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.
One of my favourite parts of the coast path in south Devon is the section between Prawle Point and Start Point. Between these two imposing coastal landmarks the path follows the meandering line of the low cliffs and, unusually for this part of Devon, there are few hills and walking is easy. The area inland of the coast path is notable for the line of steep rocky cliffs that, many years ago, formed the coastline when sea levels were higher. Between these inland cliffs and the present coastline is a flattish area, about a field’s width across, mostly used for pasture and arable farming. One section, a long curving coastal meadow (above Horseley Cove), is left uncultivated and many wild flowers grow here and, to a lesser extent, along the edges of other parts of the coast path. With the rocky coastline and rugged inland cliffs, the area retains a wildness and I come here to be close to the sea and to immerse myself in nature in all its fullness.
The stretch of coastline between Start Point and Prawle Point is a nationally important site for rare invertebrates and was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1986. For some years now, I have been coming here in early summer to watch the rare long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis) (see here as well) that use the soft rock cliffs for nest sites and forage from the wild peas and vetches that flourish in this environment. The area is also a stronghold for the cirl bunting and I often see and hear these rare birds when I visit. If I am lucky, I may also see seals swimming nearby or basking on the rocks at Peartree Point .
Earlier this year, in April, I walked along this section of the coast path and was alarmed at what I found. The long curving coastal meadow, filled with wildflowers later in the year, was intact but outside of this area there was considerable evidence of herbicide use. Some fields to the east of the meadow and the paths around them had been drenched with herbicide prior to planting new crops. The chemicals had reached the hedges that line the sides of the coast path and the area looked barren and dried out (picture below). To the west, where the coast path runs between the cliff edge and arable fields, there had been spot spraying of “weeds”. It looked as though attempts were being made to eliminate wildflowers alongside areas where crops are grown.
Wildflowers are very important for supporting the insects and, indirectly, the birds that flourish here and I was concerned by this apparent degradation of the site. I decided to make several visits across the summer to see how the site recovered and how the insects fared.
My first visit was in late May and I found good numbers of male long-horned bees in the coastal meadow, foraging mainly on bush vetch. This flower scrambles through the bracken that lines the cliff edge of the meadow. With its slightly untidy looking flowers that start a deep purple but open to pale lilac petals, bush vetch provides excellent early forage (picture below). The long-horned males looked very fresh with their yellow face, bright russet thorax, shiny black abdomen, legs coated with fine hairs and their trademark very long, shiny, black antennae. They are such iconic, beautiful creatures and it was a pleasure to see them moving swiftly about the site between flowers. I also went to look at the nest area in the soft rock cliffs below the meadow where the vertical, reddish surface is peppered with pencil-sized holes. Males appeared here regularly looking about the site for females. They arrived and performed a meandering flight across the nest area, sometimes repeating this before flying off. There was some play-fighting and a few overexcited males got tired of waiting and tried to mate with their male cousins.
The coastal meadow looked glorious. A dense coating of knee-high grasses grew across the site lending it a sheen of pale browns, greens and muted reds. Many flowers grew among the grasses in addition to the bush vetch, including buttercup, catsear, common vetch, speedwell, hop trefoil, wild carrot and along the cliff edge to the western end, bird’s foot trefoil, thrift and bloody cranesbill, a rich kaleidoscope of colours . For the most part, herbicide-treated areas outside the meadow had grown back although some flowers had been eliminated.
Female Eucera longicornis appeared in June and by the third week of the month they outnumbered males. One hot spot for females was a hedge along the sea side of the coast path where it skirted a field just to the east of the flowery meadow. Narrow-leaved everlasting pea grew here in moderate amounts, its bright pink flowers proving very attractive to the females. I watched them feeding from the flowers; they looked rather different from the males, their antennae were a more conventional length and they appeared chunkier with striking golden plumes of pollen-collecting hair on their back legs. When they arrived, they landed on the lip of the flower pushing the large sail-like upper petal backwards to access nectar. Narrow-leaved everlasting pea also grew through the cliff edge bracken in the coastal meadow and female long-horned bees were foraging there too. Although many other flowers were growing here including several large patches of the yellow scrambling meadow vetchling, the females showed an absolute preference for the wild pea. I also spent some time by the nest area watching a regular stream of females returning to their nest, some carrying large lumps of sticky pollen on their back legs. A few males hung about the nest site and others foraged from bush vetch in the meadow but they paid little attention to the females, all mated by now.
