Tag Archives: nature writing

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 mid-June visit to Dawlish Warren – with bee orchids and bees

I wasn’t sure what to expect.  May had been a dry month and the first two weeks of June very wet, with temperatures lower than normal for the time of year.  How might the changeable weather have affected wildlife?  As I waited at the station for my train, the staccato spits of rain made me wonder if it was even worth making this trip.  But perhaps I was being too negative.  The journey along the river estuary and by the sea was as glorious as ever and, when I stepped off the train at Dawlish Warren station, there was bright sunshine and a palpable warmth.

I left the station, headed past the funfair, past the shops selling garish beach clothing, past the pub and cafes and on to the nature reserve.  Evening primrose with their papery lemon-yellow flowers grew on the dry, sandy soil either side of the descending path and when the track levelled out, small areas of standing water were an unwelcome reminder of our recent weather.

A short walk eastwards took me on to a long green meadow.  This part of the reserve is known as Greenland Lake because in the 19th century it was a watery inlet where fishing vessels sheltered over winter before heading back to Greenland.  The area was reclaimed in the mid-20th century but is still damp so that lush grasses flourish alongside a range of plants that relish the humid conditions.  Today, flowers of yellow rattle and yellow bartsia formed a colourful sheen across the meadow, interspersed with many spikes of southern marsh orchids; some were a pale lilac and others a deep reddish purple, like colourful flames flaring from the meadow floor.  Towards the edge of Greenland Lake, the ground rises, becoming drier and sandier, populated by more evening primrose, their tall stems trembling in the keen west wind that blew across the reserve keeping the temperature down.

I thought I remembered where the bee orchids grew but memory is a tricky thing and the look of the reserve changes each year.  Eventually I found them, surrounded by enclosures to protect against trampling; there were several spikes in each enclosure, each spike with three or more of the complex flowers, each enclosure neatly labelled.   Calling the flowers complex, however, doesn’t really do them justice.  Three pinkish-lilac sepals form a propeller-like backdrop; each sepal is semi-transparent with narrow green veins.   The main part of the flower contains three petals including one that forms the dominant, downward-projecting labellum, a very unusual affair, engorged and bulbous with impressively furry edges and a central maroon area with yellow horseshoe patterns.  This is the part of the flower in which early botanists imagined a bee and gave the flower its name.

bee orchid
Bee orchid

 

With their vivid colours and pristine petals, the flowers looked as though they had emerged very recently and some features such as the horns and the arching yellow pollinia had not yet developed.  I gazed at all of this, marvelling at the complexity of nature but pondering whether the flowers really were beautiful or were they just plain weird.  I couldn’t decide but I doubt if it matters, they are what they are.

It’s reassuring to find that others feel ambivalent about the flowers and here are a few lines taken from “Bee orchid at Hodbarrrow” by the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson where he hints at their contradictions:

See the bee orchid –
Neither plant nor animal,
A metaphysical
Conceit of a flower

I left the bee orchids and wandered about the dry sandy paths bordered by flowering brambles and rough, greenish-brown marram grass.   The wardens try hard to maintain the reserve and that includes controlling scrub, especially brambles, which would otherwise take over.  Sometimes they treat the scrub with herbicides and cordon off the treated area. It makes me uneasy to see this happen but it’s probably the only way to preserve the present rich populations of flowers and insects.  I was, therefore, surprised to see three men festooned with cameras some with phallic lenses entering one of the treated areas and walking about noisily.  It seemed as though they were looking for something but they ignored me and eventually moved on.

Then I came across the bees.  They were moving about just above the dry surface of a rising sandy path, darting back and forth in straight lines but often pausing on the sand to preen and perhaps take in the warmth.  Sometimes when stationary they moved their abdomen up and down repetitively, a manoeuvre that encourages gas exchange after a period of activity, not unlike human panting.

To begin with, only a few of these insects were in evidence but when the sun came out more seemed to appear and everything got busier.  They were slightly smaller than a honeybee and to the naked eye they appeared golden.  Photographs showed bands of golden hair around the abdomen and thorax, a pale moustache and strikingly beautiful green eyes.  These are male silvery leafcutter bees (Megachile leachella) and must have emerged very recently to retain the golden look which quite soon fades to a silver, hence the name.

