Featured

Some of the first land plants: Mosses.

Moss in the Grass

David Beeson

So, how do you gardeners rid your lawn of moss? Well, you’ll have to read on to find out!

When life started to emerge from the watery realms it, unexpectedly, was poorly adapted to life on land. Evolution needs time to work its miracle. LOTS of time.

The mosses and liverworts (known as Bryophytes) were the relatives of the algae that made the leap first. Today’s types of bryophytes are very distant relatives of the first terrestrial invaders – and your lawn grass is one of them.

Human sperm and eggs have just a single set of chromosomes – 23 in number. Egg and sperm’s DNA combine to give the two sets, 46 chromosomes, of the normal human.

Mosses (and liverworts) have a similar, but very different, pattern of changes in chromosome numbers. The moss plant you spot in the lawn, growing on a wall or under a woodland canopy has just a single chromosome set. This generates egg or sperm cells which, under WET CONDITIONS, can fuse. However, this zygote (fertilized egg with two chromosome sets) grows in situ on top of the green mossy plant – a spiky, small stem with a bobble (Capsule) on its end. Eventually, this capsule will burst open liberating spores which can grow on your lawn to a new green moss.

Mosses (Liverworts, horsetails and ferns) must have a wet environment at the appropriate time to complete the life cycle. That is not true for conifers or flowering plants … or humans … although a warm beach can be an inducement!

Mosses can never grow big as they contain almost no system for transporting water around the plant … you need to move on to the horsetails and ferns before that happens … which is why they can grow bigger.

The spore capsules contain vast numbers of spores. They are everywhere. On my garden wall these capsules are consumed by goldfinches over the winter. They sit nibbling them off most days.

Mosses do not like really dry conditions – because they cannot reproduce. But, they can survive dehydration for a while, so in the UK are seldom killed off by a hot summer as a wet autumn and winter follows.

Iron sulphate is deadly to mosses. So, lawn sand is a combination of fine sand and iron sulphate. The sand, in theory, carries the iron and lightens the soil. Except, I do not believe the latter unless you add tonnes. Much better to buy the iron sulphate and spread it with a gloved hand. Much cheaper.

Woodland moss without spore capsules

BUT, the soil is full of enough moss spores to grow new plants for fifty years. So, sit back, admire the mosses and do not chuck unwanted iron sulphate to pollute the water supply. ‘Going for the mosses’ is a waste of time and effort.

Mosses show, like ALL land plants, alternation of generations. This is a flipping between an asexually reproducing phase and a sexual phase. In the case of mosses the two are attached, the one parasitic on the other. In other plant types they can be quite separate e.g. ferns.

Gametophyte = green ‘plant-like’ structure. The hair-like sporophyte is composed of seta and capsule (with its spores).

The gametophyte is haploid (each cell has only one set of chromosomes), the sporophyte is diploid (like us) and each cell has two chromosome sets but reduces that number in the spores via a nuclear division called meiosis.

Image result for moss life cycle diagram

I often spot goldfinches eating the spore capsules, but not the green gametophyte.

A similar life cycle occurs in liverworts.

In ferns, horsetails, conifers and angiosperms (flowering plants) the sporophyte is the dominant plant (what you normally see) and the gametophyte is much reduced. In flowering plants there are ‘male’ (Pollen, released) and ‘female’ spores (not released) and they germinated to form the gametophytes. The gametophyte has two forms: 1) Male spores grows into the germinated pollen (Pollen tube) or 2) the ovule containing an egg cell that is held within the carpel of the flower. All very confusing! Get a good botany book and check it all out. (Buy a second hand ex-uni library copy for just a small amount of money! The material will be bang up-to-date … it doesn’t change.)

Image result for angiosprm life cycle

Rocky Mountains, USA and Index

David Beeson

We have been fortunate in having visited this area twice – once via Denver and again via Seattle. If you have the opportunity, go! The USA is easy to explore and booking hotels or AirB&B in advance is possible but not vital.

A few images to catch your imagination as the world may open up soon.

Marmot in Rocky Mountain NP
Near Glacier NP
Despite our being far from safety, this magnificent bison ignore us. Lamar Valley, Yellowstone. And, yes, we did have close view of wolves – magnificent and worth the journey alone.
Don’t go to Iceland or New Zealand – go here!
Heat tolerant microorganisms fringe the steaming pool – they have been critical in biological research and useful in industrial processes.
Falls in Yellowstone
Grand Teton NP is virtually attached to Yellowstone, yet quite different.
Lots of water snakes and pika here
We were walking way off the roadway when a couple came running towards us. “We are being chased by a moose!” was the cry. Indeed, we could spot one some 200m up the path, and we diverted up a rocky slope to clear the path. A short while after, the lone moose cautiously came down the path watching us with more concern than we had for it. The couple had just stumbled into its daily routine and the animal was after breakfast in the river valley.
Olympic NP
Calypso Orchid, Glacier NP

The articles published on the site are numerous – some 90. So, you may have missed one or two!! Perhaps you should see if any of these take your fancy.

INDEX: Oldest articles first – from late 2019.

  1. Harewood Forest – an introduction to an ancient UK oak woodland
  2. Along the river valley – the early stages of a crystal-clear chalk stream – River Anton, Hampshire
  3. Harewood Butterflies – high summer delights
  4. Bluebells – the iconic English spring bulb
  5. Heathland – acid lands north of Andover UK. Contrasting ecology.
  6. God’s Ponds – ancient man-made ponds
  7. Butterflies and chalk flora
  8. Holly leaf-miner – an unusual lifestyle
  9. Mammals
  10. Old Burgclere – an old chalk quarry, now a mini but rich nature reserve
  11. Snelsmore Common – acid heathlands with snakes, carnivorous plants and rare birds
  12. Stockbridge Down – chalk grassland butterflies and more
  13. Watermeadows – an ancient agricultural technique that still shows traces
  14. Watership Down – chalk hillside
  15. Longparish’s River – the amazing River Test
  16. Fungi
  17. Odonata 2 Mayflies and dragonflies
  18. Odonata 1
  19. February
  20. December
  21. Mammal mapping
  22. Good news
  23. March
  24. Lawns
  25. War! – Primroses v cowslips
  26. Botany and Geology
  27. You cannot see the wood for the trees – tree ecology
  28. Moss and plant life cycles. This article will surprise you.
  29. Dino-botany – horsetails
  30. March
  31. Today in the garden – ecogarden
  32. Of Dukes and Men – butterflies
  33. More creepy-crawlies
  34. Edge of the A303 – road verge botany
  35. Sidbury Hill 1 – Military ecology
  36. Was that a Sea Eagle?
  37. Being a male can be hard work – common blue butterfly
  38. Secret meadow – damselflies
  39. Like Southern England 200 Years Ago
  40. No Cut Lawn in May
  41. Edge of the A303, 2
  42. A Wet Meadow
  43. Damselfly Hunt
  44. Moths of Harewood
  45. Insects
  46. Harewood in Summer
  47. Wild Gladiolus
  48. Damsels
  49. Sampling and Recording Data
  50. River Test
  51. Ticks
  52. Grasses (Most Hated Wildflowers)
  53. I Poison Myself
  54. What do Insects Eat
  55. Children – water Ecology
  56. Ticks
  57. Nectar
  58. Eco-gardening
  59. Damsels and Dragons
  60. Plants are Clever, 1
  61. Early September
  62. An English Canal
  63. Dorset Heaths
  64. Re-introductions
  65. Dormice 1 (A Brilliant Day)
  66. Harewood Forest
  67. Dormice
  68. Oak Woodland in November
  69. Inside Plant Stems
  70. SE USA, Okefenokee Swamp
  71. Wildlife Encounters
  72. Photo Essay
  73. 1st January
  74. Hibernation (Feeling Sleepy)
  75. Inside Plant Roots
  76. Signs of Spring
  77. Natural Wold in Photographs 1, 2 and 3 (Damsels and Dragons)

The Natural World in Photographs – 3

Images by John Solomon

Banded demoiselle, Female.

The legs bear many spiky hairs, seen beautifully in this image.

Banded demoiselle, Male

The venation of the wings shows clearly here, as does the metallic colour that seems to occur across all the odonata.

Beautiful demoiselle, Male
Common darter, Female

A leopard of the sky? Fierce predators, and the combat between males sounds brutal with the clash of wings. John and I are looking forward to May and the re-appearance of damsels and then these dragons.

Common darter, Male

The red-brown of the abdomen is in stark contrast with the female. Adults do not have lungs, but breath through tubes that lead from small holes (spiracles) in their exoskeleton – which I think I can spot.

Common darter, Male.
Red-eyed damselfly, Male

A stunning creature, in glorious detail.

Ruddy darter, Immature male.

The resting position of the wings varies between the damsels and the dragons.

The immature, aquatic stages of dragonflies and damselflies can be caught by dredging a stream or riverbed with a professional net. Best to hold the net downstream of the sampling site and then disturb the substrate with your heel – the hidden life is washed down into the net. (See article on Children.)

Signs of Spring?

David Beeson

With the cold snap having evaporated, and our local temperature hitting the mid-teens, our wildlife is waking up … slightly.

While domestic varieties of daffodils can flower much earlier (January Gold, especially), our wild daffodils usually show their flowers in late February, at the same time that the frogs appear.
Some 50 spawn masses have been laid over two nights. Over the last two years almost all has been eaten. Newts take plenty of newly hatched tadpoles and mallard ducks can also be a predator. This year, I have saved some spawn on a big tank, and I have covered the rest in a net.
The frogs never stay. They come, lay and vanish. Too many predators?
Our crocus plants are spreading widely from seed and are abuzzzz with hive bees. These are growing with snowdrops and Tulipa sylvestris. This image is from beneath the walnuts and will be a riot of colour until June, when the area is cut.
Stinking hellebore, a native is a very early flowering plant. It provides early-season nectar and pollen.
Green hellebore, a native in flower in a border.
An exotic hellebore.

The Natural World in Photographs – 2

John Solomon’s images from 2020.

We can all look at a damselfly and say to ourselves, “Sure, it is only another damselfly.” Today, you have the chance to take a second look at these British species, and to enjoy their delicate form, their wing-venation, the hairs on their bodies and the hues on their exoskeleton. What a delight they are! But, so transitory.

So, may I suggest, you sit back, enlarge the photographs (all wild-taken) and just enjoy our stunning wildlife for a few mindfulness moments. The UK may not have wild elephants … yet, what we have (left!) is delightful. David.

Blue-tailed damselfly (F-infuscans)
Blue-tailed damselfly (F-rufescens)
Common blue damselfly, male
Common blue damselfly, male
Emerald damselfly, male
Large red damselfly, female.
Large red damselfly, male
Red-eyed damselfly, immature male.

Inside Plant Roots

Inside plant roots – an introduction

David Beeson, February 2021

You would be advised to see the articles on stems and leaves first.

Seldom seen, but roots are useful plant components!

Most people first come across in the form of carrots, parsnips and swedes. These are food-storing tap roots, while most roots are fine and spreading – netted or fibrous root systems. Both styles function in anchoring the plant, taking in water and soluble minerals (nutrients, mineral salts). A modern botanist would add: communicating with adjacent plants, producing hormones and interacting with fungi. Of course, roots will also store useful resources, and move materials up and down from the aerial parts of the plant.

We saw previously that young* stems have their transport (vascular) tissues towards the outer edge. This copes well with side forces from wind. Roots care little about side forces, but care greatly about forces attempting to pull the plant out of the ground – their vascular tissues are mostly central.