Although the coastal meadow was still looking outstanding with its rich fabric of grasses embroidered by so many wildflowers, the situation elsewhere on the site was not as encouraging. Wilting plants in several locations indicated more herbicide usage and the path along the coastal hedge mentioned earlier had been strimmed on the sea side and treated with herbicide again on the field side (more wilting plants, pictures below). To cap all of this, when I visited in the second week of July, cattle had been allowed into this area trashing the hedge and eating all the narrow leaved everlasting pea growing there. In previous years, this hedge and the wild pea that grows here have been critical for the survival of the female long-horned bees so this could have been catastrophic. Fortunately, this year large amounts of the wild pea with its bright pink flowers had grown up in the coastal meadow and many females were foraging there instead.
So, based simply on this year’s observations and the numbers I saw, the long-horned bees seem to be doing well at this south Devon site. The colony is moderate in size and numbers seem to be holding compared with observations made in previous years.
There has, though, been significant degradation of the local environment this year with loss of wildflowers following herbicide use and cattle damage to an extent I had not seen before. In order to support these rare bees and perhaps to increase the size and extent of the colony of long-horned bees, the numbers of wild flowers should be increasing along the length of the coast path rather than being restricted to the coastal meadow as currently seems to be happening. This degradation of the site surely runs counter to the legal protections associated with an SSSI?
Another concern at this site is the fate of the six banded nomad bee (Nomada sexfasciata), the UK’s rarest bee. This bee is a parasite of Eucera longicornis and in the UK is only known at this south Devon site. I last saw it in 2017 when I made several sightings. Since then, it has been seen by others on only one occasion each subsequent year so it is very rare. This year, I saw several Nomada species by the nest area in late June. One stayed for a short time but was definitely not Nomada sexfasciata and the others disappeared too quickly for verification. I believe there have been no other sightings this year.
The south Devon site needs support to protect the unique flora and fauna present there, especially the rare bees and other insects that live in this special habitat. Buglife and the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are developing a project termed Life on the Edge which aims to protect the site and increase the number of wildflowers. It is currently seeking funding so we have to hope it gets that support.
The state of the site across spring and summer
The featured image at the head of this post shows a male Eucera longicornis on bird’s foot trefoil in late May.
It felt like an unexpected gift, a warm, dry and mostly sunny day after so much dull, wet weather. I had been feeling very constrained and was determined to get out to enjoy this different day and it looked as though the non-human world felt the same. The wisteria at the front of our house caught the morning sun, wafting its distinctive sweet fragrance on to the air and bees were busily foraging from the greyish-mauve flowers. Bumblebees, honeybees and two red mason bees (Osmia bicornis males) were among the insects working the blossom. The Osmia came from one of the nearby bee houses and it was good to see them about after the spell of poor weather.
Hazel had a meeting in Kingsbridge that afternoon, so I dropped her off and took the opportunity to make a quick trip to the coast. It took me about 20 minutes, passing through several small villages, to reach Torcross and the sea. The sun shone optimistically as I then began the two and a half mile drive from Torcross along what is known locally as the Slapton Line. The geography here is very unusual with the road running northwards in a straight line along a narrow bank bordered on both sides by water. On one side of the road a shingle beach slopes down to the sea and on the inland side a narrow area of rough grass and vegetation separates the road from an extensive lagoon, Slapton Ley. The situation of the road makes it very vulnerable to storms, high tides and rising sea levels and, in 2018 it had to be closed and rebuilt after damage by Storm Emma.
That day, though, the sea was calm, a deep blue shading to a darker steely blue. Sunlight sparkled on the surface of the lagoon and generous clumps of thrift decorated the edges of the road as if splashed with pink paint. When the road turned inland to climb away from the water, I located the car park that gives access to the northern part of Slapton Sands, as it is known locally.
The beach here is a broad flat plateau of fine, pale brown shingle that eventually slopes down to the sea from a low ridge. The landward side is backed by densely wooded cliffs giving the beach an enclosed feel and providing some shelter from winds. This can be an elemental place especially when a westerly gale blows and fierce waves attack the beach. That afternoon, though, there was just a light breeze from the west and spells of sunshine warmed the air. A few clouds were moving about overhead and as they shifted, mobile pools of light and shade tracked across the shingle. I paused to stand on the beach for a short time and looked across the water towards Start Point and its lighthouse listening to the sound of the water lapping on the beach and the occasional cry of a passing gull.