These males were all rather excited, bombing one another and even trying to mate and frequently looking into holes in the sand that I hadn’t seen.  Then I noticed a more protracted coupling between two of the bees which confused me for a while as I hadn’t knowingly seen any females.  Again, photographs came to the rescue showing me that a female was involved. The diagnostic feature is a symmetrical pair of small white hair patches on the terminal segment on her abdomen.  Mated females will go on to construct nests in the vegetated sand using leaf segments they cut to line the cavity but that didn’t seem to have got going yet.

There was so much sexual tension among the male bees as they waited for females to emerge that feeding seemed to be taking a low priority.  It was only later when I walked back towards the railway station taking a detour via a dry meadow at the back of the reserve that I found some bees feeding.  The meadow was covered in lush grass and flowers including diffuse globes of white clover and the slipper-like yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil.  Silvery leafcutter males were feeding here pushing the two parts of the yellow flower apart to access the nectar.

While I was watching this, the three men with cameras reappeared.  Seeing me they came across:

“We’re looking for butterflies, have you seen any?”

“Yes, I have, I can show you some pictures if you like?”

I showed them the picture I took earlier of a female common blue butterfly and they agreed sulkily with my identification, adding: “Well, we haven’t seen many, there don’t seem to be many about”

I tried to engage them in conversation about bees but they weren’t interested.

 

yellow bartsia
Yellow bartsia

 

 

southern marsh orchids
Southern Marsh Orchids

 

male silvery leafcutter
male silvery leafcutter bee

 

mating pair
mating pair

 

female silvery leafcutter
Female silvery leafcutter bee, note the paired white patches of hair on the terminal abdominal segment

 

male feeding
Male silvery leafcutter bee feeding on bird’s foot trefoil

 

female common blue butterfly
Female common blue butterfly. Defintion is poor because of zoom and the age of the specimen.

 

A chance encounter with monkshood, our most poisonous plant

It had been a good week but very intense.  Our exhibition, entitled Observation, had come to an end and the combination of Hazel’s paintings and my photographs brought many interested people into the gallery leading to good conversations. When the exhibition finished, just over a week ago, we were both tired and needed to recharge.  So, on the Sunday after, with the weather looking good, we set out on a walk in the countryside.  Part of our route took in a quiet riverside path with meadows along one side spreading up the gentle slope away from the river.  Buttercups and catsear lent the meadow a midsummer look and beneath the nodding yellow flowers were lush grasses, globes of white clover, a few pink orchids and some good stands of yellow rattle with its hooded lemony flowers and black beaks.  It was a fine meadow with plenty of insect life and we watched the many bumblebees feeding,  clover being their favourite.  We saw several cuckoo bumblebees which, as their name suggests, don’t make their own nests but parasitise those bumblebees that do make nests.

the riverside meadow

On the other side of the path, there was a band of trees, scrub and other vegetation bordering the river and among the shady greenery we noticed a tall plant with a skein of dark purplish-blue flowers (see picture at the top of this post) that reminded me of Dutch clogs.  Neither of us had seen this plant before and, with its showy blue flowers, we speculated that it might have been a garden escapee.  More of the unusual flowers appeared further along, in the same sort of environment, under shade and close to the river.

More monkshood growing by a path under the riverside trees (photo by Hazel Strange)

Back home I wanted to find out what this plant was and eventually I discovered that it was Aconitum napellus or monkshood.  In the south west of the UK, where I live, some rare examples of monkshood may be native but most are introduced and naturalised.  The unusual architectural look of the flowers has made it a popular garden plant and the name, monkshood, derives from the resemblance of the flowers to the hoods or cowls worn by monks in the past.

What surprised me most was the warning in my flower book that monkshood is the most poisonous plant found in the UK.  All parts of the plant are highly poisonous, containing the substance aconitine, an alkaloid that causes death by disrupting the ionic balance across cell membranes leading to respiratory and heart failure.  The dangers of monkshood have been known and exploited since ancient times resulting in the name “Queen of poisons”.  Extracts of the plant were applied to spears and arrows to increase their killing ability and the poison was used in ancient Rome for executions.  The plant is sometimes called wolfsbane owing to its use for killing wolves and its reputed ability to repel werewolves, but the name is more usually applied to the related, yellow-flowered, Aconitum lycoctonum.

Preparations of aconitine have also been used, mostly in the past, for their medicinal properties in treating pain and fever when taken orally or as a liniment for treating rheumatism, neuralgia and sciatica.  Tinctures of aconitine were freely available in 19th century pharmacies in Europe and the US but although the drug is no longer used in conventional medicine in the west, it continues to be used in India and China in traditional herbal preparations. The problem with using the drug is balancing the apparent therapeutic effects against the lethal effects and cases of accidental aconitine poisoning are not unknown in China.

