Totnes is an ancient town with many old stone walls lining passageways, roads and the edges of gardens. In spring and summer, the wintery-dark stone of these walls erupts with clumps of green leaves followed by dense, rounded clusters of tiny flowers, usually a bright pink, so that the clusters resemble scoops of strawberry ice cream. This plant is red valerian (Centranthus ruber) and is thought to have been introduced from the Mediterranean in the late 16th century. It is now naturalised in the UK and common in England and Wales, especially in the south west where it insinuates its roots into the mortar in the old walls wherever it can get a toehold. Its colourful flowers lend a hint of the Mediterranean to some west country towns.
Despite this summer’s very dry weather, some valerian flower heads still remain attracting insects looking for late season nectar. Large furry bumblebees scramble about the colourful flowers and white butterflies perch on flower heads but the plant is a particular favourite of a spectacular day flying moth with a wingspan of about 5cm, the hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum). Most years I see one of these moths but this summer I have had many more sightings especially in the last week of August and first week of September. A long spell of warm southerly winds may have brought the moths northwards from their Mediterranean strongholds.
A clump of red valerian hanging from an old stone wall in our street has been very popular with the moths. On several recent days, a hummingbird hawk moth has appeared by a flower head, as if from nowhere, and hovered, its long proboscis deftly inserted into one tiny flower collecting nectar from the base of the corolla. The moth seems to hang in the air, its greyish body with black and white chequered rear showing well. Its brown and orange wings beat so rapidly that they appear as a blur and create an audible hum. When it has finished with one flower cluster, it jinks to another.
There is something magical about these elegant creatures and I feel privileged to be able to see them. My feelings, though, are tinged with sadness as their arrival in greater numbers is a reflection of our rapidly changing climate.
A week ago, I went down to the south Devon coast below the village of East Prawle to find the rare long-horned bees that live there. Their main nest site is located in the low cliffs near Horseley Cove and I scrambled down the steep path to the foot of the cliffs to have a look. It was a beautiful sunny day and the area was bathed in sunshine while the sea, a deep blue in that day’s light, fussed on the jumble of large boulders that lie just off shore. The sea was calm when I visited but in the winter these boulders will defend the cliffs from the worst of the storms creating a protected microenvironment.
Tracts of reddish soft rock peppered with pencil-sized holes were evident across the cliffs and several bees, roughly honeybee-sized, were patrolling the area showing a particular interest in these cavities. They swung in and moved quickly just above the surface sashaying back and forth and from side to side like hyped-up ballroom dancers. They looked very fresh and were rather lively and It was difficult to discern details but when I focussed my attention on a single insect I could see a pale yellow face, a bright russet thorax and two extra-long antennae, for these were the male long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis) I had come to see. One landed briefly and I marvelled at his magnificent antennae, each as long as the rest of his body.
Numbers varied but there were always a few about and sometimes up to six at one time, weaving around one another, creating a loud buzz. My presence didn’t seem to bother them, some flew around me and another collided with me but they carried on regardless. They are driven by procreative urges and having emerged from their nest holes in the soft rock within the last week or so, they were now waiting to catch a virgin female as she appeared. Mating had, though, already begun. On two or three occasions, a bee flew directly into a hole and didn’t reappear. Photos confirmed that these slightly chunkier bees with golden pollen brushes on their back legs were female Eucera longicornis, already mated and preparing their nests.
Eucera longicornis is rare and much declined and one of many special insect species found along this stretch of coast, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The cliff top meadow above the nests was a mosaic of wildflowers and earlier I had found a few male Eucera feeding on bird’s foot trefoil. The coast path either side of the meadow had, however, been treated with herbicide and strimmed, virtually eliminating wildflowers, seriously degrading this important site.
A glistening black head suddenly broke through the surface of the water a metre or two offshore. A long, dark, shadowy shape was also just visible and we realised that this was a seal. We watched, captivated, as it swam slowly south westwards, staying roughly parallel to the beach, leaving a trail of ripples in its wake. Along the beach, people were swimming and when they saw the seal coming, they quickly made their way to dry land but the seal had already disappeared.
This magical encounter occurred last year as we were walking along a shingle beach in south Devon, but chance sightings of seals can occur almost anywhere along the Dorset and Devon coasts in the south west of the UK and are unpredictable and surprising. Each observation, though, is a reminder that these fascinating creatures live alongside us, and gives an insight, however brief, into their lives.
