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Goat Island and the Great Chasm – the day the earth moved

Nearly 180 years ago, about three miles west of Lyme Regis (in the south west of the UK), a huge chunk of the East Devon coast split off to form a plateau separated from the mainland by a deep, dry ravine.  This was the largest movement of land ever experienced in this part of the country; it remodelled the coast and created a unique new environment.  The plateau, now called Goat Island, and the ravine are still unique and when I walked there in late June, pink and purple orchids flowered across the grassy surface of the plateau whereas the ravine was populated by a tangled jungle of trees and other vegetation. 

Goat Island
The grassy surface of Goat Island with the sea in the background

 

In the early 19th century, the land behind the cliffs in this part of East Devon was dominated by farming.  Between the cliffs and the sea there was an area of land, the undercliff, formed by subsidence that supported fertile market gardens and orchards with some pasture for animals.   Cottages had also been built here for farm labourers who walked up and down the steep cliff path to the farmhouse a short distance inland.  The latter part of 1839 had seen unprecedented rain and as Christmas approached, there had been ominous signs of instability in the cliffs with deep fissures opening on the cliff tops and settlement cracks appearing in cottages built on the undercliff.

One of the farm labourers who lived in the cottages with his family was William Critchard.   At about 1am on Christmas Day 1839, Critchard and his wife returned to their cottage having been generously entertained along with other labourers’ families by their master at his farmhouse.  Their Christmas Eve gathering had included the West Country custom of burning the ashen faggot (a large ash log) accompanied by the drinking of copious amounts of cider.  On their way back to the cottage, the couple noticed that part of the cliff path had dropped about a foot since the morning and new cracks had appeared in the cottage walls.  Still merry after their evening’s entertainment they retired to bed unconcerned.  At 4 am, however, they were awoken by a “wonderful crack” and by 5am they rose to find deep fissures appearing in the garden.  They realised that something major was happening and set off up the cliff path, now almost impassable owing to subsidence, to spread the alarm.

Movement in the cliffs continued over the next 24 hours and as the day dawned on December 26th it revealed a landscape changed almost beyond recognition.  Contemporary drawings show that a massive section of cliffs, about three quarters of a mile long and estimated as 8 million tons of rock, had moved seawards by several hundred feet creating a dry ravine, the Great Chasm, in its wake. The plateau of land that had moved was bounded by cliffs 150 feet high and came to be called Goat Island. The ravine held a gothic landscape of lumps and bumps, peaks and troughs, vividly expressing the power of the convulsion that had occurred. (See here for some contemporary illustrations of the landslip)

The cliffs in this part of Dorset and Devon are notoriously mobile, but the events of Christmas 1839 represented the greatest ever movement of land in the area.  At the time there was much speculation as to the cause of the landslip: might it have been the result of an earthquake or a volcano, was it the work of rabbits, or could it have been a punishment from God? By chance, two of the most eminent geologists of the time, William Buckland and William Conybeare, were staying nearby and could interpret the events; Buckland’s wife Mary made invaluable drawings of the changed landscape.  Buckland and Conybeare concluded that the excessive rain had saturated the permeable layers of chalk and greensand that constituted the upper part of the cliffs.  Beneath these layers was an impermeable layer of clay and the chalk/greensand, saturated and very heavy, moved forward on the impermeable clay leading to the landslip.

The new landscape became a tourist attraction.  Queen Victoria arrived on the Royal Yacht to view the scene and others took to paddle steamers to gaze in wonder while specially composed music, the Landslip Quadrille, was played.   Bizarrely, fields of corn and turnips growing on cliff top land had moved intact with Goat Island and were ceremonially harvested the following August by local village maidens dressed as attendants of Ceres, the Roman Goddess of the Harvest.

But what of Goat Island nowadays?  It’s only accessible on foot but the walk along the coast path is worth the effort.  I set off from Axmouth on a misty but mild morning in late June to make the steep climb across the golf course and on to the cliff top.  I followed narrow lanes with high banks and skirted cornfield edges to reach the coast path.  Cliff edge scrub obscured the sea most of the time but occasional breaks revealed Beer Head lurking mysteriously in the mist.

