Back in September last year I spent a pleasant afternoon watching grey seals at Peartree Point in south Devon. It was fascinating to observe these creatures in their natural environment, lounging on the rocks and swimming in the water nearby. What I hadn’t expected, though, was that I would spend part of the time watching humans and their reactions to the seals.
I wrote an article about my afternoon with the seals and this has just been published on the Land Lines blog. Click here to read.
Both of the pictures of seals shown here were taken at Brixham Harbour using a zoom lens.
The Lockdown may be easing but with coronavirus still circulating and with little sensible guidance coming from central government, life is far from normal. So, I am continuing my Lockdown Exercise Walks and avoiding large gatherings where possible. In this eighth Walk, I want to take you to one of my favourite parts of the south Devon coast near Prawle Point, Devon’s southernmost headland.
The forecast for the coast was good so, towards the end of the third week of June, we headed off across the rolling hills of the South Hams towards Kingsbridge. The weather, though, seemed to be unaware of the forecast. Great slabs of grey cloud loomed ahead and there were clear signs of recent rain. I began to wonder if this trip were such a good idea but we pressed on, knowing how quixotic the Devon weather can be. At Kingsbridge we picked up the coast road turning right at the village of Frogmore across a watery inlet to follow four miles of narrow, winding lanes.
Not only are the lanes narrow here, they are enclosed by Devon hedges, creating a narrow corridor with steep banks. At this time of year, the banks are smothered with lush vegetation, mostly green but enlivened by splashes of white cow parsley, yellowing Alexanders and bright pink foxglove remnants. In just one spot, a large patch of rosebay willowherb coloured the bank coral pink as if paint had been spilt and when we stopped to let an oncoming car pass, a few spikes of purple tufted vetch cried out to be seen.
As we approached the village of East Prawle we passed the duckpond with its large clumps of chrome yellow monkey flower and parked by the village green. Hazel wanted a longer walk, whereas I wanted to spend time looking at flowers, so we agreed to meet later. I began by heading towards the coast down a steep road edged by rough stone walls. Fulsome clumps of red valerian clung to the stone, rain-remnant drops of water hanging from the flowers like tiny glass globes. The sun began to break through the cloud that had brought the rain, the water droplets sparkled like fairy lights and butterflies flickered among the flowers. Now and then, I glimpsed the coast spread out below and the sea, a uniform misty blue.
Near a row of coastguard cottages, I entered a narrow lane lined by green hedges coloured by more valerian, also honeysuckle and bramble. The lane turned sharp left to descend more steeply across slippery exposed bedrock and through scrub and woodland. A chiff chaff called and I stopped to gaze at the flowers and insects on a bank of bramble caught in the morning sunshine. Suddenly a woman appeared down a nearby path that joined the lane looking surprised to find me standing there.
“Are you alright?” she asked
“I’m just looking at the flowers” I replied, trying to reassure her.
“Yes, there are lots of flowers about. Have you seen the pink sweet peas on the coast, they don’t smell like the garden variety?” she continued.
“That’s narrow- leaved everlasting pea, a perennial wild form of the garden variety and coincidentally its pink flowers are part of the reason I’m here today, some rare bees feed from them” I replied.
“It’s so difficult to identify wild flowers from books” she worried.
“Yes, I sometimes leaf through the entire book to identify something I have seen.”
I told her I could wait if she wanted to go ahead down the lane so that we maintained physical distancing but she said there was no need as she was taking another path to the right and promptly disappeared.
Leaving the woodland, I passed between arable fields along another enclosed path with the sea now ahead of me. These fields occupy a gently sloping coastal plain stretching between steep inland cliffs with rocky outcrops and the present low cliffs above the sea. The steep inland cliffs give the area an enclosed, almost claustrophobic feeling whilst creating a gentle microclimate. Barley grows in these fields, spring sown so that its seed and stubble can be left after autumn harvest to provide winter food for the rare cirl buntings that now flourish here. As I walked, the distinctive rattle of one of the birds echoed around the inland cliffs. The barley was a soft, uniformly yellowish-green carpet so I assumed it had been well sprayed with herbicide.
When I reached the coast, I headed westwards along the coast path between the cliff edge and the barley field. The cliff edge was fringed with bracken and blackthorn, the latter providing good nest areas for the cirl buntings. Tall stems of hemp agrimony grew here along with a profusion of narrow-leaved everlasting pea scrambling through the bracken and the scrub, grabbing on with fine tendrils. Large, mostly pink, pea-type flowers (see picture at the head of this post) were scattered about the plants, not in large numbers but frequently enough to make an impact. The large upper petals, like bright pink sails decorated with fine green striations, stand out above the smaller lower petals that resemble miniature boxing gloves, with an unusual bluish-pink hue.