Seals are the largest land-breeding marine mammals found in the UK and two species may be seen around our coasts, the grey seal and the common or harbour seal. The grey seal is the larger of the two with males up to 2.6 metres in length and 300kg in weight. The grey seal is one of the rarest species of seal globally and the UK has more than a third of the world’s population, mostly found around the west coast of Scotland, also the Orkneys and the Shetlands with a few significant colonies along the East coast of England. Common seals are smaller, with males up to 2 metres in length and 150 kg in weight. Numerically, UK waters contain fewer common seals but the population is still significant amounting to 30% of the European sub species. Common seals have a similar UK distribution to that of the grey seal.
Should you sight a seal, it can be tricky to decide which species but if you can see the head, that may help. Common seals have relatively smaller heads compared to body size with a clearly defined forehead and short snout. Grey seals have larger heads with longer flat noses and no forehead. Fur colour is deceptive as both species vary in colour from grey to pale brown and whether the animal is wet or dry. Fur patterns, though, may help identification with grey seals having irregular darker blotches and common seals being more uniformly spotted.
Seals spend their lives partly on land and partly in the water. They haul out, often in groups, on uninhabited rocky islands, secluded beaches and sandbanks to rest, to digest their food or to give birth. More than half of their time, though, is spent in the water feeding and they can travel long distances to forage. They are superb swimmers, capable of diving to a depth of up to 100 metres to find food on the sea bed and during a dive they slow their heart rate in order to conserve oxygen. On land, seals can appear ponderous and ungainly, dragging themselves about using their front flippers, but once in the water they swim with grace, elegance and speed. This ability to slip effortlessly between two distinct lives, one on land and the other in the water, seen and largely unseen, gives seals an aura of mystery. It is no surprise that a wealth of myth and story has attached itself to the creatures.
Because the majority of seals in the UK are found along northern and north western coasts, sightings as far south as Dorset and Devon are infrequent but of great interest. There are no regular haul out sites along the Dorset and east Devon coasts so sightings are usually of seals moving about. Most of these casual sightings are of grey seals although there are thought to be a few common seals resident in Poole Harbour. The picture changes as we move into south Devon where several regular haul out sites are found along the coast. Here grey seals gather in small numbers at low tide to rest although they can also be seen swimming nearby. Seals are also seen in the Exe and Dart estuaries sometimes a distance from the coast.
The Dorset Wildlife Trust Fine Foundation Wild Seas Centre at Kimmeridge is trying to build up a catalogue of seal sightings. Individual seals have characteristic marking patterns on their fur, so that photos can be used, rather like a fingerprint, to identify seals seen regularly in Dorset or moving about along the coast. By sharing their findings with other seal recorders, they already know that some seals seen along the Dorset coast have also been spotted in Hampshire, south Devon, Cornwall or France. Should you see a seal, you can help this project by reporting your sighting (with photographs if available, see below for details).
There is increasing concern, however, that seals are being disturbed by encounters with humans. They are large wild animals and, although they are curious creatures, they can be easily upset and disturbed. Seals haul out to rest and digest food and this essential quiet time can be interrupted if humans get too close. Disturbed seals may even panic, jumping from rocks into the sea so risking injuring themselves. There are also sporadic reports of humans being bitten when trying to feed or pat seals. Feeding seals additionally risks disturbing their natural feeding patterns.
The Dorset Wildlife Trust has compiled a code of conduct to try to deal with these problems. This code should be followed at all times when encountering seals or taking photographs, to protect both seals and humans and to minimise disturbance of these wild creatures:
Keep well away from seals so that they can’t see, hear or smell you
Use a camera zoom or binoculars for a better view
Keep dogs on a lead if seals are known to be in the area
Never feed seals
Take all litter home
Do not seek out encounters with seals in the water
Seals are iconic wild creatures and we are privileged to be able to see them along our coasts. We must, however, treat them with respect. They have their own lives, very different from ours, and they have as much right to occupy the environment as we do. We should enjoy watching these beautiful creatures but make sure that they can live their lives undisturbed.
I should like to thank Sarah Hodgson of the Dorset Wildlife Trust for her generous help and guidance when I was preparing this article
All photos shown here were taken using a zoom lens.
Here is a short piece I wrote after a visit to the Lamb Garden in Totnes on March 9th together with a poem by Thomas Hardy.