About two miles into the walk, with my attention captured by the many flowers lining the path, I was jolted from my reverie as the path twisted and dropped down steeply into dense vegetation.  It continued to descend with the occasional squirm to the right or left before bottoming out.  About me now was a disorienting, tangled jungle of trees, shrubs and ferns with brambles and creepers dangling downwards to catch the unwary.  Dampness hung in the air and only brief vestiges of light filtered through the canopy.  This is the undercliff near the edge of the Great Chasm, no longer an open ravine but taken over by nature in the intervening 180 years.

Quite soon the track reared upwards again climbing steeply towards the light past a cushiony chalk hillside with a scattering of wild flowers.  In time, the path levelled out to a long, lush grassy meadow sloping gently towards sheer cliffs above the undercliff and the sea; this is Goat Island.  Woven within the grass were the frilly flowers of eyebright, many yellow dandelion-like flowers of catsear, patches of yellow rattle and wild thyme and two blue spikes of viper’s bugloss. It was, however, the orchids that surprised me with their number and variety: pyramidal orchids with their intensely pink, three-lobed petals overlapping like ornate roof tiles and common spotted orchids with their cylinders of lilac pink flowers carrying magenta hieroglyphics.  I searched for bee orchids and found only two spikes, each bearing several flowers.  With their mauve propeller-like sepals and their large central petal complete with furry edges and yellow horseshoe patterns on a maroon background, these flowers are one of nature’s marvellous mimics said to resemble bumblebees.  Butterflies, especially marbled whites completed the scene.  Goat Island nowadays is a beautiful, unusual place, an oasis of calm where noise means bird song.  It is also a managed landscape, a cooperation between nature and humans, as every year the grass is mown to encourage flowers and to prevent scrub taking back the land.

Goat Island is also a place of history and I stood there for some time, trying to imagine the scene 180 years ago when the land beneath my feet moved and the lives of the people living there were changed forever.

The picture at the head of this post shows common spotted orchids and catsear on Goat Island.

This article appeared in the August 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Down into the undercliff near the ravine

 

Bee orchid and pyramidal orchid on Goat Island
bee orchid and pyramidal orchid

 

pyramidal orchid
pyramidal orchid

 

Vipers bugloss on Goat Island
Vipers bugloss

 

wild thyme with bumblebee
bumblebee on wild thyme on Goat Island

 

Marbled white butterfly
marbled white butterfly

 

Meadow brown butterfly on wild marjoram
meadow brown butterfly on wild marjoram

 

A songbird makes a welcome return

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.

Male cirl bunting (photo generously given by David R White)
Female cirl bunting (photo generously given by David R White)

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 coast of south Devon showing the core range of the cirl bunting and the location of Stantyway Farm across the Exe estuary in East Devon (from British Birds).

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.

 

sign
One of the farm gate signs

 

Alexanders and blackthorn
Alexanders (greenish-yellow) and blackthorn (white) along the coast path. The cliff edge is behind the hedge!

 

Solitary mining bee on Blackthorn
A solitary mining bee (probably Andrena flavipes) feeding from blackthorn.

 

Solitary mining bee on Alexanders
A solitary mining bee (probably Andrena nitida) feeding from Alexanders

 

Honesty Cafe
The Honesty Cafe at Stantyway Farm

 

Magical midsummer meadows

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.

Marshwood meadow 2
Lush grasses in the meadow

 

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.

Black and yellow long-horn beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort, The beetle has lost nearly all of one antenna.
Black and yellow long-horn beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort, The beetle has lost nearly all of one antenna.