Silvery bees patrolled the area around the flowers weaving their way deftly and quickly among the vegetation and I wondered how they were able to navigate so easily. Sometimes they stopped to take nectar and from their very long black bootlace antennae I recognised these as male long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis). This part of the south Devon coast contains the largest UK colony of these very rare and very distinctive bees. The sun had now come out making it feel quite warm and I stayed by the flowers for a while. A few female long-horned bees soon appeared carrying large chunks of pollen so I presume they were coming to collect nectar. They share only a passing resemblance to their male counterparts: they have short antennae and are covered in thick pale hairs. They hang below the pink flowers holding their body in a tightly curved crescent as they feed and the flowers of narrow-leaved everlasting pea seem to be a very important pollen source for the insects.
I moved on through two latch gates to enter a narrow but long coastal meadow stretching between cliff tops fringed with bracken and scrub and the inland cliffs that tower above. The meadow hadn’t been cultivated or grazed and was thick with knee-length grasses and wild flowers. Grasshoppers rose as I walked and small brownish butterflies danced around me. This is a floral paradise, a mosaic of colour and form.
The predominant flowers at the beginning of the meadow were the white hemispheres of sea carrot rising like so many large mushrooms through the thick grass to dominate the landscape. There were also some of the nodding yellow heads of cat’s ear, popular with red-tailed bumblebees, and the pinkish-purple flowers of common vetch. Partially buried in the grass I noticed the small, bright pink flowers of centaury with their prominent yellow stamens. Narrow-leaved everlasting pea climbed through the cliff-edge bracken attracting more long-horned bees to its pink flowers, so I stopped to watch.
I dragged myself away and further on, a rough path took me down the low cliff to an area of soft rock riddled with small pencil-sized holes, thought to be the principal nest site of the long-horned bees. As I waited to see the insects returning to their nests, I was conscious of the sea grumbling around the rocks behind me and the patchwork of colours it held. The water was mostly a shimmering deep blue but with darker areas hiding submerged rocks and tinged green where it washed over shallow sand. My reverie was interrupted when the woman I met earlier appeared on the rocks around the cliff corner. She seemed keen to talk and I learnt that she lived in London but had come down to stay in her cottage when the lockdown was imposed.
I scrambled back up to the coast path and as I walked westwards in the direction of Prawle Point, the floral mix in the meadow changed. Cat’s ear now dominated lending the meadow a yellow cast. Along the cliff edge, the bracken had been replaced by tracts of yellow bird’s foot trefoil and purple tufted vetch. I also noticed lady’s bedstraw and hedge bedstraw and the bright reddish-purple flowers of bloody cranesbill. This kaleidoscope of colour brought more bumblebees and solitary bees although I thought the vetches looked past their best, perhaps a result of the dry spring.
Hazel appeared, having finished her walk and we made our way back up to East Prawle starting along a field-edge wall where brambles and other wildflowers grew. Cirl buntings sang and, in the sunshine, a male long-horned bee fed from one of the flowers, butterflies danced together and a fine mason wasp collected nectar.
Dull, wet and mild has been the prevailing story for the winter weather so far this year in the south west of the UK. Much needed winter sunshine has been in short supply and we’ve woken up to frost on only a handful of days. And then the storms: in February alone, two consecutive weekends of severe weather brought heavy rain and gale force winds but very mild temperatures. Local roads were blocked by water but flooding in other parts of the UK was much worse.
Even before the storms, walking in the rain-saturated countryside was particularly difficult but we managed to get out, although this sometimes meant paddling through mud and water.
One of these walks was on a sunny February 1st when we took the opportunity to walk to Westcombe Beach near Kingston in south Devon. This is an isolated sandy cove bisected by a sprightly stream and enclosed by some impressively jagged shiny grey rock formations. The beach was largely clear of plastic waste, a rare find nowadays, but on one side I came across several unusual pale blue and pink inflated objects. Although these might look as though they are made from plastic, they are in fact living creatures, Portuguese Men o’ War, driven on to the beach by south westerly winds. They normally float on the surface of the sea, trailing dark blue tentacles with the capacity to deliver a very nasty sting, their pink sail catching the wind.
During our walk to and from Westcombe Beach we came across several flowers usually associated with the spring including primroses, violets and celandine. As we were near the coast, the dark green fleshy leaves of Alexanders also flourished along the path sides but I was surprised to see one plant already in flower.