It’s that time of year when I spend more time than I should peering at patches of lungwort. The wild variety (Pulmonaria officinalis) has been flowering for several weeks here in Devon and now has a mixture of pinkish-red and purplish-blue trumpet-shaped flowers above fleshy, white-spotted green leaves. The weather has kept most insects away but this morning, there is a hint of warmth in the air and finally, I see what I have been anticipating.
It’s one of the first bees to emerge each year, and I get that first time thrill again. I don’t see it arrive but suddenly it’s there hovering by the lungwort, hanging in the air as if working out which flower to sample. As it hovers, I notice the mostly buff-haired abdomen and thorax, also the pale yellow mask-like face and is that the tongue hanging in readiness? This chunky insect might be mistaken for a bumblebee but is a very fresh male hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes), usually the first solitary bee species to appear in Totnes each spring.
Having chosen a flower, he settles down to feed, pushing his head in deeply to access nectar. His legs are splayed out gripping either side of the corolla, displaying the silky hairs that decorate them, celebrated in his common name. He doesn’t stay long, darting to another flower with a brief hover in between, buzzing loudly.
Lungwort flowers start out red and acquire the blue colour as they age. Red flowers contain more nectar than blue and the Anthophora feed preferentially from these red, higher forage flowers. This colour code means they don’t waste time visiting low-nectar blooms and may visit several plants looking for high nectar flowers, increasing the chance of cross pollination.
The male then notices me and hovers, buzzing loudly and aggressively in my direction before departing in a huff. Other males appear and occasionally two find themselves together on the flowers. This also doesn’t go down well and they depart, carving circles in the air around one another.
I wanted to include a poem to go with these spring observations so here is Thomas Hardy meditating on the topic in “The Year’s Awakening” .
If, like me, you enjoy looking at flowers, then winter can be a pretty dismal time. The plants that give colour to the autumn such as asters and sedums have long since faded and there’s a gap of several weeks before the winter flowers, snowdrops, aconites and pulmonaria show their faces. It hasn’t helped this winter that the December weather, although very mild, brought many overcast days. Ceilings of thick grey cloud hung overhead, keeping light levels low and draining the landscape of colour so that I yearned for some brightness.
But there is help at hand in the form of winter flowering shrubs and plants which bring welcome colour to the gloom. These include winter honeysuckle and winter flowering heathers but my favourite is mahonia with its starbursts of lemon-yellow flowers and its spiky evergreen leaves. Mahonia works hard, flowering from November with some varieties continuing to bloom well into the New Year. A large stand of the shrub is a fine sight in winter, sometimes as much as three metres in height, covered with multiple plumes of flowers reaching upwards above sprays of spiky mid green holly-like leaves. Even on the darkest winter day, the yellow flowers light up their surroundings like banks of fluorescent tubes and should the sun shine, both flowers and leaves glow in reply. As an added bonus, stands of mahonia are often enveloped in a cloud of sweet fragrance said to resemble lily of the valley, a rare experience in these low months. If all that wasn’t enough, as the flowers mature, they produce attractive blue-black berries dusted with a white bloom.
Mahonia was first discovered during the Lewis and Clark expedition sent to explore the newly acquired north western territory of the United States during the early years of the 19th century. The shrub was found growing extensively between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean. The prominent Irish/American nurseryman Bernard McMahon based in Philadelphia was responsible for propagating the seeds and plants brought back from the expedition and mahonia was named in recognition of his work. Mahonia is also referred to as Oregon grape after the resemblance of its berries to the vine fruit and the part of the US where the shrub was first seen.
The native US shrub was imported into the UK in the 19th century and different varieties were also found in Asia at about the same time. These and their hybrids are now very popular in this country contributing architectural interest to gardens as well as winter colour. They are often planted around the edges of car parks and outside buildings where their potential size can be readily accommodated.
It’s not just humans, though, who take pleasure from mahonia in winter. Both insects and birds relish the profusion of flowers and berries on the shrub. The long arching racemes thrown upwards by mahonia are densely packed with small flowers, each shaped like an upturned bell and formed from concentric rings of petals and sepals. The flowers are rich sources of pollen and nectar providing important forage for insects on mild winter days and, as the insects feed, they contribute to pollination.
Among the insects visiting mahonia in winter, bumblebees are regular foragers in the south of the UK and I have seen both workers and queens even in late December, sometimes liberally dusted with yellow pollen. Honeybees and hoverflies will also venture out to feed on milder winter days and they may occasionally be joined by red admiral butterflies. It’s fascinating to watch bumblebees working the flowers, moving systematically along a raceme, dislodging yellow petals which fall to decorate nearby leaves and create a yellow “snow” on pavements below. Birds such as blackcaps and blue tits also take sugar-rich nectar from mahonia flowers. When they visit, they may pick up pollen on their beaks contributing to pollination.
