Tag Archives: nature writing

A country walk, a clean beach and the fallacy of perpetual growth

The Christmas weather in south Devon was stormy and very wet so when we woke on December 27th to bright sunshine and clear, pale blue skies we had to get out for a walk.   We chose one combining countryside and sea, one we often walk after heavy rain as it mostly follows minor roads or paved paths.

We started at Townstal, a suburb on the edge of Dartmouth.  Townstal is noted for its leisure centre and two supermarkets but it does provide easy parking and quick access to open countryside.  Our route headed gradually southwards towards the sea along narrow roads edged by high grassy banks.   Volleys of gulls and crows rose from adjacent fields and the low sunshine created strongly contrasting areas of light and dark on the deep valleys and rolling countryside, emphasising even the slightest undulation.

Some steep ups and downs took us to Venn Cross where we turned to descend along the Blackpool Valley with its spirited stream, growing ever fuller as it gathered water from springs or from the sodden fields.  This part of the walk is tree lined and the minor road is cut into the hillside well above the stream.  Several former water mills are dotted along the valley; they are now rather grand private houses but one has installed a turbine to harness the power of the water once again.

Old Mill in the Blackpool Valley
Blackpool Mill, one of the old mills found along the Blackpool Valley. This hidden valley has changed very little over the years. Have a look at the painting below of a nearby farm to see how the area looked nearly a century ago.


Apple Blossom, Riversbridge Farm, Blackpool by Lucien Pissarro, 1921, from Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter


At this time of year, the trees are dark latticeworks of bare branches but pale brown immature catkins were showing well on some of the trees, readying themselves for the spring.  Patches of winter heliotrope spread along verges enclosing the ground with their fleshy, green, heart-shaped leaves.  Purple and white lollipop flowers struck through the leaves, broadcasting their characteristic almond odour.

Catkins and running water in the Blackpool Valley
Catkins above running water in the Blackpool Valley


Winter Heliotrope in the Blackpool Valley
Winter heliotrope in the Blackpool Valley


Eventually, we reached Blackpool Sands, a popular shingle beach and café, surrounded by pine trees and sheltered by steeply rising hills.    The low winter sun created strongly contrasting colours: the yellowish- brown shingle, the fringe of frothy white waves, the sea a rich dark blue tinged with turquoise highlights, and there were clear views across the bay to Start Point with its lighthouse.   Near the café, a hardy group of swimmers were struggling on their wet suits in readiness for a dip.  They passed me as they ventured in to the sea accompanied by audible yelps and shrieks.

View across Start Bay from Blackpool Sands to Start Point
View across Start Bay from Blackpool Sands to Start Point


Swimmers at Blackpool Sands
Swimmers at Blackpool Sands …… with friend.


I was keen to have a look at the shingle beach for two reasons.  There had been a very successful beach clean four days previously organised by Amanda Keetley of Less Plastic.  We hadn’t been able to be there owing to family commitments but there had also been storms since then and I wondered how much more plastic had washed up.  I didn’t find any, the beach was still clean which should have been good news.

To be honest, however, I was feeling disheartened about efforts to reduce the load of plastic in our seas after reading two articles in the Guardian over the Christmas period.  It seems that the US, along with financial support from Saudi Arabia, is planning a huge increase in plastic production, the driver being cheap shale gas.  If we are to reduce the amount of plastic in our seas we need to reduce the amount in circulation and this new plan runs directly counter to this.

Here are links to the two articles:

$180 billion investment in plastic factories feeds global packaging binge

World’s largest plastics plant rings alarm bells on Texas coast

I am not sure how this can be stopped but I am convinced that the drive for perpetual economic growth, espoused thoughtlessly by so many of our politicians, is ultimately very damaging for our planet.

If we love our beaches and our seas, we have to talk about plastic

Towards the end of October, I spent a day at Cogden Beach, just east of Burton Bradstock in west Dorset.   It’s a beautiful, natural spot, a rich concoction of sea, sky and shingle where wildlife prospers despite the sometimes harsh conditions.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult, however, to ignore the scatter of plastic pollution on the beach and the potential effects of this manmade material on marine life.