 

Swollen thighed beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort
Swollen thighed beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort

 

Birds foot trefoil
Bird’s foot trefoil (with a green insect on the upper right hand side of the picture)

 

Marbled white butterfly on knapweed
Marbled white butterfly on knapweed

 

Burnet moth on knapweed
Burnet moth on knapweed

 

Meadow Grasshopper
Meadow Grasshopper

 

This article appeared in the January 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The 1918 influenza pandemic – the greatest global killer since the Black Death

As the First World War staggered towards its bloody conclusion 100 years ago this month leaving 17 million dead, the war-worn world suffered a second catastrophe. A lethal influenza pandemic swept the planet killing at least 50 million people.  Most towns in the UK have fitting memorials to the war dead but the many who died from influenza are neither commemorated nor remembered. The Spanish flu, as it came to be called, was the greatest global killer since the Black Death.  It is very important that its victims should not be forgotten and lessons learnt for dealing with future pandemics.

Detail of the war memorial in the tiny Dorset hamlet of Briantspuddle showing some of the names and regiments of the war dead. Even from somewhere as small as Briantspuddle seven men were killed in WW1 and six in WW2.

 

By June 1918, the fighting had been raging for nearly four years.  Already worn down by the privations of war and the deaths of so many young men, people in the UK began to suffer the symptoms of influenza.  Sore throat, headache and fever were typical but, after a few days in bed, people recovered and got on with life as best as they could.  The illness had already swept across the US in the spring, reaching the trenches of the Western Front by mid-April leading to a brief lull in the fighting while troops recovered.

A poster warning of the dangers of Spanish flu (from Wikimedia Commons)

By September, however, a second wave of influenza surfaced, now in a deadly new guise. The virus was highly infectious sweeping through populations and quickly reaching most countries around the globe, its lethal progress assisted by the movement of troops to and from war zones.  The majority experienced typical flu symptoms, perhaps a little more severe, and recovered quickly but, for about one in twenty of those infected, the effects were much more serious. Pneumonia-like symptoms caused by bacterial infection of the lungs were common leading to breathing problems and copious bloody sputum.  Sometimes, the face and hands developed a purple-blue colouration suggesting oxygen starvation.  This colour might spread to the rest of the body, occasionally turning black before sufferers died.    Post mortem examination revealed lungs that were red, swollen and bloody and covered in watery pink liquid; victims had effectively drowned in their own bodily fluids. There were no effective treatments, antibiotics had not been developed, and the death rate was high. By Christmas the second influenza wave had burnt itself out only for a third wave of intermediate severity to strike in the first few months of 1919.  The pandemic came to be called “Spanish flu” because Spain alone, not being part of the war and so not subject to censorship, reported its flu experience freely.

An influenza hospital in the US (from Wikimedia Commons)

 

In the UK, the Spanish flu killed 228,000 people in the space of about six months but this was a global pandemic and around the world the mortality was staggering.  There were 675,000 deaths in the US and up to 17 million in India; overall the illness killed at least 3% of the entire population of the world.  Unlike typical seasonal flu epidemics, deaths from Spanish flu were highest among 20-40-year olds with pregnant women being particularly vulnerable.  If World War 1 had consumed the flower of youth, Spanish flu cut down those in their prime.

The sudden, widespread occurrence of a major illness with such high mortality caused huge disruption to daily life in the UK, especially in large towns.  Medical services were overwhelmed as many doctors and nurses were on war service, funeral directors were unable to cope and there were reports of bodies piling up in mortuaries.   The response of the medical authorities was poor, underplaying the gravity of the situation and providing little guidance; the newspapers, wearied by war news, were reluctant to give this new killer much coverage.  Understanding of disease in the general population was rudimentary and a sense of fear and dread prevailed as people witnessed so many apparently random deaths.