The flowers have a special mechanism for increasing the efficiency of pollination by visiting insects and birds. In each flower, the pollen-loaded stamens are arranged in a ring just inside the petals. Stimulating the flower, as would happen if a pollinator visits, causes the stamens to move inwards increasing the likelihood that the pollinator will pick up pollen to transfer to the next flower. Pollination leads to formation of the berries, each about the size of a blackcurrant which start green and mature to blue-black with a white bloom. The berries provide winter food for birds later in the season and blackcaps, blackbirds and song thrushes may be seen feeding.
Although mahonia was a new discovery for colonists in the US in the early 19th century, the native American tribes of the north west were already familiar with its properties. Some ate the berries, either raw or cooked and some used preparations of the shrub for medicinal purposes. Yellow dyes derived from the plant were also used by the tribes for colouring fabrics and basketry. Preparations of mahonia have been employed in traditional Chinese medicine over many years and are used by some contemporary herbalists but rigorous scientific studies of their effects have not been performed.
It is interesting to reflect on how mahonia, a shrub native to parts of the US and Asia, has successfully travelled to the UK where not only does it brighten our winters but it also supports wildlife across this low season.
In this seventh Lockdown Nature Walk, I want to take you along more of the ancient lanes that crisscross the countryside around Totnes rather like the lines on the palm of my hand. The walk I describe was done in the last week of May on a sunny, warm day when there was a distinct feeling that the seasons were changing.
I begin at the foot of Harper’s Hill on the western side of town where an ancient trackway strikes steeply upwards in a south-westerly direction into trees and away from the busy Kingsbridge Road. This is hard walking especially on the uneven surface and quite soon the lane becomes deeply sunken, bordered on both sides by steep banks, up to four metres in height. Ferns and pennywort grow along these banks and a jungle-like tree canopy cuts out most of the light so that even on a sunny day the lane has a gloomy, slightly sinister feeling. Today, small insects are caught, dancing like dust motes in the few shafts of light that make it through the canopy. Earlier this year, fleshy green ramsons carpeted the pathside banks but their leaves are now yellowish and a vague garlicky odour hangs in the air as they decay.
It’s difficult to believe that for hundreds of years, until the inception of the turnpikes, Harper’s Hill was the main route out of Totnes towards Plymouth and the west. As I trudge up the steep hill, I imagine the countless others who walked this way with heavy loads, or animals or rickety carts. It’s as though I am “slipping back out of this modern world” (after W H Hudson).
Eventually, though. the lane levels out. A gateway on the right offers a brief window through the curtain of vegetation and I see the land falling away steeply into a deep valley and Dartmoor lurking in the distance. I continue along the track as it becomes more open between tall trees and a few caravans used for housing to reach Tristford Cross.
In the past, those who had laboured up Harper’s Hill bound for Plymouth and the west would have turned right at Tristford Cross on to the old ridgeway road along the brow of Broomborough Down. But I go straight ahead at this crossroads along a paved lane avoiding the occasional car to reach Cholwell Cross where another track, Jackman’s Lane, crosses at right angles. Signs announce that this is an unmetalled road and it is indeed a deeply rutted, reddish soil track used by farm vehicles and muddy after rain but today bone dry and hard as concrete.
I turn right along one section of Jackman’s Lane. Superficially, this appears to be just another country track but from the first time I came here, I realised that this was a place with its own particular character and charm. Unlike so many local lanes, it is flat, light and airy and surrounded by rolling countryside stretching into the distance. Although it is bordered by Devon Hedges, these seem to have been maintained, restricting their height and allowing light to reach both sides of the track especially when the sun shines as it does today. Many flowers grow along the lane, bees, butterflies and hoverflies dart about and there is a general buzz in the air.
Here are a few of the insect species I saw:
As I enter the lane, I notice thick rope-like skeins of a scrambling plant in the right-hand hedge with dark green, glossy, heart-shaped leaves that look as though they have been coated with shiny paint. This is black bryony and its pale yellow insignificant flowers are now showing. Insignificant they may be but they will give rise to trailing strings of plump, shiny red berries in the autumn. Several tree species are present in the hedges including elder, hazel, holly, rowan and sycamore, suggesting that this is a very old hedge. In several places, foxgloves grow from the top of the bank in large groups (see picture at the head of this post) creating a vivid pink display against the clear blue sky, reminiscent of the colourful banners displayed at music festivals. Large buzzy bumblebees systematically work the individual foxglove flowers.
