Last week we saw this beautiful and surprising creature, a hummingbird-hawk moth, feeding from the red valerian that grows so profusely in Totnes.
Here are two more photos I managed before it flew away.
The wing span is about 5cm to give some scale. These day flying moths come into the UK from southern Europe in the summer.
Seeing this insect was all the more surprising as I have recently had several conversations with people about how few moths they see nowadays and that is my experience as well. If you want to read about the general decline of insects in the UK here is an interesting article from the Observer.
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.
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.
The Christmas weather in south Devon was stormy and very wet so when we woke on December 27th to bright sunshine and clear, pale blue skies we had to get out for a walk. We chose one combining countryside and sea, one we often walk after heavy rain as it mostly follows minor roads or paved paths.
We started at Townstal, a suburb on the edge of Dartmouth. Townstal is noted for its leisure centre and two supermarkets but it does provide easy parking and quick access to open countryside. Our route headed gradually southwards towards the sea along narrow roads edged by high grassy banks. Volleys of gulls and crows rose from adjacent fields and the low sunshine created strongly contrasting areas of light and dark on the deep valleys and rolling countryside, emphasising even the slightest undulation.
Some steep ups and downs took us to Venn Cross where we turned to descend along the Blackpool Valley with its spirited stream, growing ever fuller as it gathered water from springs or from the sodden fields. This part of the walk is tree lined and the minor road is cut into the hillside well above the stream. Several former water mills are dotted along the valley; they are now rather grand private houses but one has installed a turbine to harness the power of the water once again.
At this time of year, the trees are dark latticeworks of bare branches but pale brown immature catkins were showing well on some of the trees, readying themselves for the spring. Patches of winter heliotrope spread along verges enclosing the ground with their fleshy, green, heart-shaped leaves. Purple and white lollipop flowers struck through the leaves, broadcasting their characteristic almond odour.
Eventually, we reached Blackpool Sands, a popular shingle beach and café, surrounded by pine trees and sheltered by steeply rising hills. The low winter sun created strongly contrasting colours: the yellowish- brown shingle, the fringe of frothy white waves, the sea a rich dark blue tinged with turquoise highlights, and there were clear views across the bay to Start Point with its lighthouse. Near the café, a hardy group of swimmers were struggling on their wet suits in readiness for a dip. They passed me as they ventured in to the sea accompanied by audible yelps and shrieks.
I was keen to have a look at the shingle beach for two reasons. There had been a very successful beach clean four days previously organised by Amanda Keetley of Less Plastic. We hadn’t been able to be there owing to family commitments but there had also been storms since then and I wondered how much more plastic had washed up. I didn’t find any, the beach was still clean which should have been good news.
To be honest, however, I was feeling disheartened about efforts to reduce the load of plastic in our seas after reading two articles in the Guardian over the Christmas period. It seems that the US, along with financial support from Saudi Arabia, is planning a huge increase in plastic production, the driver being cheap shale gas. If we are to reduce the amount of plastic in our seas we need to reduce the amount in circulation and this new plan runs directly counter to this.
Towards the end of October, I spent a day at Cogden Beach, just east of Burton Bradstock in west Dorset. It’s a beautiful, natural spot, a rich concoction of sea, sky and shingle where wildlife prospers despite the sometimes harsh conditions. It’s becoming increasingly difficult, however, to ignore the scatter of plastic pollution on the beach and the potential effects of this manmade material on marine life.
It felt unseasonably warm as I walked downhill from the car park, more like a late summer’s day, although the blood-red rose hips and smoky-black sloes decorating the leafless scrub spoke of a different season. The vast shingle bank of Chesil Beach dominated the long view, a yellowish-brown convexity edged with white waves sweeping eastwards towards a mistily mysterious Isle of Portland. The sea was calm and a steely grey except where the low sun’s rays highlighted individual wavelets whose reflections merged in to a broad, silvery band of light.
