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

Flower Power

David Beeson, May 2023

While it is photosynthesis that captures the sunlight energy and converts it into chemical energy in sugars, the flowers drive reproduction and evolution. There are a few variants of photosynthesis (CAM etc – see previous articles) but huge numbers of flower design variations. Some flower stems hold a single flower and others multiples.

Calyx is the term used for all the sepals.

But what is a single flower? It is a set of, taking a simplistic view, sepals, petals, stamens and carpels. One set = one flower. With members of the dandelion family, each flower stem holds a couple of dozen small, strap-like, yellow individual flowers. A daisy has white, strap-like flowers around the edge (ray florets) and minute, yellow disc flowers (disc florets) in the centre.

Best to dissect some of the disc and ray florets and note the hair-like sepals, the petals that are joined together and spot the minute stamens and protruding stigma of the carpel. With the daisy, the ray florets are usually sterile, so may lack carpels.

a = flower head. b = bracts that protect the multiple flowers on one receptacle. They are not sepals. c = ray florets with stigma visible. d = lots of seeds on the one flower head.

A daffodil, or tulip or rose has large, colourful single flowers. The dandelion has multiple flowers on a single main flower stem.

A fertilized carpel will form a fruit. With an apple, the fruit is the core, containing the seeds. The bulk of the apple is a swollen receptacle as the flower has an inferior ovary.

The spot where the floral parts are attached to the stem is called the receptacle. Sometimes this can wrap around the carpel, which then lies beneath the sepals, petals and stamens. Apples and pears are examples, and a brief look will show the sepal remains with the fruit beneath. Such a situation is called an inferior ovary, because it is below the other floral parts. If it sits above the sepals etc it is a superior ovary.

The receptacle is like the human placenta in that it supplies nutrients to the flower(s).

Southern Marsh Orchid has three sepals and three petals. The stamens are all fused together. Single fowers spread along a flower stem.
Thalictrum flowers are composed of masses of stamens and stigmas. If you dissect a flower head you will spot many individual flowers. There are sepals folded back below but no signs of petals.
Lychnis – a campion. This has sepals fused together (a calyx), a superior ovary and blueish pollen.
Rockrose flowers. Three larger sepals (partly see-through) and two smaller ones. fine petals plus a beautiful array of stamens with yellow pollen and a single ball-like stigma in the centre.
Buttercup. Several superior carpels.
Yellow bulbous buttercups and white meadow saxifrage. Soon the wood pigeons will descend and gobble up the buttercup heads as the fruits develop. A fruit is the end product of fertilization. Each carpel forms a single fruit in buttercups. In the tomato there are many ovules in the carpel – so you will see lots of seeds in one tomato fruit.

The carpel is composed of one or more ovules (containing the female egg plus other structures), surrounded by the ovary wall with the stigma (receptive to pollen) and the style that joins the stigma to the ovule. Pollen germinates on the stigma and forms a pollen tube that generates several male gametes. The pollen is NOT a gamete but, technically, a spore.

When the pollen tube reaches the ovule one male gamete will join with the egg cell BUT another joins with other ‘female’ cells to form an endosperm. The endosperm may develop to form the white of a coconut seed or the flour of a grass seed. It may not develop and is lost in most plants.

Seed and fruit development.
This Vibuernum has large sterile flowers around the outside and small, bisexual ones in the centre.
Euphorbias have small, red leaves, called bracts, that help protect the minute flowers. Their sap is toxic. (They have toxic latex. See the article: I poison myself.)
Aquliegias have colourful sepals and, here, blue-white petals.

So, flowers are complex. Holly plants are either male or female, so have single sex flowers. Some plants lack sepal / petals / stamens / carpels. Some are single others have many flowers on a receptacle. You name it, plants do it!

Poppies have sepals but they fall off as the flower opens.

WWW.NWHWILDLIFE.ORG is the homepage.

Green Corridors

David Beeson, May 2023

Not the city of Nice! Just an example of an urban green corridor.

If you visit the French city of Nice you may see that they are ripping up large chunks of their urban roads and derelict sites … and replacing them with green corridors – trees and shrubs. And they are very proud of that fact with huge posters proclaiming the policy. Believe me, seeing this in action gladdened my heart. Cars making way for greenery. Not something you spot every day.

With the climate emergency and biodiversity crashing, it is a policy that deserves to be seen more often.

I have just written to my local newspaper urging more green corridors in our urban setting. I’m hoping you might try something similar.

