. A medium sized buff-tailed bumblebee arrived to collect pollen from the lemon-yellow male flowers.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
Barbecue charcoal – think before you buy
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?
[Please read the important amendment at the end of this article]
A few months ago, I visited Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset in the south west of the UK. I went to look at the oil well on the cliffs above the beach and wrote about my experience. The Kimmeridge oil reserve is quite small but further east there are huge additional reserves of oil extending for several kilometres under Poole Harbour and Poole Bay. I wanted to write about these much larger deposits and the environmental effects of extraction: my article, which also takes another look at some of the Kimmeridge story, appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine. Here is the article:
It’s difficult to believe but one of the most beautiful parts of Dorset in the south west of the UK is home to the largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe. And yet the day to day impact on most residents and on the local environment is minimal. Perhaps the Dorset oil experience can help us predict the potential environmental effects of shale gas extraction by fracking in other parts of the UK? Let’s look at the story of oil in Dorset and see what we can learn.
Medieval times were harsh for most people but if you lived near Kimmeridge Bay in the Isle of Purbeck, you had one thing going for you; some of the rocks exposed in the cliffs would burn so you had a ready-made fuel for heating and cooking. The locals called it “Kimmeridge Coal” and it didn’t matter that it smelt awful, it was available and it was free. The same logic drove Sir William Clavell in the 17th century to set up alum works at Kimmeridge using the fuel. His efforts came to nothing because of patent restrictions so he turned to making salt by boiling sea water and subsequently he set up a glass works, but neither enterprise prospered.
“Kimmeridge Coal” is found in bands of bituminous shale in the cliffs around Kimmeridge Bay but further exploitation of the material had to wait until the 19th century when it was realised that useful hydrocarbons might be extractable. Processing plants were set up at Weymouth and at Wareham making varnish, grease, pitch, naphtha, paraffin and paraffin wax and in 1848 the street lights of Wareham were lit by 130 lamps powered by gas derived from the shale. The industry never prospered, possibly because the high sulphur content made the gas unsuitable for domestic use.
Kimmeridge oil shale is a useful material but it is not a source of conventional crude oil. Ironically, the first discovery of crude oil in Dorset also occurred at Kimmeridge Bay but it comes from rocks lying well below the shale deposits.
The Kimmeridge “nodding donkey”
The search for oil in Dorset began in the 1930s but it was not until 1959 that the first well producing oil and gas was discovered below Kimmeridge Bay. The well is extracted by a single beam “nodding donkey” pump on the cliffs above the Bay that has worked continuously for more than 50 years; it is the oldest working oil well in the UK and the “nodding donkey” is now part of the local scenery. The Kimmeridge well produced 350 barrels of oil a day at its peak but this has now declined to a fifth of that level. Although the Kimmeridge reservoir is not large, the discovery prompted the search for other oil deposits in Dorset.
The largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe – hidden near Poole Harbour
The energy crises of the 1970s led to further exploration in Dorset and in 1974, oil and gas were discovered by the Gas Council at Wytch Farm on the southern side of Poole Harbour. Production started in 1979 and nowadays the Anglo-French company Perenco owns the majority stake in the oil field. There are three large reservoirs of oil 1-2 km below the sea, extending up to 10 km under Poole Harbour, Brownsea Island, Sandbanks and to the south of Bournemouth. Peak production was in 1997 at 110,000 barrels of oil per day; current levels are about 18,000 barrels per day. The field also produces natural gas (for domestic use) and liquid petroleum gas.
There are 12 well sites distributed around Wytch Farm, the Goathorn Peninsula and Furzey island from which more than 100 wells have been drilled. There is also a gathering station where the products of the wells are collected, processed and distributed. This is a large industrial enterprise, the largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe and the second largest consumer of electricity in the South of England (after Heathrow Airport).
The paradox is that this industrial complex operates in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty so the site has been developed with this is mind. Buildings are on sites that have been excavated to reduce height and are screened by trees. Facilities are painted a dull brown and the number of well sites has been minimised by drilling long distances horizontally away from the well site in to the oil deposits; until 2008 Wytch Farm held the world record for the longest drill extending 10.1 km under Poole Bay. In consequence, this large industrial complex has minimal impact on the surrounding countryside and most people are unaware of the activity.
Lessons from Dorset oil
Wytch Farm is a great success story, both in terms of the oil and gas produced and the minimal environmental impact. Some have used the Wytch Farm experience to suggest that fracking (hydraulic fracturing for shale gas) in other parts of the UK will also have a minimal environmental impact, even suggesting, incorrectly, that fracking has already occurred at Wytch Farm.
Although similar drilling technology is used to extract crude oil and to release shale gas, fracking uses large volumes of high pressure liquid (mostly water) to create fissures in low permeability rock and this has not been carried out at Wytch Farm. Also each potential fracking site is likely to be unique and different from Wytch Farm in terms of the density of wells required, the density of population and the nature of the countryside. Dorset oil has been managed to minimise environmental impact but it would be wrong to use the Dorset oil experience to predict the general environmental impact of fracking elsewhere.