Banks of lacy white cow parsley line the lane in places but the insects seem to ignore this umbellifer. The same is not true for hogweed and one or two tall stands of this robust plant with its white pompom flowers are proving irresistible for hoverflies and solitary bees. Then I come to the toilet! Someone has dumped an old toilet in the right-hand hedge and scrawled “R Mutt” on it in black letters. This may be fly-tipping but I also think it is an “hommage” to Marcel Duchamp, and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on the value of this piece of conceptual art.
A gateway into a field appears on the left so I stop to take in the view. I work out that I am looking roughly south west and an image unspools ahead of me of fields and hedges, a few cows, repeating into the distance, disappearing into a blue haze. For a short time, I am transfixed by this view, it’s so unusual for this part of Devon to encounter a landscape free from hills and valleys. It feels as though the sea should lie somewhere in the distant blue haze but that’s beyond what I can see.
In the middle section of the lane, I find flowers that speak more of summer than of spring so despite the limbo imposed on human lives by the lockdown, seasonal change carries on regardless. Foxgloves are part of this seasonal shift but I also see large amounts of a yellowish plant that grows almost horizontally from the side of the hedges. It has greenish-yellow, hairy leaves arranged symmetrically in whorls of four with clusters of small fragrant yellow flowers at the bases of the leaves. I initially thought this was lady’s bedstraw but it is in fact crosswort, a relative. Vetches are also showing. Bush vetch with its untidy mauve flowers has been about for a while but I also find the yellow, pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling. Both vetches attract bees but another favourite of these insects is hedge woundwort. This plant has just come into flower in the lane displaying its burgundy red flowers decorated with fine white hieroglyphics.
Further on, nettles begin to dominate the hedges and a few tall trees appear before the lane reaches the old ridgeway road. The section of Jackman’s Lane that I have described is quite short, barely half a mile in length, but it has a very particular character. It is also very rich in wildlife and unexpectedly, it contains an interesting piece of conceptual art.
There are various ways to complete a circular walk from here but perhaps the most interesting is to turn left until a stony track leaves the ridgeway road to bear right, downhill. This is another section of Jackman’s Lane which eventually reaches the Plymouth Road at Follaton for an easy return to the town.
To see my previous Lockdown Nature Walks please look here
With the easing of the Lockdown rules in the UK, we have been venturing further afield for our exercise walks. So, a few days ago we drove up to Two Bridges, high on Dartmoor, for a circular walk around the valley of the west Dart river via Wistman’s Wood, a rare example of ancient high-altitude oak wood. Our walk was graced by the sounds of many cuckoos.
We began by heading northwards away from the Two Bridges car park on an uneven track running roughly parallel to the west Dart river. With clear skies, strong sun and barely any breeze, it was much hotter than we expected for Dartmoor and sultry is probably the best word to describe the weather. Soon after we set off, however, as we walked up the dry stony path to Crockern Tor Farm, we heard the unmistakable call “cuckoo cuckoo”. A few sheep and one or two walkers were our only company and the song of the cuckoo instantly grabbed our attention as it echoed round the valley. Further on, a jumble of rocks, Crockern Tor, loomed on our right and then another cuckoo called. Eventually, we reached the top of a ridge and Wistman’s Wood came into view ahead, a green-leaved mass standing out above the summer-dry landscape on the eastern flank of the valley while the west Dart river lay in the valley bottom below. The dry grass around us was punctuated by neat yellow tormentil flowers and unruly clumps of heath bedstraw covered with tiny white flowers and, as we walked, small orange butterflies (Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus) flickered upwards, dancing around briefly before heading off. Another cuckoo called and I began to understand how the simple but beautiful music of their song had inspired so many composers.
We made our way along the edge of Wistman’s Wood looking in on the seductive jumble of moss- and lichen-covered twisted branches and smooth rocks. By now we had been walking for about an hour and were finding the temperature difficult so we decided to take a lunch break seated on smooth lumps of granite beneath one of the old oaks. A little cloud had helpfully bubbled up keeping the sun at bay. The river valley lay below us and the dense oaks of Wistman’s Wood and a few smaller clumps of trees stood out on the hillside. Sheep bleated fitfully and small birds flitted about. Then the cuckoos started to sing as if to provide us with lunchtime entertainment. Several birds called from different directions, some nearer, some further away and at least two cuckoos moved between the trees in the valley. We recognised them in flight from their pointed wings and long tail. Most of the song was “cuckoo cuckoo”, the call of the male bird and sometimes this was extended to “cuckcuckoo”, not far off the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth. We also heard the burbling, gurgling sound which the female cuckoo makes when she is excited.