Now Andover, in rural north-west Hampshire (UK), has not done badly. We have plenty of trees being planted and our beautiful, clear and trout-filled River Anton is due to become ‘centre-stage’ in a modified town centre. We have a tree-strewn urban park at Picket Twenty, a mostly green corridor along the river and other local nature reserves, but mini, shrubby, urban corridors have, in my opinion, been neglected.

What am I after and why?

 We do have a few neglected wild spaces left, and gardens offer habitats for common urban wildlife. Yet a two-metre high and wide multi-species hedge offers so much more. It offers food throughout the year in buds, leaves and fruit, nurtures invertebrates from butterflies to spiders to woodlice, offers nesting locations for even normally farmland birds, plus a routeway for small mammals and slowworms to enter our urban scene. Shrubs clean the air of both sound and pollutants, are a feast for the eyes with their frothy aromatic flowers and offer a changing view month after month – from the fresh spring leaves through to the autumnal colours.

The English are nature deprived. Our farmland is often sterile, and our woodlands are contaminated by non-native pheasants by the million (and when shot are lead-contaminated and a danger to eat). Ash trees, and before them, our majestic elm trees have been devastated by fungal diseases. Even our national oaks have their problems. We need more big vegetation. But, if green corridors are to be encouraged and existing ones joined, a wide range of local species are needed to build in future resilience.

Where standard trees already exist, we should look to underplant with shrubs, while leaving some minimally cut herby spots for herbaceous hedgerow plants such as stitchwort, red campion and clovers. And the policy of close cutting green of so many spaces should be reviewed. Cut only those locations genuinely needed for games and other leisure activities and the rest should be urban meadows.

My own grassy areas are left uncut in April and May … and they are currently a stunning yellow and white display. Buttercups and white daisies and meadow saxifrage are joined by several species of orchids that have seeded themselves. Our floral carpet came for free and generates both beauty and both pollen and nectar for the insects … and they feed the Barn Swallows.

Our hedges are home to small mammals, and these feed the tawny Owls whose daytime slumbers so annoy the Blackbirds.

A dormouse approaching my feeder. With hazel-rich green corridors, these rare animals can come into an urban setting.

Urban planning is so much better than in the C20, and credit must be given for such progress, now we should encourage even more shrub planting, plus the joining of existing wildlife locations with even rope ladders (for dormice and squirrels) over roads and paths. Ponds can be dug and linked to roof and roadway rainwater flows. (This road runoff, in the days of steam tractors, was used to fill dew** ponds for refilling water tanks –  as just north of the Fox Inn at Tangley*. Urban ponds can divert water from sewage works and so help avoid sewage overflows into rivers.)

I know that folks suggest tree planting locations, but now we should also alert our planners to where green corridors could be located and linked.

*My students and I cleaned out this pond some years back. It had a silt trap where road water diverted into the pond, and a pipe into the deepest section that could be linked up to a steam traction engine’s water tank.

**See the nwhwildlife article on Dew Ponds – Dew is a corruption of the French for God … as God’s rain actually fills the pond and not dew!



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In Nice, a new neighbourhood covered in plants emerges - ICON Magazine

Dorset in late April

David Beeson

Just east of Charmouth is a swathe of coastline owned by the National Trust. It is rich in wildlife and the farming is closely controlled. Wonderful walking country.

National Trust’s Stonebarrow Hill, with Lyme Regis in the distance.
Weyside flowers
Given a chance, plants will look beautiful.
2023 is very much a Blackthorn year.
Native bluebells

Stonebarrow Hill
Yes, it can be windy here!
Red Campion
Sandy rocks overlay the Jurassic geology.

Southwest Dorset – KINGCOMBE NNR and beyond.

David Beeson, May 2023

If you were to progress from Southampton, on the south coast of England, westwards through the New Forest and to the up-market resort of Bournemouth, you would now be in the mostly rural county of Dorset. This is Thomas Hardy country. If you read my regular posts you will already know of the huge (in UK terms!) wildlife reserve near Wareham – RSPB Arne, NT heathlands and the sand dunes at Studland – Purbeck Heaths. Further west is Weymouth, backed by chalky hills and beyond the long pebble ridge of Chesil Bank. These are all delightfully ‘old’ country areas with cattle-strewn meadows, thick hedgerows and eventually the clay and sandy geology of the Jurassic Coast, famous for the myriads of fossils that are regularly exposed on the coast in spots like Charmouth and Lyme Regis. Here you would be in southwest Dorset and bordering on the next county, Devon.

