With Lockdown easing in the UK, this is the last Lockdown Nature Walk of this series. I wanted to see how spring was progressing along a typical Devon country lane. So, on a mild day with intermittent sunshine and a light wind, I walked up Harper’s Hill on the western side of Totnes (as in Lockdown Nature Walk 7) to reach Jackman’s Lane and the ridgeway road. It was an interesting walk but not always in the way I had anticipated. After the account of my walk, I have included a relevant poem, “The Trees” by Philip Larkin
The prominent sign at the start of Jackman’s Lane proclaimed “Unmetalled Road” and the hard-packed, rutted, reddish soil base of the track showed evidence of regular use by farm vehicles and horses. I made slow progress along the lane, examining the soil banks lining the track, occasionally pausing to enjoy the views across rolling countryside with fields and trees. Skylarks sang their endlessly inventive songs overhead, plump queen bumblebees buzzed along the hedges and the wind carried the sound of a tractor. Spring flowers decorated the soil banks including primroses, celandine, violets and stitchwort. Nettles grew in a profusion of green together with thuggish hogweed leaves while the heavily flailed woody stems along the hedge tops were only just shooting.
Then on a narrow ledge surrounded and almost hidden by grasses, my attention was captured by a flash of a different green, a silvery green. When I looked carefully, I saw a fine lizard curled up neatly and basking in a shaft of warm sunshine (see picture at the head of this post). The reptile was about 12cm long, a common lizard (Zootoca vivipara) with a complex pattern of black swirls and dots along its body. The colours of common lizards vary and local expert, John Walters told me that the green colour probably helps the creature to avoid predators in this grassy environment.
As I watched the lizard, I saw it eyeing me warily, so I left it in peace and carried on down the lane. Butterflies occasionally surprised me by erupting from the track where they had been basking, rising too quickly to identify. Then two of these insects materialised above me, dancing in the air, turning circles around each other before one fell to the ground just behind the left-hand bank. I scrambled up and recognised it as a small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) with its brilliant orange, yellow and black markings. It seemed to be fluttering its wings repeatedly as it danced above some young nettle leaves. Was this a form of courtship behaviour?
I continued to see or hear bumblebees as I walked and then towards the end of the lane, hoverflies began to appear. Some were flying about but most were quietly basking on exposed leaves in the sunshine. The hoverflies that I saw that day were all of the same species, the tapered drone fly (Eristalis pertinax), a mixture of males and females. The more I look at hoverflies, the more I appreciate the beauty of these creatures and I hope the photos posted below show this. Look, for example, at their wings which resemble panes of crazed glass and the neat bands of hair decorating their thorax and abdomen.
As I was watching the hoverflies, I heard a familiar but not entirely welcome sound. Turning to look back down the lane, I glimpsed a galloping horse and rider approaching at speed. I moved to the edge of the track to make way but the horse slowed down and walked past me. I thanked the rider but she said nothing. I may have spoiled her planned gallop along this unpaved country track!
Jackman’s Lane ended and I turned right along the ridgeway road in the direction of Totnes. Views to the north across the valley below were hazy and Dartmoor lay invisible in the mist that enveloped the distant hills. A farmer was treating the nearby fields with chemical fertiliser while ploughing the upper surface of the red Devon soil. A plume of dust accompanied his tractor, so I walked on quickly.
The ridgeway road runs roughly eastward so that the soil bank on one side is south facing, getting the benefit of the sun when it shines and encouraging growth. Many flowers will appear here later in spring and even that day, I saw more here than along Jackman’s Lane including three members of the dead-nettle family.
White dead-nettle was one of these with its hooded, slightly hairy flowers spreading splashes of snowy white among the lush greenery covering the bank. A few red dead-nettle flowers had just pushed through the grasses and there were drifts of yellow archangel, a member of the family that has the look of a yellow dead-nettle. Two kinds of yellow archangel grew on the soil bank, the wild flower with its all-green leaves and the garden throw out (argentatum) with silvery green leaves. The garden variety blooms earlier and spreads more aggressively than its wild counterpart and it had formed a large yellow mat along one edge of the ridgeway road.
The flowers of members of the dead-nettle family are similar with a wide lower lip like a landing pad to attract pollinators, sometimes marked with abstract patterns. Above the lip is a hood concealing stamens that close over the inquisitive insect so that, when it leaves, it takes away some pollen to fertilise the next flower it visits. Several common carder bee queens (Bombus pascuorum), some of the first I had seen this year, were taking advantage of the flowers.
While I was watching the bees, I became aware of a motor scooter that had slowed down and turned on the road behind me. The scooter drew up at my side, stopped and the rider, an older man, swathed in coats and a large crash helmet, asked:
“Are you going towards Bowden?”
I thought he wanted directions and replied “Sort of”.
“Have you seen the otter in the tree?” he asked.
“What! An otter in a tree, it must be dead?” I replied in surprise.
“No, no”, he must have thought I was stupid, “it’s part of the tree, its uncanny how it looks like an otter, I am surprised more fuss hasn’t been made about it”.
He told me in some detail how to find it and I agreed to look.
As he was getting ready to go, he looked at me oddly and asked “What’s a farmer’s favourite sport?”
“I have no idea. What is farmer’s favourite sport”, this was becoming surreal.
He revved up, looked fixedly at me again and, as he accelerated away, blurted out “fencing!”.
I walked on and near the junction with the Ashprington road I could see the tree and the arboreal otter. It was indeed an uncanny likeness.
It was only then that I remembered it was April 1st but I haven’t made this story up, all this really did happen.
“The Trees” by Philip Larkin
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.