*Always start plant anatomy with young (primary) structures, as they are easier to understand, and you can observe the whole cross section (TS or transverse section) under a microscope. Older developments are secondary structures or tissues.

Sunflower (Helianthus) primary root centre

Px = primary xylem, a = primary phloem, with the ring of cells the endodermis

Look for those components below, and you will also see a side (lateral) root developing. The cortex is beyond the endodermis.

As before, red stain = lignified tissue, in this situation xylem for water transport.

Green-stained cells are non-lignified and those within the endodermis include the food transporting phloem tissues.

Above: You should still be able to spot the large, central xylem in a cross and clusters of small phloem cells between the arms. The cortex (showing starch grains inside) is composed of large cells that could be storing materials and there will be an epidermis around it all to offer some protection.

Root hairs are short-lived single cells that grow out of the epidermis.

My plant anatomy reference book is: Plant Anatomy, an applied approach by Cutler, Botha and Stevenson. It may only be available second-hand.  

PS I did not have great specimens in my own collection, so have had to borrow! They are not showing as clearly as I would wish … but you can find them on the Internet in better detail.

Feeling sleepy? How about being awake for only a few weeks each year … and it is a European mammal!

Adverse conditions

David Beeson, January 2021

Glis glis, the Edible Dormouse

The weather changes in the UK from day to day and with the seasons. With the Earth at a moving orientation to the Sun throughout the year, the input of energy in a particular spot changes. In the UK winter, the constant energy output from our Sun is spread over a larger area than in the summer. Less energy per square kilometre means lower temperatures, in addition to a shorter daylength. Many organisms are content with that, yet many seek to avoid the colder, darker conditions. They will cut down their body chemistry (metabolism) or go into full dormancy – enter diapause. Hibernation.

In some parts of the world, it is not daylength or a reduction of input energy that causes diapause. It could be lack of water – drought. I have heard it suggested that deciduous trees lose their leaves due to drought rather than any other main reason, for roots need a temperature above four degrees Celsius to take up water. Also, if there is no soil water that will trigger leaf loss. Of course, there are other reasons as well for leaf loss; for example, to stop trees being upended in winter storms, or to allow easier wind pollination in the flowering season. Trees that retain their leaves, evergreens, may have a good climate strategy and sufficient water supply, or be blessed with water-retaining leaves with perhaps a waxy surface or few stomata.

Once an organism is adapted to its climate it will exhibit its survival strategies. If it is not sufficiently adapted it will lose the evolutionary race and become rare or extinct.

Spring-flowering bulbs (corms etc) will go into summer diapause. Bluebells and wild daffodils are good examples. They avoid the lack of light and, possibly, a summer drought in the soil’s surface. They store energy as carbohydrates and stop water loss by shedding their leaves and having a waterproof bulb surface. Many are highly toxic to discourage herbivores – you will have noticed that horses do not eat daffodil leaves.

Deciduous trees (and many animals) can measure daylength – the photoperiod, with light switching a leaf chemical between two forms. This, possibly in conjunction with environmental temperature, will trigger leaf fall. The leaf shedding will virtually stop water loss and may allow the removal of toxic metabolic waste.

Seeds would be wasted if they germinated in adverse conditions. Many have strategies to break their dormancy when conditions are optimal. Cactus seeds need a good dousing with water, other plants need a cold period before an equitable temperature and water content to the soil will trigger germination. [With birch seeds (Betula), they usually need a chill before they will grow, but may germinate with a long photoperiod and a suitable temperature. Either way, it will be spring conditions that allow growth, and the seeds will not be wasted.] Smoke can trigger some seeds to be released from fir cones and allow them to germinate (Yellowstone NP and Australian woodlands).

All these mechanisms are adaptations to ensure survival, or for life to recommence when environmental conditions are suitable.

For the UK, temperature is often the critical aspect controlling the need for dormancy. Enzymes are the catalysts that encourage chemical reactions to take place, and they are temperature dependent. Too cold and enzymes work too slowly to sustain energy release or maintain other life processes. Too hot and they are curdled, like cooking and killing an egg. So, temperature can be a key feature to trigger a shut down in an organism. But daylength is a predictor for a fall or rise in temperature, so it too can be a metabolic trigger.

So, why this topic? Ah, it is all about our dormice. The technical books about the species suggest that hazel dormice hibernate possibly as early as October, yet ours were active through at least two sharp frosts and until 22nd November (at least). So, what is the trigger? Temperature? Daylength? Food stores?

Forest Edge’s young dormice

First, some background.

Average longevity in free-living edible dormice (Glis glis) can reach 9 years, which is extremely high for a small rodent. This remarkable life span has been related to a peculiar life history strategy and the rarity of reproductive bouts in these seed eaters. Most females (96%) reproduce only once or twice in their lifetime, predominantly during years of mast (high levels of) seeding of, e.g., beech nuts, but an entire population can skip reproduction in years of low seed availability. Surprisingly, in non-reproductive years, large fractions of populations apparently vanished and were never captured above ground. Therefore, the researchers studied the duration of above-ground activity, and body temperature profiles in dormice under semi-natural conditions in outdoor enclosures. They found that non-reproductive dormice returned to dormancy in underground burrows throughout summer after active seasons as short as <2 weeks. Thus, animals spent up to >10 months per year in dormancy. This exceeds dormancy duration of any other mammal under natural conditions. Summer dormancy was not caused by energy constraints, as it occurred in animals in good condition, fed ad libitum and without climatic stress. The researchers suggested that almost year-round torpor has evolved as a strategy to escape birds of prey, the major predators of this arboreal mammal in non-reproductive years. This unique predator-avoidance strategy clearly helps in explaining the unusually high longevity of dormice.

Reference: [Summer dormancy in edible dormice (Glis glis)without energetic constraints. Claudia Bieber & Thomas Ruf – research publication 2009.]

An amazing research finding!

I think they are young. Do you?

Another publication, but, again, not the hazel dormouse, states: Prior to hibernation, juvenile hibernators have to sustain both growth and fattening to reach a sufficient body mass to survive the following winter season. This high demand for energy is especially challenging for juveniles born late in the season, since they might already experience reduced food availability and decreasing temperatures.

Yearly variations in the diet composition of the hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) were studied in typical dormouse habitat in Lithuania over 5 years (2010–2014) with different feeding conditions. A high proportion of birch seeds in the dormouse diet in two out of 5 years was a very much unexpected result. Dormice consumed them from mid-June until late October even when the most preferable food—hazel nuts—was abundant. In autumn when accumulating fat reserves for hibernation, hazel dormice fed on four main food sources—fruits of buckthorn, oak acorns, hazel nuts and birch seeds. The consumption of these food sources was directly related to their availability. During the study period, only one, two or three of these food sources were abundant in any particular year, while others were absent or scarce. In total, the fruits of buckthorn and oak acorns accounted for the major portion of dormouse diet in autumn. Dormice living in habitat with irregular fruiting of the main food plants are adapted to feed on varying food sources and can switch from one food source to another in different years.

Now, let us introduce a hormone: Leptin.

Leptin is a hormone released from the fat cells (adipose tissue).  It sends signals to the hypothalamus in the brain. This hormone helps regulate and alter long-term food intake and energy expenditure in humans. Not just from one meal to the next … the primary design of leptin is to help the human body maintain its weight.

Because it comes from fat cells, leptin amounts are directly connected to an individual’s amount of body fat. If the individual adds body fat, leptin levels will increase. If an individual lowers body fat percentages, the leptin will decrease as well.

So, Forest Edge’s late feeding dormice? Perhaps the books are correct, and most adult hazel dormice hibernate early as their fat levels, from feeding all year, are high … and in that species high leptin equals hibernation. Our young dormice were possibly late-born, and needed more food to build up fat and leptin levels. And, they were spending much of the night eating fat-rich walnuts – excellent prior to hibernation.

My guess the young dormice will come out of hibernation early … I’m expecting March 2021, even if the books say May!

The Natural World in Photographs

The odonata

John Solomon

Azure damselfly, female (Blue form)
Azure male
Azure male
Blue-tailed damselfly, female (Teneral)
Blue-tailed, male
Broad-bodied chaser, female
Four spotted chaser, male
Blue-tailed damselfly, male

Sometimes it is just lovely to see the organism in all its glory … not long now until the UK’s wildlife opens up again!

Photo essay – a frosty 1st January

David Beeson

Bet you are as fed up with 2020 as I am. I want some sunshine and non-muddy trackways … and a tasty vaccination.

We used to import African art as a Fair Trade product … many still wander the garden. This one thinks it should have migrated.
Frost daggers.
The forest fringe – the grasslands are full of wild daffodils and other delights such as primroses.
The frogs will be with us soon – migrating from the forest in February to breed and run away before the buzzards, owls, stoats and foxes know they are there.
Plenty of food remains. As the starches biologically change into sugars the fruits become palatable.
The forest fringe has been crudely hedged. The hazel is partially cut through, pulled down and staked. It should sprout in spring and form a dense thicket suitable for the dormice. There are hibernation and nesting spots in the 100+ year old stump.
Looks like just grass? Think again, this is biologically diverse.
Just beyond our gate is the ancient woodland. This patch is un-coppiced hazel. The last time it was cut was probably 100 years ago. You will also spot oak trunks. The forest still has the signs of the bomb storage during WW2 – used in the Normandy Landings.
Not pretty! BUT, the native hedge is good for wildlife, the metal is home to voles and slow worms, while the voles enjoy the slowly decaying herbage as cover. There is no need to make everything tidy. We leave piles of herbage along our boundary and beneath will be old roof tiles to give nesting and resting safety.
These native hellebores will perk up soon, and they provide early year nectar to bumblebees.

Most of the plants are in hibernation – hiding their resources away from herbivores. Only the fruits, with the plant’s seeds inside, are being offered – and there is an ulterior motive here. The wild daffodils, found wild in a few woodland patches, are just showing their leaves, the primroses have retreated to small stumps but will be in leaf and flower soon. The energy and nutrient stores are just awaiting favourable conditions to be mobilized and the world will be full of vibrant green growth.

John and I hope you are coping with these unusual times, and do recall – spring is on the way, and the daylight hours are increasing. What a positive thought.

Photo Essay – Winter and Summer in our Eco-garden

December 2020

Forest Edge is an eco-garden, in that we attempt to optimise the wildlife, whilst still delivering a beautiful garden AND a play area for the grandchildren.

We cannot do everything in the area we have, so there are limits. We have had herds of fallow deer (30+) in the garden – that has been stopped with a fence. Potential lawn meadow is a play and picnic area, and a swing cuts a swathe through our spring meadow when the grandchildren are in circulation. Yet, many will see our plot as a weed patch! For where stripped lawn might appear we have waving grasses in flower and pink orchids.

In the end we all make choices. Annette and I are content with relaxed formal flower and shrub borders, and the free-flowing wild zones. We consider we have the best of both gardening styles. What do you think?

In summer the area beneath the walnuts goes through multiple phases ending with bulbous buttercups in flower. Their seeds are heavy and do not spread into the borders nearby.
Christmas Day 2020

While the yellow impact has gone in winter, we have the stems of the dogwood (Cornus) and the green of the conifer to catch the eye. The lawn looks as if it is just grass – yet grass is only a minor percentage of the composition.

The flowery lawn is also a playground for children and butterflies. Its growth varies from only 10cm to perhaps 20cm, with pathways cut through it.
Main lawn in December.

The main lawn is now cut and the millions of leaves deposited in huge bags to compost – next autumn to be added to the borders to add nutrients and enhance the soil’s structure. The flowery borders are (this year) cut down for the winter, yet are often left until spring before cutting. Exuberant growth will ensure they look good by summer.