Cerberus with Hercules (Detail from a Caeretan black-figure clay vase from Cervetri (Caere), about 530 BC. Paris, Musée du Louvre E701. © Photo: Max Hirmer Licence Plate 11 UK 1007 127)

The plant is said to have arisen, according to Greek mythology, when Hercules, performing his 12th labour, dragged the three-headed dog Cerberus from the Gates of Hell.  Here is Ovid’s description in his Metamorphoses:

“The dog struggled, twisting its head away from the daylight and the shining sun. Mad with rage, it filled the air with its triple barking, and sprinkled the green fields with flecks of white foam. These flecks are thought to have taken root and, finding nourishment in the rich and fertile soil, acquired harmful properties. Since they flourish on hard rock, the country folk call them aconites, rock-flowers.”

It seems entirely appropriate that such a lethally poisonous plant should be associated with the Gates of Hell. Indeed, it might be expected that a plant with such a reputation would have been used to commit murder but there are very few contemporary examples of this, perhaps because aconitine also has a very bitter taste and is difficult to disguise.  This hasn’t stopped fiction writers from using the poison in their stories and here are a couple of examples: Agatha Christie, in her novel, 4.50 from Paddington, employs aconitine as a murder weapon, pills containing aconitine are substituted for the victim’s sleeping tablets;   in one episode (Garden of Death, 2000) of the popular TV series, Midsomer Murders, aconitine is mixed with fettucine al pesto to dispose of the unfortunate victim.  In 2010, however, a real murder was committed using the poison when Lakhvir Kaur Singh, nicknamed the “curry killer”, poisoned her former lover by mixing extracts of the related plant Aconitum ferox into his leftover curry.

There has been some speculation recently that simply brushing against the plant might be dangerous but this idea has been discredited.  Nevertheless, should the sap of the plant come into contact with skin the poison may be transferred especially through cuts.  Caution should, therefore, be exercised if the plant is encountered in the garden or in the wild as the following anecdote, taken from Richard Mabey’s book Flora Britannica suggests:

In 1993, there was an epidemic of poisoning at a florist’s in Wiltshire.  “A flower seller was treated for heart palpitations in intensive care after handling bunches of a poisonous flower ……… staff at a flower shop in Salisbury suffered shooting pains after poison from a monkshood entered their bloodstreams.  The shop’s owner bought 150 bunches from a wholesaler who has now withdrawn them.  ” I wondered what was wrong – all of a sudden everyone was lethargic and getting pains.” ”

 

the exhibition poster

 

A view of part of the exhibition

 

Hazel’s diptych painting of the Erme estuary

 

My photo of a bloody nosed beetle

 

yellow rattle and catsear in the riverside meadow

 

Two bumblebees feeding from white clover. The one in the foreground is a vestal cuckoo-bee (B.vestalis) based on the thin lemon yellow stripe towards the end of its abdomen

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 winter solstice – a day of sunshine – with flowers, butterflies and bumblebees

When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold which is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.

(from Little Gidding, the last of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets)

low midwinter sun behind pine trees at Roundham Head
Low midwinter sun behind pine trees at Roundham Head – silhouettes and shadows

 

We had a lot of grey, wet weather towards the end of last year, and very little sunshine. A few days before Christmas, however, the forecast predicted a bright, dry and relatively mild day, so I took the opportunity to get over to Roundham Head in Paignton to see what flowers and wildlife might be about. It’s a journey of about ten miles and that morning I took the bus, enjoying the long views across the surrounding countryside. Paignton is a seaside holiday resort but it looked distinctly “out of season” when I arrived, despite the sunshine and blue sky. A few people were walking along the promenade; they were well wrapped up even though it wasn’t a cold day. The little harbour was quiet; small boats bobbed on the water protected by the old stone walls and a gang of turnstones skittered like mice at the water’s edge. Molly Malones food shack was closed for the winter and the booths normally touting fishing excursions were empty.

