Tag Archives: west dorset

Murmurations and memories as starlings gather over Chesil Beach

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.

the sun hung low in the pale western sky

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.

Moon rising over the ridge (photo by Hazel Strange).

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.

For two more brief videos of this murmuration have a look at my YouTube channel:  Philip Strange Science and Nature.

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

The starlings gather and create patterns
An unusual “spiral”

The plastic biobeads that litter our beaches

Earlier this year, I wrote here about the plastic pellets that were appearing in large numbers on Charmouth and other nearby beaches in West Dorset in the south west of the UK.   A group of us investigated the problem and discovered that many of the plastic pellets were biobeads, used by local water companies in sewage purification before the treated and purified effluent is discharged into the sea.  We showed that, most likely, the biobeads were escaping, along with treated effluent, from the sewage works at Uplyme run by South West Water to pollute the very beaches they were intended to protect.  The post created considerable interest at the time especially on Facebook. Then, a few weeks ago. the story was picked up by the local daily paper, the Western Morning News.  Here is the article:

Should you wish to read the text of the article, I have enlarged it and cut it into two parts below.

As you can see, a local photographer, Richard Austin recently visited Charmouth Beach with his granddaughter and was shocked to find these plastic pellets littering the beach.  The well-respected local journalist, Martin Hesp, then took up the story and the feature article was the result.  In my opinion, he gives an excellent account of the problem stressing, in particular, the health implications for both children and marine life.

The Western Morning News asked South West Water (SWW) for a response and their Director of Wastewater, Andrew Roantree responded in the article.  I was not asked to respond so I want to take up a few of the points he makes.

  1. He says “From the photographs these (the pellets we found on the beaches) look as though they could be biobeads”. I’ll take that as a begrudging yes.  Besides, we found the same pellets at the Uplyme sewage works and one of SWW’s employees confirmed that they are used there so we know they are biobeads.

 

  1. He goes on to say that “…………….we are confident that there has been no loss of biobeads from the (Uplyme) site………. Any escape of biobeads is unacceptable……………….In 2017, we reviewed and updated the technical standard covering their use at our treatment works. This included requirements for storage of used and new biobeads.  We also conduct regular site inspections………………….Uplyme Sewage Treatment Works has secondary and tertiary containment measures installed to prevent any biobeads escaping from the process units.”

 

When we visited the sewage works in February 2019, we found biobeads scattered around the site, so until quite recently biobead husbandry at Uplyme was not as rigorous as he implies.

We know that SWW uses biobeads at Uplyme and we know the identity of the two types of biobead used (knobbly black and ridged bright blue).  These same biobeads appear on the beach at Charmouth so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that these two observations are linked.

When we visited in February 2019, the SWW representatives told us that the new containment measures at Uplyme were incomplete so escape of biobeads was still possible until a few months ago.  Anyway, why did SWW go to the expense of installing extra containment measures if there were no containment issues in the first place?

The good news, if we are to believe Mr Roantree, is that containment of the biobeads at sewage works run by SWW is now much improved so there should be a gradual reduction in the numbers appearing on our beaches.

 

There is also a misunderstanding in the article.  Biobeads are not “designed to catch nasty bits in the water”.  They are designed to act as a solid support for bacteria to grow on and digest the sewage.  Their ridged or knobbly nature provides a larger surface area to accommodate more bacteria to hasten sewage digestion.  As they are made of plastic, they do absorb organic chemicals like PCBs from the sea but then so do nurdles, the raw material of the plastics industry.

It should also be acknowledged that the installation of the additional pellet containment measures by SWW results from the extensive activities of the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition who first highlighted the biobead pollution problem on beaches in Cornwall (see report).

The picture at  the head of this post shows Charmouth Beach with Golden Cap in the background.

The sweet retired bay at Charmouth – now polluted by black and blue plastic pellets

This is a long post describing how a group of concerned people, including myself, noticed some unusual plastic pellets appearing on several beaches in the vicinity of Charmouth in west Dorset in the south west of the UK.  After a tortuous investigation, we identified the source of the plastic pellet pollution as a local water company carelessly and unnecessarily discharging the pellets into the sea. 

The story started on a sultry day in late July 2017.  I was driving back from the Wareham area where I had been walking across one of the remaining fragments of Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath, the fictional landscape that plays so important a part in his novel The Return of the Native.  I found myself approaching Charmouth, a small village in west Dorset and decided I needed a cup of tea.  Charmouth village lies a short distance inland from the sea and Charmouth beach is popular with families in the summer, the cliffs are famous for their fossils and in her novel Persuasion, Jane Austen refers to “its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs”.

I was the only customer in the Bank House Café that afternoon and as I waited for my tea, I noticed some copies of the village magazine, Shoreline.  I picked one up and started to leaf through.  It’s an interesting read but my attention was taken by an article about “nurdles” written by Eden Thomson, a volunteer at the local Heritage Centre that organises marine and fossil events.  I quickly learnt that nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets used as easily transportable raw materials in the plastics industry where they are used to make many of the plastic goods we have become accustomed to.  There is considerable loss of these pellets during transport and during use.   Some of these lost pellets end up in the sea and Eden reported finding large numbers of turquoise pellets on the beach at Charmouth with light grey and dark grey also being common.  I didn’t have time to go to the beach to look that day but my curiosity was piqued.

Looking for pellets

Now, when we walked on beaches, both Hazel and I looked to see if we could find any plastic pellets.  It took me a while to get my eye in, Hazel saw them more quickly, but gradually I noticed a few pellets on most beaches.  My first big find was at Leas Foot Sands near Thurlestone in south Devon after some hefty storms in mid October 2017 where hundreds were sprinkled along the strandlines.  These were all 5mm or less across, some were lentil shaped and translucent, many were cylindrical and grey and a few were irregular grey and black with clear ridges.  By reference to the Great Nurdle Hunt web site I reckoned most were nurdles but a few might be biobeads (see below).

Nurdles on Leas Foot Sands after storm Ophelia 2
Plastic pellets found on Leas Foot Sands among natural debris (October 2017)

 

Then in late October 2017 I had a chance to return to Charmouth and look at the beach.  Not only was there a lot of general plastic pollution among reedy/woody debris either side of the river Char where it approaches the beach, but among this debris were many plastic pellets.  There were a few of the translucent or yellow or green lentil shaped pellets, also some grey or black cylindrical pellets.  Most of these were nurdles.  Also, as Eden Thomson had described, there were many bright blue cylindrical pellets.   When I examined these, I felt they were quite different from other pellets I had seen; in particular they had many fine ridges and I thought they might be biobeads (see below).   We returned to Charmouth in January 2018 and again found many of the bright blue ridged pellets littered around the two sides of the river and on the car park edges. We also made a brief visit to West Bay, about 7 miles to the east of Charmouth and found many bright blue ridged pellets there as well.

Debris along the east side of the river Char (October 2017)

 

Close-up view of debris showing blue ridged biobeads, some black biobeads are visible if you look about

 

A sample of pellets collected at Charmouth in October 2017 showing the preponderance of blue ridged biobeads. Some yellow and some translucent lentil-shaped nurdles and some grey cylindrical nurdles are also present

Dawlish Warren is another beach where we find plastic debris especially after storms and we had a look for pellets in March 2018.  We found them distributed along both inner and outer beaches, they were mostly cylindrical, pale blue, grey and green but there were a few knobbly dark grey pellets, some also having ridges.  We also found a few of the bright blue ridged pellets seen at Charmouth.

Trying to understand

In trying to understand these observations, I was greatly helped by the influential report from the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition (CPPC) lead by Claire Wallerstein.   The CPPC had found huge numbers of black plastic pellets further west along beaches in Cornwall and, following extensive investigation, showed that these were biobeads, plastic pellets used in some sewage plants to promote sewage digestion and water purification.   Biobeads are usually ridged or knobbly to provide a greater surface area for bacteria to grow and help digest the sewage.  The CPPC showed that most likely the biobeads they found on beaches were escaping from biobead-dependent sewage plants run by South West Water, the local water purification and sewage company.

Based on their findings, I worked out that I was collecting both nurdles (preproduction plastic pellets) and biobeads.   For the most part when I collected pellets from beaches in Devon, I found mixtures of nurdles of different shapes and colours together with a few black knobbly biobeads.  At Charmouth and West Bay in Dorset, however, the predominant pellet was bright blue, cylindrical with fine ridges, typical of a biobead.  There were definitely also some black knobbly biobeads on the beach at Charmouth.  The four pictures below showing samples of pellets collected from two regions of Dawlish Warren beach in Devon and two sides of Charmouth Beach illustrate these differences quite well.

Pellets collected at Dawlish Warren (November 2018) between groynes 2-3.  Note many translucent and yellow nurdles together with some black knobbly biobeads and a few blue ridged biobeads

 

Pellets collected at Dawlish Warren (November 2018) between groynes 9-10

 

Pellets collected at Charmouth (January 2019) from the beach on the east side of river Char. Note the preponderance of blue ridged biobeads, also some black knobbly biobeads and a few translucent and yellow nurdles.

 

Pellets collected at Charmouth (January 2019) from the beach on the west side of the river Char.

 

So, did South West Water (SWW) have a role in the biobead pollution appearing on Charmouth beach?  The company runs a sewage works in nearby Lyme Regis based on biobead digestion.  The actual works is located in Sleech Wood above the town but the purified sewage effluent is discharged into the sea some distance off the town of Lyme Regis below the Cardinal Buoy.  I began to develop a working hypothesis whereby SWW uses these blue biobeads and probably also the black knobbly equivalent in their Sleech Wood works but containment of biobeads is incomplete and some are discharged into the sea and are washed back on to Charmouth and West Bay beaches. Another possibility was that pellets were being lost into the river Lim, which passes near the sewage works, to enter the sea with the river water.

A Nurdle Hunt

In the meantime, I took part in a nurdle hunt on Charmouth Beach organised by Sophie Thomas from the Charmouth Heritage Centre one Saturday in February 2018.  There were 30 nurdle hunters on a bright sunny morning including Eden Thomson who wrote the article in Shoreline Magazine and it was good to meet her.  It was also good to meet blogging friend Sarah West from Transition Town Bridport and her husband John.  Altogether we collected 6650 pellets many of which were bright blue biobeads although a few black knobbly biobeads were mixed in with the blues.  It is my impression that the black type may often be ignored in favour of the much more visible bright blue pellet.

One hunter's haul
One nurdle hunter’s haul

 

I wrote an article for the local Marshwood Vale Magazine describing the nurdle hunt and its background.  This was published in May 2018 and soon after, I was contacted by Joe Hackett of Transition Town Bridport who had organised a beach clean at West Bay (seven miles east of Charmouth) and found many bright blue pellets there.  He had noted the similarity between the pellets found at West Bay and Charmouth and wondered if we could discuss the situation.  We spoke by phone and have been in contact since then.

Frustration

In March and April 2018, I became very frustrated at my inability to tie down the nature and the origin of these blue and black biobeads.  I had contacted various academic experts, pressure groups and one local plastics company to ask if they could help me understand the nature of the pellets and the background to what was going on.  I was very surprised to find that none of these people was prepared to get involved.  Of all the people I contacted, only one replied and she was “too busy to help”.

I did investigate one possible hypothesis, namely that the biobeads were being lost from the Lyme Regis sewage works into the river Lim.  I walked along the river Lim in Lyme Regis to see if any pellets were visible at the river’s edge but found none suggesting that this route was unlikely.  When I talked to Joe Hackett, it turned out he had done the same accompanied by local environmentalist, Horatio Morpurgo.  They also found nothing suggesting that pellets were not being lost in to the river Lim.  This meant that most likely the biobeads were being discharged into the sea along with the treated sewage.

Claire Wallerstein from the CPPC offered to ask SWW what biobeads they used at their Lyme Regis sewage works and was told, “we don’t know and it would cost too much to use a crane to lift the lid to check”.

 

I enter the South West Water labyrinth

In desperation, I contacted the South West Water (SWW) Press Office in May 2018 and my enquiry was forwarded to Paul McNie, Environmental Manager of Waste Water Customer Service & Networks.  I received a reply from Gavin Lincoln, Wastewater Treatment Process Consultant, asking what I wanted to know.  I sent him a list of questions about biobead-dependent sewage treatment including asking what type of biobead was used at Lyme Regis but heard nothing.  After discussions with Joe Hackett and Horatio Morpurgo, I wrote a paper letter to McNie in July 2018 asking about the nature of the biobeads used at the Lyme Regis Sewage Works.  This occasioned a reply from Sue Richards, Customer Manager for SWW towards the end of July introducing herself as my dedicated case manager (it felt as though my enquiry ranked at about the same level as a leaking water pipe).  I received a second letter in early August from Katie Hudson, also a Customer Services manager telling me that Paul McNie would be in touch about my queries.  He never did get back to me and the rest of my interactions with SWW were through Sue Richards who, although courteous and helpful, appeared to be poorly briefed as she made some obvious errors of fact in her letters to me.  The saga continued in this vein but she did reveal that the biobeads used at Lyme Regis were “black with a hint of blue” and after I asked what this meant she sent me a low-resolution photo printed on letter paper showing the biobeads used there.  They all appeared to be black and strongly resembled one class of biobead found at Charmouth as well as the majority of those found by CPPC in Cornwall.   I spoke to Sue Richards by phone several times and raised the issue of the blue biobeads only to have the conversation closed down quickly.

To summarise, SWW told us three contradictory stories:

  1. They didn’t know the nature of the biobeads used at Lyme Regis sewage works (via Claire Wallerstein)
  2. The biobeads used are black with a hint of blue
  3. The biobeads used are black and knobbly

This was all very confusing and I was left not knowing what to believe.

 

Living the high life – visits to the sewage works

In the meantime, Joe Hackett had been busy organising visits to Exmouth and Lyme Regis sewage works as it was felt that this was our last chance to understand what was going on.  The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition had visited the Plympton sewage works early in 2017 and found biobeads littered about the site.  This was a key piece of information linking poor biobead housekeeping by SWW at the Plympton sewage works to the extensive biobead pollution on Cornish beaches.

The Exmouth visit took place in November 2018 but I was unable to be there.  Those that visited had an interesting time and learnt about the basics of the biobead sewage treatment.  They did not find any biobeads loose on the site but noticed a huge pile of used/depleted biobeads, the size of two buses, covered with sheeting.  The SWW representative expressed his frustration over the problems the company faced with biobeads in the following admission “If we’d had a crystal ball back in the 1990s and could have seen how controversial plastics would have become, we might not have gone down this road”.  I believe this was a reference to the pressure put on the company by Claire Wallerstein and the CPPC over losses of biobeads from the Plympton sewage works.

The Lyme Regis visit took place in February 2019 and a large group of us representing Transition Town Bridport, Charmouth Heritage Centre, Litter Free Coast and Sea Dorset, together with individuals each with their own interest gathered at the site in Sleech Wood.   We were welcomed by two representatives of SWW, Rhidian Howells and Stephanie Jones who were both courteous and helpful.  Rhidian Howells explained how the automated process removed large items from the crude sewage and then passed the remains through the biobead reactor where bacteria digested it.  Ultraviolet irradiation completed the treatment and the effluent was then discharged to the sea.  He went to some trouble to explain how SWW was installing new filters on all their biobead plants to make sure that biobead loss was minimised.  The installation of these extra filters is a direct result of the work of Claire Wallerstein and the CPPC identifying the source of biobeads on Cornish beaches as South West Water.

Two blue biobeads found on the ground at Lyme Regis sewage works

 

Black biobeads found on the ground at Lyme Regis sewage works

While we were looking about the biobead reactor area, one of our party found a few of the bright blue ridged biobeads on the ground.  A little later, someone found a clutch of black knobbly biobeads on the ground near the parking area.  This immediately answered the question about the source of the biobeads on Charmouth beach: despite what SWW had told us we now knew both black and blue biobeads were used at the Lyme Regis sewage works (Howells confirmed this) and were most likely escaping from the reactors to end up in the sea.  I became very angry with Howells at this point; as I explained to him, we had spent so much time and energy trying to identify the source of the biobead pollution at Charmouth.   South West Water had fed us contradictory stories, when all along they knew the source of the pollution which was their own sewage works.

Chemical analysis of pellets

The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition biobead story featured on a special edition of Inside Out South West on BBC TV in October 2018.  The programme included visiting Dr Andrew Turner at the University of Plymouth where he had been analysing pellets for Claire Wallerstein for potentially toxic elements.  I wondered if similar analysis might help understand the Charmouth blue pellets so I contacted Dr Turner.  I was most grateful when he replied quickly and in the affirmative.  I made two special collections, one at Dawlish Warren and another at Charmouth and I also sent him some of the black biobeads picked up at the Lyme Regis sewage works.

While this was in progress, Dr Turner along with Claire Wallerstein and Rob Arnold published a paper detailing X-ray fluorescence analyses of nurdles and black biobeads collected at a variety of locations in the south west (including Plympton sewage works and several Cornish beaches) and elsewhere along the English Channel.  The technique identifies potentially toxic elements in the pellets and, whereas nurdles were usually devoid of these contaminants, the black biobeads contained varying quantities of lead, bromine, cadmium and antimony, a chemical signature characteristic of recycled electrical equipment containing flame retardants. Sometimes the levels exceeded permitted levels rendering the pellets toxic and potentially hazardous to life.

Black biobeads collected at Dawlish Warren, Charmouth and at Lyme Regis sewage works had the same chemical signature (bromine and antimony and sometimes lead and cadmium) as the black biobeads collected at Plympton sewage works and along Cornish beaches.  This shows that the same black biobead is used by SWW at different sewage works and is escaping to end up on local beaches in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset.   Nurdles found at Dawlish Warren and Charmouth (lentil shaped and smooth, cylindrical) did not hold any toxic element contamination whereas the blue biobeads found at Charmouth contained copper probably part of the blue pigment used to give the distinctive colour.

I am most grateful to Andrew Turner for supporting us by analysing these pellets.

 

 

Conclusions

  1. The source of the black and blue biobeads polluting Charmouth and West Bay beaches is the Lyme Regis sewage works run by South West Water where these pellets are escaping with treated sewage effluent to be discharged into the sea.
  2. The black biobead is the same pellet found along beaches in Devon and Dorset and in huge numbers on Cornish beaches, it is made from recycled electrical equipment and may contain toxic levels of trace elements. South West Water is responsible for this extensive pollution.
  3. Subsequent investigation found that the blue ridged biobead is also found at Burton Freshwater beach (a mile east of West Bay, found by Joe Hackett) and on the main sandy beach in Lyme Regis (about 2 miles west of Charmouth, found by Harry Dennis of Surfers Against Sewage). The pellets found on these beaches almost certainly come from the Lyme Regis sewage works
  4. One sample of pellets that I collected from Westcombe beach near Kingston in south Devon showed surprisingly large numbers of the blue ridged biobeads. Perhaps this can be explained by proximity to SWW’s biobead-dependent sewage works at Modbury.

 

  1. At Charmouth, West Bay and Lyme Regis, these biobeads are found in parts of the beach where children play in the summer. They are also found at Charmouth by the river where both gulls and ducks feed so it seems very likely that these birds will be accidentally ingesting pellets.

South West Water are installing extra filters at their biobead-dependent plants to minimise pellet loss as a result of the efforts of the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition. Providing that programme is completed and is successful, the number of biobeads on local beaches should diminish.  This of course does not deal with the reservoir of biobeads now in the sea and also buried in sand.  It is very difficult for me to see how these pellets can be cleaned up without damaging the fabric of the very beaches we wish to protect.

  1. Greater legal protection for the marine environment should be introduced so that companies like SWW who release biobeads, also plastics companies that release nurdles could be prosecuted for polluting seas and beaches.

 

I should like to express my thanks to everyone who helped bring this tortuous story to a conclusion.

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.

Europe’s answer to the tropical rain forest

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wild Thyme
wild thyme

 

Squinancywort
squinancywort

 

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

 

Pyramidal orchid
pyramidal orchid

 

Golden-ringed dragonfly
golden-ringed dragonfly

 

Bee orchid
bee orchid

High on Hardown Hill

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

Heathland track on Hardown Hill small
Heathland track across Hardown Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bilberry on Hardown Hill
Bilberry on Hardown Hill

 

Heath Milkwort on Hardown Hill
Heath Milkwort on Hardown Hill

 

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

 

Exposed chert on Hardwon Hill
Exposed chert seam on Hardown Hill

 

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

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

Nurdle hunting in west Dorset

Charmouth Beach
Charmouth beaching looking towards Golden Cap

 

You may have never knowingly encountered a nurdle but these small plastic pellets are the raw material of the plastics industry and are ferried around the world in their millions.  About the size of a small pea, nurdles come in many colours and they’re finding their way on to our beaches, killing wildlife and polluting the environment.  I wanted to find out more about these unwelcome intruders, so I joined a nurdle hunt organised by the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.

Hunting for nurdles 2
Nurdle hunters getting down to work.

 

Charmouth beach was surprisingly busy that morning but it was half term and, for mid-February, quite warm in the low sunshine.  Many people were walking by the sea, taking advantage of the mild weather, perhaps hoping to find a fossil, but an expectant crowd had also gathered by the steps to the Heritage Coast Centre.  At precisely midday, Sophie Thomas, one of the Centre wardens, walked down the steps together with local volunteer Eden Thomson and gathered us together.   Sophie began by explaining what nurdles were and how they washed up on the beach from the sea.  She emphasised the dangers these plastic pellets pose to wildlife such as birds and fish who mistake them for food.  Each of us was given a pair of disposable gloves, to guard against toxic chemicals contained in the nurdles, and an empty margarine pot for nurdle collecting.  Then off we went, about thirty of us, to hunt among debris washed up on the west bank of the river Char between the two beach car parks.

And what a fine sight we were! Young and old, locals and visitors, families and children, sitting or lying on the ground, enthusiastically scouring the debris for the plastic pellets.  It was a fascinating event, although we did get some funny looks.  Everyone found pellets in large numbers, not just on the surface but also buried a few centimetres down showing how pervasive they are.  Some were smooth, grey and cylindrical and a few were lentil shaped, white, yellow or green.  The vast majority, however, were bright blue cylindrical pellets, about 5mm in size, with fine ridges. The grand total for the group was 6650 pellets collected in 90 mins from this small section of beach, highlighting the extent of the contamination.

What do we know about nurdles and how they get into the sea to wash up on our beaches? These small plastic pellets are made from oil or natural gas to provide an easily transportable raw material for use in plastics factories all around the world.  Most of the plastic products that now dominate our lives are made from nurdles and huge numbers of the pellets are transported by ship, so there is always the potential for spills.  In October 2017, two containers of nurdles fell from a ship in the port of Durban leading to massive nurdle pollution along more than 1000km of beaches.    Closer to home, the storm-damaged container ship, Napoli was beached off Branscombe early in 2007 leading to hundreds of containers breaking free.  Two containers were filled with nurdles which washed up along many local beaches. These environmental disasters have been likened to oil spills, only worse as the nurdles do not break down.

Nurdles can also end up in the sea through careless handling at plastics factories.  The environmental charity, Surfers Against Sewage, visited several plastics companies in Cornwall and found nurdles littered around the sites.  These will inevitably be blown or washed into drains and into the sea.  Another kind of plastic pellet, wrinkly or ridged, has been found in large numbers on beaches in Cornwall by Rame Peninsula Beach Care.  These are biobeads, easily confused with nurdles but with a completely different purpose.  Some sewage works use biobeads as part of the wastewater treatment process and the pellets get into the sea through careless handling by water companies.

Why should we be concerned about nurdles and biobeads?  They are a totally unnecessary form of pollution in our seas and on our beaches and their presence shows a lack of respect for the environment.  They are now found all over the world wherever the sea meets the land: on beaches in industrialised countries or on isolated, sparsely populated islands.   Not only do they pollute our beaches, they are eaten by seabirds and fish who mistake them for food.  Once consumed, they block the digestive tract, lodge in the windpipe or fill the stomach leading to malnutrition and starvation.   For example, analysis of dead puffins on the Isle of May in Scotland, home to one of the UK’s largest breeding populations of these birds, showed they had consumed nurdles alongside their usual diet of sand eels.

Nurdles are also a source of toxic chemicals that may exacerbate their physical effects.  Freshly spilt nurdles may release chemicals such as plasticisers used in their manufacture.  Nurdles that have been in the sea longer attract toxic chemicals such as PCBs and DDTs.  These substances may have a toxic effect on seabirds and fish that consume them and have unknown effects on humans who encounter them on beaches.

What can we do about the nurdle problem? Industry needs to improve handling procedures and make sure nurdle spills are cleared completely.  Operation Clean Sweep is a plastics industry programme aimed at eliminating pellet losses but, as yet, it is only voluntary. In the longer term, we need to reduce our dependence on plastics, especially single use plastics.

Nurdle hunting can also help by raising awareness and by reducing pellet numbers in the environment.  As Sophie Thomas said to me “A nurdle collected is a nurdle out of the sea”.  Occasionally, it may be possible to infer the source of pellets based on their appearance and properties.  For example, the pellets found at Charmouth are unusual compared to those I have seen on other beaches.  Although some at Charmouth are true nurdles, the majority are the bright blue cylindrical type with fine ridges, more typical of a biobead.  If these are indeed biobeads, how are they getting on to Charmouth beach?

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

It was also a pleasure to meet Sarah West and her husband John that day.  Sarah is a blogging friend and she and John had also joined the nurdle hunt.  Sarah writes the blog “Down by the Sea” and has recently been heavily involved in organising the Bridport Green Fortnight.

Hunting for nurdles
Nurdle hunters at work

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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