Cogden Beach looking towards Golden Cap
Looking west along Cogden Beach towards Golden Cap, showing the clumps of sea kale and yellow horned-poppy


It felt unseasonably warm as I walked downhill from the car park, more like a late summer’s day, although the blood-red rose hips and smoky-black sloes decorating the leafless scrub spoke of a different season. The vast shingle bank of Chesil Beach dominated the long view, a yellowish-brown convexity edged with white waves sweeping eastwards towards a mistily mysterious Isle of Portland.  The sea was calm and a steely grey except where the low sun’s rays highlighted individual wavelets whose reflections merged in to a broad, silvery band of light.

When I reached the shingle bank I found traces of the special beach plants that grow so profusely here in spring and summer.  Well weathered, blue-green and brownish-grey leaves were all that remained of the sea kale that dominates in May whereas, beneath the brown remnants of this season’s vegetation, fresh glaucous leaves were showing from the yellow horned-poppies.  Small flocks of starlings skittered about puddles at the back of the beach like children in a school playground and, in a low sandy cliff, I was surprised to find bees busily filling nests.  These were ivy bees (Colletes hederae), the last of our solitary bees to emerge, the females collecting chrome-yellow pollen from nearby clumps of flowering ivy.  To the west, there were spectacular views of Burton Bradstock’s yellow cliffs and the distinctive flat top of Golden Cap.

It seemed like the perfect natural spot.  But was it?  Almost all the clumps of beach plants contained plastic waste including pieces of plastic wrap, colourful plastic rope or plastic fishing line.  On the shingle between the clumps, I saw the occasional plastic drink bottle, some were intact, some in pieces.   The prominent strandline about half way up the beach contained dark, dry seaweed and small pieces of wood mixed liberally with shards of plastic as though objects had shattered in their continual buffeting by the sea.  Plastic drink bottles or their fragments also appeared at regular intervals along the strandline.  This beach is no longer a completely natural, wild place, it has been contaminated by our throwaway plastic culture.   Perhaps the most poignant symbol of this tension was a chunk of expanded polystyrene covered with pale grey goose barnacles.

Plastic is, of course, both versatile and cheap.  It has transformed our lives but its very ubiquity and ease of use means that we don’t value it enough.  Think how much you throw away each week: plastic wrap or bags from supermarket produce, drink containers and lids, plastic trays, pots and so on.  We have embraced a “disposable” lifestyle where about half of the plastic we produce is used once and thrown away.   Some countries manage to recycle or energy-recover a large proportion of their plastic waste but the UK is not one of them.  In this country, more than 60% of plastic waste ends up in landfill where it does not break down and is effectively lost.  We are squandering resources and energy on a massive scale, an appalling indictment of our way of life.

But what about the plastic waste I found on Cogden Beach, how does it get there?  It comes from the sea and is left behind by the retreating tide.  We have turned our oceans into a “plastic soup” composed of plastic bottles and bags, plastic fragments formed by breakdown of these larger items, also microplastics (5 mm or less in size) such as industrial pellets, small fragments and very small fibres from clothing or from car tyres.  This is a huge global problem and shows no sign of abating.  A staggering 12 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. All countries contribute but a large proportion comes from several in the Far East with poor waste management systems.

The consequences for marine wildlife are alarming.  Consider, for example, the Northern Fulmar, a bird that forages exclusively at sea.  A study in the North Atlantic showed that 91% of dead Fulmars found on beaches had plastic in their gut, having mistaken the plastic for food, reducing their ability to feed and sometimes damaging their digestive tract.  At the other end of the food chain, zooplankton have been shown to ingest tiny microplastic fragments that may end up in fish and perhaps in humans.  Plastic fragments also attract toxic chemicals that may affect the creatures consuming them.  Our throwaway lifestyle is disturbing the entire global marine ecosystem. The problem is just as serious as climate change.

What can be done?  First, we must reduce the amount of plastic in circulation by moving away from single-use items such as plastic bottles, takeaway cups, plastic cutlery, plastic wrap and plastic packaging.  The introduction of the 5p charge on plastic bags led to an 85% reduction in use, so a levy on single-use takeaway cups and plastic cutlery may also be effective.    Second, we need to encourage a “circular economy” where as much plastic as possible is recovered and recycled and none goes to landfill.  A deposit return scheme for plastic drink bottles would increase recovery but greater recycling of other plastic containers must also be achieved.   It is encouraging that some government ministers are now talking about the problems of plastic waste, but their words must be translated into actions.

Individual decisions can also bring about change.  We can refuse to use plastic cutlery.  We can choose to drink only from reusable cups.  We can use and reuse our own shopping bag.  We can recycle all plastic bottles and containers. We can pressurise local businesses to reduce plastic waste.  We can participate in beach cleans.  If we love our beaches and our seas we must do this.