In the West Country, the second wave of influenza killed at least 750 people in both Devon and Somerset and about 400 in Dorset but many thousands must have been unwell. Contemporary reports from Medical Officers of Health and local papers give some idea of how life was disrupted:

“In Lyme Regis, schools were closed for a fortnight in October 1918 as a large number of teachers as well as children were stricken down with the malady”

“The epidemic occurred when there was a great shortage of doctors and nurses across Devon and in the autumn of 1918 many cases succumbed before they could be visited; so bad was this in north Devon that, in answer to appeals from Appledore and North Tawton, two members of the School Medical Staff went to the aid of overtaxed doctors”

“Schools in Dartmouth were still closed in November 1918, social functions postponed and a Corporation soup kitchen opened to supply nourishing soup for invalids”

Here are two extracts from letters written to the author Richard Collier by people alive in 1918 describing their experience of the pandemic.  These were kindly given to me by Hannah Mawdsley.

“Mrs Frances Smith wrote from Brixham, Devon about her flu memories.  She remembered funerals taking place late into the evening by lamplight, as there wasn’t enough time in the day to bury everyone. She caught the flu herself and was convinced that she was going to die. She had a very high fever and her hair fell out as a consequence of the flu, as well as severe aches in her back and legs.”

“Mr Bebbington was at Blandford Camp, Dorset during the pandemic. He remembered the huge numbers of flu victims there, as well as the depression that followed many flu cases, which seemed to result in a significant number of suicides in a nearby wood.”

 

This advertisement appeared in the Totnes Times in November 1918. There were no treatments for Spanish flu but claims for cures abounded at the time. This is one of the milder ones.

Given the high mortality and the disruption to normal society I find it surprising that the pandemic was not commemorated and seems to have been forgotten quickly.   Perhaps after four long years of carnage abroad and disruption at home, another horror was just too much, and the only way to cope was to forget?

But what was it about the 1918 flu virus that made it so virulent producing symptoms unlike any seen before and killing so many people? We still don’t know but scientists in the US have made some headway by studying the virus extracted from corpses of people who died during the second wave of the infection preserved in Alaskan permafrost. This showed, surprisingly, that the 1918 virus had a structure similar to a bird flu virus.  This partly accounts for its virulence: its bird flu-like structure would have been alien to the immune system of people at the time. Because it also had the ability to infect human cells, it was a lethal vector of disease causing, in some patients, severe damage to the lining of the respiratory tract leading to bacterial infection and pneumonia, engorged lung tissue and bloody sputum. A flu virus normally found in wild birds had acquired the ability to infect humans and the pandemic was the result.

Could history repeat itself? Could the world experience another lethal influenza pandemic?  There is certainly concern among experts that this could happen and the Government recognises pandemic influenza as “one of the most severe natural challenges likely to affect the UK”.   Current concern is focussed on two bird Influenza viruses circulating in the Far East.  Since 2003, these have infected more than 2000 people and nearly half have died.  Almost all the human infections have come from close contact with poultry or ducks but should one of these viruses change so that person to person transmission becomes possible, then we could be facing another major pandemic.  How would we react? Our health care systems, at least in the developed world, are more sophisticated compared to 1918 and surveillance is better so that we should have early warning of the start of a pandemic.  The UK Government has an Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy, we have antibiotics and vaccines to combat bacterial pneumonia and some antiviral drugs to reduce flu symptoms. There is still the likelihood that health care systems would be overloaded and perhaps our best long-term hope is the development of a universal flu vaccine to protect against all strains of the virus.

This article appeared in a slightly modified form in the November 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The picture at the head of this post shows a group of women in Brisbane, Australia wearing masks as a protection against Spanish flu (from Wikimedia Commons).

I should like to thank Hannah Mawdsley for giving me the two letters from people remembering the flu pandemic.

Europe’s answer to the tropical rain forest

Back in June, I went on a walk across some flower-rich chalk grassland in west Dorset (a county in the south west of the UK).  The article below describes the walk  and was published in the September edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.  It is a very “Dorset” article and some readers may not be familiar with a few of the allusions.  So, the Cerne Giant (or the Rude Man of Cerne) is a massive figure carved in the grass upon a chalk hillside above the village of Cerne Abbas.  Gabriel Oak is a sheep farmer who features strongly in Thomas Hardy’s novel “Far from the Madding Crowd”, immortalised, for me, in the 1967 film starring Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.  Gabriel Oak keeps his sheep on a chalk grassland hillside.  A “coombe” is a local name for a valley.