Here is a short video of a male cuckoo calling:
The cuckoos had put on a real show for us that day but whenever I hear their call, whether it be one cuckoo or several, the sound has a profound effect on me. In my teens, living in small town Hampshire, near woodland, cuckoo calls were a standard fixture of spring, something I came to expect each year. With the decline of the bird, and having lived in large towns for many years I lost that expectation. Now when we come to Dartmoor and I hear cuckoos again, their song touches some deeply held memory for me.
After lunch, we headed down across open moorland to cross the west Dart river. Cotton grass with its fluffy, white cotton wool heads grew here, showing that the land is normally very boggy. I also saw a few delicate blue and white heath milkwort flowers, far fewer today than in previous years, perhaps a reflection of the dry weather. We crossed the river and scrambled up to the Devonport Leat, a narrow watercourse constructed in the 18th century to supply water from the Dart river to the growing community of Plymouth Dock 27 miles away. Nowadays it empties into the Burrator Reservoir which provides water for Plymouth itself. We followed the leatside path along the western side of the valley across the river from Wistman’s Wood to return to Two Bridges [The picture at the head of this post and the note at the end explain the location of the leatside path]. This should, by definition, be mostly easy walking but degradation of the path stones makes it less so. Marsh violet with its pale mauve flowers, pink lousewort and good amounts of bilberry flourish in the damp environment by the leat and a few small fish dart back and forth.
About half way along the leatside path, two male cuckoos began to sing from the trees across the river in Wistman’s Wood. At first, their calls came at different times from different locations. One bird sang “cuckoo” and a short time later the other bird did likewise as if providing an answer. This call and answer pattern was then repeated. But the two birds were actually “cuckooing” at different frequencies so that gradually their calls moved together, then began to overlap and for a short time they sang at the same time before one bird stopped. For a brief moment, as we listened, time stood still.
The song of the two cuckoos initially made me think of a musical round where different groups of people sing the same melody but start at different times. “Sumer is icumen in”, also known as the Cuckoo Song, is a good example of a round. A better analogy for the calls of the two cuckoos, however, comes from the phase music of Steve Reich. In his composition, Piano Phase, two pianos play the same tune but at slightly different tempi, giving rise to novel musical effects, rather like the two singing cuckoos.
When we decided to walk on Dartmoor that day, I had expected to hear one or two cuckoos but nothing like the extraordinary cuckoo chorus that graced our walk.
We walked on Dartmoor on May 27th 2020, our route is described here
The picture at the top of this post looks south down the valley of the west Dart. Wistman’s Wood can be seen on the left and the line on the western hillside is the Devonport Leat.
We’ve now been in Lockdown for eight weeks, although recently there has been a slight and rather confusing easing of the regulations. I have been continuing my exercise walks and sometimes I venture into the nearby countryside but more often I keep to the town centre gardens and car parks looking at the flowers and the wildlife. I thought I knew the town centre area well but, even here, so close to home, I’ve made some new and surprising discoveries. So, here is my fifth Lockdown Nature Walk.
One place I walk through regularly is the Nursery Car Park, notable for the wide grassy banks and tall, ivy-clad, stone walls that surround several sides of the parking area providing unplanned but welcome space for wildlife. There are many flowers early in the year and with the lockdown there are very few cars and even fewer people so it’s a surprisingly peaceful place. In my earlier Lockdown Nature Walks I saw bumblebees, butterflies and hairy-footed flower bees enjoying the flowers here.
One morning in late April, I was walking through the Nursery Car Park and noticed a white butterfly making its way above one of the grassy banks. I don’t normally pay much attention to the white butterflies. I think it must be engrained prejudice from childhood when “cabbage whites” used to spoil some of my father’s attempts at growing vegetables. Something, however, made me look again and this time I saw flashes of orange as the butterfly danced briskly along. It turned to follow another car park margin and paused, settling on one of the plants growing in the soil border below. With its wings spread wide, I could see its blue-grey velvety body, prominent antennae and the vivid orange patches that occupy the outer halves of each forewing showing that this was an orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines), a male as the females lack the orange colour. I approached carefully to get a better look but the insect flew off across the wall in the direction of the Leechwell Garden and was gone. An orange-tip butterfly seemed rather exotic for this semi-urban space and I couldn’t remember having seen one here before.