Plastic Bottle and Sea Kale, Cogden Beach
Plastic bottle and sea kale on Cogden Beach


Well travelled bottle fragment on Cogden Beach
A well-travelled plastic bottle remnant on Cogden Beach


Bottle and Yellow Horned-Poppy, Cogden Beach
New growth on yellow horned-poppy, with plastic bottle


Plastic on Cogden Beach
Plastic waste on Cogden Beach


Goose Barnacles on expanded polystyrene, Cogden Beach
Goose barnacles on expanded polystyrene


low cliff at Cogden
Low cliffs at Cogden Beach with ivy bee nests


Ivy Bee at Cogden Beach 2
Female Ivy bee (Colletes hederae) returning to her sandy burrow with pollen, at Cogden Beach


This article appeared in the January 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

A Saturday afternoon beach clean – hope for the future at Hope Cove

Last Saturday we spent the afternoon at Hope Cove taking part in a beach clean organised by Amanda Keetley of Less Plastic and sponsored by the pressure group Surfers Against Sewage.

Hope Cove Harbour Beach
Harbour Beach, Hope Cove


Hope Cove is a popular seaside village on the south Devon coast located on the eastern side of Thurlestone Bay.  The village used to be a centre for fishing and smuggling but nowadays tourism is the main activity.  It’s a 45-min drive from our house through the undulating countryside of the South Hams and the journey took in all kinds of weather.   We left in squally showers and sunshine and then, from one of the elevated sections of the road, I looked across to the peaks of Dartmoor, had someone really sprinkled icing sugar snow?  Later on, I glanced to the west to see the sun shining from a pale blue sky illuminating a deep emerald green valley.  To the east, however, a thick horizontal layer of dark grey cloud lay above clear sky that glowed with an ominous orange light.  Curiously, the dark grey layer appeared to be bleeding downwards in to the orange layer compounding the threatening feeling of impending rain.

Fortunately, by the time we arrived at Hope Cove, the sky had cleared and the sun was shining although its low angle left large areas in the shade and the persistent sea breeze made it feel much colder.  There were good views across Thurlestone Bay to Burgh Island and onwards as far as the distinctive conical outcrop of Rame Head in East Cornwall.

We found a large crowd of 40 or more people gathered around Amanda Keetley as she explained her plan for the afternoon.  Hope Cove has two beaches, the smaller Mouthwell Sands and the larger Harbour Beach. The tide was well out exposing great expanses of sand and we were to clean both beaches. She handed out large plastic sacs and reusable gloves and people dispersed to pick up plastic waste and other litter.  There were quite a few children and dogs and the afternoon had a happy, light feeling despite the cold.

Hazel and I went to Harbour Beach where we found plenty of plastic waste along the strandlines.  We didn’t see many large items such as plastic bottles but there was a lot of plastic twine/fishing line much of it entangled with seaweed.  We also found pieces of plastic bag, plastic wrap, pieces of plastic rope and many, many smallish plastic fragments (1-2 cm) probably from the breakdown of larger items.  Much of this waste is potentially very damaging to sea creatures.

We also found a few plastic nurdles and other pellets but only at the back of the Harbour Beach on dry sand. The nurdles were quite similar to those we found at Leas Foot Sands, two miles further west round Thurlestone Bay.

When we had enough of the cold we took our bag to the collecting point outside the Cove Café Bar where a large pile was developing.  In the end there were about 20 bags of waste: it was reassuring that so much plastic had been picked up but troubling that so much needed to be picked up.

Our reward for the afternoon, apart from feeling we had done an important job, was a free hot drink in the Cove Café Bar. The owners were supporting the beach clean and were very generous and welcoming despite the huge crowd; they are taking measures themselves to reduce use of plastics in the café so the drinks were served in china cups although some of us had brought our own reusable cups.

Two final points:

I was encouraged to see that most of the people taking part in the beach clean were in their thirties suggesting an awareness of the problem of marine plastic waste and a feeling that something needs to be done even when you are busy with jobs and children.

Should you be sceptical about the value of beach cleans, I suggest you take a look at a report from Eunomia where they conclude that beach cleans are an effective way to remove plastics from our seas.