With a lack of large towns or industry, this part of Dorset is comparatively rich in wildlife interest. The Dorset Wildlife Trust owns conservation land here, including Kingcombe Meadows, a National Nature Reserve. For those of us that enjoy semi-wild spots, Kingcombe is a delight.  

However, first you need to find this out-of-the-way place! So, be prepared for narrow confusing roads. Have a map as well as a Satnav! Avoid arriving on Monday or Tuesday as the café is closed. We arrived on a Tuesday, sadly. And, arrive early as parking is very limited.

Much of the NNR is a farm that avoided being plastered in herbicides and pesticides and being ploughed. It is a farm from the 1930s with unimproved, species-rich meadows, thick thorny hedgerows, ancient green lanes, wet meadows and both an abundance of bird life and hazel dormice.

The map of the site shows dozens of small, hedged fields, coppiced and wild woodland, a natural river and small ponds. There are two signed routes, however, you are free to wander the reserve.

In Late April, with a cold wet spring, the plants were only just awakening but a visit in June onwards would wow your botanical and animal senses. Believe me, it will be worth the journey.

Kingcombe Centre
April was early for massed floral wonder, yet we did not regret our timing … but we will return in summer.
A cluster of 38 Early Purple Orchids was flowering along Mary’s Well Lane.
Semi-parasitic lousewort.
We were too early for any massed display of Green-winged Orchids.
Our garden’s Green-winged Orchid, that I grew from seed invitro.
Bluebells were just starting to flower.
Now, compare this with your local farm ….
Wet meadow and River Hooke.
Banks full of pollen, nectar and sights to raise one’s spirits.

If YOU would like to submit a GUEST ARTICLE for the site, on wildlife, do contact me on: dandabeeson@gmail.com

Early Purple Orchid.

The homepage is http://www.nwhwildlife.org

Tulipa sylvestris and friends

David Beeson April 19th 2023

Tulipa sylvestris is a delightful species that is distributed across much of Europe. It does occur wild in the UK, but they are from garden escapes or deliberate wild plantings. However, I’m content for it to grace my own meadows, and as seed is produced, some insects must be enjoying what its flowers offer.

It can grow to 50cm, but with us 30 is more realistic.

The plant spreads by seed and underground runners, producing a single or double-flowered stem. By July it has had its day and retreats underground for the dry summer period, showing its nascent leaves in February.

T. sylvestris in our Spring Meadow.
This meadow is cut in Late June or early July.

This is a yellow-phase to the meadows. Cowslips are dominant in the sunny spots, with a few primroses skulking in the shady fringes. Sometimes they both exchange genes with garden primulas and new colour and flower shape combinations occur.

Primula veris, the Cowslip.
In a smallish garden stopping gene flow is impossible.
Martagon Lilies grow in our Summer Meadow … when the lily beetles allow! The species is said to be native to the Wye Valley and Surrey woods, but has been introduced elsewhere.
Our Marsh Marigolds have just started to bloom.
The two ‘blades’ of the Twayblade Orchids have just shown themselves.
Spotted Orchid leaves with a developing flower spike.

Blackthorn Days

April 2023 David Beeson

In South England, January and February were bone dry, quickly followed by a hyper-wet March that has filled our local aquifers to overflowing. The ‘bournes’ (seasonal rivers) have found more vigour than usual, gushing along as if hurrying to reach the sea. They have crystal-clear water, as does our garden pond. The rain has ensured no pond top-up has been needed this year and the hunting Palmate Newts can be spotted searching out the remaining one or two frog tadpoles.

There was no need to cut our meadows early this year. Sometimes the mower has been whizzing around as early as late January, but this year I still have not needed to trim the herbage. Very strange. Anyway, we have a ‘no cut’ policy for our main lawn / meadow in April and May to allow the flowering rush to provide supplies for our treasured insects. It will be mowed in June and the cuttings added to our compost heaps.

Primroses are dappled shade specialists.

The snowdrops, crocuses and wild daffodils have now completed their flowering, while their seed pods are still developing. Primroses, in the shady spots, and sun-loving cowslips are providing nectar and pollen for both the bees and the bee flies. And the wild Tulipa sylvestris are just showing their delicate flowers in the open meadow. For, despite their name of Wood Tulip, here they fail to flower in any hint of shade.