When I reached the shingle bank I found traces of the special beach plants that grow so profusely here in spring and summer. Well weathered, blue-green and brownish-grey leaves were all that remained of the sea kale that dominates in May whereas, beneath the brown remnants of this season’s vegetation, fresh glaucous leaves were showing from the yellow horned-poppies. Small flocks of starlings skittered about puddles at the back of the beach like children in a school playground and, in a low sandy cliff, I was surprised to find bees busily filling nests. These were ivy bees (Colletes hederae), the last of our solitary bees to emerge, the females collecting chrome-yellow pollen from nearby clumps of flowering ivy. To the west, there were spectacular views of Burton Bradstock’s yellow cliffs and the distinctive flat top of Golden Cap.
It seemed like the perfect natural spot. But was it? Almost all the clumps of beach plants contained plastic waste including pieces of plastic wrap, colourful plastic rope or plastic fishing line. On the shingle between the clumps, I saw the occasional plastic drink bottle, some were intact, some in pieces. The prominent strandline about half way up the beach contained dark, dry seaweed and small pieces of wood mixed liberally with shards of plastic as though objects had shattered in their continual buffeting by the sea. Plastic drink bottles or their fragments also appeared at regular intervals along the strandline. This beach is no longer a completely natural, wild place, it has been contaminated by our throwaway plastic culture. Perhaps the most poignant symbol of this tension was a chunk of expanded polystyrene covered with pale grey goose barnacles.
Plastic is, of course, both versatile and cheap. It has transformed our lives but its very ubiquity and ease of use means that we don’t value it enough. Think how much you throw away each week: plastic wrap or bags from supermarket produce, drink containers and lids, plastic trays, pots and so on. We have embraced a “disposable” lifestyle where about half of the plastic we produce is used once and thrown away. Some countries manage to recycle or energy-recover a large proportion of their plastic waste but the UK is not one of them. In this country, more than 60% of plastic waste ends up in landfill where it does not break down and is effectively lost. We are squandering resources and energy on a massive scale, an appalling indictment of our way of life.
But what about the plastic waste I found on Cogden Beach, how does it get there? It comes from the sea and is left behind by the retreating tide. We have turned our oceans into a “plastic soup” composed of plastic bottles and bags, plastic fragments formed by breakdown of these larger items, also microplastics (5 mm or less in size) such as industrial pellets, small fragments and very small fibres from clothing or from car tyres. This is a huge global problem and shows no sign of abating. A staggering 12 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. All countries contribute but a large proportion comes from several in the Far East with poor waste management systems.
The consequences for marine wildlife are alarming. Consider, for example, the Northern Fulmar, a bird that forages exclusively at sea. A study in the North Atlantic showed that 91% of dead Fulmars found on beaches had plastic in their gut, having mistaken the plastic for food, reducing their ability to feed and sometimes damaging their digestive tract. At the other end of the food chain, zooplankton have been shown to ingest tiny microplastic fragments that may end up in fish and perhaps in humans. Plastic fragments also attract toxic chemicals that may affect the creatures consuming them. Our throwaway lifestyle is disturbing the entire global marine ecosystem. The problem is just as serious as climate change.
What can be done? First, we must reduce the amount of plastic in circulation by moving away from single-use items such as plastic bottles, takeaway cups, plastic cutlery, plastic wrap and plastic packaging. The introduction of the 5p charge on plastic bags led to an 85% reduction in use, so a levy on single-use takeaway cups and plastic cutlery may also be effective. Second, we need to encourage a “circular economy” where as much plastic as possible is recovered and recycled and none goes to landfill. A deposit return scheme for plastic drink bottles would increase recovery but greater recycling of other plastic containers must also be achieved. It is encouraging that some government ministers are now talking about the problems of plastic waste, but their words must be translated into actions.
Individual decisions can also bring about change. We can refuse to use plastic cutlery. We can choose to drink only from reusable cups. We can use and reuse our own shopping bag. We can recycle all plastic bottles and containers. We can pressurise local businesses to reduce plastic waste. We can participate in beach cleans. If we love our beaches and our seas we must do this.