Hope Cove Beach Clean 2
Beach cleaning on Harbour Beach. The white house featured in the BBC daytime drama “The Coroner” set in south Devon


Hope Cove Beach Clean 3
Hazel standing by the bags of plastic waste


Reusable cup
A reusable cup from Surfers Against Sewage (I am not sponsored!)


Nurdles etc at Hope Cove
The nurdles and pellets we found on Harbour Beach. There seem to be more of the white “mermaids tears” kind of nurdle but that could reflect our growing awareness of these pellets.


Rame Head from Hope Cove
Rame Head from Hope Cove



The featured image is of Mouthwell Sands, Hope Cove.

Beavers live here! Rewilding on the River Otter in East Devon

Four years ago, a family of wild beavers were spotted on the river Otter in East Devon.  This was the first report of the animal breeding successfully in the wild in England since the species had been hunted to extinction more than 400 years ago.  No one knows how the animals came to be on the river but their prospering population is now the subject of a scientific trial providing a unique opportunity to monitor the re-introduction of a native species, or “rewilding” as it is sometimes called. 

Otterton Bridge with Himalyan Balsam
The old stone bridge over the River Otter at Otterton, with Himalyan Balsam


I wanted to find out more, so one evening in mid-September, I met Kate Ponting, Countryside Learning Officer for Clinton Devon Estates, at the village green in Otterton.  Kate has been closely involved with the beaver re-introduction trial, taking place as it does on land largely owned by her employer.  We headed to the river, crossed the old stone bridge and walked upstream along the muddy riverside path.  Banks of Himalayan balsam and nettles dominated the river bank while, on the landward side, clover leys spread as far as the low embankment that once carried the railway.  Prominent official signs warned that “Beavers live here” and Kate explained that there had been some local problems with dogs.

The river was full after recent heavy rain but the scene was tranquil in the low evening sunshine.  We paused on the wooden bridge where Kate pointed out one beaver lodge, a semi-organised jumble of mud, sticks and branches protruding nearly a metre from the river bank and covering the entrance to a burrow where the beavers live.   Further up the river we stopped to watch a second lodge on the far bank.  Kate had warned me that the beavers had become less “reliable” as the autumn progressed and, although a wren flittered about the sticks making up the lodge and a grey wagtail passed through, we saw no beavers. Kate did, however, show me some signs of beaver activity including severed branches and one felled tree.

The beaver is Europe’s largest rodent and until the 16th century was found widely on UK rivers.  They are impressively large animals covered in brown fur, measuring up to 100cm (head and body) and with scaly black tails.  Beavers are strict herbivores with strong teeth allowing feeding on many species of river and bank plant as well as woody vegetation from trees.  They are strong swimmers adapted for life underwater, and skilful aquatic engineers able to regulate water levels by building dams.  When they build dams by felling trees they remodel the wetland landscape creating habitat for many other plants and animals and, for this reason, they are referred to as “keystone” species.

In the past, they were hunted to extinction for their fur, meat and castoreum, a secretion from their scent gland used for medicinal purposes.  Early in the 21st century, however, free-living populations of beavers were re-established in Scotland and there were anecdotal sightings of wild beavers on the river Otter in East Devon.  These reports were confirmed early in 2014 when two adults and one juvenile beaver (kit) were filmed near Ottery St Mary.  This was the first confirmed report of wild beavers breeding in England for 400 years.

At first, DEFRA were concerned that the animals might harbour disease and wanted to remove them but their plan was opposed by wildlife experts and local people.  So, towards the end of 2014, Devon Wildlife Trust applied to Natural England for a licence allowing the beavers to remain on the river as part of a five-year trial to monitor their effects.  The licence was granted on the condition that the beavers were shown to be the native UK species and disease free and in March 2015, nine beavers living in two family groups were returned to the river Otter.  The licence included a management plan for monitoring the health of the beaver population and its effects on the local landscape and ecology; also for making good any damage.  The River Otter Beaver Trial is led by Devon Wildlife Trust working in partnership with the University of Exeter, the Derek Gow Consultancy and Clinton Devon Estates.

Since the trial began, beavers have been seen along almost the entire length of the river Otter.  Breeding has been successful each year but there were concerns that the population might be becoming inbred so in 2016, two additional beavers, unrelated to the existing animals, were released on to the river. By 2017 the population had grown to more than 20 and watching the adult beavers and their kits on a summer’s evening became a popular pastime attracting many visitors to the area.  So far, the presence of these large aquatic animals has caused few difficulties.  Feeding signs have been detected all along the river in terms of severed shoots and felled trees but this was mainly confined to small diameter willow shoots.  Earlier this year, fields near Otterton were flooded when beavers dammed one of the streams feeding the Otter but mitigation measures were put in place.