The delicate, and rare Meadow Saxifrage not only flowers exuberantly but spreads with enthusiasm. We will again collect seeds this year to spread on road verges.

We have some mystery orchid plants in the Summer Meadow. They appear to be in the Bee Orchid family, yet we’ll not know their type until (hopefully) they flower. Elsewhere I can see hundreds of Pyramidals in leaf, several dozen Twayblades, a Forest Edge record of at least 15 Spotted Orchids, Greater and Lesser Butterfly Orchids and a small number of Marsh Orchids (But expect more to show soon). The Monkey x Military Orchid (and a new friend) is present but is having ‘year-off’ flowering. I have seeded Marsh Helleborine near the pond and must await any developments; it could be several years.

In both the garden and Harewood Forest the Bluebells are just starting to show their blue belled-flowers. The hazel catkins are in full retreat, while the promise of hazel nuts can just be seen.

Blackthorn is also known as Sloe – the name of its fruits.
Blackthorn flowers

The hedgerows are progressing through their regular sequence: Cherry Plum in late February, Blackthorn and Damsons in March / early April this year and now the Wild Cherries are attracting both the hive and bumble bees. Soon the Hawthorn (May trees) will bust out with white and red flowers. We have planted some of the locally very rare Bird Cherry shrubs … and they could give us a few blooms this year to join with the Wild Privet in June.

Wild Cherry Trees are fast growing.
Cherry blossom.

The small mammal feeder has yet to attract any Dormice, however, Wood and Yellow-necked mice are visiting. Bank and Field Voles are living on the garden’s fringe. Kestrels, Buzzards and Red Kites visit us regularly and the Dawn Chorus is in full voice. It makes waking early a pleasure.

Ticks have survived the colder-than-average winter brilliantly! Even a minor diversion into longer woodland vegetation delivered plenty of the little blood-suckers. So, watch out. Tuck in your trousers and wear light-coloured clothing.

Don’t forget to iPLayer the additional David Attenborough programme about UK wildlife that will not be shown on BBC. I understand the government complained about it. Bizarre. Sounds more like Putin’s Russia than the UK.

The trees are always slow in coming into leaf. This allows sunlight onto the woodland floor and the development of a herbaceous layer of Wild Daffodils, Blue Bells and Dog’s Mercury.

Brown long-eared bat.

Almost certainly this website will be closed down in September. Do download any articles that you might wish to keep.

David Beeson


Ecogarden in Early March, 2023.

David Beeson

Snowdrops. No one is quite sure if they are native or introduced plants.

With good rainfall in the autumn and the pre-Christmas period, the local rivers are full and the chalk aquifers should last us until summer for our drinking water. Andover is surrounded by gentle hills and those are dotted with covered reservoirs. Irrigation is almost unknown in this part of the UK, with the agriculture predominantly cereals with sheep on the steeper inclines. Cattle are rare and poultry / pig production is lightly scattered. Watercress is a commercial product, yet is slowly declining.

With the weather alternating between warmer / cooler than normal, the plants have remained dormant. Only the hardiest are up and about. They include the snowdrops, crocus species, wild daffodils plus wild and commercial hellebores. The lack of sunlight has kept the crocus closed for much of February, so they are lasting longer than is usual.

At 110m, Forest Edge’s garden is colder than others in the town, so we only expect wild daffodils to open their flowers near St David’s Day (March 1st). This year they were two weeks early. And, the lack of rainfall has kept them pristine.

Wild daffodils. Some grow wild in the adjacent Harewood Forest.

With large numbers of commercial honeybee hives within throwing distance, our flowers have been given plenty of insect attention in the mornings. Bumblebees are about, although their numbers are currently few. These large bees are the over-wintering queens and they need both pollen and nectar for their potential broods. Despite being noisy, large animals finding their nests is difficult, especially as we deliberately make the garden’s fringes unkempt with wood and herbage piles. The further from the bungalow the greater the lack of tidiness.

Today, I have spread the last of our compost onto the back borders. (You can spot our garden design on Google Earth – SP11 6LJ) These were the ‘tag ends’ of the production and much of the material was only partially digested. I am hopeful that the soil fauna will still break it down and incorporate it into the upper soil layers. Here it will slowly release the plant nutrients that will stimulate growth. Regardless of the nutrient release, the organic material will enhance soil quality, limit weed growth and hold moisture if rainfall is limited. Home-made compost is a win-win job.