Hope Cove is a popular seaside village on the south Devon coast located on the eastern side of Thurlestone Bay. The village used to be a centre for fishing and smuggling but nowadays tourism is the main activity. It’s a 45-min drive from our house through the undulating countryside of the South Hams and the journey took in all kinds of weather. We left in squally showers and sunshine and then, from one of the elevated sections of the road, I looked across to the peaks of Dartmoor, had someone really sprinkled icing sugar snow? Later on, I glanced to the west to see the sun shining from a pale blue sky illuminating a deep emerald green valley. To the east, however, a thick horizontal layer of dark grey cloud lay above clear sky that glowed with an ominous orange light. Curiously, the dark grey layer appeared to be bleeding downwards in to the orange layer compounding the threatening feeling of impending rain.
Fortunately, by the time we arrived at Hope Cove, the sky had cleared and the sun was shining although its low angle left large areas in the shade and the persistent sea breeze made it feel much colder. There were good views across Thurlestone Bay to Burgh Island and onwards as far as the distinctive conical outcrop of Rame Head in East Cornwall.
We found a large crowd of 40 or more people gathered around Amanda Keetley as she explained her plan for the afternoon. Hope Cove has two beaches, the smaller Mouthwell Sands and the larger Harbour Beach. The tide was well out exposing great expanses of sand and we were to clean both beaches. She handed out large plastic sacs and reusable gloves and people dispersed to pick up plastic waste and other litter. There were quite a few children and dogs and the afternoon had a happy, light feeling despite the cold.
Hazel and I went to Harbour Beach where we found plenty of plastic waste along the strandlines. We didn’t see many large items such as plastic bottles but there was a lot of plastic twine/fishing line much of it entangled with seaweed. We also found pieces of plastic bag, plastic wrap, pieces of plastic rope and many, many smallish plastic fragments (1-2 cm) probably from the breakdown of larger items. Much of this waste is potentially very damaging to sea creatures.
We also found a few plastic nurdles and other pellets but only at the back of the Harbour Beach on dry sand. The nurdles were quite similar to those we found at Leas Foot Sands, two miles further west round Thurlestone Bay.
When we had enough of the cold we took our bag to the collecting point outside the Cove Café Bar where a large pile was developing. In the end there were about 20 bags of waste: it was reassuring that so much plastic had been picked up but troubling that so much needed to be picked up.
Our reward for the afternoon, apart from feeling we had done an important job, was a free hot drink in the Cove Café Bar. The owners were supporting the beach clean and were very generous and welcoming despite the huge crowd; they are taking measures themselves to reduce use of plastics in the café so the drinks were served in china cups although some of us had brought our own reusable cups.
Two final points:
I was encouraged to see that most of the people taking part in the beach clean were in their thirties suggesting an awareness of the problem of marine plastic waste and a feeling that something needs to be done even when you are busy with jobs and children.
Should you be sceptical about the value of beach cleans, I suggest you take a look at a report from Eunomia where they conclude that beach cleans are an effective way to remove plastics from our seas.
The featured image is of Mouthwell Sands, Hope Cove.
Four years ago, a family of wild beavers were spotted on the river Otter in East Devon. This was the first report of the animal breeding successfully in the wild in England since the species had been hunted to extinction more than 400 years ago. No one knows how the animals came to be on the river but their prospering population is now the subject of a scientific trial providing a unique opportunity to monitor the re-introduction of a native species, or “rewilding” as it is sometimes called.
I wanted to find out more, so one evening in mid-September, I met Kate Ponting, Countryside Learning Officer for Clinton Devon Estates, at the village green in Otterton. Kate has been closely involved with the beaver re-introduction trial, taking place as it does on land largely owned by her employer. We headed to the river, crossed the old stone bridge and walked upstream along the muddy riverside path. Banks of Himalayan balsam and nettles dominated the river bank while, on the landward side, clover leys spread as far as the low embankment that once carried the railway. Prominent official signs warned that “Beavers live here” and Kate explained that there had been some local problems with dogs.