When the butterfly paused, I felt as though it was urging me to take a better look at this soil border. This was a part of the car park I had ignored until now, probably because before lockdown, parked cars made the border virtually inaccessible. When I had a closer look, I was surprised to find that a range of native wild flowers had colonised the border and were growing prolifically, creating a mosaic of pinks, blues, whites and yellows: three species of cranesbill, pink purslane, red campion, green alkanet, cow parsley, garlic mustard, hedge mustard and buttercups. It had become a rather beautiful place, that is if you like unruly wild flowers!
I came back to the same car park border over the next few days and usually saw one or two orange-tips but other insects were also attracted to the profusion of flowers. Here are some of the species I saw:
But there is more to say about the orange-tip butterflies as on one of my visits, I noticed a male repeatedly flying upwards and then dropping down on to some garlic mustard flowers. When I looked more closely, I saw another butterfly on the cluster of small green and white flowers and realised that this was a female orange-tip butterfly. The male’s behaviour probably had something to do with mating but the female was showing no interest. The male eventually gave up and flew off but the female moved to another flower and basked in the morning sun allowing me to look. Unlike the male with his brash colouration, she is understated but just as beautiful with a grey patch and spot on each forewing in place of the male’s orange patches. As she flexed her wings, I was also able to see the pattern on her underwings. This is a complex design of green and yellow veining and mottling reminiscent of the marbled end papers of an antique book or a tie-dyed fabric from the hippie era. The male has the same underwing pattern providing both male and female orange-tips with excellent camouflage when they rest with their wings closed on a leaf or on flowers such as garlic mustard or cow parsley.
Garlic mustard is one of the principal larval foods of the orange-tip butterfly, along with cuckooflower, so I wondered if the female had been laying eggs before the male had disturbed her. There are two moderate clumps of garlic mustard growing along this border so I looked at the plants and found the tiny orange eggs on both clumps. They look like ridged rugby balls about a millimetre long and the female attaches each egg, usually one per plant, to a stem just below the flower head. They start off a pale greenish-white and as they mature, they turn bright orange. One or two weeks later, the larva emerges from the egg, eats the egg casing and starts its journey through different instar stages, gradually consuming the plant, preferring the seed pods, as the larva develops. After some searching, I was able to find one larva, a well camouflaged, yellowish caterpillar (about 5mm long) on one clump of garlic mustard about two weeks after I first saw the eggs. The larva will eventually form a pupa (chrysalis), from which the adult butterfly will emerge next spring.
I need to keep reminding myself that all this is happening on a scruffy border along one edge of a town centre car park and that my observations are underpinned by a series of coincidences. First, the insects I have described would not have come to the border had the flowers not grown here. In particular, the orange-tip butterflies would not have fed here and deposited eggs had there not been the two clumps of garlic mustard. Then there is the lockdown which emptied the car park of cars making more space for wildlife and gave me the time to wander about looking at the soil border. I believe there are lessons to be learnt from all of this if we choose to learn them: growing flowers, especially wildflowers, is good for insects and will support them and bring them into your garden; also it can be very rewarding, and good for our well-being, if we take time to look at the wildlife around us.
My previous Lockdown Nature Walks can be accessed here
For the fourth of my Lockdown Nature Walks, I want to take you along Copland Lane, one of the many old tracks that radiate like compass points from the town of Totnes. Copland Lane follows the westward compass point, roughly parallel to the busy railway line to Plymouth and Cornwall which lies some distance below in the valley. It takes me about 15 minutes, on foot, to reach the beginning of Copland Lane which lies between the gate to a popular group of allotments and a moderate sized, newish housing estate. I walked Copland Lane about a fortnight ago on a day of clear blue skies and warm sunshine tempered by a blustery cold wind.
A large stand of blackthorn, still covered in its small white flowers, grows near the start of the lane as if to herald the transition out of the semi-urban into a different world, a world of green, a world of growth, a world of colourful wildflowers.