Then as we walked back along the cliff tops in the low, late afternoon sunshine, we encountered a large caterpillar crossing the coast path. It was very furry with orange-brown hairs along the top and darker grey-brown hairs below. This is a larva of the fox moth and on sunny winter days they come out of hibernation to bask.
Just under a week later, on February 6th, a day of sunny intervals, we walked to Mansands near Brixham. Mansands is another isolated cove but with a stony beach and backed by a substantial body of water that attracts both waterfowl and bird watchers. The land rises steeply either side of the beach with cliffs and there had been some falls of the soft rock on the eastern side over the winter which may have affected the solitary bees that nest there. [The picture at the head of this post shows the eastern side of Mansands beach and cliffs.]
Our biggest surprise of the day was finding a pair of toads (male and female) on the path along Mansands Lane as it descended towards the beach. Hazel spotted the pair and had to take quick evasive action to avoid squashing them. They were most likely on their way to the water below the path to spawn. The males are opportunists and hitch a lift on the back of the larger females when they pass. Once the female arrives at the water, more males will jump on her, competing for her attention. Eventually, she will choose one male to fertilise her eggs as she deposits strings of them in the water. We managed to persuade the pair to move to the path edge where they were more likely to avoid the danger of passing human feet.
There were more surprises in store as we walked up the very steep Southdown Cliff away from Mansands where we saw several flowers often associated with spring.
I hadn’t expected to see these flowers so early in the year but perhaps the generally warm weather has encouraged them. There have also been reports of solitary bees emerging earlier than expected and I have seen queens of the bumblebee Bombus pratorum in two places in Devon, on January 15th and 20th so both very early.
A simple explanation for these findings is that our climate is changing. Warmer, wetter winters with unstable weather are becoming more likely as a result of global temperature increases with corresponding effects on the flora and fauna. But one person’s observations in one year don’t go beyond the anecdotal and we need much more comprehensive data to draw conclusions.
For this, I went to Nature’s Calendar, a citizen science project that records first flowerings, first sightings etc for many species across the UK. When I looked at their report for 2019, I was surprised to see that blackthorn, to take one example, flowered 27 days earlier in the UK than it did in 2001. In fact in 2019 all but one of Nature’s Calendar spring events were early, some considerably so. Lorienne Whittle of Nature’s Calendar attributes these changes to the warmer winters we are now experiencing and the concern is that the long-established patterns of nature are being disturbed with potentially serious consequences. For example, if frogs and toads spawn early, late frosts could kill their tadpoles. Also, should insects emerge too soon they may not survive unless plentiful flowers are available for food. We are entering uncertain times.
It was the video that clinched it! I’d read the reports of starlings gathering in their thousands at sunset over Chesil Beach but when I saw the video of their murmuration and the liquid patterns they carve in the sky, I knew I had to go to see for myself. So, on the first clear, dry day we set off for West Bexington on the West Dorset coast near where the starlings had been spotted.
West Bexington is a tiny village lying between low coastal hills and Chesil Beach and when we arrived that mid December afternoon, it all felt very quiet. The sun hung low in the pale western sky, its bright yellow disc casting a shimmering, silvery mirror across the water and a warm light across coastal fields. We parked in the beach car park and set off across the shingle, the pea-sized pebbles making for hard going as usual. The sea was our constant companion, calm with just a light swell and waves that barely left a thin white line along the vast sweep of beach. I had thought there might be more people about to watch the birds but, apart from a few fishermen, their faces turned fixedly towards the sea, we were alone on the shingle. The skeletal remnants of beach plants that flourish here in warmer months added to the sense of isolation.
For a short time, we stood by the extensive beds of pale reeds that line the back of the beach. The feathery stems fidgeted and rustled as a light breeze passed and we heard the occasional squawk from birds deep in the reeds but invisible to us. A skein of geese passed eastwards to disappear behind the coastal hills honking loudly as they went and the pale moon appeared above the ridge.
Then we noticed another figure labouring across the shingle, swathed in warm shawls and a woolly hat. She approached us and asked if we had come to watch the starling murmuration. We had of course. She told us that she had seen them perform near here on the two previous afternoons before roosting and this was about the right time. We stood, the three of us now, looking, watching, scanning the sky for perhaps ten minutes, but nothing happened. We discussed the vagaries of watching wildlife and we got colder and colder. The sun, a fiery orange ball by now, approached the horizon and spread its warm glow across the shingle. The moon, nearly full and not to be outdone, rose steadily above the hills.