There is, of course, one important issue I have not considered here: should we continue to extract and use oil given the need to prevent global climate change? Take a look at the complementary article for my views on that.
Important amendment: In September 2018 it was revealed that the Kimmeridge oil pump has been legally leaking the powerful greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere for nearly 60 years. The story is covered here. This disclosure changes very considerably my view of the environmental impact of the Kimmeridge oil pump.
About a mile upstream of the south Devon town of Totnes, the tree-lined tranquillity of the river Dart is interrupted by a weir. Water cascades over this concrete barrier and after heavy rain there is a spectacular display of power with swirling whirlpools and foamy white water. Slate-grey herons and sparkling white egrets stand sentinel by the weir and the occasional grey seal lurks below, waiting to feast on fish that linger too long. There has been a weir at this bend in the Dart since the 16th century, built originally to harness the power of the river; the present rather bland construction dates largely from the 20th century.
The weir is a downwards-sloping concrete barrier that interrupts the flow of the river so that a large pool of water accumulates upstream, isolated from the tidal downstream water about three metres below. This pool of water is a store of potential energy that was used in the past to drive several water mills in the town a mile away. A channel, the leat, ran from the pool all the way in to Totnes and providing the leat stayed above the level of the river it contained the energy to drive a water wheel. Only one mill building now survives: the Town Mill dating from the 17th century but with 19th century additions. This was used as a water mill until 1945 and currently houses the Tourist Information Centre. The leat is still intact and can be viewed along much of its path, through an industrial estate, under the main railway line and passing near the front of Morrisons superstore. The leat is celebrated in the name of the town’s large medical centre, the Leatside Surgery.
Over the past year, a neat, stone-clad, turf-roofed building has materialised by the side of the weir. This is the turbine house of the new Totnes Hydro which once again harnesses the power of the Dart. On the downstream side of the building are two tube-like structures roughly aligned with the descending surface of the weir, each tube containing an Archimedes Screw. Water from the pool behind the weir passes under the turbine building to enter the tubes, pressing on the blades of each Archimedes Screw causing them to turn and driving the turbines. The Archimedes Screws can be viewed from the downstream side and I find them mesmerising – turning steadily, water splashing, feeling almost alive – as they transform the potential energy of the water in to kinetic energy and subsequently electrical energy.
When there is a good head of water, the turbines generate about 250 kW of power. Output will depend on flow in the river (higher power after heavy rain) and the head across the weir (typically about 3m but reduced by spring tides). Generation may cease altogether for about two weeks in a dry summer when water flow in the Dart is low. Currently, the electricity generated is powering the local comprehensive school and an aluminium foundry on the nearby industrial estate and any surplus enters the grid. To put this in to perspective the overall energy produced is enough to power the equivalent of about 300 homes. In time, the hydro will also provide electricity for the new ATMOS project. This is a community-led development of homes and businesses on the former Dairy Crest site in Totnes.
The river Dart is an important route for migrating fish and the weir already contained a fish pass to help sea trout and salmon overcome the barrier. The pass was, however, in poor condition so that fish were having difficulty moving up the weir leading to losses to hungry herons and seals. The new Hydro project includes renovating the existing fish pass and building an additional modern fish pass alongside the turbine building. These should help migrating fish so that, in time, the piscine population on the Dart increases; new fish counters have also been installed to help monitor traffic.
So far so good, but if equipment is installed to capture the energy of the river it is bound to alter the flow over and around the weir. You can see this clearly on the upstream side of the turbine house where water in the pool flows towards the new building to enter the Archimedes Screws, eventually discharging in to the river below. Although water flow through the turbines is carefully regulated by sluices to make sure that the weir does not dry out, less water now flows across the weir than before. This redistribution of water has remodelled islands in the river downstream and night fishermen have had to relearn safety on the river. We should not forget, however, that when the weir was first built and water was directed down the leat to power the Totnes mills some 500 years ago, water flow in the river must have been changed to a much greater extent. There is also the question of noise. The new Archimedes Screw turbines do emit noise as they turn and there is some splashing of water. The turbine building is insulated and the current level of noise from the new installation is no more than I can remember coming from the weir on a full flood.
The Weir Hydro project was developed by the owners of the weir, Dart Renewables, working closely with the Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC). TRESOC was set up by local residents to enable the community to develop renewable energy and to retain control of the resources. On a practical level TRESOC aims to supply local homes and businesses with “local” energy. If everything works to plan, the Totnes Weir Hydro should generate 1.35 GWh of electricity each year, saving 550 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The majority of this electricity will be used to power local enterprises.
Disclaimer: I am a member of TRESOC and have invested in some of their projects.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.