Female beaver with kits, on the River Otter. Photo by Mike Symes, Devon Wildlife Trust


These are, however, early days and, as the number of beavers continues to rise, their presence in this managed East Devon landscape may cause tensions.  There is good evidence from Bavaria, where the animals were re-introduced 50 years ago, that beavers can have a beneficial influence on rivers.   They support wildlife by opening up the landscape, creating coppice and diversifying the wetland habitat.  Their dams regulate river flows and remove sediment and pollutants. Sometimes, however, they can be a nuisance to those who live and work by rivers, causing flooding, blocking ditches, undermining river banks and felling important trees.   There are now as many as 20,000 beavers on Bavaria’s rivers and their beneficial effects are clearly recognised alongside the need to manage the animals when their activity has a negative impact.   Hopefully, a similar resolution can be reached for the East Devon beavers as their population grows.  Whatever the outcome, the River Otter Beaver Trial will be closely watched by those interested in “rewilding” the landscape.

The featured image at the top of this post is of a female beaver on the River Otter, by Mike Symes, Devon Wildlife Trust.

I should like to thank Kate Ponting of Clinton Devon Estates for giving up her time to show me the beaver lodges and Steve Hussey and Mark Elliott of Devon Wildlife Trust for providing information and photographs.

This article appeared in the November 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Beaver Lodge on river Otter
Beaver lodge on River Otter



Tree felled by beavers near river Otter
Tree felled by beavers along River Otter


Himalayan Balsam by River Otter
Himalayan Balsam by River Otter – the bee was too quick for me and all I photographed was the leg!



Cormorant on river Otter
Cormorant on River Otter



river Otter view
A tranquil scene on the River Otter


What a difference a storm makes.

Here I am again at Leas Foot Sands near Thurlestone on the South Devon coast, a week after my first visit.  Storm Ophelia passed noisily through the area between the two visits, bringing very high winds and rough seas and I wanted to see how the beach had fared.

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 4
The sand dunes at the back of the beach with some debris

Mist accompanied me for most of the journey down but as I approached the coast, the gloom cleared and there was a hint of brightness in the sky.  To the west, the art deco hotel on Burgh Island glowed in a halo of white light and there was even a little milky sunshine at Thurlestone.  These luminous promises were destined to be unfulfilled as the sky quickly resumed its overcast state leaving the sea a uniform dull grey-blue.  At least it was calm; there was virtually no wind and the waves looked as though they couldn’t be bothered.  Perhaps because of the calm, there were birds about, on the beach and on the cliffs, wagtails, corvids and pipits.  Compared with my visit a week ago, the tide was much lower, exposing a larger area of beach with several concentric arcs of debris and a mass of dark seaweed at the water’s edge.

The beach at Leas Foot Sands is enclosed on either side by moderate red cliffs and backed by scrappy sand dunes that have suffered badly in previous years’ stormy weather.   Today these dunes resembled a piece of conceptual art dedicated to our throwaway culture.  All sorts of debris littered the rising sand:  many small fragments of plastic, wood and seaweed, feathers, plastic containers and many pieces of plastic wrapping. There was even a battered but colourful drink can that seemed to have come from the Far East.    It had obviously been fairly wild when the storm arrived, with high winds and waves reaching right up to the back of the beach; this area had been mostly clean a week ago.

Further down the beach, there were several arcs of debris presumably corresponding to the distance reached by different tides as the storm abated.  These strandlines contained small pieces of seaweed, cuttlefish shells, Portuguese Men O’War looking rather sad and deflated with some in pieces, cotton bud stems, colourful rope and fishing tackle.

One of the arcs of debris in the centre of the beach grabbed my attention.  It contained some of the same stuff but in lower amounts: a few feathers, small dry pieces of wood and seaweed and the occasional shard of plastic.  The big difference was the presence of nurdles, very easy to spot littered among the other debris here.  There must have been several hundred of the small, mostly grey, plastic particles spread across the beach in this arc.

Finally, near the water’s edge, there were substantial amounts of shiny dark brown seaweed partly submerged in the shallow water.  It looked as though this had been newly collected and dumped by the storm.  There was little or no plastic waste in this area.