We were on the point of giving up when the first group of starlings appeared in the sky above the coastal hills to the west. At first, they were just a mobile black smudge but soon they began to move about in the pale sky sculpting smooth shapes and occasionally disappearing from view over the dark land. Quite suddenly they were joined by more …… and more……. and more birds, as though some signal had been sent and soon a huge cloud of thousands of birds was moving backwards and forwards forming massive, mobile, liquid shapes that twisted, thickened, thinned and sometimes split apart before merging again. The mass of birds, the murmuration, seemed to have a life of its own, as though it was some kind of sky-bound superorganism squirming about. This was one of the most impressive natural events I have ever experienced, forever engrained in my memory. It lifted our spirits eliciting spontaneous exclamations of surprise and delight.
By now the sun was setting and the light was fading. Suddenly, and without warning, the birds dropped down to roost across the coastal scrub to the west below Othona like a sheet floating to the ground; it was as if another signal had been sent that only the birds understood. With so many starlings, there must have been an impressive noise from their wings when flying and from their chattering when on the ground. I lost all sense of time while the birds were performing their murmuration but when I checked my watch the whole event had lasted only ten minutes and coincided roughly with the setting of the sun.
We marvel at their behaviour but starlings don’t create these pulsating patterns in the sky for our benefit. So, why do they do it? Security is thought to be one reason. Predator birds are always on the lookout for food and as the light fades, individual starlings become more vulnerable. They cannot see the predators well in the fading light but flying as part of large swirling mass of birds provides safety in numbers. Predators find it difficult to focus on single starlings in a moving murmuration so the chance of attack for individual birds will be lower. Starlings are also gregarious and are thought to gather in large numbers as a prelude to roosting close together both to keep warm overnight and to exchange information about good feeding areas. It is tempting after having watched a murmuration to suggest that the birds are also expressing some kind of joy of life.
And yet, starlings are not universally loved. Some people view them as noisy, thuggish and dirty creatures: bird-feeder bullies that soil urban spaces where they roost and have a negative effect on arable farming. Should you take the time to look at a starling, though, you will see a beautiful bird with glossy black plumage enhanced by flashes of iridescent purple or green. Their dark plumage is decorated with startling white spangles in the winter so that, as the poet Mary Oliver says, they have “stars in their black feathers”.
But whether you love them or hate them, starlings in the UK are in trouble. Since the mid-1970s, there has been a 66% drop in their numbers, the starling has been red-listed and is of high conservation concern. The reasons for this decline are poorly understood but are thought to be linked to changes in farming practice. The use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers and the loss of flower-rich hay meadows have severely reduced numbers of invertebrates such as earthworms and leather jackets that starlings depend on for food. Starlings are dying of starvation and other farmland birds such as tree sparrows, yellowhammers and turtle doves have also been badly affected. Agriculture needs to adjust to make space for wildlife in order to halt this downward spiral before we lose these birds altogether and murmurations become no more than memories.
Towards the end of July, I visited the Maer, a nature reserve situated at the eastern end of the promenade in Exmouth, a seaside town in the south west of the UK. With its sand dunes and sandy grassland, the Maer is a remnant of a much larger dune system that once stretched down to the beach. Nowadays, it provides an oasis of calm close to the busy sea front as well as a habitat for special plants and insects.
A slight mist softened the long views as I walked eastwards along Exmouth sea front. Some warmth penetrated the cloud and a few people were already enjoying the beach on this late summer morning. The sandy tip of Dawlish Warren lay tantalisingly close across the water and further on, the Ness at Shaldon lurked in the mist like a gigantic wedge of cheese. The commercial area with its big wheel, pubs and cafes was busy but eventually I reached a quieter part where sand and scrub tumbled downwards at the side of the beach road. This is the edge of the Maer, a local nature reserve and one of Exmouth’s hidden gems. Superficially, the Maer is a large grassy, sandy space sandwiched between the beach road and Exmouth Cricket Club but it conceals a mosaic of different environments with unusual flora and fauna.
A substantial sandy dune ridge forms the southern border of the Maer giving views across the reserve on one side and towards the beach on the other. Marram grass grows thickly giving the sand stability but there are also areas of bare sand and areas of scrub, reminders of the dune system that must have occupied this area before the beach road was built. Restharrow with its pink and white pea-type flowers and a few residual yellow evening primrose provided some colour but it was the sea holly that surprised. This is an unusual and unexpected plant that grows extensively along the first part of the ridge. Its spiky greenish-grey leaves with white margins and veins and its powder blue flowers light up the sand as though someone had spilt pale paint. Sea holly flourishes in these arid conditions by having leaves covered in a waxy cuticle to help retain water and through its deep roots. Although sea holly has some visual resemblance to our Christmas greenery, it is a relative of the carrot; in the past it was employed as an aphrodisiac.