The river was full after recent heavy rain but the scene was tranquil in the low evening sunshine. We paused on the wooden bridge where Kate pointed out one beaver lodge, a semi-organised jumble of mud, sticks and branches protruding nearly a metre from the river bank and covering the entrance to a burrow where the beavers live. Further up the river we stopped to watch a second lodge on the far bank. Kate had warned me that the beavers had become less “reliable” as the autumn progressed and, although a wren flittered about the sticks making up the lodge and a grey wagtail passed through, we saw no beavers. Kate did, however, show me some signs of beaver activity including severed branches and one felled tree.
The beaver is Europe’s largest rodent and until the 16th century was found widely on UK rivers. They are impressively large animals covered in brown fur, measuring up to 100cm (head and body) and with scaly black tails. Beavers are strict herbivores with strong teeth allowing feeding on many species of river and bank plant as well as woody vegetation from trees. They are strong swimmers adapted for life underwater, and skilful aquatic engineers able to regulate water levels by building dams. When they build dams by felling trees they remodel the wetland landscape creating habitat for many other plants and animals and, for this reason, they are referred to as “keystone” species.
In the past, they were hunted to extinction for their fur, meat and castoreum, a secretion from their scent gland used for medicinal purposes. Early in the 21st century, however, free-living populations of beavers were re-established in Scotland and there were anecdotal sightings of wild beavers on the river Otter in East Devon. These reports were confirmed early in 2014 when two adults and one juvenile beaver (kit) were filmed near Ottery St Mary. This was the first confirmed report of wild beavers breeding in England for 400 years.
At first, DEFRA were concerned that the animals might harbour disease and wanted to remove them but their plan was opposed by wildlife experts and local people. So, towards the end of 2014, Devon Wildlife Trust applied to Natural England for a licence allowing the beavers to remain on the river as part of a five-year trial to monitor their effects. The licence was granted on the condition that the beavers were shown to be the native UK species and disease free and in March 2015, nine beavers living in two family groups were returned to the river Otter. The licence included a management plan for monitoring the health of the beaver population and its effects on the local landscape and ecology; also for making good any damage. The River Otter Beaver Trial is led by Devon Wildlife Trust working in partnership with the University of Exeter, the Derek Gow Consultancy and Clinton Devon Estates.
Since the trial began, beavers have been seen along almost the entire length of the river Otter. Breeding has been successful each year but there were concerns that the population might be becoming inbred so in 2016, two additional beavers, unrelated to the existing animals, were released on to the river. By 2017 the population had grown to more than 20 and watching the adult beavers and their kits on a summer’s evening became a popular pastime attracting many visitors to the area. So far, the presence of these large aquatic animals has caused few difficulties. Feeding signs have been detected all along the river in terms of severed shoots and felled trees but this was mainly confined to small diameter willow shoots. Earlier this year, fields near Otterton were flooded when beavers dammed one of the streams feeding the Otter but mitigation measures were put in place.
These are, however, early days and, as the number of beavers continues to rise, their presence in this managed East Devon landscape may cause tensions. There is good evidence from Bavaria, where the animals were re-introduced 50 years ago, that beavers can have a beneficial influence on rivers. They support wildlife by opening up the landscape, creating coppice and diversifying the wetland habitat. Their dams regulate river flows and remove sediment and pollutants. Sometimes, however, they can be a nuisance to those who live and work by rivers, causing flooding, blocking ditches, undermining river banks and felling important trees. There are now as many as 20,000 beavers on Bavaria’s rivers and their beneficial effects are clearly recognised alongside the need to manage the animals when their activity has a negative impact. Hopefully, a similar resolution can be reached for the East Devon beavers as their population grows. Whatever the outcome, the River Otter Beaver Trial will be closely watched by those interested in “rewilding” the landscape.
The featured image at the top of this post is of a female beaver on the River Otter, by Mike Symes, Devon Wildlife Trust.
I should like to thank Kate Ponting of Clinton Devon Estates for giving up her time to show me the beaver lodges and Steve Hussey and Mark Elliott of Devon Wildlife Trust for providing information and photographs.