At first, the lane drops gently downwards, bordered on the right-hand side by steep banks below the gardens of houses and on the other side by a bank of tightly packed soil perhaps stabilised by rubble, known locally as a Devon Hedge. Various kinds of vegetation including shrubs and coppiced trees, grow up prolifically from both sides not quite meeting above the lane but creating an enclosed, sheltered feeling. Sunlight percolates through the tree screen casting a dappled pattern across the track, but there is more to the light today. At this time of year, the trees have fresh, pale green, almost transparent leaves and as the sunlight filters between and through the leaves it acquires a subtle greenness that I only experience in spring.
Along the right-hand side of the lane, where sun warms the soil, I notice large stretches of yellow archangel with its many pale yellow flowers each with hooded, fringed upper lip and broader, three-lobed lower lip with intricate pale brown markings. Looking at the spear-shaped leaves, I see no silvery markings so this is likely to be the true native species rather than the garden cultivar. A worker early bumblebee with its pink-tipped abdomen feeds from the flowers.
The left-hand side of the lane sees less direct sunlight but growth seems just as prolific although the species that prosper are different. Banks of ramsons line the base of the Devon Hedge, starry white flowers just beginning to show. Several pale spathes of Lords and Ladies struggle through the thick ivy that covers the side of the bank. Fronds of hart’s tongue fern unfurl in groups as they push upwards and where the low sunshine catches their leaves, they become semi-transparent as if X-rayed. Navelwort (wall pennywort) grows in places covering sides of the lane with its circular, fleshy green leaves with their central dimple or navel. Its immature flower spikes push upwards getting ready to display many small white lantern flowers in a few weeks.
As I walk on, the lane changes, casting off its enclosed feel to become more open. The Devon Hedge loses its tree cover allowing the sun full access to the soil bank and the fertile conditions encourage the growth of a dense, tangled, green mass of plants (see picture at the head of this post and above). Without flowers, I can’t recognise many of these but I do see the fleshy stems and crimson flowers of red campion and the starry white flowers of stitchwort. I notice vetch-type leaves scrambling through the mass of greenery and one bright pink and white, pea-type flower reveals that this is common vetch. The low sunshine cuts across the bank and through the mass of greenery, highlighting the dense luxurious growth. Something about the light changes as it filters through the seemingly unfettered tangle of vegetation. It’s difficult to pin the effect down but there is a softening, a dispersion.
Occasionally, I encounter people walking along the lane towards me and we perform an elaborate dance to maintain social distancing which often involves one party sheltering in a hedge. Everyone is very polite and we usually say Hello but it feels so alien to shun others where we might normally have exchanged experiences, if only of the weather.
Now, gradually, the feel of the lane changes again. It becomes wider and bound by neat hedges and farmland on the left. There are cows in the fields and the lane takes on the persona of a farm track. The houses on the right eventually peter out, also giving way to farmland, but before they do, there are large grassy banks bathed in sunshine and scattered, confetti-like, with stitchwort. I also notice the violet-blue, funnel-shaped flowers and fleshy scalloped leaves, dark green but tinged red, of ground ivy showing well. Some wild strawberry flowers promise fruit to come and one or two spikes of cuckoo flower push through the grass displaying their delicate lilac flowers.
As I stand gazing at the flowers, a man emerges on to the lane through a gate from one of the houses with his wheelbarrow. He looks at me quizzically as I peer at the grassy bank and asks, not aggressively, what I am looking at.
“I’m looking at the flowers and the insects” I answer
“Ah yes, the flowers are much better now they clear the brambles” he replies before moving off.
The lane now has a short section where tall trees create a green corridor with much less sunlight. The vegetation changes accordingly and the path edges are again lined densely with ramsons and, on the right-hand side, where a little sunlight filters through, more yellow archangel seems to prosper. Not long after the tree cover ends, the open, hedged lane splits, offering a choice of two tracks. One is Higher Copland Lane which leads to the hamlet of Copland where someone with a sense of culture and a sense of humour has set up a Bed and Breakfast called Appalachian Spring. I take the other track, Lower Copland Lane, which provides me with the easier way to return to the town, but before I do, I look at the large clump of Alexanders that has colonised the junction of tracks. It stands in full sunshine today with its creamy mop head flowers above thick fleshy stems reminding me of scoops of Cornish Dairy Ice Cream enjoyed as a child on holiday. Alexanders grows mainly by the coast so it is a surprise to find it here. The flowers are proving very popular with hoverflies and almost every flower head is occupied by one of these insects.
Copland Lane itself is about a mile long, whether you take the Higher or Lower branch. It contains a variety of different environments and there are many interesting things to see. Today it also provided me with a much-needed distraction from the unusual and unsettling way of life now imposed upon us.
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”.