So, what a difference a storm makes.  I wasn’t surprised to see all the litter at the back of the beach given the ferocity of the storm but the nurdles were a shock.  A week ago we had been hard pressed to find any nurdles at all whereas today they were plentiful.  The challenge now is to understand why the nurdles arrived and why they were apparently concentrated in one strandline.


Our seas and our beaches are contaminated by nurdles, these small pieces of easily transportable plastic used as a raw material for making many of our plastic goods.  Nurdles pose many dangers but one obvious concern is that that they will be consumed by seabirds and by fish with dire consequences for their health.  Here is a link to more information about nurdles.

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 2
Debris at the back of the beach superimposed on one of the clumps of sea rocket


Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 1
Debris at the back of the beach


Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 3
A drink can seen at the back of the beach – it that may have travelled far.


Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 5
Debris piled up at the back of the beach


Leas Foot Sands middle of beach after storm Ophelia 2
A mid beach shot with a sad-looking Portuguese Man’O War


Leas Foot Sands middle of beach after storm Ophelia 1
More unusual finds on a mid beach hunt


Nurdles on Leas Foot Sands after storm Ophelia 1
Nurdles on the middle of the beach along with natural debris. The nurdles are the small grey cylindrical pieces.


Nurdles on Leas Foot Sands after storm Ophelia 2
More nurdles in the middle of the beach.


Shoreline at Leas Foot Beach after storm Ophelia
Seaweed at the water’s edge.


Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath

Mistaken marriages, passionate affairs, tragic deaths, richly interwoven with folklore and superstition.  This is the complex concoction contained in The Return of the Native, one of Thomas Hardy’s great novels.  Hardy set his narrative on the semi-fictional Egdon Heath, a “vast tract of unenclosed wild” that assumes a claustrophobic, controlling influence on his characters.  Hardy’s Egdon Heath has many of the features of the heath landscape that once filled the space between Dorchester and Bournemouth.  I wanted to experience Egdon so, on a warm, humid day towards the end of July, I went to Winfrith Heath one of the surviving fragments of this Dorset heathland.

Winfrith Heath 1
Looking across the heath showing the subtle colour effect of the heather flowers


I followed a sandy soil track on to the heath, descending gradually between borders of gorse and low trees.  As I gained distance from the road, long views opened up across the gently undulating terrain surrounding me and an eerie quiet descended, broken only by trains passing on the heath-edge line.  Apart from the occasional stunted tree and a few drifts of pale green bracken much of this part of the heath appeared featureless and barren.

Closer inspection, however, revealed some of the heath’s special wildlife.   Near the path edge, the cheerful purples, pinks and violets of the three common species of heather showed well.   These heathers flourish across the heath alongside rough grasses and gorse, and their bright pastel-coloured flowers lend a purple-pink tinge to long views at this time of year, the colour augmented by sunshine but lost in a mass of dull browns and greens when cloud covers.   Large, metallic blue and green emperor dragon flies, the size of small birds, were attracted to the ponds scattered across the heath.  They swept back and forth across the water making repeated, aerial, hairpin turns in a constant search for insect food.  Heather spikes dipped momentarily when yellow-striped bumblebees moved among the flower-bells collecting pollen and nectar.

The sandy path levelled out. Heathland now spread extensively on both sides and, together with the grey cloud cover, created a claustrophobic feeling.  Ahead of me was a band of trees with a gate and standing water.  The trees mark a drainage ditch feeding into the Tadnoll Brook, a chalk-stream tributary of the River Frome.  I crossed the ditch on a very solid brick bridge, and was transported to a different world, one of damp meadows and thick rushy grass.  The wet meadow, soggy underfoot, was dominated by untidy stands of shoulder-high marsh thistles with multiple, prolific, spiny stems.  Each stem was topped by a starburst of flower heads, a mixture of shaggy purple flowers and brown and white fluffy seed heads.  Between the thistles, the lemon-yellow cushion flowers of bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the undergrowth and, as I walked, pale brown grasshoppers soared in long arcs from the rough grass, seeking safety away from me.

Butterflies danced around the unruly thistle flowers like confetti caught in the breeze, pausing occasionally to take nectar.  Small tortoiseshell, marbled white and peacock resembled colourful modernist stained glass and a pair of gatekeepers performed an airborne ballet.   This enclosed wetland felt like a land of plenty, a land of unconstrained, fulsome growth.  Even in high summer, however, the meadow was wet and marshy so that after winter rain the area will become boggy and treacherous.  A group of cows lurked in a corner of the meadow watching me; they help to control growth of vegetation but create further hazards for the unwary walker.