 

Wild Thyme
Some of the species found on the chalk grassland including wild thyme (purple), black medic (yellow) and salad burnet (dry brown).

 

Chalk grassland with its colourful wildflowers and multitude of insects was once a common sight in a Dorset summer.  It is the landscape defended by the Cerne Giant and where, in Far from the Madding Crowd, we first meet sheep farmer Gabriel Oak.  In the 20th century, however, much of Dorset’s chalk grassland disappeared following changes in farming practice, although small areas survived, usually where ploughing was too difficult.  So, when I heard about the visit to Higher Coombe, an area of chalk grassland above Litton Cheney, as part of the South Dorset Ridgeway Festival of Discovery, I jumped at the chance to see this ancient landscape and its exuberant floral displays.

We gathered near the entrance to Coombe Farm just off the busy A35.  Despite this being only a few days away from the summer solstice, the sky was overcast and a cold, blustery wind cut across the ridge sending many of us to grab warmer clothing.   The coombe fell away to the south, a deep gash in the chalk with precipitous grassy sides and extra folds and creases giving the landscape the look of a rumpled duvet.  A farm track clung to the eastern side of the coombe and higher up, near Coombe Coppice, sheep dotted the hillside.  Beyond the coombe, occasional shafts of sunlight illuminated the Bride Valley and its patchwork of green fields.  The sea should have been visible but a distant mist had taken its place.

Local expert Nick Gray, from the Dorset Wildlife Trust, was our guide for the afternoon. He began by shepherding us through a farm gate on to the western slope of Higher Coombe to follow a rough contour along the hillside.  Walking was difficult, there was no distinct path in the long, thick grass and the steepness of the hillside made it awkward to pause to observe.  But there was plenty to see: architectural clumps of thistles with their purple mop heads, many different species of grasses and, where the turf became shorter, a mosaic of colourful wild flowers lighting up the hillside.  My attention was drawn by the violet-purple splashes of wild thyme with its distinctive tubular flowers but Nick made sure we also noticed the tiny white trumpet flowers of squinancywort with their delicate pink stripes.   The buttery yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil were also scattered about the hillside together with frothy lemon-yellow clumps of lady’s bedstraw and the delicate golden globes of black medic.  A few lilac-mauve discs of scabious and pink-purple pyramidal orchids added to the display.  These were just a few of the diverse plants growing here and it has been estimated that chalk grassland can support up to 40 different species of flowering plant per square metre.  It is one of Europe’s most diverse habitats, the European equivalent of the tropical rain forest.

So, why is chalk grassland such a rich habitat?  The soil that covers the underlying chalk hills is a great influence, as Nick explained to us. Thin, lime rich and nutrient poor, it holds little water especially on steep slopes and dries out quickly in the summer.  These stressed conditions mean that lush grasses cannot dominate and a wide range of chalk loving species can flourish.  Good management with controlled grazing is also essential to keep the turf short, stop scrub developing and at the same time allow chalk grassland plants to grow.  The land on both sides of Higher Coombe is managed through a stewardship agreement with the farmer whereby, for about six months each year, grazing animals are excluded on one side.  When grazing stops, the grassland explodes into flower and this year the western side is getting its chance.  Next summer it will be the turn of the eastern side which will be ablaze with orchids.

With this profusion of flowers, I had expected to see many invertebrates but, that afternoon, there were very few flying.  Bees in particular were scarce and we saw only two bumblebees all afternoon.  Perhaps the cool air, the lack of sunshine and the encroaching sea mist were restricting their activity?  We came across two large golden-ringed dragonflies resting among the vegetation on the hillside, unable to fly in these weather conditions. This did, however, give us the chance to examine these normally mobile creatures with their striking yellow bands on a black background.  Later on, as we walked through another field on the eastern side of the coombe, we disturbed many small butterflies which seemed to be sheltering in the long grass.  In part compensation for the lack of flying insects, there were some beautiful bee orchids and common spotted orchids on this second chalk hillside.

