David Beeson December 2021
We all do it. We explore the world around us and look for that special insect / plant / view. I do. If an orchid is in around my eyes zoom in … perhaps too rapidly. Perhaps it is not that one special plant that should be taking my notice but the total environment that allows that organism to exist there at all. Conservation should not be about one organism but the environment in which it exists.
I had the old-style view thrust in my face when, in the 1970s, I set up a two-day event to alert the UK public about the demise of the otter, Lutra lutra. The mammal was nearing extinction due to pollution, old-style human persecution and inhumane hunting. I wished to advertise the event with the RSPB (Bird organisation) in their magazine. I was refused on the grounds that the otter was not a bird! That would not happen now, indeed their magazine title does not even mention a bird, it is called Nature’s Home and much of what they aim to achieve is through enhancing and restoring environments.
So, why does that orchid live there? What should we first consider when we head out into that amazing natural world?
Sure, you know the answer already, and almost certainly do it unconsciously. Firstly, what is the geology? That influences the topography, the soil type and structure. I try to see a soil profile: to view the topsoil, sub-soil and bedrock. A drop of dilute acid will fizz if calcium is present, giving a soil that may only suit calcicoles (Calcium lovers, such as wild clematis). If there is no calcium other plants will flourish, possibly even calcifuges (Plants that cannot grow with calcium in quantity. Yet, they need some to allow cell walls to stick together.).
Rock hardness may result in poor water transmission and a dip will become waterlogged, and the soil anaerobic – a gleyed soil. [Gleying is essentially the process of waterlogging and chemical ‘reduction’ in soils. In waterlogged soils, where water replaces air in pores, oxygen is quickly used up by microbes feeding on soil organic matter. … that leaves the soil a grey or bluish colour.] Few plants relish such a site and biodiversity could be low … but still interesting.
Around Andover the greatest geological diversity is around Kingsclere. Do explore that area on a geology map.
Weather in the UK mountains is easy: If you can see the distant mountains it is going to rain; if you cannot see those mountains, it is raining.
Climate too is crucial to life. As we climb higher temperatures fall. [Near the Earth’s surface, air gets cooler the higher you climb. As you ascend a mountain, you can expect the air temperature to decrease by 6.5 degrees C for every 1000 meters you gain. This is called the standard lapse rate.] And, as we move north, the tilt of the Earth ensures average temperatures fall, and head east in the UK and rainfall decreases. Andover sits in a sweet spot! Just like in the Three Bears Story .. the perfect porridge for me.
Aspect influences too, with a south-facing slope far warmer than its north-facing twin, and may exhibit a different biodiversity. Certainly, pearl-bordered fritillaries in the UK breed almost exclusively on south-facing, bracken-clothed hillsides.
David Bellamy, a botanist popular in 1970s, in his booklet “Bellamy’s Britain” reduced a local climate to a single diagram. It allows places to be compared, and so hints at the vegetation to be encountered. Of course, it is easy to cheat – look in the BSBI’s Atlas [BSBI.org] or local versions, often from Wildlife Trusts, and they record what experts say is in that spot. Mammals (Mammal Society) and invertebrates also have distributions mapped. Yet, most wildlife enthusiasts prefer to search out the flora and fauna for themselves.
There are generalisations that can be made about flora. The north and west of the UK, being damp, cool and often with acidic soils has a tendency to naturally have dwarf shrubs as the basic vegetation. The Midlands, South and South-east tussock (grasses) and rosette plants. Parts of the extreme east can be dry and annuals or Mediterranean plants are commoner. The extreme west grows wonderful ferns, lichens and liverworts., yet these will be uncommon on the sands of Dorset.
Plants and animals have their natural niche.
We once grew our own local flora in a well-prepared garden border. Wow, did they grow! What grew to 10cm in the wild hit 100cm. We sometimes forget how held back organisms are in their wild conditions. We did.
So, the sermon for today is: buy a local geology map, that will heavily hint at the soil type and make your plant hunting a bit more scientific. And, keep an eye out for natural soil profiles.
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