Several large insects with bold black and yellow markings crawled about the bright blue sea holly flowers collecting nectar. These are beewolves, some of our most spectacular solitary wasps, that nest in sandy places and specialise in catching honeybees. Both male and female beewolves were feeding that day but it is the larger female (up to about 2cm long) that catches and paralyses honeybees and may be seen flying back to the nest carrying a quiescent honeybee beneath her. She digs a nest tunnel in sandy soil up to a metre long with multiple terminal branches where she lays eggs and provides honeybees as food for the developing larvae. These once rare insects have expanded their UK range since the 1980s, possibly in response to climate change and I saw them in several places on the reserve notably on a stand of mauve thistles. They are not aggressive towards humans.
Further along the ridge, before it is colonised by brambles, scrub and low trees, I found a large clump of an unruly scrambling plant covered in pea-type flowers of an impressive reddish-pink colour. This is broad-leaved everlasting pea, a perennial relative of our annual sweet pea, growing through the grasses on the Maer ridge holding on via thin tendrils. A chunky dark bee was feeding from the flowers, apparently undeterred by their jerky movements in the breeze. This was a leafcutter bee, most likely the Coast Leafcutter Bee that favours sandy habitats near the sea. They nest in burrows in vegetated sand lined with pieces of leaf cut from trees and plants. Later, when the sun came out, I saw several of these bees chasing one another around the bright pink flowers like children in a playground.
The large central part of the reserve was coated with golden brown grass criss-crossed with paths for walkers and looking very dry, a reflection of the recent lack of rain. Within the grass were mats of restharrow and many of the yellow dandelion-like flowers of catsear. One area resembled a lunar landscape with many small craters where the surface had been dug out exposing the sand. Solitary wasps and small leafcutter bees had happily nested here.
Tall clumps of ragwort with bright yellow daisy-like flowers and deeply lobed green leaves were dotted around the central area. This plant provides valuable habitat and food for invertebrates and I found one clump that had been appropriated by black caterpillars with prominent yellow bands. They were moving about, eating the leaves of the ragwort, voraciously consuming the greenery and destroying the upper parts of the plant. These are caterpillars of the cinnabar moth and as they feed, they assimilate some of the toxic alkaloids contained in ragwort, rendering themselves unpalatable to birds and other predators. It is said that their yellow stripes act as a warning to birds. Once fed and mature, the caterpillars dig themselves into the ground to spend 12 months or so as pupae before emerging as beautiful day-flying red and black moths. The adult moths live for a few weeks, feeding on nectar before mating and laying eggs on the ragwort leaves. The eggs grow into caterpillars and the cycle starts all over again. The cinnabar moth is entirely dependent on ragwort for its survival.
Towards the western end of the reserve, I found a large colony of flowering plants, perhaps suggesting damper conditions. Clumps of common mallow up to a metre tall dominated with their trumpet flowers composed of five deep pink petals each with purple stripes. At the centre of each flower was a mass of grey pollen-covered stamens emanating from a single stalk like a miniature bunch of flowers. Near the mallow, large areas were covered by a sprawling, scrambling plant richly covered with pea-like flowers above many small, spear-shaped, mid green leaves. Flower colours varied from very pale to light blue, mauve and deep purple with some plants having several of these colour variants. One plant even had bright yellow flowers. This is Sand Lucerne, a fertile hybrid of lucerne and sickle medic, naturalised in East Anglia, where its two parents grow together, but now transplanted elsewhere.
There’s so much to see at the Maer and I could easily have spent several more hours looking about. But I had a train to catch so I headed back along the promenade and across the town towards the station.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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 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.
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)
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.
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.
After so many cool, damp and grey days, spring arrived in a rush in the third week of April. Temperatures soared by nearly ten degrees and the sun shone strongly from a virtually cloud-free sky, filling the air with an unexpected brightness, at least for a few days. The sudden change in the weather demanded that I get outside so I drove the short distance to the fishing port of Brixham, parking on the clifftop road on the eastern edge of the town. A steep stone stairway took me down the hillside past curious, deserted, rectangular buildings and wide sweeps of concrete enclosed by thick scrub echoing with birdsong. These are remnants of the Brixham Battery, built in 1940 to guard Torbay against a German invasion, now Grade 2 listed and an informal, unplanned nature reserve. Dandelions and cowslips were dotted about grassy areas and fleshy-leaved green alkanet with its grey-blue flowers provided a contrasting colour. The stairway continued downwards among trees until I was just above the sea where I joined the coast path.