These two very different habitats, the larger lowland heath and the smaller wet meadow make up the majority of the Winfrith reserve as we see it today but the area hasn’t always looked like this.  Until the Bronze Age, this land was covered with forest (birch, pine, hazel, elm, oak) but 3-4000 years ago trees began to be felled exposing the underlying soil.  Nutrients were gradually washed away from freely draining soils leaving behind a relatively acidic surface where heathers and gorse flourished, eventually creating the heath we see today.  This landscape was maintained and scrub encroachment prevented through a combination of grazing by cattle and ponies and by heathland practices such as furze, turf and peat cutting.

Heathland once stretched from Dorchester in the west to the Avon Valley in the east but much has been lost following changes in agricultural practices or through building; a large part of Winfrith Heath was swallowed up when the nuclear research facility was built in the 1950s and still lies behind forbidding fences.  Today, only 15% of the original heath is left but what remains is a very important and rare landscape and part of Dorset’s history.  Its importance as a special habitat supporting rare species such as the Dartford warbler and the nightjar is recognised by its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest but the heathland is still threatened directly or indirectly by development.

But did I get any sense of what Hardy’s Egdon Heath was like from my visit?  Even on a small area like Winfrith, there was a definite sense of isolation in the central part of the heath, and that feeling was only partially lifted when the sun shone and the heath took on some colour.   So, if it’s solitude you are after, then it’s a perfect place.  One person’s solitude is, however, another person’s loneliness and it’s not difficult to see how Egdon might have depressed some of Hardy’s characters.  Neither is the heath a benign environment; care is required in all seasons but in winter, it is bleak, brown and very windy with boggy areas dangerous especially after wet weather.  Having said all that, the heath does have an undeniable grandeur but its very rarity as a landscape nowadays means that we may not know how to react to it.  Perhaps like Hardy’s “survivors” we should simply accept and embrace the heath for what it is, foibles and all.

Winfrith Heath lies to the west of Gatemore Road in Winfrith Newburgh and a Dorset Wildlife Trust information board marks the entrance. 


Bell heather and ling with gorse on Winfrith Heath
Bell heather, ling and gorse on Winfrith Heath


Cross-leaved heath.
Cross-leaved heath



Emperor dragonfly on Winfrith Heath
A pond on the heath with an emperor dragonfly



Small tortoiseshell butterfly on marsh thistle.
Small tortoiseshell butterfly on marsh thistle


Peacock butterfly on Winfrith Heath
Peacock butterfly on marsh thistle with bumblebee


Nuclear research centre Winfrith Heath
The former nuclear research facility seen through trees and behind forbidding fences on the other side of Gatemore Road.



This article appeared in the September 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

The long-horned bee in Devon – and its endangered friend

South Devon coast looking towards Prawle Point
The south Devon coast looking towards Prawle Point (June 16th 2017)


It’s been a good summer. We’ve had some fine weather and I’ve been able to spend time on a beautiful part of the south Devon coast looking for the long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis).  It’s one of my favourite insects and one of our rarest bees and there is a strong colony on the coast between Prawle Point and Start Point where low, soft-rock cliffs meander around headlands, in and out of rocky coves and along seaweed-covered beaches.  I visited this area several times between May and July but my most interesting day was on June 23rd, just after the summer solstice.

It was breezy and warm but partly cloudy when I arrived at the coast.  The sea was a uniform grey-blue although now and then the sun broke through the cloud, creating shimmering areas of white water. I started by following the coast path eastwards along the cliff top from Prawle Point.  The sea-side of the path was fringed with scrub and rough grass along the cliff edge whereas the landward side was fenced and mostly used for arable farming.  Many kinds of wild flower grew along both sides of the path including a few generous clumps of purple tufted vetch scrambling through the scrub. After about a mile of easy walking, the enclosed path reached a gate giving on to a broad, open area, not farmed for some years, as far as I know.

I was completely unprepared for the view that greeted me after I closed the gate.  Here was a meadow where thousands of the small, dandelion-like flowers of cat’s ear moved with the breezes to create a mobile yellow canopy above the grass.  Lower down were many tiny yellow globes of hop trefoil and bright pink semi-circles of common vetch.  This is a paradise for insects and I saw many red-tailed bumblebee workers moving purposefully about the chrome-yellow flower heads.