Shingle beaches are rare environments and this one is unlike any other I have encountered, not only for its size but for the special selection of plants that grows here. The section of beach near the land featured many small islands of vegetation, a green archipelago in a sea of pale shingle. Often, these islands contained a clump of red valerian, a plant introduced into the UK in the 16th century and now widely naturalised in the west. Each island also contained a variety of other plants including sea campion, bird’s foot trefoil, forget me not and hawksbeard. One contained a colony of rosy garlic with its charming pale pink flowers, others supported small shrubs. The red valerian flowers looked very fresh and many were not yet open. In a few weeks, though, huge numbers will be in flower casting a distinctive reddish-pink sheen across the beach.
Towards the sea, the green flowery islands petered out leaving a sparsely vegetated zone of shingle populated by plants capable of coping with harsher conditions. Sea spray and some large waves reach this part of the beach and only specially adapted plants can grow here. These often have leaves with waxy coatings to prevent water loss and long roots to reach fresh water deep below the shingle. Sea kale is one of these and imposing clumps of this plant grew towards the shingle ridge. The clumps were several feet across with fleshy, dark green, cabbage-type leaves tinged with pink, and overlaid with copious sprays of white flowers. Sea kale is an impressively architectural plant that dominates this part of the beach and perhaps it encourages people to build the beach sculptures with flat stones that I saw nearby.
Rosettes of furry, pale grey-green leaves were also emerging from the shingle in this zone. These are from yellow-horned poppy, yet to flower. Later in the year, these plants will light up the beach with their papery, lemon-yellow flowers and enormously long scimitar-shaped seed pods. Also struggling through the shingle were many long ropes of a plant with fleshy, green, spade-shaped leaves arranged geometrically around a central stem with a slight helical twist. This is sea spurge another of the plants that frequents these salty, harsh environments. It has very unusual flowers (see pictures below).
I spent the rest of the time wandering about the beach looking at the flowers, hoping I might see some interesting insects given all the floral resource about. I concentrated on the bird’s foot trefoil, a bee-favourite that grew well in several of the island clumps. A few bumblebees were foraging from these bright yellow cushiony flowers and then suddenly another very different bee appeared, feeding from the bird’s foot trefoil, moving purposefully from flower to flower. It was quite small, about two thirds the size of a honeybee and a striking ruby red colour with prominent golden bands of hair around and across its abdomen (see picture at the head of this post and below).
I had seen several of these insects here two years ago; they are gold-fringed mason bees (Osmia aurulenta) and this one was a female. Not only are they very beautiful insects with their sparkling, jewel-like colouration but their life cycle sets them apart as they are one of the three UK bee species that nests in empty snail shells. The female constructs cells within the abandoned snail shell using leaf mastic and provisions each cell with pollen and nectar before laying one egg. Even more bizarrely, they decorate the outside of the filled shell with more leaf mastic. Vegetated shingle is one of their favoured habitats and there were empty snail shells scattered sparsely across the beach. Try as I might, though, I have yet to find one of these insects working on a snail shell!
I visited Slapton Sands on May 19th on a warm dry day but on May 20th, the cold, wet weather returned. After a week, however, something meteorological shifted and, thankfully, summer finally arrived. Many female red mason bees are now busily building nests in the bee houses.
We perched on a stone wall overlooking the pebble beach and sea at Blackpool Sands to eat our sandwiches. Across the water, the Start Point peninsula was a moody, dark bluish grey outline while mobile pools of bright light wandered about Start Bay as gashes in the cloud cover opened and closed.
We had walked down the Blackpool Valley starting in bright autumn sunshine on the western edge of Dartmouth where a huge housebuilding project is now underway. Narrow country lanes took us away from the commotion into quieter places. Hedges were punctuated periodically with flushes of flowering ivy and the sun, following heavy rain, seemed to have brought the insects out. An elegant ichneumon wasp, largely black but with a few white markings and with reddish legs was cleaning its antennae, and nearby we spotted a mating pair of hoverflies. Their striped thorax reminded me of mid-20th century school blazers. A beautiful male wall butterfly basked briefly in the sunshine, its wings, the colour of paprika and cinnamon held the essence of the season changing around us. A few pollen-loaded female ivy bees joined the show while, on the road, two all black devil’s coach horse beetles wandered past giving us their scorpion-like, tale up, warning greeting.
At Venn Cross, we turned right along Blackpool Valley Road descending between dramatic hills and following the course of a stream in the valley bottom. Lane side hedges had avoided a vicious flailing this season; hazel and sycamore had grown prolifically together with a few sprigs of rowan and dog rose, giving the lane an enclosed feeling. Veteran beeches and oaks grew from the hedges and when the sun played across the beech leaves it accentuated their kaleidoscopic colour range of greens, yellows and browns. The lower trunk of one of the old beeches had become an impromptu local notice board including a carved declaration of love.