The swing is still there!

For a short time this bed (above) contained only local wild herbaceous plants. It was was lovely the first year, however the local plants loved our soil and climate far too much. They became enormous and looked more like weeds than traditional garden plants. Perhaps it is better to grow natives which only marginally like the soil and conditions. We now have a mixture of natives and exotics – to give winter and all-year interest.

To make an impact as an eco-gardener you must also show you can garden. No person will enjoy just a weed patch on its own. My advice is to have the two – semi-formal and eco-zones.

Wild orchids, and multiple other local species, will move into your garden, given a chance – less mowing and tidiness! This military x monkey orchid (Above) cross was introduced by seed … but a 10 years wait for flowering.

Rare dormice live in this hedge.
Betony, a local native.

Above, part of the Summer / Hay Meadow is full of pyramidal orchids – all growing there by their own choice. But, that area now looks just like our winter lawn – cut grass. This reduces competition for short-grassland species, which can then thrive. The cutting mirrors the effect of grazing.

Dandabeeson@gmail.com

Wildlife Encounters

Encounters

David Beeson, 15 /12 /20

  1. It was in my early days of wildlife watching and I had a brand-new telephoto-lens. And I needed mammal photographs for a lecture course I was about to teach.

So, I drove out to a stream just outside Salisbury – near Odstock, where watervoles had been spotted.

Now, my system was to settle down opposite some watervole holes and the ‘lawns’ produced by their grazing. Once comfortable, I would peel an apple, throwing the small peel pieces onto the opposite bank, just a metre away, and wait. The animals just cannot resist apple and they would soon emerge. Meanwhile, I munched the apple and popped the core just beneath the long 400mm lens.

It worked. The vole could not resist the apple. There was just one snag. It was sleeping on my side of the stream, and was soon munching the apple core beneath my hands. I needed not a telephoto but a macro-lens for close images!

watervole

2. It was 1998, and I had been given lots of money to search for otters in Kenya.

I had been ‘into’ otters for many years, and had spotted signs of them in Malawi in 1976, so why not try Kenya? Aonyx campensis, Cape clawless otters, were said to be there – so let us investigate.

But, researching otter distribution in the UK is rather safer than in Kenya. The thought of hippo, crocodiles and snakes was intimidating, so I resorted to using a boat to approach the edges of lakes to seek out otter prints and droppings. That gave more security … but not total.

Hippos hide – both underwater and on land. I could mostly avoid the former by observing their behaviour, the latter should be no issue as they come onto land at night … or so I thought.

I was wandering Crescent Island in Lake Naivasha, at that stage looking for a huge snake said to live there, when a day-wandering hippo decided I was in its territory and made hast in my direction. Now, they may look slow, but that is not true. They have a good turn of speed … and I was fleeing. I guess I was fortunate. It was less keen on running than me. I won the race.

Since that encounter, I was in St Lucia National Park in South Africa, on a night drive, when some hippos overtook us, running alongside – they are indeed fast.

3. Elsamere, is a conservation lodge and restaurant, that fronts onto Lake Naivasha. Its boats were festooned with otter droppings, however, a meal in the restaurant was that evening’s entertainment. The snag being the gap between the car park and the building – their lawn was the current venue to a dozen hippos. It took quite some while before a dash across was attempted.

Elsamere

4. Then there was the day when I was accused of going wildlife watching and bringing home ‘nasties’ on my boots. Why? There was a nasty smell in the boot cupboard. Naturally, I defended myself, and my boots proved to be clean. Yet, there was an animal smell there.

It took some while, eventually I removed an electrical control panel in the cupboard to see what was inside … surely, that could not be an issue. But, might some wiring or some electronic module be burning out? Not so. What I did discover was a wood mouse with one foreleg on a live terminal and another on the return / neutral – frizzled to death and now slowly drying out.

5. Joan Root. Joan lived on the edge of Lake Naivasha in an old, colonial-style bungalow surrounded by, what appeared, pristine woodland and scrub. And she had a pet female porcupine, complete with 30cm-long quills. It was cute and she and I enjoyed a healthy stroke and cuddle – quite unexpected.

The lady was later killed, in her bungalow, by locals who objected to her attempting to stop them poaching on her land.

Lake Naivasha

6. There was a small pond outside of our patio window of our former home, and it was raining. A movement by the curtains / drapes and in wandered a palmate newt. Several followed over the next few months. How they entered we never worked out.

7. I had agreed to share a pair of edible dormice with a photographer friend. Graham Dangerfield sold them to me. He was supposedly knowledgeable about these rodents … but, not enough. The pair were sent in a carboard box by train. They ate their way out in Andover station’s parcel’s office, and ran riot until, blooded, the clerk captured the two and deposited them in a metal box.

Glis glis – the Edible Dormouse. I have only seen it in the wild in Slovenia.

8. Putorius, our polecat-ferret, escaped and followed his usual walk north and into a wood. Here the local gamekeeper grabbed him. When I arrived to reclaim the small, but feisty carnivore, the keeper said, “Ow do I nowse he yorz?” I picked him up, put him to my nose … he licked it … he might well have bitten anyone else, he did bite dogs and cows … “He’s yorz.”

9. I needed a rabbit for some photography. I stalked along some hay bails and dived. I had caught one. Woops, a rat and not a rabbit. I let it go!

10 Having kept the mice in a big glass tank for photography, I was semi-used to them escaping. They went into live traps readily, and so back to their tank. Not this one, it shunned the trap  – I eventually caught it climbing the floor to ceiling curtains – it had one pair of legs on each curtain, and they split, and it couldn’t move. Got you!

11. Shrews. These are minute insectivores – small enough to squeeze between wire designed to keep out slightly larger creatures. At one time, we had an open wood fire, with a tube to the outside to draw in air. The local shrews used this to enter our sitting room, run off to the kitchen to find (hard to believe, I know) discarded scraps on the floor … and to return minutes later. Happily, they ignored us and we them.

12. Then there was the time we were camping in Samburu National Park. On our tour we saw a huge owl and beneath it sat a couple of lions. We retired to our new campsite, and between us and the loo was a wild patch of countryside, alongside which sat our owl. No loo trips that night.

13. My hut was basic, but it was alongside an ottery Kenyan lake. I woke, itching. No, being bitten! I was covered in thousands of flesh-eating safari ants. Not a great way to awake – but a towel removed most, and I slept the night in the car.

African dormice lived in the double-skinned cabin with me. They came out at night and stole biscuits (Left to allow easy photography) and my pencil (into a hole in the wall. Why?) – the latter was not appreciated. Mr and Mrs Dormice were not getting on well. I suspect divorce happened soon, as they squeaked and complained all night. However, they looked cute.

African dormouse

14. I was sure, if I just went another step into the marsh I would obtain just the right angle for the photograph. Woops, my Wellington boot rapidly went down. I followed, and I had to crawl away on my stomach … with just one boot … and slightly muddy.

Want to share your wildlife stories?      dandabeeson@gmail.com

Not my photographs today – all from Web.

A Trip to South-east USA

Like nowhere I had seen before – The Florida and Georgia Wetlands

Everyone seems to rave about Florida. Not me, and I’ve been there too. Now, I admit to no longer being a youngster, so I am not ‘into’ theme parks, over-crowded beaches or built environments. Yup, I am an old grouchy! But, give me a pristine wildlife site and I feel forty years old again. The same, plus a snake = thirty!

Most of Florida was instantly forgettable. It is nearly flat, is virtually history-free and full of people. Not so some of its north-west watery fringes, and certainly not the eastern parts of the neighbouring state of Georgia.

I went there early in 2019 for a three-week investigation, touring from Orlando north to the delightful city of Savannah in Georgia.

With limited human access to the Everglades, and the wildlife decimated by Burmese pythons, we gave that a miss, instead adding the stunning Okefenokee Swamps – a world class location.

At NASA Visitor Centre

A short drive east of Orlando is Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. 140 000 acres of sub-tropical grassland, scrub and wetlands that sit alongside the NASA Kennedy Space Centre and the technological wonderland of the Visitor Centre.

Merrett Island friend – it took no notice of us as it dug for food. Armadillo.
Yes, it caught its fish.

If we ever return to Florida, we would give Merrett Island three days. Sea turtles nest on its 43 mile long barrier islands, inside this chain manatees co-exist alongside the inevitable powerboats, while elsewhere there are 350 bird species and 31 mammal types. Add in the 68 reptiles and amphibians, 117 species of fish and one obtains some feel for the biodiversity. As everywhere, alligators are common.

Elegant Savannah with Spanish moss.

Across the state border into Georgia, it feels unworldly. Miles and miles of treed wetlands bordered the route. Living there looked mentally demanding and the residents poor. We shot north to the urban gem, Savannah and returned to Okefenokee – just north-west of Jacksonville.

Rare wood storks

A big word of warning: accommodation is not easily found next to Okefenokee. Especially near its main (east) entrance. You will need to explore your options well ahead of time. Also, try to obtain: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Okefenokee Swamp by Taylor Schoettle that cost us $25. It is 160 A4 pages of quality information.  

The Okefenokee Swamp is close to 700 square miles (3.5 times bigger than the New Forest) of a flooded depression surrounded by pine flatwoods. Most of the swamp is covered by water no deeper than about 2 feet (60 cm).

Now, access is difficult to the area. Boat trips are minimal and roads almost non-existent. It is possible to hire a boat and a guide, and canoe trips are possible.  With four entrances, each offering different facilities, my advice would be to visit them all. We had only time to visit the main (eastern) entrance.

Pitcher plants did not look their best in mid-winter.

We visited when water levels were high (February), so the grassy prairies (8% area) were flooded with emergent carnivorous plants everywhere. Bladderworts were in vast mats and pitcher plants reached high above water level. Swamp cypress trees were clothed in Spanish moss (a bromeliad, and nothing like a moss!) and the swamp forests make up nearly 60% land area. There is 30% scrub, while small ‘islands’ and lakes make up the rest. Some of the islands were once farmed and the trees logged – but neither were long-term viable, and the swamp is now human-free.

With nutrient-poor soils, regular flooding and a lack of human pressure the place is a biological and ecological wonderland. Alternation of hot, mostly dry, summers and wet winters also will put ecological pressure on the wildlife, which as evolved to often be unique. It also has to also cope with the lightning-induced summer fires.

I will leave the images to provide a feel to the place.

Bladderwort and lily pad

On the western edge of North Florida, adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico, are a chain of wildlife sites – State parks and wildlife refuges. These offer the chance, especially in winter, to see manatees. But vultures, alligators and water snakes are around in numbers too. We stayed in Cedar keys, Manatee Springs State Park and around Crystal River.

For a touch of inland Florida, try Eustis and the pretty Mount Dora – both close to the Ocala National Forest and touching distance of the airport at Orlando.

This brown water snake, and about a dozen others, had emerged at the end of the day to bask. Some were within touching distance. This one was a metre log, but not venomous. There were dozens of two vulture types in the trees above.

Alligators were even in public parks, merely resting as people wandered passed.
Funnings Springs State Park

All my own photographs. We did see a single wild manatee, but it was too difficult to photograph. The colder the weather the more likely to view manatees in the warm springs.

Plants are Clever, 3

Plant metabolism

David Beeson, 24th November 2020

Posh words, like metabolism, frighten some folks. Not you, I’m certain. This word just means the total chemistry inside an organism. And we, plants and even our friend Covid-19 are bundles of chemicals, and they all work via chemical reactions. Yup, you and me are bags of chemistry. If the chemistry goes wrong, we are ill or die.