This section of the coast path is enclosed by low scrub and, at this time of year, blackthorn dominates, its branches covered with a snow of small flowers, creating a curtain of white with occasional glimpses of the blue sea. In the bright sunshine, the delicate white petals were almost transparent below a confused mass of yellow-tipped stamens. Eventually, this enclosed path gave on to an open, grassy area roughly the size of a football pitch, overlooking the water of Torbay and backed by thick trees creating a sense of seclusion. Wooden benches positioned along the sea side were popular, occupied by people wearing sun hats and enjoying the spectacular view. The full panorama of Torbay was spread out ahead like an enticing display in a travel brochure: the red cliffs, the white seafront buildings, the pine trees, the big wheel and, in the foreground, the Brixham breakwater with its white lighthouse. The sea was a bright, slightly greenish blue textured with patches of silvery sheen and pleasure boats shuttled across the water to and from Torquay. It was a holiday scene and felt almost Mediterranean.
Amongst all this human activity, no one seemed to be paying any attention to the many mini-volcanoes of crumbly soil partly concealed beneath the rough grass or to the many bees moving about the area just above the grass. Everywhere I looked there were bees flying about, backwards and forwards, swinging from side to side, as if they were trying to find something; a few were walking about on the red soil. There must have been thousands of bees, an amazing natural phenomenon and very exciting to watch. When I looked carefully, I saw that they were mostly black but with distinctive bands of pale hair. These are Ashy Mining Bees (Andrena cineraria), one of our more common solitary bees, and the soil volcanoes in the ground are their nests.
While I was taking in the scene, a couple arrived, both carrying plastic bags. He was in his sixties with long white hair roughly corralled into a pony tail. She was in her late fifties with copious dark hair. They threw down a blanket into the middle of the grassy area, stripped down to their underwear, cracked open some cans and proceeded to sunbathe. Like the other people, they didn’t notice the bees swirling about the grass around them and I wondered how they might react if they encountered the insects. Luckily for them, only the females of these kinds of mining bees possess a sting and they use it only when threatened.
I wanted to take some photos of the bees but, wishing to avoid any misunderstandings as I waved my camera about, I moved to the other end of the grassy area, passing a small turf-roofed building that used to contain the searchlight for the wartime Battery. I found an unoccupied bench, sat down, and providing I was still, the bees resumed their incessant movement around me. The bench turned out to be a front-row seat as, on several occasions, I saw one bee rush at another and the two struggled for a while on the ground. Two or three others tried to join in and it all got a bit confused and messy for a while. Eventually, however, only two were left coupled together, end to end. They stayed like this for a few minutes before separating and flying off. I presumed they were mating but it seemed rather sedate compared to the frantic copulatory behaviour of some solitary bees.
Photographing the flying bees is difficult, but for the short time they were occupied in mating they were relatively still, making it easier. My photographs showed that the honeybee-sized females have shiny black abdomens with a blue sheen in some lights. Two thick, furry bands of grey-white hair line the front and back of the thorax and the face is white-haired with black antennae. The slimmer and smaller males also have black abdomens but differ from the females in having white hairs on the sides of the thorax and thick tufts of white hair on the face. With their pale hairs and contrasting dark abdomens, Ashy Mining Bees are one of the most distinctive and beautiful species of mining bee in the UK.
Despite all this excitement on the ground, I kept an occasional watch on the sea and got quite excited when I saw a shiny black head emerge from the water. This was one of the local colony of grey seals swimming towards Fishcombe Cove. The water was so clear and calm that the seal’s huge body was clearly visible as it passed.
When I had finished, I walked back past the lush banks of three cornered leek that grow along the low cliff edge. I saw male Ashy Mining bees nectaring from the delicate white-belled flowers. Further on, I stopped to look at the blackthorn flowers. Here there were more Ashy Mining Bees foraging together with one very different bee with a shock of orange-brown hair on the thorax and a largely black abdomen tipped with orange-red hair. I later identified this as an Orange-tailed Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa). With all this insect interest, there should be a good crop of sloes on the blackthorn here in the autumn.
If you are interested to learn more about these wonderful bees, here are three more descriptions: