More than six weeks ago I went searching for spring flowers in west Dorset. I wrote about this for the Marshwood Vale Magazine and the article below appeared in the June edition.
It was an unexpectedly bright morning in the first week of May and I had come to one of my favourite places, Cogden in west Dorset in the south west of the UK. I stood in the car park for a few moments enjoying the gentle warmth of the air and taking in the familiar view set out below me. There was the sea, calm that day and a uniform greenish-blue merging into the distant mist with no clear horizon. There, also, was the yellowish-brown shingle beach with its fringe of white water, part of the larger Chesil Beach sweeping eastwards towards Portland, the wedge shape barely visible in the mist. I was here to see what flowers were in bloom on this spring day and I hoped I might find some of the first orchids.
I began my search by heading eastwards through the gate from the Car Park into the meadows that slope down below the coast road towards the sea. Despite the traffic noise, skylarks trilled overhead and a green woodpecker “yaffled” nearby. The ground was quite uneven, perhaps churned up by cattle when wet and muddy, making for awkward walking. Rough grass predominated but a few bright yellow cowslips were dotted about and spikes of bugle with their pale blue flowers were also showing well. Bugle is an unassuming flower, often overlooked but a closer examination revealed the delicately beautiful patterns of darker stripes and pale patches that decorate the flowers. Elsewhere in the meadow, the first yellow cushiony flowers of bird’s foot trefoil were emerging, a foretaste of times to come.
I asked some passing dog walkers if they had seen any orchids. They hadn’t, but kindly warned me to beware of adders. I continued to the east through several fields and across stiles gradually descending towards the sea. Traffic noise from the coast road gave way to the soothing sound of pebbles driven rhythmically back and forth by waves on the beach. When I reached the coast path, I turned to walk westwards, first along a narrow track enclosed by lush green vegetation and later above a broad grassy area bordering the reed bed and shingle beach. Colourful drifts of wild flowers grew here, mostly cowslip and cuckooflower.
I have always loved cowslips for their clusters of bright yellow, frilly-edged, trumpet shaped flowers (see picture at the head of this post). Seeing so many here reminded me of my childhood when it was common to find large numbers growing across chalk grassland and railway embankments in Dorset. Nowadays, it is a treat to see even just a few of the flowers, a reminder of how much has been lost from our countryside, mainly through urbanisation and the relentless march of intensive agriculture.
Cuckooflower is a very attractive, rather delicate looking flower, also called lady’s smock (picture below). The petals here were white with variable amounts of lilac pigmentation and lilac filigree markings. Cuckooflower is one of several plants whose name honours the cuckoo; the flowers are said to bloom at about the same time as the bird arrives from its migration. Cuckooflower is also one of the larval food plants for the orange tip butterfly.
In time, the reed bed petered out and I reached the first paved access track from the Cogden Car Park. The shingle beach near here is a very special place where many unusual plants flourish despite the harsh environment by throwing down long roots to harvest fresh water from the underlying soils. Sea kale is one of the main attractions. It is now rather uncommon in the UK but numerous clumps of the plant with their fleshy, cabbage-type, dark green leaves were evident that day. A few flowers, yellow at first then turning to white, were also showing. It was, though, too early for their great display when each clump will be covered with white flowers making the beach look as though a heavy snow has fallen. Another plant was, however, providing interest in the interim. This was sea campion and large mats of the plant were growing across the shingle, each covered in hundreds of white bowl-shaped flowers.
I still hadn’t found any orchids and was about to give up when, almost accidentally, I came across several groups of the flowers in an area of longish rough grass, bramble and gorse behind the shingle beach. There were, perhaps, twenty or more spikes of flowers of a brilliant purplish-pink held on thick stems emerging through the drab, rough grass, looking as if someone had splashed pink paint across a dull canvas. Many were in peak condition. A few were already past their best but others were just emerging. The flower spikes were loosely decorated with florets, like jewels on a bracelet. Each floret comprised a prominent extended lower lip, mostly purplish-pink but white towards the throat with a pattern of pink spots. An overhanging hood, marked white on some spikes, contained the reproductive parts of the plant and behind the hood a spur curved upwards. These are early purple orchids (Orchis mascula), usually the first of the species to appear each year and they conjure an otherworldly beauty wherever they grow. Early purple orchids were once common across the UK but have suffered in the same way as cowslips.
My visit to Cogden had been fascinating, as always, and I was particularly pleased to have found the orchids. It was, though, early May and many flowers were only just beginning to show. In a few weeks, the shingle beach will be dominated by the white flowers of sea kale, large drifts of pink thrift will appear across the low coastal cliffs and yellow horned poppy will begin to bloom. In the meadows and in the grassy areas near the reed bed many flowers will appear including several species of orchid.
The minor road that climbs past the Spyway Inn near Askerswell was quiet that day, a welcome relief from the seemingly endless traffic clogging the A35. Eventually, though, Eggardon Hill came into view, the road levelled out and our attention was captured by the stunning panorama laid out to the west. Below, the land unfolded in a mosaic of fields, trees and hedges with different colours and textures, backed by the hills of west Dorset rising mysteriously in the slight haze that softened the air. To the south west, the sea and the familiar ups and downs of the Jurassic Coast completed the image. [The picture at the top of this post shows the view in a slightly spread out panoramic form] We drove on and, just before the road dipped under the old railway bridge, turned into the car park at the Powerstock Common Nature Reserve.
Trees surrounded the car park and bright early June sunshine filtered through the leaf cover casting dappled light across the parking area. Birdsong echoed around us and the rippling sound of running water emerged from the nearby woodland. Common vetch scrambled through the fences along the car park edge and its purplish-pink pea-type flowers were proving popular with plump, furry, pale brown bumblebees.
We set out along the woodland path taking a right fork to stay on the northern edge of the reserve. The track felt enclosed but wildflowers grew along the margins including the inconspicuous bright blue speedwell and the purplish-blue spikes of bugle. In time, the woodland melted away leaving the path to run between broad sloping banks topped by trees and scrub. This is the Witherstone cutting, once the path of the Bridport branch railway as it ran between Powerstock and Toller stations.
This branch Line opened in 1857 linking Bridport to Maiden Newton and the main line. The coming of the railway to West Dorset revolutionised social and commercial life in the area which, at the time, was poorly served by roads. People could travel more widely and I tried to imagine trains passing through the cutting, drawn in a haze of smoke and noise by the small steam engines of the Great Western Railway. I pictured people on the trains, travelling for work or for leisure or moving about during the two world wars. The line was also important for the transport of milk, watercress and the net and twine produced in Bridport. As motor transport came to dominate, traffic on the railway declined resulting in its closure in 1975. Although the tracks were lifted, there are still signs of the old railway, notably the rusty fence posts that line the track. The remains of an old brickworks can also be found in the nearby wood. This was set up near the railway to take advantage of the clay that remained when the cutting was excavated.
On the day of our visit, the sloping banks on either side of the path were mostly clad in short rough grass although there were some areas of exposed grey soil, perhaps a result of slippage. The former railway cutting felt very sheltered and the bright yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil grew across the grassy areas. We also found many small flowers of milkwort, almost hidden in the grass. Milkwort is a common plant on rough grassland and the flowers exist in several colours. Pink and purplish-blue flowers grew at Powerstock Common but each flower also had one white petal divided into finger-like lobes giving it a passing resemblance to a miniature cow’s udder. This may account for the name of the flower and its use in the past for increasing milk production. We also found one common spotted orchid with beautiful purple markings but more will have appeared, along with many other flowers, as the season advanced.
The abundance of flowers attracted insects and several common blue butterflies flew past or around us displaying their sky-blue upper wings and intricately patterned lower wings. Two yellow butterflies also passed by, dancing around one another in the air. I hoped they would land so that I could identify the species but they did not oblige. Bumblebees moved lazily among the flowers but we made our most exciting observation on a slightly raised area of rough grass with some exposed grey soil not far from the main path.
Here we found bees flying about at high speed, backwards and forwards and from side to side, just above the ground, accompanied by a clearly audible buzz. There were perhaps a hundred or more of the insects, and with their incessant movement this was an impressive sight. It was difficult to identify them at first owing to their frantic activity but they were honeybee-sized and I thought I could see shiny black abdomens. Very occasionally, one would pause to feed from the bird’s foot trefoil revealing a yellow face, a pale brown-haired thorax and two very long antennae, each as long as the rest of their body. Such long antennae, resembling shiny black bootlaces, are seen only on one UK species of bee, the male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis).
The obvious excitement of these male bees arose because they were anticipating the emergence of females and wanted to try to mate. Indeed, on several occasions some left their frantic flying to coalesce into a small mobile cluster. Others tried to join in, some left the melee. This was a mating cluster and formed when a virgin female emerged from her nest chamber. Many males then pounced upon her hoping to mate but only one was successful. Once mated, females get on with nest building and laying of eggs to secure the population of next year’s long-horned bees.
The long-horned bee was once a common sight in May and June across the southern half of the UK, unmistakeable from the long antennae of the males. Agricultural intensification led to destruction of habitat used by these bees along with a loss of their favoured flowers such as wild vetches and peas. As a result, the species is now quite rare being restricted to twenty or so UK sites many of which are along the southern coast. The Powerstock colony is large and seems to be prospering; it was a treat to see it that day.
Powerstock Common is a rich and varied nature reserve and we glimpsed only a small part during our visit. Even so, we enjoyed the peace and the floral beauty of the old railway cutting and discovered a fascinating mixture of natural and industrial history.
At the beginning of July, Natural England announced that the combined land at Powerstock Common and nearby Kingcombe Meadows, both managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, would become a National Nature Reserve recognising the unique character of these west Dorset sites and the rare wildlife they contain.
I’ve driven along the coast road eastwards from Burton Bradstock many times but the view as the road levels out at the top of the first hill never fails to lift my spirits. That first glimpse of the sea. Those coastal hills spread out ahead as they slope gently down to the water. That vast shingle beach with its fringe of foam, stretching into the distance. This time I was on my way to Cogden Beach, part of the larger Chesil Beach and one of my favourite west Dorset places where I can be outside in the air, close to the sea and surrounded by nature.
The road dipped down and I reached the car park above Cogden but I had never seen it this full. Many people were taking advantage of the warm, sunny, late July day and I was lucky to find one of the last parking spaces. The view from the car park across Chesil Beach was as familiar and fascinating as always. The strip of pale brown shingle swept eastwards across my field of vision in a broad arc turning sharply towards Portland, its distinctive wedge shape held in a blue haze as if suspended above the water. The sea was a uniform azure, a colour so intense in that day’s strong sun that I couldn’t stop looking. Towards Portland, though, the sun intervened, casting its light downwards across the sea, silvering the surface which shimmered in the breeze like crumpled aluminium foil.
I left the car park and headed down hill towards the sea across the short grass that appeared to have been grazed recently, a pity as this had eliminated most of the flowers, and the insects. Dark sloes and ripening blackberries showed in the path-side scrub, sure signs that the year was moving on. Families passed me, some laden with colourful beach kit, others dressed for coastal walking. Stands of intensely pink, great willowherb and sun-yellow fleabane grew in a damp area as the path approached the shingle. A small flock of about 50 birds, probably starlings, surprised me by flying up from the scrub in a mini-murmuration. They banked and wheeled, flying back and forth for a short time before settling back on the bushes where they chatted noisily to one another.
I walked on to the shingle beach where, ahead of me, a small windbreak village had grown up. Some of the inhabitants were simply soaking up the sun, others were swimming or enjoying stand up paddleboards while some concentrated on their fishing. Heat shimmered from the pea-sized pebbles but a light breeze kept the temperature pleasant. Desultory waves made their way up the beach disturbing the shingle which retreated in a rush leaving some white water.
Towards the back of the shingle was the wild garden of beach plants that emerges afresh from the pebbles each spring and summer making this place so special. I stopped to look at the sea kale that grows so profusely here. Its thick, cabbage-like leaves were a glaucous green tinged with varying amounts of purple that seemed to come and go according to the angle of vision rather like the colours on a soap bubble. Flowering season was long past but the memory lingered and each clump was adorned with a large fan of hundreds of spherical greenish yellow seeds Among the clumps of sea kale were the roughly crimped leaves of yellow horned-poppy, displaying its distinctive papery yellow flowers alongside some of the very long, scimitar-like seeds pods. The almost primeval vision created by these rare and unusual plants growing from the shingle was completed by clumps of burdock with its prickly green and purple hedgehog-like flowers.
The coast path heads westwards along the back edge of this wild garden of beach plants and for the most part it is rough and stony. In places, however, shallow holes have appeared exposing the sandy soil beneath. Large black and yellow striped insects were moving about in some of these exposed holes. Sometimes these insects would dig, rather like a dog with sand shooting out behind them. Sometimes they encountered a small stone and lifted it away, secured between two legs. These are beewolves (Philanthus triangulum), spectacular solitary wasps up to 17mm long that were once very rare in the UK but, since the 1980s, have expanded their range.
I watched them for a short time before heading west on to the shingle. I soon reached the area where there are low cliffs at the back of the beach composed of thickly packed firm sand, topped by rough grass and clumps of desiccated thrift. These cliffs were punctuated by small holes, sometimes with a spill of sand emerging and here I found the same beewolves with their distinctive yellow and black markings. They were coming and going from the holes regularly and sometimes they would rest in a hole and look outwards.
Beewolves have an interesting lifecycle. The insects emerge from hibernation in the summer and the females begin to dig nest burrows up to a metre long in friable soil or sand with as many as 30 side burrows that act as brood chambers. At about the same time the females choose males for mating. Each female then hunts honeybees, paralysing them with her sting and bringing them back to place in each brood chamber where she also lays a single egg. This matures into a larva that feeds from the honeybees, hibernates over winter and emerges the following summer as a new beewolf. Although this may seem slightly gruesome, the number of beewolves in the UK is still low and does not impact significantly on the honeybee community. Also, adult beewolves are herbivores feeding only on pollen and nectar collected from flowers so acting as important pollinators.
I was able to witness some of this activity including a female returning with prey held beneath her to be mobbed by other beewolves and common wasps trying to steal her cargo. For most of the time, however, these insects get on with their lives quietly, unseen by visitors. I did notice one couple who chose a pleasant spot on the top of the low cliffs to sit and admire the view, only to find they were surrounded by beewolves. The couple moved but in fact these beautiful insects are not predatory and pose no threat to humans.
By mid-afternoon, it was time for me to leave. I took in one last view along the coast and headed back up the hill knowing that I would return in another season.
Cogden Beach is at the western end of Chesil Beach and can be accessed either via the South West Coast Path or from the National Trust Car Park on the coast road (B3157) between Burton Bradstock and Abbotsbury. OS grid reference SY 50401 88083, GPS coordinates 50.690271, -2.7035263.
This year sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of the English romantic poet William Wordsworth. One of his most famous poems, “Daffodils” was inspired by an extensive drift of the flowers he encountered growing along the shores of Ullswater in the Lake District. Wordsworth’s flowers would have been our native wild daffodil, smaller and less showy than the many brightly coloured, cultivated varieties we are accustomed to seeing in our gardens and parks. Native daffodils used to grow prolifically in the wild in many parts of the UK but woodland clearance and ploughing of meadows reduced their numbers. The west country is still a good place to see the flowers in the wild so I went off to look for them in Devon and Dorset.
I started my quest in our Devon garden where, a few years ago, we planted native daffodil bulbs obtained from a reputable supplier. This year they began to flower in late February revealing blooms of an understated beauty compared to their less subtle cultivated cousins. The trumpet is lemon-yellow and rather narrow with roughly parallel sides and the six petals are the colour of clotted cream, standing perpendicular to the trumpet, like an Elizabethan ruff. The grey green strap-like leaves and flower stem holding its single flower are about 20cm long, quite a bit shorter than many cultivated varieties.