The study of body chemistry is called biochemistry, and that was my degree. I hated it! It never made sense … which is why I spent much of my life teaching it. Surely, I could do better than my university.

Bios = life, so, biochemistry – the chemistry of life.

Green plants trap carbon dioxide and water using sunlight energy and make things, chemicals, such as glucose.

Energy being the critical word, above.

Animals would start the diagram above from their food, rather than photosynthesis … the end products of digestion, releasing chemicals such as glucose.

In order to grow, an organism, plant, animal or virus, needs to make new chemicals. Building new chemicals is called ANABOLISM. *1 on the diagram. And we all know that making things needs energy.

That energy comes from breaking chemicals down, CATABOLISM. * 2 on the diagram.

So we have an equation: anabolism + catabolism = metabolism.

In a conventional power station we ‘burn’ (catabolism) coal or oil (both energy-rich) to make energy-rich electricity, which we use to make or do things (anabolism).

In organisms the equivalent of the electricity is an energy carrier, abbreviated to ATP. The organism’s energy currency. *3 above.

If the organism runs out of ATP, it is dead.

In most situations the anabolic reactions of making the ATP is called RESPIRATION. Take some cyanide and it stops respiration … and you know the result. No ATP, no life. But, there are lots of catabolic processes. Some need oxygen, some do not – e.g. fermentation to make alcohol needs no oxygen.

Clever, isn’t it.

BUT, organisms need other things in anabolism. To make bones, humans need calcium. Blood needs iron. Plants cannot live only from the outputs from photosynthesis. They need calcium to make cells stick together, iron and magnesium for chlorophyll and nitrates to make DNA, amino acids and proteins. In most plants these inorganic / mineral extras come from the soil. And many folks add fertilizers to ensure these are not in short supply, and limit growth. Me, seldom, as I prefer to add compost or mulched wood.

Ah, but some plants live where the soil is deficient in these extras. They grow in water-logged peaty soils … bogs. So, obtain their extras from capturing and digesting other living organisms, that have these chemicals. These are the CARNIVOROUS PLANTS.

Oval-leaved sundew in a bog near Wareham.

Some books call this type of plant – insectivorous, but they consume anything they can grab – including, in big plants, mammals. In the UK we have: sundews, butterworts and bladderworts. Elsewhere there are pitcher plants and the wonderful Venus fly trap.

The capture mechanisms are all clever diversions from the basic plant design to obtain their anabolic extras. And the ability to find these ‘little extras’ determines which plant lives where, as soil pH also influences mineral availability. Alkaline soils have a different spectrum of available minerals than a neutral or acid one. Different soil pH, different ecology.

Round-leaved sundew
Chasser prairie in Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia, USA. A stunning place with sheets of bladderworts and huge pitcher plants. Put it on your ‘to go to’ list. Amazing place.

So, now you know … a touch of biochemistry can help sort out your ecology!

Homework – look up bladderworts, you’ll not be sorry. Fascinating plants – look for them in the New Forest, Studland Heath and Wareham Forest.

What is inside a plant? Stems.

Inside plants – the stem

Let us face it, the stem must provide multiple functions for the plant. It supports the leaves in suitable positions to allow them to photosynthesise, carries water and possibly nutrients up to the leaves or flowers and sugars down to the roots, it may store useful materials such as carbohydrates, perhaps make food itself (if green) and still keep the plant safe from attack. Quite a task. Add to these the need to expand and grow up, and you see that it is a complex organ.

The basics are simple enough.

  1. It is covered in an epidermis that may contain protective toxins and covered in a waterproofing waxy coating.
  2. It has vascular bundles – a package of phloem (organic nutrient transport mainly), a cell division layer (Cambium or meristem) and xylem for mainly water carriage. [In many examples there is a patch of sclenchyma outside the phloem – staining red.]
  3. The rest of the structure is often filled with a cell type called parenchyma that aid turgidity and have storage jobs.

Sometimes the peripheral zone has photosynthetic cells (chlorenchyma) or cells with thickened cell walls to add strength (collenchyma). The ‘corners’ of square stems are often filled with collenchyma – look at mint or deadnettle stems.

To stop water loss hairs may grow out of the epidermis.

There are two stem designs that are common: Those with vascular bundles that occur as a ring in young stems (dicot plants) and those that are more randomly located (monocots like grasses).

Most photographs you will encounter are of young stems. In older stems the vascular bundles merge to form a continuous ring in dicots, and eventually grow into a woody stem.

A vascular bundle. From the top down: Sclerenchyma (red), green-staining irregular cells = phloem. This walled cells of the cambium and the large red-staining cells of the xylem. The other big cells are the parenchyma.
See how the vascular bundles are arranged in a dicot plant.
Epidermis, then cellulose cell walls thickened in the collenchyma and parenchyma at the bottom. Remember, red = cells waterproofed (lignified), green = cellulose cell walls which allow materials through them.
Unusual staining, but look at the distribution of these vascular bundles … monocot!

An English Oak Woodland in November – textures and colours

David Beeson, 7th November

Oaks and bracken (fern)
While oaks dominate, it is a mixed woodland with birches filling any spaces. Birch numbers are declining.
Silver birch grove.
Not all tree trucks are brown.
Not any tree trunks are brown! Algae, lichens and mosses coat the surfaces.
Hazel leaf. The male catkins are already showing – giving us a clue that spring is ahead.
Spindle berries.
Oak acorns are in abundance this year.

And, yes, as it was a dull day, and I wished to raise your spirits, so the images have been enhanced a bit.

Dormice

David Beeson

4th November


Muscardinus avellanarius

As I have mentioned before, dormice are declining and generally rare or uncommon in the UK. They are southern in distribution and have been one of the mammals I look out for more than most.

Less than a month ago I found what I thought were dormouse nests in my own garden. Had I found them out and about I would have certainly said, “Dormouse”. It isn’t quite so easy when it is your own back yard … a little more certainty is needed. So, I sent my photographs of the nests to The Mammal Society. They were not sure. Dormouse, perhaps harvest mouse? Either would be great news, but despite my trying, harvest mice nests have not been found just here. A couple of miles away, yes, but not really local.

My previous camera trap was stolen from the end of my garden. It was padlocked in place and wire cutters were needed to remove it. I’m sure who did it, but proof is another thing.

A new camera trap / trail camera arrived yesterday. And, like a little kid, I rushed out and set it up immediately. It was not a quality set up, but with dormouse hibernation supposedly almost immediate, a night was not to be wasted.

I woke at dawn to FROST. The camera trap recorded 0 Celcius / 32 F and that doubly says ‘Hibernate all ye dormice.’ Not so, my images are crawling with cute dormice and not a common wood mouse is to be seen.

Now, yes, they are rubbish images … just give me time! So, no hibernation and the cuties still active in freezing conditions.

Food? Forest Edge’s own walnuts, shelled to make life easy for them.

Welcome, dormice.

Yes, they seems to enjoy being upside down
Dormice
Dormice: Britain's sleepiest, and most charming little creatures
Just wait until I get images like this!

Handling, live trapping or disturbing hazel dormice is illegal.

Harewood Forest

A Walk through an Ancient Forest, 1.

RE-posted 1st November 2020

A walk from the B3400, south along the footpath from Andover Down to the Middleway.

SU403463. Pisa Cottage stop on the 76 bus route from Andover to Whitchurch and Basingstoke.

Harewood Forest has been woodland forever. It is in north-west Hampshire near the market town of Andover, and its woodland straddles the A303 – a dual carriageway leading from the M3 towards Stonehenge and Exeter. It might be the second largest tract of natural woodland in Hampshire, yet it is hardly a vast tract of wilderness at only around 8 – 10Km². Britain is poorly wooded when compared to most of Europe.

With the clay soil sticking to my boots, I head along the footpath alongside Pisa Cottage and under an intermingling canopy of leafless hazel stems. With the route totally shaded in summer, no plants have managed to survive the tramp of walkers’ feet – hence the winter mud.

Hazel loves calcium-rich areas and here that bedrock lies just a few metres below the clay soil surface, close enough for the roots to reach. Other plants also are adapted to this clay-over-chalk part of the woodland and I soon spot wild clematis (Old Man’s Beard) and honeysuckle clambering high towards the light.

Hazel coppice in summer. Wild gooseberries adjacent to the oak tree.

These climbing plants have a good strategy. Growing a woody stem is biologically expensive. If you can clamber up to the sunlight utilising another plant that can be a sound plan. Honeysuckle and clematis have weak stems and produce little wood. The wild rose and blackberry uses a similar technique, except here their spines allow easy scrambling and provide some protection against browsing by deer.

Nearby I spy some plants more associated with gardens and allotments –gooseberry and red currants. This is their origin, but the gardener would hardly recognise their wild, scraggy nature growing in the gloom of the hazel coppice and in the murk of February. None-the-less the birds will keep them in mind when the fruit is ripe a few months later.

Wild gooseberry

Hazel fringes this part of Harewood and it is neglected. This is a species that benefits from a regular cutting down to ground level (coppicing)at around ten-year intervals. The two-centimetre width harvested stems were then traditionally woven to make sheep hurdles. These were transportable fences, around a metre high and two in length, and often used to manage sheep. Hurdle manufacture was once a thriving countryside industry and it still happens in a few selected spots, especially adjacent to wildlife conservation projects.

Crab Wood, Nr Winchester. Regular coppicing does not occur in Harewood. (More is the pity.)

I first encountered hazel-hurdle making near Odstock, Salisbury. The hurdler was a part-time preacher, spending the winters in the USA and the spring, summer and autumn making his living. And a charming character he was, describing dormice as ‘dorymice’ or occasionally as the ‘sleepers’, and knowing all the creatures of that quiet isolated spot. He wielded his billhook expertly slicing the three-metre long hazel stems in a single movement before moving onto the next. Laying each length in a neat stack after the side shoots and end portion, too thin to be useful, had been removed. These brashings went onto a bonfire, whose smoke always alerted me to where he was working.

The thinner hazel lengths could be used whole, the thicker wood needed spitting. Then his billhook would be sharpened with a grindstone, the blade chopped into the stem’s end and pushed down the length to divide it into two. It was hard manual work, yet he’d done this all his life and the effort never left him short of breath.

The Odstock hurdle maker had a former to help build his product. The thicker stems were inserted into this to become the uprights – three or four or more according to the length of the hurdle. Then slightly thinner, but longer lengths, had to be woven between the uprights – requiring strong hands and powerful wrists, for the stems needed twisting around the end poles to 180 degrees to give the structure strength.

This countryman had established enough hazel woodland that he could work it all in around ten years, so keeping the stems to a perfect size. And the wildlife appreciated it as well. By clearing the canopy light streamed onto the soil.  This spurred the purple and white-flowered violets and the multitude of woodland-loving primroses into renewed vigour and exuberant flowering. The fresh leaves, plus the ample nectar and pollen the multitude of species produced gave sustenance to butterflies, moths and an abundance of other invertebrates. These, in turn, fed the warblers and flycatcher birds, and then the sparrow hawk that called this woodland home.

Hazel and other types of coppicing is an important conservation tool. However, it is seldom economically viable unless grants are available.

Split hazel hurdle making

At this time of the year, Harewood’s ground flora is limited. The drifts of snowdrops, garden escapees, are showing the last of their delicate white flowers. Of the native plants, only Dog’s Mercury is showing much sign of life. This is a plant with roving rhizomes below ground that allow it to spread far and wide when conditions suit it. It can be a pest in gardens, thriving in the semi-shade beneath shrubs and needing constant weeding to keep it under control. Here, in the woodland, its dark-green leaves can pick up the limited light that reaches the floor and enables it to be amongst the first flowering plants. Not that the uninitiated walker will notice, for the flowers are not showy. Being wind-pollinated they require no flamboyant petals and their separate male and female flowers are almost the same colour as the leaves. It is a plant that needs close inspection.

Dog’s Mercury, Mercurialis perennis to give it its scientific name, only covers the ground in alkaline ancient woodlands, that it is found here in abundance tells us that this is indeed a place that has never been ploughed. This woodland was here well before humans came along.

Flowering dog’s mercury

Dog’s mercury, like most plants, is highly poisonous.  If its leaves are consumed, symptoms of poisoning appear within a few hours: they can include vomiting, pain, gastric and kidney inflammation. The first-known account of this phenomenon probably dates from 1693, when a family of five became seriously ill from eating the plant (after boiling and frying it); one of the children died some days later. So, I’ll not be tasting it!

April

Harewood is not named because of the hares that do occasionally frequent it, but probably from the grey trunks of the oak trees that are dotted between the hazel. ‘Hoare’ (or ‘hore’) in old English means grey – this forest was inhabited by the grey trunks of the English oak. Hoare Wood Forest became Harewood Forest over time.

Oak catkins

Looking closely, one can soon see that the bark of the oaks is far from a uniform grey. A cloak of evergreen moss grows someway up from soil level and this plant often coats the horizontal branches. Green, grey or blue-grey lichens clothe other parts- with some being crusty in form and others like miniature antlers of fallow deer. The remainder of the trunk shows a distinct green tinge – a powdery alga that’s probably Pleurococcus. These trees are colonised from shoot tip to soil level with a multitude of organisms – epiphytes.

Around the forest, in many places, is a double bank with a ditch between. Centuries ago it would have been quite distinct yet today rainfall, animal digging and the attrition by plants dying and disturbing the structure has left it a shadow of its former self. This structure was the old forest boundary that went back at least to Saxon times (around 800 – 1066AD) and possibly earlier. This forest was once the hunting ground of the Saxon kings and King Alfred the Great, whose palace was in Winchester and who had a hunting lodge nearby, chased the native red and roe deer here.

For the Saxons, any forest was a vital resource. It potentially provided structural timber, from the oaks, the hazel allowed walls to be built, pigs would have eaten the autumnal acorn crop and the green plants provided a source for both herbage and natural medicines. Fallen wood would keep them warm in winter and some of the fungi gave them some diversity of flavour in their food. Not so the deer and wild hogs, they were owned by the local lord. Even today the deer are not available on the locals’ menu – the ‘sport’ shooting of deer (and pheasants) is strictly controlled by the owners of the land.

With clay dominating some parts of Harewood this material was the raw material of a local brick-making industry. Although today the clay pits are hidden away from public view, they still exist.

Charcoal site – 35 years later.

Beyond the hazel fringe of this forest is one of the sites of previous charcoal manufacture. I first came across this in the 1970s during a time when some of the oak timber was being extracted. In this location was a huge metal cylinder about 5m in diameter and around two high. The side branches, cut off after the oak had been felled, were stacked into the device and finally when filled, the top was covered by a metal cover with a central hole. By starting a fire, allowing it to burn away the oak cuttings until just white steam was emitted, and then sealing the opening to restrict air flow, within days a few tonnes of half-burned wood (charcoal) was produced.

Even today the effects of that charcoal making have influenced the plant life: it is grassier than any surrounding area.

During World War One there was a munitions factory in Harewood – presumably using charcoal. It is said that trees with a trunk width greater than 6 inches (15 cm) were cut down. So, today’s mature trees must be at around 100 years old.

While this woodland can be considered ancient, it has been used by humans for thousands of years and through that time has much changed. Today it is dominated by English oaks, with silver birch and hazel. The oaks have always been cropped when at maturity and much replanting has recently started – but as a monoculture. Other trees do occur in smaller numbers, among them are hawthorns, wild apple and blackthorn (sloe). The rich diversity of that original pre-human forest ecology has been lost to economic profit.

Today, garden centres offer bark products to enhance the appearance and fertility of garden soils. Something soil scientists approve. This is a recent development and formerly the oak’s bark would have been used for something quite different: leather manufacture. Andover was a leather producing town. Animal skins would be seeped in a water and bark mixture. With the tannic acid from the bark attacking the protein in the skins and converting it into what we call leather. 

By studying the pollen grains captured in boggy areas, it is possible to say that oak trees moved into Britain around 8,000 years ago. As these trees established themselves they could outcompete smaller, less robust plants and eventually this climax oak woodland developed. The process leading to this potentially self-sustaining community is termed succession.

In other parts of the extensive woodlands, a diversity of trees occurs. For example, along the north-western fringe there are ancient yews and huge beech trees that are slowly decaying and shedding their limbs. Where a Victorian-built railway was in a cutting the spoil was spread locally and here is an isolated stand of sycamore trees.

The green-flowered twayblade orchid is not common in Harewood, yet is encountered on its fringes.

After the First and Second World Wars, a drive to make our island more self-reliant in timber saw the planting of many exotic conifers. This can be seen here with individual Douglas Fir trees and coniferous plantations scattered around this northern part of Harewood. These trees add to the biological diversity. For example, one can occasionally spot the crossbills that eat the seeds that are found in the cones. The male birds in summer can easily be mistaken for escaped parrots – they are so colourful.

As the year progresses other plants will show their flowers. March will see the exuberant yellow of the lesser celandine – a plant that dies down when the summer’s dryness and warmth is with us. Beside these plants one can spot the white flowers and feathery leaves of wood anemones – a relative of the pasque flower, a rare native plant that is often grown in gardens. The white anemone is a reluctant seed producer and most of the plants here will have spread by their underground roots.

Both the anemone and the celandine provide much needed nectar and pollen for the emerging queen bumblebees. The harmless furry insects are joined in the woodland in April by bee flies. These insects with a single pair of wings (bees have two pairs) hover above nectar-rich flowers sucking up their sugary donation with a long tongue-like proboscis.

As I wander along the public footpath the ecology changes. There are now more oaks and fewer old clumps of hazel, so the dog’s Mercury is outed by bramble (blackberry) that scrambles over the forest floor but, because of the lack of light, seldom fruits. It is joined by an advancing army of bracken, although in February only the decaying fronds are visible.

Coniferous woodland has a different ecology. Same soil, different trees.

Age and wind eddies have caused several oaks to crash to the ground. In their place, rapidly-growing silver birch trees have taken over. These elegant trees only produce weak wood in a rush to capitalise on the break in the woodland canopy and, as a result, are prone to fungal attack and have only a 30 – 60-year lifespan. This suits the lesser and greater-spotted woodpeckers who excavate their nesting holes where they find a weakness in any trunk. Both bird species mark their territories with drumming, that of the smaller bird (Lesser spotted-woodpecker) lasts just a second longer than that of its cousin. Being sparrow-sized, skulking and uncommon the lesser spotted-woodpecker is hard to see. Not so the larger bird that makes its presence easy to spot with its alarm call and undulating flight.

Fungal damage has allowed a bird to dig out a nest site.

Being late February, the woodpeckers are seeking out nesting locations and their drumming is starting. Spring will soon be here.

Despite being in leaf for only around six months each year, the oaks absorb great quantities of sunlight energy in photosynthesis. Enough energy for a woodland square 12 x 12m to capture enough to keep a human alive for a whole year. Clearly, humans do not and cannot eat oak! But, that gives an idea of how effective they are at collecting sunlight.

The bulk of that captured energy is lost when dead flowers, seeds, twigs and branches or leaves are shed – 88%. Of the rest, about 3% is passed directly to herbivores as they feed and the other 9% is used in building the tree. Obviously, the bulk of the energy is passed to the decomposers, such as fungi and woodlice, on the woodland floor.

Some of the winter migrant birds are still around me. Not so the redwings and fieldfares – they have moved north, but siskins and redpolls are around. These two species benefitted from the cutting of oaks during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The removal of the timber allowed birches to grow and it is their seeds that the birds are adapted to consume. Other birds scoot around the branches – four species of tits, three resident finches and nuthatches. Tree creepers are around too; however, they seem to be in low numbers and rarely show themselves to me.

At the crossroad, where two tracks intersect, I enter a spot I call Badger Valley. This is the loveliest spot in Harewood. Soon the wild cherry trees will burst into blossom (early-April) and later their bitter-sweet berries will be on many birds’ hit list’.

 Here there is more open land on either side of the footpath and, with primulas growing in abundance, is the place to find uncommon butterflies. Open glades are often full of nectar-rich flowers and attract these fragile-looking flyers.

Today the track shows signs of a vehicle – the gamekeeper is about, but not with a shooting party as that ‘season’ ended at the start of the month. Scattered through the wood are pens where the young pheasants (natives of Asia) are reared as semi-tame birds. The dozy birds are released at the end of summer but fed daily to keep them in one area – so they can be easily driven onto the awaiting line of shotgun touting individuals from 1st October. These are not street-wise birds, being only months old, and are killed in their dozens … if the keeper has done his job. And here lies a problem – birds of prey, foxes and other predators eat an occasional bird. So many keepers kill any possible opposition.

Shed deer hair. April.

Badgers do not attack and kill pheasants. They are targeted by some keepers because foxes sometimes co-habit with badgers. The number of active setts that I’ve been told about in Harewood Forest’s northern section is far below the number I would have expected, and the sett here, in Badger Valley, has been inactive for more than a dozen years. There is more badger activity on the southern side of the A303.

The Badger Valley sett had its main complex on one side of the gentle valley with a series of single holes scattered on the other side. These other locations may have been used by a non-dominant female or by males pushed out by a pregnant dominant female. This February all the holes are probably filled with leaves and show no signs of badger activity. Were the sett active today the footpath would be flanked by signs of their feeding and with dung pits filled with damp black droppings. None are to be found.

I have previously found empty tins of ‘Cymag’ (Releases cyanide gas when dampened) by the local badger sett and the animals dug out a fearsome metal Gin trap that had been placed in their entrance. Cymag was made illegal in 1982 and Gin traps in 1958. No one can accuse the current keepers, but it is highly likely someone acted quite illegally in the past.

Metal snares have been used locally and have killed badgers. I have found a snared badger adjacent to a nature reserve in the past. The animal was throttled to death. The snare was illegal as it was self-tightening. The police were informed.

Badgers mainly consume earthworms. A place, such as this woodland, will not be rich in such food and most woodland setts are located where they have access to damp grassland.

Now the woodland gives way to an open field. It has been cultivated for many years and ploughing has shown it to be a very thin soil onto chalk at one end and chalk and clay in the distance. Now only the far part of the field is in cultivation, the thin soil grew almost no crop so has been left to develop into a grassy area beloved by the fallow and roe deer often seen here. I have, in years past, seen and photographed red deer in this part of the forest, yet their time seems to be passed.

By the year 2010, with no natural predators, the deer population of Harewood Forest had grown. Herds of thirty or more fallow could be seen here and it was surprising not to spot two or three family groups of roe during a short walk. On the other hand, muntjac deer were seldom noticed. Deer numbers were probably outstripping the woodland food and mainly feeding in the arable fields. Not so recently. Now muntjac deer are today the commonest species observed and the other deer’s numbers have been controlled by shooting. I guess part of the reason for that control is because of the oak replanting – deer browse such trees, so killing off deer has its advantages.

Muntjac are small, non-native, dog-sized animals and most often seen individually, so harder to kill. The only time I spot two together is when a mother has a youngster with her. Only roe and red deer are native to the UK.

Roe calls for warning and during the mating period – a sharp single bark with an echo-like repeat or rumble. Scary the first time you encounter it! The neat and gentle fallow, currently in their darker winter coats, are mostly silent although they stamp their feet to warn others of danger. Not that a single human elicits much concern and I’m mostly ignored. Muntjac females are the noisy deer in winter. The females breed through the year and the sound of one barking at two-second intervals, for up to half-an-hour, is common. The barking serves to attract males. As a warning, the muntjacs lift their thick tail as a flag and disappear into dense undergrowth.

The observant explorer will, by now, have spotted more deer signs. The slots (footprints) in the mud will vary in size from those of the muntjac through to the fallow deer.

The second sign of deer activity will have been on the hazel stems close to the footpath. While two deer species advertise themselves principally with sound, roe males mark their territory in the spring – and the marks are still there now. At around 2/3M above soil level, you may spot centimetres long scars on some branches. These were put there by last year’s dominant male and they also added their scent to intimidate rivals.

This open field is a great wildlife location at dusk, and the walk here often rewarding. Tawny owls are vocal in February with their proclaiming their ownership of this territory. Unusually, both the male and female call. T’wit (female) – t’woo (male) is the usual pattern. In most avian species the females are non-vocal in territorial bouts.

There is a contrast between the arable field, the grassy area and woodland surrounding these two. The arable field is stopped from moving through succession to grassland by ploughing. Work is carried out. The grassland is cut in autumn. It is this work that stops it establishing scrub vegetation, such as hawthorn and blackthorn. If left alone the grassland would move, by succession, to the climax community of the area: oak woodland.

If you explore the grassy field, you may spot shrubs and even birches trying to establish themselves. With light, wind-blown seeds the plant easily spreads into new locations. It survives in hostile, infertile places, even having root nodules in which bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen into growth enhancing nitrates.

As you wander along the edge of the open field notice how the wind, light level and temperature are markedly different to within the woodland. This will affect what wildlife can survive here.

We will only have walked a kilometre, but even in late winter, there is plenty to keep a wildlife watcher interested.

A glance at the soil on either side of the path will show not only the clay and chalky nature of the area, but also smoothened river-worn stones. These are not sharp-edged, broken flint nodules, which you would expect in a chalky soil. When the chalk was laid down in warm tropical seas some silt arrived from distant rivers and mixed in. Over millions of years, the rain has eaten away (Leached) at the chalky calcium carbonate and washed it deeper into the soil, leaving the silt on the surface – today’s clay. So, when you travel through a chalk or limestone environment notice how the hilltops are often covered in forest – the clay making ploughing too difficult.

Nearer to the mouth of those ancient rivers, in times of flood, stones and gravel will have been washed down. Parts of Harewood have a topping of river gravels and these will influence the vegetation, often making it more porous, less alkaline, and so conversely slightly more acidic – allowing small patches of ling heather.

During World War Two Harewood was used to store munitions for D-Day. That required concrete tracks, which are now covered in humus from the decades of fallen leaves. Humus is acidic, and so gives another twist to the diversity of the vegetation.

The Middleway lane is now close yet one needs to keep an eye on the sky for buzzards and red kites often soar here looking for unwary rabbits and other prey.

I decide on a right turn at the lane. This takes me slightly westwards and, on the left-hand side, is a recently layered hedge. The mature hazel and other shrubs have been cut back or laid down and interwoven into stakes to form a dense barrier. Amongst this network climbing plants have thrived and bramble has filled in some of the gaps. It has formed a perfect wildlife corridor and dormice have taken advantage to move in from adjacent coppiced woodland stands. In December I spotted a compact breeding nest that had been in use during the warmer months of the year. Now the occupants of that ball of woven grasses were fast asleep, in hibernation until April, May or even June depending on the weather.

I encountered my first wild dormouse some years before. I was with a group of young adults coppicing a woodland to enhance its wildlife. There was snow on the ground and I’d taken a snowy battering before work had commenced. Then, one of the group had knelt to cut a hazel stem when he reported hearing a squeak. We discovered that the student was squashing a hibernating female dormouse! Even asleep she’d cried out. With a wet and squashed animal, I decided she required rescue. Happily, she recovered, became the star of BBC2’s A Mouse’s Tale, had several litters of babies before they were all released back into the wild.

Dormouse signs are difficult to spot, and I missed signs in this part of the forest for many years. For I have sought out dormouse-eaten nuts with their characteristic small neat hole several times, and had never seen a nest before in this area. That December day I had been lucky, and it is only in the early part of winter that nests are visible. Before then they are hidden by vegetation, and by January they are mostly destroyed by the winter’s weather.

Whenever I spot a new or unusual mammal I pass the observation onto the Mammal Society for it to be officially recorded. Such data allow distributions to be plotted and experts can determine if an animal is in decline or doing well. Happily, I have friends who do a similar job for butterflies, birds and plants.

Edge of woodland in April.

One trick, when exploring a new area, is to visit the local library and view the historic maps. You will gain insight into how the countryside has changed with time. Woods are lost to development and ploughing, and some are gained by planting. So, I know that the fields on either side of this single-track road have been in cultivation for hundreds of years.

The field on my right is regularly ploughed; not so that on my left. With permanent grass and sundry herbs growing there, and open to the woodland, it is a feeding ground for deer, hares and should offer earthworms for badgers. Soon there could be a dozen or more long-eared hares rushing around the field – but not yet. Today they are hunkered down, resembling brown rocks. They know I’m crossing the field, heading up the slope on the footpath that leads to The Monument and another section of the forest. They are watching me, and I know that because they seem to get smaller with time as they crouch even lower to hopefully stay un-noticed. Once they decide their security has been breached they are up and off at a gallop.

The hare’s cousin, the rabbit, has been in fast decline locally. Indeed, they are almost exterminated by a viral disease that has badly disrupted the early 21st Century food chain. The cunning stoat, a daytime predator of rabbits, has lost its main food source and has vanished from its old haunts. No longer do I spot a buzzard with a young rabbit clasped in its talons flying off to feed its youngsters.

Rabbits are not native mammals. They were introduced from Southern Spain and kept in captivity as a winter meat source – only to escape and to colonise the lush, green, British countryside. Experts also say that the brown hares seen here were also introduced, with only the mountain hare being a true British animal.

We gain and lose animals all the time. While the rabbit has declined in numbers locally we are regaining some important creatures. The red kites now frequent the air because of their re-introduction. Polecats have a made a welcome re-appearance having spread slowly from their last stronghold in Mid-Wales, otters are again gracing our waterways and pine martens, while still rare, have a foothold not only in Scotland but mid-Wales and The New Forest.  

This field is colonised by grass and other small, non-woody plants whose seeds have been carried to this spot. It should be moving along succession but is stopped especially by the grazing of sheep and deer.

It is always a sensible move, when reaching the brow of even a modest incline, to stop and view the scene. From here the extent of the woodland cover and the amount of the clear felling and replanting becomes obvious. The rolling countryside is pleasing to the eye and the diversity of habitats obvious: arable fields, pasture, hedgerows, re-planted and mature woodland. Each zone will have its own food resources and cover, and so an area like this should support a good diversity of wildlife. Harewood has an exuberance of moths and butterflies. 

Oxford University has been studying the population dynamics of great tits in their outdoor laboratory of Wytham Woods for many years. The woodland is peppered with nest boxes and all the breeding birds use them, so set themselves up to be studied. Adults can be weighed and their eggs (usually around 10 or 12) counted. Cameras record the type of food being fed to the youngsters and the mortality rate at the nest, while in-nest weighing machines record the weight of the insect food.  Young and fledgling birds can be caught and weighed. Indeed, their whole lives can be studied and the effect of weasels, who can climb up and enter some of the nest boxes, and the impact of their main aerial predators, sparrow hawks, assessed.

After a hard winter more eggs are laid as competition for food has decreased with many tits killed. If the spring is wet and cold the supply of insect food is reduced and more than average young birds die in the nest. If mouse and vole populations are low the resident sparrow hawks target more fledgling great tits.

Interestingly, if the researchers removed breeding pairs of great tits other soon took over their territories. They discovered that the newcomers had moved in from established territories in local hedgerows. They were sensible birds, as the food supply and chance of predation in hedgerows was not as advantageous as living in the wood! (Only 20% of hedgerow nesting birds produced fledgling  young birds – compared to most of the woodland nests.)

The research showed that the dynamics was complicated, but, on average, the population of great tits in Wytham Wood remained nearly constant from year to year.

The life history of Wytham’s great tits (Parus major).

  • Imagine a population of ten birds. Five females and five males.
  • The five females lay 50 eggs.
  • 84% of those eggs hatch, giving 42 nestlings at one month old.
  • 71% of those surviving hatchlings escape the nest as fledglings.
  • So, we have 30 fledglings at 3 months old.
  • Only about 10% find enough food during summer, autumn and winter to survive to breed the next year.
  • These 3 birds join with the parental survivors to give a breeding population at the start of year two of about 10 birds.
  • The population remains stable, the non-survivors are ‘fed’ into the woodland food chain.
  • (The maximum lifespan of this species is normally 5 years.)

As I enter the woodland at the top of the slope the difference between the vegetation to left and right is a contrast. On the left the felling has allowed light to flood in, while to the right the tree canopy absorbs most in the warmer months of the year, leaving the soil cooler, moister and, with more leaves falling, with slightly more humus in the soil.

February might appear to be a time when there is a lack of food in woodlands, yet that depends on where and what you desire to eat. If you dwell on the woodland floor your time of plenty is in the autumn and early winter. Because this is when the annual glut of leaves arrive – and they represent food to the fungi, bacteria and the invertebrates that feed on these. The deciduous trees have removed many of the nutrients into storage, yet the plant left behind a cellulose skeleton and these fallen plant powerhouses contain many complex organic chemicals that can keep other organisms alive. To see the animals of this part of the food chain the easiest spot to peer is amongst rotten wood. Peel back any well-rotted bark and this world will be reviled: woodlice, minute spiders and their allies and the white filaments of fungi. A sample of leaves and topsoil will also give good results if hand lens is available.

Collecting, drying and then setting light to leaves soon demonstrates the energy they contain; energy that can give life to other organisms.

Much of the wildlife diversity is hidden from view. A twelve-year study near Oxford of an area occupied by only twenty-one oak trees identified more than a thousand insect species. Many were small or lived in the leaf litter at soil level or in the multitude of crevices provided by the trees’ bark. It will be these insects that help feed the birds that flit around the woodland.

Mosses are often overlooked in woodland. Mostly they are living on the bark of the oak trees (the birch shed their bark too quickly to allow mosses to thrive), while some are found colonising damper spots on the ground. Amongst the latter is the haircap moss (Polytrichum sp). This non-woody, small, clump-forming, Christmas tree-like moss has such a primitive transport system for water that it can only survive in damp conditions.

Goldfinches, at this time of the year, eat haircap mosses and lichens and their roof and tree-living relatives.

Mnium moss is the one most often found climbing up the trunk of oak trees. In the summer these small plants look unhappy but now will show their leafy best and are worth investigating.

With the diversity of plants, this woodland holds the huge species diversity in the moths, butterflies and invertebrates generally is not a surprise. However, the wingless female moths that live here could even attract you out at night! In the depths of winter, you might spot the Winter Moth and in March and April the March Moth. In both cases, the males are the flyers and the ladies can only walk.

As you can imagine, ecologists love these moths. Using small tunnel traps it is possible to catch the females as they crawl up the trunks to attract the males. Their egg numbers and the numbers of resulting caterpillars can be counted. When fully grown the caterpillars descend to pupate underground – and can be caught and counted. Hence, the whole life cycle can be studied and the effects of disease, lack of food, predators and parasites discerned.

With cool temperatures, little sunlight and sometimes waterlogged soils, it is no surprise that just beyond the minor trackway crossroads few plants are showing any sign of flowering. The exception being the hazel, which is nearing the end of its season. The elongated catkins, packed full of wind-blown pollen when fresh and just opened, are now looking bedraggled and it requires a sharp eye to pick out the ‘female’ flowers. These appear bud-like with a pair of crimson stigma peering out to pick up any pollen that should drift onto them. I say ‘female’, although the purist botanist would rightly point out that the sexual cycle of plants is more complex than almost all books admit. Correctly, the buds I referred to potentially contain the female parts but are not themselves female.

Let me digress. Ferns, of course, do not flower. The green plant we see produces and releases spores from the underside of their fronds. These are made asexually and are spread by wind currents. When they land and germinate they grow not into a new big fern plant but into often minute flat leafy structures. These (gametophytes) produce the equivalent of eggs and mobile sperm that can join in fertilization producing a zygote. This zygote can then grow into a big leafy fern plant (Correctly termed a sporophyte). Spores never directly grow into a fern plant.

This life history is true from the mosses, through the ferns and horsetails, to the conifers and the flowering plants, with a few changes as we go!

Woodlands have a human history to them. We’ve mentioned timber production, charcoal and hurdle manufacture, now a signpost will lead us leftwards to The Monument, and human influence of a more aggressive nature.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Man’s_Plack

Despite the time of the year, there are plenty of birds in the woodland. Flocks of goldfinches and redwings are especially common, and the many species of the tit family are out and about – coal, blue, greater, long-tailed and marsh tits all are found. Finches move around in mixed flocks yet are often hard to identify unless they wander into gardens and to the bird feeders, then their identities are clear: bramblings, gold, green and chaffinches with near relatives such as redpolls occasionally joining them.

Each type of bird has its own niche. With its niche explaining when, where and how it eats and so how it fits into its environment. The tawny owl’s niche is as a nocturnal, woodland hunter of small mammals and amphibians. Thrushes are snail-eating specialists and the tits fill different niches. Blue tits seek out their preferred insect food on the finest of twigs, their chunkier cousins, the great tits, on the more substantial branches.

Feeding niches may result from morphological differences among species. Blue tits are better adapted anatomically than great tits to forage from buds and leaves of tiny twigs because they have longer and stronger feet which allow them to hang upside down more easily while foraging than great tits.

In an experiment in Norway, blue and great tit eggs were moved between species. The results showed that their feeding behaviour is also determined by learning from their parents i.e. the young birds, for the whole of their lives, moved their feeding location towards that of their adoptive parents.

Treecreepers, also insect feeders, use their narrow beaks to probe for insects in the bark’s cervices, so do not come into conflict with those two tit species.

Subtle changes occur in some niches during the year and their body shape changes to reflect this. For example, the beaks of great tits become shorter and chunkier in winter as their main food source evolves from insects to vegetable foods.

While this exploration has been during daylight hours, I frequently walk it at dawn and dusk. Then the forest feels quite different! Not scary in the slightest, yet the sounds of the darker hours and the dawn light give it a magical quality.

At this time of the year the full dawn chorus is some way off, yet the tawny owls make their presence clear. Often, while standing at the Badger Valley crossroads, I can hear two different males proclaiming their territories with my own location the ‘no-man’s-land’. Tawnies pair for life and locally would hold territories of around 30 – 40 acres (12 – 16 hectares).

In October or November, male owls establish territories while females find nesting locations (holes or old nests of other large birds or squirrels). At this point in the year, males and females roost separately. The pair defend their territory year-round with minor changes to boundaries each year. As winter approaches, territories are finalized and pre-breeding behaviour begins with males and females roosting together. This is the time for courtship feeding, which is centred around the future nesting site.

In February / March their breeding territory should be well established, however, the pair still call out and make contact calls.

One pair of tawny owls nested in my own garden two years on the trot. When the female died the following year the nest site was taken over by stock doves. Presumably the new tawny pair preferred a different location.

Tawny owls hunt primarily between dusk and dawn. They perch and watch for prey, then use silent gliding flight to catch their victim on the ground, extending the wings to cover the prey and killing it with feet and claws. Occasionally they may use the beak to deliver a blow to the base of the victim’s neck. Tawny owls have also been reported to beat their wings to flush smaller birds out of hiding and into flight and then take aerial pursuit. They also fly over grassland, marshland, or bushes looking for bats or incubating birds to pluck from their roosting perches and nests.

At dusk the deer, especially roe, are less wary of humans. Now, if you avoid making too much sound and do not use a light, one can approach them closely and additionally hear the barking of the roe deer and their grunting and complaining as they wander off with their foraging disturbed by these strange human-like creatures.

Details of the route:

The walk starts at the ‘bus stop (Pisa Cottage) on the B3400 Andover to Whitchurch road. It follows the adjacent footpath south, turning left on reaching The Middleway lane and finally takes the footpath, left, across the field after about 400m. It ends at The Monument.

It’s all to easy to not see the woodland for the trees. We have been brought up with the idea that a woodland is composed of individual trees. That is not how ecologists see it anymore!

Research shows us that plants, including mature forest trees of different species, can join underground. Roots from individual specimens can fuse and soil fungi can also join plants together. Resources made in one tree can be passed to their neighbours. Birches can communicate with oaks, possibly hazel with dogwood.

[ See https://www.the-scientist.com/features/plant-talk-38209 ]

In Africa it has been discovered that acacias alert others of the same species of prowling giraffes. Willows, alders, poplars warn others of insect invasion. Plants can communicate by airborne chemicals and via their joined root systems.

Gardeners, when planting a new tree or shrub, are encouraged to add some fungal spores to the soil. The fungus will develop links with the plant and it is more likely to thrive.

The forest is an ecosystem with individuals often aiding their neighbours by alerting them to possible attack or of resources available. Amongst the branches are a thousand species of invertebrates, algae, mosses, ferns, lichens and flowering plants. All form part of the forest food chain. Even the insignificant spore capsules of the mosses are eagerly consumed by bands of goldfinches. No oak trees, no epiphytic mosses and so, fewer goldfinches in our gardens.

An additional short Harewood woodland walk: March at Tracy’s Dell.

Snow has come, gone and returned this year – and it came late enough to disturb especially the migrating bird life. Residents know their territories and can eek out their food supplies, not so the insect-eating travellers from the south. One day the queen bumblebees are out and about collecting supplies to feed to their insipient brood, then next they are shut in by several centimetres of snow. Flies visit the open primroses in warm sunshine and the next are comatose. Insectivorous birds will have a devastating time.

Pits, like Tracy’s Dell, about in these woodlands. Some old clay diggings have water in their bases in winter and attract the amorous frogs, others, like this one, were dug to extract the chalk. When this calcium carbonate-rich rock is spread on the clayey fields it causes the microscopic clay particles to stick together (flocculate) improving water drainage, aeration and the ability of roots to penetrate the ground.

The sides of the dell allow anyone to see the profile of the soil. Here the soil layers can be seen as: clay topsoil for only a few centimetres, then chalky soil before we reach the ‘bedrock’ of white chunky chalk that goes down for hundreds of metres.

The short walk down to Longparish Village passes two plants of interest, the first is holly. The plant is not common in Harewood but one of the dominant species on the acidic soils of the New Forest.

The dark-green, leathery, spiny leaves ensure the plant is known by everyone and its dark-red berries are well-known in the period leading up to Christmas. Ecologically it is a valuable plant. Its berries, while poisonous to humans with six or more being lethal, are of great nutritional value to both birds and mice. They are consumed in quantity and mistle thrushes are said to guard their territorial trees. Wrens and dormice often nest there, and their accumulated fallen leaves are the hibernation places of choice for some hedgehogs.

Looking carefully at the leaves it’s easy to spot the fact that many are not pristine: they are blotched, torn open and have trails leading through them. Much of this is caused by the holly leaf miner (Phytomyza ilicis), a fly whose larvae burrow into leaves leaving characteristic pale trails or leaf mines.

Eggs are laid by the female flies in spring when the newly emerging holly leaves are tender enough for the hatchlings to burrow into it. They feed between the upper and lower outer layers of the leaf, growing in size and leaving their characteristic trail. Some fly larvae die, killed by bacterial infection, and the trail ends. Some are predated by tits, who tear open the leaf to reach their food, and others emerge through 1mm wide, circular holes as adults. By observing a few leaves the chances of a hatched egg surviving to adulthood can be studied.

Usually, in May or August, the holly blue butterflies lay single, white, spherical eggs around the tips of branches. The white eggs are laid singly at the base of unopened flower buds of the foodplant. Eggs laid in spring are typically laid on Holly, whereas the summer eggs are typically laid on Ivy. In good years, the eggs can be relatively easy to find on the foodplant and hatch in around 2 weeks. The larva is extremely well camouflaged and is usually a plain green colour. The larva is most-easily found by looking for damage to the developing flower buds, where it may usually be found attached to a neighbouring bud. The larva bores a hole in the side of the flower bud and scoops out the content, leaving a succession of empty flower buds, each with an access hole, in its wake. The larva leaves the foodplant to pupate on or near the ground. The larva spins a very fine silken girdle to attach itself to the chosen pupation site. Pupae from the spring generation emerge in 2 to 3 weeks, whereas those formed in late summer overwinter, so there are two flushes of the adults during the year.

Further along, the footpath is a colony of wild daffodils. The small size of the blooms and the different colours of the two flower layers is characteristic. They look a delight with primroses as their neighbours.

Plants gain nothing by having their leaves eaten, so almost all fill their leaves with toxins. Such complex chemicals are ‘expensive’ for the plant to manufacture and are usually only made once the leaves are fully grown – giving animals an opportunity to feed. Plant toxins are a security system … a bit like the one you have at home. So, would you have the same door lock as everyone else on your street? Unlikely, and so plants have different toxins – so, if one animal finds the correct key to detoxifying the poisons it cannot eat every plant. The poison in foxgloves is different to those in daffodils, holly or snowdrops. But animals have to eat something, so how do they do that? Well, there are three strategies. 1. They eat only young leaves before the plant can make its toxins. 2. They find a cunning plan to detoxify one poison, but that’s expensive. 3. They eat a little of everything and hope they do not get too ill. Small organisms, such as caterpillars follow option 1. Holly leaf miners follow 2, and deer follow 3. Isn’t wildlife wonderful?

Like all Narcissus species, wild daffodils contain the alkaloid poison lycorine, mostly in the bulb, but also in the leaves. Because of this, daffodil bulbs and leaves should never be eaten.

A Win for UK Conservation

Wild Justice statement on gamebird licensing

30th October 2020 12:23 pm


Wild Justice secures an historic environmental legal victory

Seven week old pheasant chicks, often known as poults, after just being released into a gamekeepers release pen on an English shooting estate

Just days away from facing a barrage of legal arguments in court (on 3 and 4 November) DEFRA has agreed to license the release of Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges to control ecological damage to wildlife sites.  

Wild Justice mounted a legal challenge to make DEFRA review harmful gamebird impacts and introduce proper protection for wildlife sites and we have got DEFRA to address both.  There is more to do to make sure this regulation is made to stick but we have reached the limit of what the legal system can do at this stage. 

Wild Justice expects that a proper licensing system, compliant with the Habitats Directive, will require the following actions: 

  • Adding the Pheasant and Red-legged Partridge to Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which contains species which cause ecological, environmental or socio-economic harm (such as Signal Crayfish, Grey Squirrel, Ruddy Duck, Japanese Knotweed).  This means that those species can only be released under licence.  
  • Refusing to license gamebird releases on or within 1km of Natura 2000 sites unless stringent conditions on numbers of birds released are met.  
  • A ban on the use of lead ammunition on or within 1km of all Natura 2000 sites. 
  • Further research on impacts of predation by Pheasants on threatened reptiles such as Common Lizards and Adders. 
  • Further assessment of the influence of gamebird droppings on soil and water chemistry. 
  • Further monitoring of impacts of gamebird releases on densities of scavenging and predatory birds and mammals. 
  • Monitoring by Natural England of a large number of sites to ascertain the extent of damage caused by non-native gamebirds.  

Wild Justice said: 

We’re delighted! And we thank our brilliant lawyers at Leigh Day and Matrix Chambers and hundreds of people who contributed to our crowdfunder which allowed us to take this case.

This is an historic environmental victory by the smallest wildlife NGO in the UK against the massed ranks of government lawyers, DEFRA, Natural England and the shooting industry.

Thanks to our legal challenge, the shooting industry faces its largest dose of regulation since a ban on the use of lead ammunition in wildfowling in England in 1999.  Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges are now recognised by government as problem species where their numbers are too high and they cause damage to vegetation, soils, invertebrates, reptiles etc.

This move forward was only possible because of the legal protection given to the environment by the EU Habitats Directive (incidentally, largely drafted by Stanley Johnson, father of the Prime Minister). On 1 January, at the end of the Transition Period, the Habitats Directive and other EU legislation will still be relevant to UK environmental protection but each government in the UK could, in theory and in practice, start amending those laws.  Society should be vigilant that environmental protection is not whittled away.

There is more to do in making sure this regulation is made to stick but we have reached the limit of what the legal system can do at this stage. We called for review of gamebird impacts and proper protection of wildlife sites and we have got DEFRA to address both’.

Leigh Day solicitor Carol Day said:

The decision to establish a licensing regime for the introduction of some 60 million gamebirds a year is a major breakthrough in regulating the impacts of these non-native birds on our most valuable wildlife sites. Our clients will be examining the detail of the proposed scheme very carefully to ensure that it fulfils the Secretary of State’s obligations under the EU Habitats Directive‘.

Media enquiries to mark@markavery.info

Notes:

  1. Wild Justice is a not-for-profit company set up by Dr Mark Avery, Chris Packham CBE and Dr Ruth Tingay
  2. Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges are non-native species which are bred in captivity and released in vast numbers (around 60 million a year) for recreational shooting. These birds are omnivores and their huge numbers can damage vegetation, fragile invertebrate communities and soils. Their droppings can affect soil and water chemistry. They may spread diseases to native wildlife. They provide abundant food for some predator and scavengers whose elevated population levels may then affect other species.
  3. Natura 2000 sites are those designated under the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive, and form some of the most important sites for nature conservation in the UK. 
  4. BASC described the Wild Justice legal challenge as ‘an attack on shooting’, ‘vexatious’ and ‘deeply flawed’ back in January and pledged to fight the legal action.

David put some money into this legal challenge. He is aware of the damage seemingly done to wild reptiles and insects (eg butterfly larvae) by ground birds (including chickens). Clearly he is content with this start to regulate this practice.

A Brilliant Day!!!

Dormice

David Beeson

Hazel dormice are not common in the UK, but they are slowly being reintroduced, with some success. My area is a comparative ‘hot spot’ for the species and I have found live animals and nests in the past. The nearest nests have been within 1Km, but species-specific nest boxes and searching for opened hazel nuts and nests have been unproductive for 32 years in or near my garden.

11 fascinating facts about the hazel dormouse - Country Life

Until today! My autumnal revamp of the garden was progressing alongside our car garage, and, in a shrub I found two nests! One probably a breeding nest, the other a much smaller version possibly for a youngster.

Note the weaving of the shredded vegetation. Not something within the capabilities of UK birds.

The site is within 10m of out front door and just one from the garage. To occupy the site the animals must have progressed along a conifer hedge of large proportions.

The garden is rich in small mammals – we have long and short-tailed voles, pygmy and common shrews, wood and yellow-necked mice, plus the inevitable (non-scary!) rats. The dormice are a major addition and the hedge will be further enhance to provide as near ideal habitat as possible.

Range and distribution | Hampshire Dormouse Group

My wildlife camera was stolen a while back despite being padlocked to my forest gate, so this represents a reason to obtain a new version. Then I can attempt to film the dormice.

I said ‘non-scary’ rats. I first encountered Rattus norvegicus at university – a Skinner Box study during post-grad. ‘Sally’ came home with me after the experiment was completed and lived with Annette and myself for about two years. She adored hot (drinking) chocolate and once dived into a mug filled with it – soon to be shampooed and dried. She had a habit of running around our flat and seeking peel in our open fire. One day she failed to notice it had been set alight! She survived that too. Her main snag being her habit of nibbling woollen clothes when being lap-cuddled. Perhaps we treated her too well.

Rat two was Suzie. She was pure white, albino. Sally was black and white. Suzie had two claims to fame.

Once, we had some new friends visiting our house after a theatre visit. We arrived first and, as ever, opened Suzie’s cage so she could explore. One of her favourite locations was halfway up a white wooden bookcase. She could scale this with ease. Friends arrived, settled and looked around as coffee was prepared. SCREEM! A white fluffy ornament on the bookcase had just started to clean its whiskers. They never came again.

Episode two. We had an open-plan house and open stairs. Suzie regularly went up and down the wooden treads … but one day slipped and fell, breaking a leg. Annette placed her in her handbag and caught a bus to take her to the vets … the rest you can guess. Suzie recovered and enjoyed a contented life with us.

Other ‘pets’? Putorius the polecat. Poo, he did have a distinctive odour, was his pet name. We took him for walks on a cat’s / small dog harness. He was fearless of cattle and dogs. He bit the former on the nose once and dogs just were scared stiff. On one occasions he was running loose on the Salisbury water meadows when he encountered a grass (water) snake eating a toad – he attacked the snake … so we had the perfect food chain. Polecat > snake > toad. All three survived the encounter. Poo loved to go down rabbit burrows – bringing out the babies (unharmed) so we could see their development. They went back after, but Poo was always very reluctant to let us have the last animal he brought out.

Why a polecat? I was doing otter distribution work at the time, and gave plenty of lectures. A polecat was as close an animal as I could get to demonstrate was an otter was like. Otters were almost extinct at that time in the UK.

Poo lived half in the house and half in a garden run. He escaped three times. The second time he has caught by a gamekeeper. When I went to claim him, I was asked, “Ow do I no he’s yourrss?” I put Poo to my nose – he licked me. Otherwise he would bite! “Hees yourrz.” The third time he escaped he vanished.

One last Poo story. He would never walk the second half of a walk. Always needing carrying.

Keep safe.

Dorset heaths

The Dorset Heathlands

David Beeson

My part of Southern England is dominated by a chalk geology. That results in thin, calcium-rich soils and a characteristic ecology. Much of south-east Dorset has sand and gravels beneath the surface, and these generate very different conditions.

I was based a few kilometres north of the walled, Saxon town of Wareham – in Wareham Forest. Morden Bog National  Nature Reserve is just a short walk away. To the south is the (UK talking) huge area of nature conservation zone owned by various organisations, including The National Trust and RSPB – Arne RSPB reserve, Stoborough Heath NNR and Hartland Moor NNR. That joins on to Studland Heath NNR.

A quick viewing of a map will allow you to decide that this is not the whole picture. For, just to the south of these acidic soils is a ridge of chalk centred on the amazing settlement of Corfe Village with Corfe Castle. The headland at Ballard Down is the best location I know for seeing wild adders. On a divergent note, there is a steam railway between the Victorian seaside town of Swanage to Corfe and, when the railway is not running, is a great snake spotting venue!

This locomotive pulled me to school on several occasions! Shows my age ….

The two, native deer to the UK are the roe and red. This part of the country has large numbers of sika deer, and you will find it hard not to see them at Arne. During my visit the mammals were gearing up for the annual rut – again, best seen on the fields at Arne (GR 975 880).

Sika

Poole Harbour is the second largest inlet in the world, and its southern shore stretches from Arne to Studland. Shipstal Point has good hides to allow viewing of the tidal zone birds and the sika deer feeding on the marsh. Brownsea Island, in the harbour, has a Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve with red squirrels. I have carried out research on Brownsea (voles) and Arne (adders and small mammals).

Looking north over the heathlands to Poole Harbour

Wareham Forest.

The forestry industry dominates this area and mainly grows non-native conifers, although Scots pine are seen. The valley sides and hillocks are full of sand that has a hardpan beneath, and that inhibits water drainage further, pushing it sideways to form Morden Bog.

Wet and dry at Wareham Forest
Sandy substrate allows xerophytic plants to grow – especially heathers.

Attempts were made in the 1960s to grow trees (probably sitka spruce) on some of the wetland. This was achieved by ridges and furrows, with the trees planted on the ridges. The photographs will give a strong indication of its success.

60 years of growth produced this! And, this was the best bit.

Recently a devastating fire destroyed a large section of the ecosystem, however the Morden Bog area escaped and looks pristine.

Morden Bog … well, I found it interesting.

The fauna to look for include: Dartford warblers, sand lizards and the ubiquitous sika deer. With extensive conifer plantations, keep alert for crossbills. Newts occur in the numerous ponds, yet the one encountered could have been smooth or palmate. Adders are around, but kept out of the way, sadly. The flora is dominated, in the open areas, by heathers – Dorset heath is rare, but widespread here, ling and bell heather are common. In the bog I encountered carnivorous sundews, cotton grass and bog asphodel, plus the various sphagnums.

Sphagnum moss. The ultra-rare (I’ve never found it) bog orchid grows here.
Oval-leaved sundew. The round-leaved version was nearby. Carnivorous.

There are long walks and off-road cycle trails available, but few seats.

Parking available (free) at the start of the Sika Trail.

Arne RSPB reserve is an absolute delight. Rare birds, all the UK’s reptiles, too many sika deer and views across Poole Harbour. The reserve can be busy and dog’s too numerous, so chose a potentially quiet time. Free parking for RSPB members, otherwise £5. Food normally available and plenty of helpful staff and maps.

Arne.

Two main trails are available, yet the vast majority of the reserve is closed to visitors. In summer the eastern trail is the more divergent with heathland, deciduous woodland, freshwater pools, with numerous uncommon dragonflies, raft spiders and amphibians. The views over the harbour yield sightings of spoonbills, various egrets, deer. Woodlarks, nightjars, Dartford warblers and 34 species of waders can all be seen.

The other trail transgresses an open heathland, home to the smooth snake and possible views of osprey.

Look out for two interesting plants: dwarf gorse, that grows close to the ground, and the thin pink threads of the 100% parasitic dodder.

https://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z/arne/

Studland Heath

This has most of what has been described elsewhere, plus large lakes and glorious sand dunes along the seacoast. The only snag is the beach is amazingly popular in summer, and parking can be impossible. NT members park for free, others pay a lot!

From the road between Corfe and Wareham a single-track road crosses the NT heaths northwards towards Arne. This gives access to lonely areas of open heath.

Crossbills
Heathers and dwarf gorse.
Wareham Forest.