I walked up suburban streets to get on to the northern side of Roundham Head, the flat-topped, cliff-lined, grassy promontory that protrudes into the waters of Torbay. A line of tall pine trees straddles the first part of the headland and the low sun rendered these as silhouettes casting long shadows across the grass. The path around the promontory follows the cliff edge with views to the sea below and a seal teased me by briefly raising its shiny black head above the water. Eventually I came to southern side of the Head and the gardens that were built in the 1930s partly to stabilise the cliffs. Steep zig zag paths track up and down between flower beds planted with exotic species that, between them, provide colour throughout the year. There are benches should you wish to rest or enjoy the views over Torbay and the shelter, the proximity of the sea and the south facing aspect of the gardens generate a mild microclimate.

low midwinter sun over Goodrington Sands
The low midwinter sun over Goodrington Sands

 

It was the winter solstice that day, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, the day when darkness begins to give way to light. From the southern edge of Roundham Head, above the gardens, I could see the sun hanging very low in the pale wintery-blue sky casting its light across the beach at Goodrington Sands creating a silvery mirror on the water. Even though this was midwinter, there were plenty of flowers around me in the gardens and the low sunshine created surprising effects. Its intense golden light gave a softness to the air and enhanced flower colours to an almost psychedelic extent. Banks of bergenia acquired a pink brightness worthy of late 1960s San Francisco and the scorpion vetch (Coronilla valentina) that flourishes all over the gardens glowed with a lemon-yellow light.

I paused by a clump of bergenia, enjoying the warmth of this sheltered spot. A small bumblebee, ovoid and furry with black, white and yellow stripes, soon appeared, moving among the bright pink flowers looking for food. Quickly tiring of the bergenia, it flew to one of the white funnel-shaped flowers in a large clump of shrubby bindweed (Convolvulus cneorum), burying its head in the base of the bloom where it stayed, drinking nectar. Based on size and appearance this was probably a buff-tailed bumblebee worker. A drone fly also took advantage of these flowers resting near the mass of golden yellow stamens. Soon after, I got a surprise when a butterfly landed briefly on the bergenia before flying off. It circled for a while before settling on a wall to bask in the sunshine showing me that it was a painted lady, with its characteristic wing coloration of orange/buff, black and white. An insistent buzz announced the arrival of a large bumblebee, black with orange/buff coloured bands. This was a queen buff-tailed bumblebee and she proceeded to feed from the bergenia. I had two more sightings of large furry queens on these pink flowers.

Another plant that flourishes here is rosemary and extensive curtains of the herb cascade from several borders, their slate blue flowers glinting in the sunshine like diamond chips. Rosemary is in flower here for several months across winter providing pollen and nectar for insects and I saw several buff-tailed bumblebee workers moving quickly about the flowers, their pollen baskets well loaded. They were very jumpy and flew off when I got too close. For a short time, they were joined by another queen carrying a small amount of grey pollen, also a basking, but rather worn, red admiral butterfly with its bright red and white patterns on a black background.

By mid-afternoon, cloud began to bubble up to the south, and eventually a slab of grey cloud obscured the sun. The temperature dropped noticeably, the wind got up and the bees went off to shelter, bringing observations to a close. I made my way back to the bus station pondering what I had seen.

It still surprises me to see butterflies in the winter. I have seen them here before in December and January but in my mind these brightly coloured insects signify summer. Although most red admirals are thought to migrate to the UK from North Africa and continental Europe, a few are thought to be resident now that mild winters are becoming more common. These residents can be seen flying and feeding on gentle winter days. The painted lady also migrates into the UK but is thought to be unable to survive our winters, so the one I encountered is unlikely to see our spring.

What about the bees, aren’t they supposed to be in hibernation at this time of year? Well yes, most bees are, but based on my observations of buff-tailed workers collecting pollen in December, there must be winter active colonies at Roundham Head. I first saw worker bumblebees here in January about five years ago and since then I have seen them at a similar time each year, so this is a well-established phenomenon. There are presumably queens in their nests laying eggs supported by these workers. These queens would have been produced in the previous October to mate with males at emergence. Last year I did see male buff-tails here in December so perhaps these were survivors of the late autumn emergence.

There is abundant evidence now from a variety of sources that colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees are active in the winter across the southern part of the UK. Two factors seem to be important: winter weather should not be too harsh and there should be plenty of flowers to support the colonies.

worker bumblebee on shrubby bindweed
A worker bumblebee on a shrubby bindweed flower

 

drone fly on shrubby bindweed
A drone fly on a shrubby bindweed flower

 

queen bumblebee on bergenia
Queen buff-tailed bumblebee on bergenia

 

painted lady butterfly
painted lady butterfly

 

painted lady butterfly on bergenia
painted lady butterfly on bergenia with wings closed

 

worker bumblebee on rosemary
Worker bumblebee with pollen on rosemary

 

red admiral butterfly
red admiral butterfly – note the damaged wings

 

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