The native daffodil is a member of the narcissus family, a genus often said to be named from the Greek myth whereby the young man, Narcissus, falls in love with his reflection seen in a pool of water. Unable to resist the allure of his own image, in time he realises his love cannot be reciprocated and he wastes away turning into a gold and white flower. Others believe the name comes from the Latin word narce, (numbness, torpor) a reference to the narcotic properties of the plant. Daffodils contain many chemicals, some of which were probably responsible for these narcotic effects, and extracts of daffodil have historically been used in folk medicine. The plant is now considered to be poisonous but one compound, galantamine, is purified from daffodils grown commercially in Wales for use as a therapy in Alzheimer’s disease.
The flowers growing in our garden provided me with a useful image to keep in my mind when I went into the countryside searching for native daffodils. It wasn’t difficult to find flowers along lane-side verges in West Dorset and in Devon that resembled the native daffodil, but how could I be sure? Simon Harrap in his beautifully illustrated book “Wild Flowers” warns against identifying roadside blooms as native because of the practice of garden dumping and of hybridisation with one of the thousands of garden cultivars, some of which have been deliberately planted to brighten up the countryside. He suggests searching in deciduous woodland or old pasture where the flowers may have been long established.
So, where can we go to see our native daffodil growing in the wild? The Lake District has strong populations with Wordsworth’s flowers still gracing the shores of Ullswater in late March and early April. Another fine population can be seen near Farndale in North Yorkshire but it is on the Gloucestershire/Herefordshire borders that one of the most impressive displays occurs each spring. The “Golden Triangle”, defined by the villages of Kempley, Oxenhall and Dymock, has for many years attracted large numbers of visitors to see the carpets of wild daffodils in woodlands, orchards and pasture.
A fine display of the wild flowers can, however, be found nearer to home. Just a few miles to the west of Exeter in the Teign Valley in Devon lies Dunsford Nature Reserve and on a beautifully sunny mid-March day, we went to see the Dunsford daffodils. We parked near Steps Bridge where the Teign cascaded noisily over rocks creating showers of white water and sparkling light. The riverside path took us away from the bridge and almost immediately we came across daffodils. They were easy to find: growing under the trees in deciduous woodland, scattered across riverside meadows and flourishing among coppiced hazel stools. They were unmistakeably our native daffodil based on their stature, the shape of the flowers and their lemon and cream colour and, something I hadn’t noticed before, the tendency of individual flowers to be held at a slight angle downwards. For the most part, they do not grow thickly, it’s as though they need their space, and dense drifts of the flowers are rarely seen here. But this is compensated for by the sheer number of flowers so that for a few weeks at this time of year they own the land and it becomes very much daffodil territory. This is one of the strong impressions I shall take away from our visit.
We did find one meadow with denser growth (see picture at the head of this post) where the colours of the flowers tended to merge into a sheen of yellow, shining like the sun and reminding us that spring is on its way. Native daffodils are sometimes also called “Lent lilies” as they were said to bloom and fade between Ash Wednesday and Easter. When we visited Dunsford on March 16th, the flowers were close to their peak but they should still be around for a few more weeks.
But let’s go back to that stormy day in April 1802 when William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy encountered the profusion of daffodils by Ullswater. Dorothy described in her journal for April 15th how the flowers “tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake”. William composed his poem two years later, inspired by her journal entry and his tribute to the daffodil has become one of the best-known pieces of verse in the English language.
Here is the last verse where Wordsworth remembers the events:
This article appeared in the April 2020 digital only edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine. The fieldwork was completed before the lockdown came into force. Hopefully the article will provide a reminder of the joys of Spring.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
They didn’t know the nature of the biobeads used at Lyme Regis sewage works (via Claire Wallerstein)
The biobeads used are black with a hint of blue
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, ………….”