Cowslip and orchid leaves in the Hay / Summer Meadow.

With several large, deciduous trees in the garden, there are ample leaves to give to the flower borders. This year’s lack of rain has slowed down their decay. By now they have normally vanished; but not this spring. The second slowness is the grassy parts of Forest Edge. There has been no growth, so no desire to add cut grass to the compost heap.

For my 70th birthday, I was given a lemon plant. With poor fruits and a ragged structure, it has never been loved. This year, as a trial, it was left in a semi-protected spot outside. I doubt it will show any willingness to burst into leaf! It, along with a good number of shrubs and herbaceous plants, is due to be added to the compost pile. So, the house is full of seed trays growing the short-term replacements to fill the flower borders this year. There are far too many potential plants as enthusiasm overwhelmed me.

The meadows are short, yet dotted with wonderful potential. Cowslip and primrose leaves abound; orchids are reaching plague quantities and the yellow rattle seeds are gently sprouting. Bluebell leaves are peeking above ground, while the wild leucojums are in vibrant flower.

NOT 2023! But this is what we are looking forward towards.

High rainfall increases the growth rate of grasses if there is enough free nitrate, and this is unhelpful for garden meadows. I need low grass and high flowering plants to give it a flower-garden feel. The semiparasitic yellow rattle plant helps control grass growth until it dies in summer, but a low water input is good. So, the prospects are good for 2023.

The wildlife hedges have been left uncut this year and will next be chopped in 2025. The extra height and growth will yield more food and animal habitat.

Our small mammal feeder is offering peanuts and cashews. The latter being the greater prize. Yellow-necked mice and woodmice are using the food source intensively at night, although unsurprisingly the dormice are yet to break their hibernation.

A young female muntjac deer is regularly enjoying trimming our vegetation. She appeared while I was out and about and made a dash for safety – squeezing through stock fencing. I would have thought it 100% impossible to do that but I watched it happen from 2m.

NOT 2023. April 2022.

Buzzards and red kites grace our sky daily, the latter enjoying some discarded lamb meat in controlled, non-landing swoops. Two roe deer have been less successful in their road swoops and the kites have plenty of squashed venison on offer.

The first of the hedgerow shrubs, the cherry plum, is in big bud, the wood pigeons are mating and some other birds are starting up their territorial songs. Optimism is ‘in the air’.

Unused watercress bed. It is rich in wildlife being shallow and unfrequented.

Lifestyles and amazing organisms

David Beeson, March 2023

Mistletoe makes trees appear to be in winter leaf.

Being omnivorous mammals, we can be forgiven for thinking that most animals act in a similar way. But even the slightest thought ensures alternative thinking. Some mammals are fully carnivorous, and some of those feed off decaying meat that would be inaccessible to us without huge risks. Yet, vultures and kites can thrive on that diet. Some whales and whale sharks may feed off the smallest ocean organisms and find enough food to maintain their bodies. The munching mammals, such as deer and cattle, grind their tough plant foods well enough that their gut bacteria and enzymes can eke out enough goodness from doubtful human food. Tapeworms live in oxygen-free conditions within the guts of animals, withstanding the peristaltic waves, stomach acids and gut enzymes.

There is the true story of the American lady (Karen Keegan) who needed a kidney transplant. (I have shortened the story) Her husband was not a suitable match, but what about her children? Now all those were absolutely her offspring, as she had birthed them, and her husband was genetically the father to them all. No mixing up of babies had occurred, yet at least one offspring was proven NOT TO GENETICALLY BE HER CHILD when tested for suitable kidney donors. It took some time for this conundrum to be understood, as you will have thought. It appears that the mother was one of the non-identical twins in the uterus. Non-identical means different genetics. The twin died early in pregnancy and some of her cells were incorporated into the surviving twin, who became a chimera – a mixture of two different individuals. One of the ovaries that developed came from one twin the other from the other. The non-genetic child came from an egg from the dead twin and the other children from her own ovary.

Human chimeras are now well known and, it appears, also that cells can pass across the placenta from mother to child and vice-versa – a further genetic complication.

There are many true accounts of chimeras and I suggest you research the scientific articles available. E.g https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimera_(genetics). https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/3-human-chimeras-that-already-exist/

The point I’m making is that individual organisms can sometimes be mixtures and that is true for us all. Yes, even you! For within our cells are organelles called mitochondria which are bacteria that have evolved to dwell there and are vital to life. Indeed, we die if we consume sufficient cyanide, but that chemical kills the mitochondria and not our own human metabolism. Mitochondria have their own genetic material (one set, and not the two of humans) and bacterial organelles.

Plant chloroplasts are also invading bacteria that can only live there. Animals and green plants are chimeras, and this ‘living together’ of bacteria and plants and animals is a very different lifestyle.

I find plant parasites interesting and mistletoe is a common plant parasite. Near my home, some deciduous trees appear almost full of leaves over winter being so infested with the evergreen parasite.


Perhaps, mistletoe is best described as a semi-parasite as it uses the host for support, minerals and water and not (as far as I know) for organic food. It is photosynthetic.

There is only one species of mistletoe in the UK but other lands have multiple species, and in South Africa, I encountered an acacia tree with a mistletoe that itself was host to two other different mistletoe species. Almost a plant food chain.

Parasites can generate interesting scenarios. The UK government is attempting to eradicate TB in cattle. One strategy is by killing badgers, that they claim to be carriers of the disease. However, badger researchers do not accept that badgers are the main cause for transmission. Most wild and domestic livestock can carry TB.

Cattle are often moved from farm to farm, and they flow through animal markets. They, like horses, pheasants and sheep, often carry gut parasites. When an animal carries such parasites their immune system is partially shut down by the parasite and, in that situation, the TB test does not work. TB-carrying cattle are being spread from farm to farm. Vaccination against TB is available – use it!

Some time ago TB broke out on one of the UK islands. The badgers there are TB-free. Almost certainly the TB arrived with new cattle that had gut parasites and their TB did not show up on TB-testing. I consider that the UK government is full of non-science people who bow to the hunting / shooting lobby and fail to understand Badger / TB ecology.

Cockroach wasp

Now for something unbelievable …

The Emerald Cockroach Wasp is a beautiful 2cm-long tropical insect. The female seeks out large roaches, and for that, we can all be pleased. Stinging the animal renders it paralysed, and she can then insert her stinger into the animal’s brain and eats off its antennae. The incapacitated cockroach, once the initial sting has worn off is led (like a docile pet) to a burrow. A single egg is then laid and on hatching eats the roach alive.

Bomber termite

Bomber Termites are South American insects, and they pack quite a punch. Termites are vegetarian and usually build huge, above-ground, mud structures. They consume tough, cellulose-filled foods and require gut bacteria to release the nutrients. However, inevitably, they are a link in a food chain and need to fight back for the colony to survive. As the Bomber Termite workers become old their jaws wear out and they can no longer harvest suitable foods. They then become colony defenders and can burst open to release highly toxic chemicals (benzoquinones) to kill attackers. Suicidal altruism.

Bagworm moth larvae

Bagworms are a group of moths, named because their caterpillars build a protective bag of leaves or twigs, not unlike that seen in cased caddis larvae. One European bagworm builds its case of excrement, as does an insect that feeds on my wild betony. The bagworm larvae pupate within their case and the emergent female is wingless. The flying males seek out the females and mate with them still inside this case. She lays her fertilized eggs in the case and dies. Not a lifestyle I would suggest to the ladies reading this!

There is much more about all these organisms on the Internet.

www.nwhwildlife.org is the homepage for 150+ articles on biology, ecology and wildlife.

Winter-green Orchids

David Beeson

We have a wide variety of UK orchids in our garden. Most have arrived quite naturally and have increased in number. Others have been introduced by seed or with tubers. Not all those species thrived, as one might expect as the soil or climate was perhaps not ideal. For example, we had a single Lizard orchid flower for three years (French seed sent to us from someone’s garden) but it is no longer seen. Bee orchids arrived by wind-blown seed and two plants flowered for just a single year before we lost them. Some potted Lady Slipper Orchids grew well until vine weevils suddenly consumed their roots and tubers.

This is our original monkey x military orchid plant. It has flowered for several years and looks to be trying again.
The leaves are not the same shape as those above. Colour and texture differ too. Yet it does not quite look like a pyramidal orchid. I will have to wait and see what, if any, flower develops. Is it a new cross? Yet, probably a pyramidal! Cowslip and betony leaves also on show.