But should we care about the decline of this special and once common habitat?  The loss of wild flowers will certainly have affected the beauty of our countryside, as well as contributing to the well-documented decline in insects and farmland birds.  There is also evidence that florally-rich chalk grassland provides healthier forage for grazing animals as compared to contemporary feeding on heavily fertilised rye grass.  Perhaps, had we been aware of the importance of the chalk grassland landscape, we might have valued it more?

If you want to see some of the remaining pockets of this special landscape then try Eggardon Hill or Maiden Castle or the Cerne and Sydling Downs or, further afield, visit Ballard Down in the Purbecks or Hambledon Hill and Hod Hill north of Blandford.  Chalk grassland is glorious at any time of year but the best time for flowers is from spring until early autumn.

Nick Gray talks to the group on Higher Coombe
Nick Gray talks to the group on Higher Coombe with the Bride Valley in the distance.

 

Wild Thyme
wild thyme

 

Squinancywort
squinancywort

 

Bird's Foot Trefoil
One flower and three seed heads of bird’s foot trefoil. The shape of the seed heads is responsible for the “bird’s foot” part of the name and also  for one of the plant’s local names, granny’s toenails.

 

Pyramidal orchid
pyramidal orchid

 

Golden-ringed dragonfly
golden-ringed dragonfly

 

Bee orchid
bee orchid

High on Hardown Hill

It was a luminous spring morning in early May when I trekked up Hardown Hill in west Dorset in the south west of the UK. Hardown rises steeply above Morcombelake and the surrounding countryside affording fine views of the coast and of the Marshwood Vale. Compared with its well-known cousin, Golden Cap, across the valley (see picture above), this flat-topped hill is unjustly ignored but its heathland summit boasts a rich ecology supporting several rare species and, for many years, Hardown Hill was a busy semi-industrial site where building stone was mined.

Heathland track on Hardown Hill small
Heathland track across Hardown Hill

It’s a steep climb to the top of Hardown Hill but finally the stony track flattens out and I enter a heathland landscape, rare in this part of Dorset. The summit is broad and flat and typical low-growing heathland plants such as gorse and several species of heather flourish here on the acid soil. Pale sandy tracks cut swathes across the heath but, even on a sunny morning in springtime, the feeling is sombre, dominated by dark browns and greens. A few mature birch trees and a small copse of pine trees provide relief and I come across a pond surrounded by tall clumps of pale, dried grass and a struggling sallow. This heath habitat is also the home of rare nightjars, sand lizards and Dartford warblers.

Standing on the Hardown summit is an elemental experience. Today, a moderate wind blows from the west, rising and falling like the sound of surf on the strand. The heath vegetation rustles and fidgets in response, accompanied by skylarks trilling high overhead. I watch a spirited storm tracking across Lyme Bay and prepare to shelter but, in the end, it mostly avoids the land leaving the sun to return. All of this is overlaid on the southern side by the ebb and flow of traffic noise from the busy A35 some distance below.

The heath may look uninviting and barren, but this is springtime and there are many signs of renewal. A few clumps of yellow gorse stand out above fresh grey-green growth and heathers push feathery green and red shoots upwards. Submerged in the thick heath vegetation are the small bright blue and white flowers of heath milkwort piercing the darkness like stars in the night sky. In the past, the flowers were thought to resemble small udders and this may account for the plant’s name as well as its administration to nursing mothers by medieval herbalists. Along path edges on the northern side of the heath, I find several generous clumps of a shrub with pale fleshy leaves, green with a tinge of pink. This is bilberry, covered at this time of year with delicate, almost transparent, pale red, lantern-shaped flowers looking out of place in this harsh environment but proving popular with bumblebees and hoverflies. Late summer will see the plants covered with succulent black fruits.