But that wasn’t all: the area along the cliff edge was a kaleidoscope of purples, yellows and pinks, mostly flowering legumes such as bush, kidney and tufted vetches, bird’s foot trefoil and meadow vetchling, restharrow and narrow-leaved everlasting pea.   The number and variety of flowers was greater than I can remember from previous years, perhaps the warm spring had suited the legumes.

The range of flowers, especially the legumes is ideal for the long-horned bee.  I had seen one or two males back along the enclosed path and now I saw several more, also nectaring on the curving, purple, tubular florets of tufted vetch.   There is something other-worldly, almost primeval about these insects with their yellow mask-like face, orange-chestnut hair (in fresh insects) and their impressively long antennae, resembling stiff black bootlaces and about the same length as rest of their bodies.  They are particularly striking in flight, antennae held so that the bee can negotiate whatever obstacle it meets;  controlling those antennae must involve some impressive micro-engineering.   There were also females about feeding on lemon yellow pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling.  Chunkier than the males, they have shorter antennae and, on their back legs, generous pollen brushes resembling golden harem pants.

I scrambled down a rough track to the main Eucera nest area, a section of reddish, soft-rock cliff, pock-marked with hundreds of pencil-sized holes.  Behind me the sea soughed rhythmically on nearby rocks and an oystercatcher sang its plangent song. Female Eucera arrived at the nest site bringing pollen and nectar to provision their nests but they were not alone and I saw several other bee species that seemed to be using the nest area.

One species I had hoped to see was the very rare Nomada, and I had nearly given up hope when the bee suddenly appeared; I was so surprised, I nearly fell backwards off the rocks.  Like others of its kind, it is wasp-like, with a yellow and black-banded abdomen and orange legs and antennae. It was the pattern of the bands, six yellow bands on a black body that told me that this was Nomada sexfasciata, the six-banded nomad bee, one of Britain’s rarest bees.  This site on the south Devon coast is the only place where it is found in the UK; it is nationally endangered so it was very exciting to see it.

It moved about the nest area furtively as if trying not to be noticed and after looking in to a few of the holes it moved on. Later that day I had more sightings of the Nomada; whether it was the same bee or several I cannot say.  As a nomad, the bee has no nest of its own but lays its eggs in the nest of another bee, in this case the long-horned bee.  The Nomada eggs develop into larvae and take over the nest, killing the host larvae and eating their pollen store.  It depends for its survival on a strong Eucera colony and this one in south Devon is one of the largest in the UK.

Long-horned bees and their Nomada used to be found widely across the southern part of Britain in the early 20th century.  They favour a range of habitats such as coastal soft rock cliffs, hay meadows and woodland rides for nest sites and require unimproved flowery grassland for feeding, being especially dependent on flowering legumes for their pollen sources.  With agricultural intensification leading to a loss of habitat, especially flowers, these bees have been squeezed out and are now confined to a very few sites.

It’s not difficult to see how they could be supported.  At the south Devon site, all that is required is to ensure a consistent source of flowering legumes along the coast, the soft rock cliffs already provide the nest sites.    I recently met Catherine Mitson who is working with Buglife on a project to support the south Devon colony of Eucera longicornis and Nomada sexfasciata  by increasing the number of flowers.  Catherine is very enthusiastic and I have great hopes now for the survival of both the long-horned bee and its nomad.

Yellow meadow Prawle Devon
The yellow meadow


Male long-horned bee on meadow vetchling
Male long-horned bee on meadow vetchling (June 16th 2017)


Male long-horned bee
Male long-horned bee on tufted vetch (June 23rd 2017)


Female long-horned bee
Female long-horned bee on meadow vetchling (June 23rd 2017)


Female long-horned bee by nest
Female long-horned bee at the nest site (June 16th 2017)


Female long-horned bee 2
Female long-horned bee with pollen on tufted vetch (July 2nd 2017)


Nomada sexfasciata
Nomada sexfasciata by Eucera nests (June 23rd 2017)


Nomada sexfasciata 2
Nomada sexfasciata by Eucera nests (June 23rd 2017)


Female long-horned bee
Very worn female long-horned bee on tufted vetch (July 23rd 2017)


The featured image at the top of this  post is a male long-horned bee on bird’s foot trefoil   (May 23rd 2017)