The water gathered force as we headed southwards with small streams joining the main flow from surrounding hills and, eventually we came to Riversbridge Farm, one of several old water mills situated along the valley. Altogether we counted five former mills before we reached the sea, each set in this landscape of trees, pastures and steep hillsides. Today it was a peaceful scene but I wondered how much it had changed over the years. The artist Lucien Pissarro worked and lived here a century ago producing a charming set of images of the valley, a record of country life in the first part of the 20th century and apart from the arrival of the motor car the landscape and buildings look very similar (see picture below). The mills, of course, are no longer used, they are mostly private dwellings but the buildings show signs of their former activity alongside 21st century incursions such as a small water driven hydro and a hot tub.
We left Blackpool Sands to complete the circuit back to our car. As we stopped to look back at the beach, as many as 30 house martins circled over the cove feeding, perhaps before leaving for warmer places.
We walked down the Blackpool Valley near Dartmouth in south Devon on October 8th 2020
It’s been a good summer. We’ve had some fine weather and I’ve been able to spend time on a beautiful part of the south Devon coast looking for the long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis). It’s one of my favourite insects and one of our rarest bees and there is a strong colony on the coast between Prawle Point and Start Point where low, soft-rock cliffs meander around headlands, in and out of rocky coves and along seaweed-covered beaches. I visited this area several times between May and July but my most interesting day was on June 23rd, just after the summer solstice.
It was breezy and warm but partly cloudy when I arrived at the coast. The sea was a uniform grey-blue although now and then the sun broke through the cloud, creating shimmering areas of white water. I started by following the coast path eastwards along the cliff top from Prawle Point. The sea-side of the path was fringed with scrub and rough grass along the cliff edge whereas the landward side was fenced and mostly used for arable farming. Many kinds of wild flower grew along both sides of the path including a few generous clumps of purple tufted vetch scrambling through the scrub. After about a mile of easy walking, the enclosed path reached a gate giving on to a broad, open area, not farmed for some years, as far as I know.
I was completely unprepared for the view that greeted me after I closed the gate. Here was a meadow where thousands of the small, dandelion-like flowers of cat’s ear moved with the breezes to create a mobile yellow canopy above the grass. Lower down were many tiny yellow globes of hop trefoil and bright pink semi-circles of common vetch. This is a paradise for insects and I saw many red-tailed bumblebee workers moving purposefully about the chrome-yellow flower heads.
But that wasn’t all: the area along the cliff edge was a kaleidoscope of purples, yellows and pinks, mostly flowering legumes such as bush, kidney and tufted vetches, bird’s foot trefoil and meadow vetchling, restharrow and narrow-leaved everlasting pea. The number and variety of flowers was greater than I can remember from previous years, perhaps the warm spring had suited the legumes.
The range of flowers, especially the legumes is ideal for the long-horned bee. I had seen one or two males back along the enclosed path and now I saw several more, also nectaring on the curving, purple, tubular florets of tufted vetch. There is something other-worldly, almost primeval about these insects with their yellow mask-like face, orange-chestnut hair (in fresh insects) and their impressively long antennae, resembling stiff black bootlaces and about the same length as rest of their bodies. They are particularly striking in flight, antennae held so that the bee can negotiate whatever obstacle it meets; controlling those antennae must involve some impressive micro-engineering. There were also females about feeding on lemon yellow pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling. Chunkier than the males, they have shorter antennae and, on their back legs, generous pollen brushes resembling golden harem pants.
I scrambled down a rough track to the main Eucera nest area, a section of reddish, soft-rock cliff, pock-marked with hundreds of pencil-sized holes. Behind me the sea soughed rhythmically on nearby rocks and an oystercatcher sang its plangent song. Female Eucera arrived at the nest site bringing pollen and nectar to provision their nests but they were not alone and I saw several other bee species that seemed to be using the nest area.
One species I had hoped to see was the very rare Nomada, and I had nearly given up hope when the bee suddenly appeared; I was so surprised, I nearly fell backwards off the rocks. Like others of its kind, it is wasp-like, with a yellow and black-banded abdomen and orange legs and antennae. It was the pattern of the bands, six yellow bands on a black body that told me that this was Nomada sexfasciata, the six-banded nomad bee, one of Britain’s rarest bees. This site on the south Devon coast is the only place where it is found in the UK; it is nationally endangered so it was very exciting to see it.
It moved about the nest area furtively as if trying not to be noticed and after looking in to a few of the holes it moved on. Later that day I had more sightings of the Nomada; whether it was the same bee or several I cannot say. As a nomad, the bee has no nest of its own but lays its eggs in the nest of another bee, in this case the long-horned bee. The Nomada eggs develop into larvae and take over the nest, killing the host larvae and eating their pollen store. It depends for its survival on a strong Eucera colony and this one in south Devon is one of the largest in the UK.
Long-horned bees and their Nomada used to be found widely across the southern part of Britain in the early 20th century. They favour a range of habitats such as coastal soft rock cliffs, hay meadows and woodland rides for nest sites and require unimproved flowery grassland for feeding, being especially dependent on flowering legumes for their pollen sources. With agricultural intensification leading to a loss of habitat, especially flowers, these bees have been squeezed out and are now confined to a very few sites.
It’s not difficult to see how they could be supported. At the south Devon site, all that is required is to ensure a consistent source of flowering legumes along the coast, the soft rock cliffs already provide the nest sites. I recently met Catherine Mitson who is working with Buglife on a project to support the south Devon colony of Eucera longicornis and Nomada sexfasciata by increasing the number of flowers. Catherine is very enthusiastic and I have great hopes now for the survival of both the long-horned bee and its nomad.
The featured image at the top of this post is a male long-horned bee on bird’s foot trefoil (May 23rd 2017)
Start Point is a narrow, rocky peninsula intruding nearly a mile in to the Channel from the South Devon coast. In the past, ships frequently foundered on the rocks and since 1836 a lighthouse has protected the spot. The sinister reputation of the Start Point peninsula is enhanced by its resemblance to the scaly back of a crocodile or sea monster; perhaps in recognition of this it was long ago christened Start after the Anglo-Saxon for tail.
Earlier this week, we walked a circular route beginning from the Start Point car park and this post describes some of the highlights. It was the first sunny day for some time and the calm sea across Start Bay was a deep sky blue on a largely wind-free day. What a great pleasure it was to walk in the sunshine, by the sea and in good company!
Our first surprise came as we walked down the road towards the lighthouse. A large bumblebee appeared, as if from nowhere, and after circling a few times to inspect us, landed on Hazel’s hair, buzzing loudly. Hazel kept her cool but, before I could get to the camera, this fine red-tailed queen had flown off. We encountered another red-tailed and several buff-tailed bumblebee queens as we walked and I suppose the warm weather had tempted them out.
The coast path soon deserts the lighthouse road, heading westwards over the spine of the peninsula before dropping down to follow the meandering coastline. There are fine views of the lighthouse and the rocky promontory.
After about half a mile we came to Frenchman’s Rock and its cluster of off-shore rocks; this is one of the places where South Devon’s grey seals congregate. The tide was falling and two impressively large seals alternately hauled out on the rocks and swam about vigorously.
Between Great Mattiscombe Sands and Lannacombe there is a mile of easy walking along the cliff top. Stonechats skittered about and patches of lesser celandine glowed in the sunshine. I spotted my first solitary bee of the year enjoying the nectar from one of these starry yellow flowers; based on its black and white striped abdomen and hairy back legs this bee was Andrena flavipes, the yellow-legged mining bee.
We stopped to eat our sandwiches at Lannacombe where there was a very full stream cascading across the rocks and beach. As it hurried towards the sea, the water created mobile patterns on the sand reflecting the low February sunshine.
After Lannacombe, the path turns away from the sea up a densely-wooded, steep sided valley where we discovered what might be supporting the bumblebees. Among the bare-latticed trees there were large stands of pussy willow (Salix caprea) covered in oval yellow flowers; from a distance I could see at least one bumblebee enjoying this food source. As I concentrated on the willow trees, the call of a male tawny owl echoed across the valley.
Our route continued up and down on minor roads eventually returning to the coast at Hallsands, a village largely destroyed by storms in 1917 and damaged again earlier this year. There is a prominent block of newly converted apartments; these are mostly second homes and were deserted although I noticed two buff-tailed bumblebee queens inspecting them. Back on the coast path, a mile of gently ascending but very muddy walking returned us to the car park, rewarding us again with ever-changing views across Start Bay towards Slapton and Dartmouth.
That should have been the end of the excitement but, as we drove away from the car park, we encountered a large number of small black and white birds on the road and nearby fences. This was a flock of thirty or more pied wagtails, flittering about and, of course, wagging.
The featured image is of Start Bay, viewed from the car park, looking towards Slapton and Dartmouth. We walked on February 23rd.
This is walk 18 in “South Devon and Dartmoor Walks” published by Jarrold.