I encounter only one other person on the heath but it hasn’t always been such a quiet place. From medieval times, Hardown Hill would have resounded to the clash of picks and shovels wielded by men mining the landscape for building materials. Beneath the thin layer of soil that covers the summit, there are layers of clay and a yellow/brown sandy material containing substantial lumps of flint-like, hard rock, the chert cobs. A mixture of clay, stone and sand was taken for road construction and the chert cobs were used for building. Mining occurred on the southern slopes of the Hill, either in open pits or in adits (mine shafts) cut into the hillside. Nowadays there are few traces of this busy activity. The mining area has mostly been colonised by rough grass and bracken, brightened today by a haze of bluebells.  One open pit has been preserved near the top of Love’s Lane displaying the layers of rock and the chert cobs. The adits are inaccessible for safety reasons but one serves an important role as a hibernation area for the rare lesser horseshoe bat.

The chert cobs were split using a small hammer on a long handle, the Hardown hammer. Cobs were held on an iron bar with three claws and covered in damp hessian to protect the eyes of workmen who also wore wire goggles. Split cobs were used to provide a tough outer surface, silvery-blue or yellowish, on domestic and farm buildings around the Marshwood Vale. Good examples of the use of Hardown chert can also be found on the 14th century abandoned chapel at Stanton St Gabriel beneath Golden Cap and on the tiny 19th century church at Catherston Leweston.

But it is to the height of Hardown Hill that I want to return. Its prominence above the surrounding countryside gives spectacular views with new perspectives on some of west Dorset’s notable landmarks. Looking southwards, we see Golden Cap and the darkly-wooded Langdon Hill rising steeply across the valley with a backdrop of the waters of Lyme Bay (see picture at the top of this post). Towards the east, Portland floats unsettlingly as if cast adrift. To the north, especially from Hardown’s rough grassy flanks, we look across the patchwork of fields and the ring of hills that make up the Marshwood Vale with the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum cradled in its green embrace. New perspectives challenge us to think differently and the relative isolation of Hardown fosters quiet contemplation away from the cares of everyday life.

Perhaps that’s what Thomas Hardy meant when he wrote in his poem “Wessex Heights”:
“There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, ………….”

Marshwood Vale and the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum, from Hardown Hill
Marshwood Vale and Whitchurch Canonicorum from Hardown Hill

 

Bilberry on Hardown Hill
Bilberry on Hardown Hill

 

Heath Milkwort on Hardown Hill
Heath Milkwort on Hardown Hill

 

Orange-tailed mining bee (A. haemorrhoa)
Orange-tailed mining bee (A. haemorrhoa) on Hardown Hill

 

Exposed chert on Hardwon Hill
Exposed chert seam on Hardown Hill

 

Hardown Chert on Catherston Leweston Church
Hardown Chert on Catherston Leweston Church

This piece was originally publsihed in the July 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Nurdle hunting in west Dorset

Charmouth Beach
Charmouth beaching looking towards Golden Cap

 

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.

Hunting for nurdles 2
Nurdle hunters getting down to work.

 

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?

This article appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

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.

Hunting for nurdles
Nurdle hunters at work

 

A nurdle collected is a nurdle out of the sea
Nurdle hunter at work
One happy nurdle hunter
A happy hunter with her hoard

 

One hunter's haul
One hunter’s findings. Note the majority are bright blue with fine ridges

 

I returned to Charmouth Beach on May 1st and picked up these in about five minutes on the east side of the river Char. The bright blue pellets predominate as before, note the fine ridges characteristic of biobeads. The grey pellets are mostly smooth, characteristic of a pre-production plastic pellet or nurdle. The lentil-shaped, pale pellets are also nurdles, commonly referred to as “mermaids tears”; they acquire colour if they stay in the sea a long time. The yellow and the one pale blue pellet are nurdles

 

 

Bumblebee on veronica
Couldn’t resist including this picture of a foraging bumblebee on a veronica bush near the car park.