Twayblade orchids moved in by wind-blown seed and have spread around the garden, although they prefer the damper, shaded locations. Pyramidal Orchids are now almost weeds and have spread widely in the more open grassy spots. Marsh Orchids fluctuate in numbers and, as their name suggests, dwell mainly adjacent to our pond. Spotted Orchids do not like us much, but a good handful flower each year, however, one I planted in the garden soil is increasing in size yearly. Greater (seed-blown) and Lesser Butterfly Orchids (French seed) hold on but are reluctant to spread. And a single Green-winged Orchid that I grew in a petri dish is holding on. I introduced Marsh Orchid seeds two years ago and I’m hopeful they will show before we sell Forest Edge and move on. Today, I purchased three Lady Slipper Orchids from Hayloft Plants for £45.

Most orchids have a rosette of leaves with parallel veins are they are monocots.

Several pyramidal orchids showing here, plus cowslip leaves.

Mediterranean orchids (those whose distribution is centred there) have spread, quite naturally, to the UK and have been established here for hundreds of years. With their natural ‘warm wet winters and hot, dry summers’ they show winter-green foliage. This means that their leaves will be first visible in October or November, only dying at flowering in early summer. Cooler climate orchids are hidden from view over winter and their leaves only appear in spring. Now, that is really too sweeping a statement, but it is ‘in the right direction’ as there are always exceptions.

At the moment I can spot, what I believe to be, Pyramidal Orchids, Monkey x Military Orchids and what I guess are a number of Bee Orchids in green leaf. The other species will start to show their leaves over the following months.

A new plant. If you compare this to the cross shown above I believe you will see distinct similarities. If so, is it from our own seed or from the French seed sown 20 years ago?
I suspect this could be a bee orchid. There are two simar sets of leaves nearby, but less leafy and are unlikely to flower. Compare the colour, shape, form and texture to the plant above.

For a wide-ranging, excellent article see:

Woodpeckers and their hammer

David Beeson, with thanks to Julian Vincent’s article in Professional Engineering magazine (Issue 6, 2022). http://www.imeche.org

Tony Cox image.

We have all three British woodpeckers living here. The green woodpecker patrols the lawn seeking out ants, the great spotted woodpecker hammers our trees after woodboring beetle larvae, while the lesser spotted woodpecker attacks the finer decaying branches of birch trees. (The last one is heard rather than seen by myself.)

Great spotted woodpecker: This woodpecker occurs in all types of woodlands and eats a variety of foods, being capable of extracting seeds from pine cones, insect larvae from inside trees or eggs and chicks of other birds from their nests. It can also be spotted eating carrion.

It is a long-lived species with individuals reaching nearly 12 years.

As any bird feeder will know already, fat-rich plant products such as peanuts (and conifer seeds) are particularly important as winter food in the north of the woodpecker’s range, and can then supply more than 30% of the bird’s energy requirements. Other plant items consumed include buds, berries and tree sap, the latter obtained by drilling rings of holes around a tree trunk.

The species breeds in holes excavated in living or dead trees, with the cavity unlined apart from wood chips.

The question is: How does the great spotted woodpecker cope with such a demanding ecological niche? How does the bird manage to hit its head so hard against unforgiving wood yet not injure its brain and still gain access to its food?

Julian’s excellent article explains that the animal’s brain is tightly wrapped within the skull. This ensures no brain movement, plus much less rotation and that avoids the nerve and blood vessel destruction that is so damaging for a human in a car crash. To stop its eyes from popping out on impact, the eyes are momentarily closed as well.

The woodpecker’s beak hits the tree at 9 miles per hour, 4m/sec. Reaching that speed in 2 inches, 5cm. A fast hit in a short distance. (Go on, try running your car into a solid tree at that speed!)

If a human were asked to perform a similar task of boring into wood, they would probably use a heavy pointed hammer. Yet that option is not available to a flying bird … the head would be too heavy to allow it to fly! Birds MUST be light. So, high acceleration and a fast impact is the only option available. And this technique produces a high-energy impact capable of penetrating the bark and wood of the tree.

It seems that the bird first starts its strike by pulling its body against the tree with its powerful leg muscles, causing its flexible, bending, robust tail to store elastic energy. The head is thus held away from the trunk.

With its neck muscles propelling its beak forward, the stored lower body energy is released into greater acceleration and impact energy. Julian says, “These combined actions turn the essentially sinusoidal rocking of the body into an asymmetric sawtooth pattern of the head’s motion, so amplifying the power available. This technique yields 20 times more impact energy than the neck muscles could.” Without this, the bird would never access its food.

With shock-absorbing features and nostrils designed to exclude flying debris the greater spotted woodpecker is quite an animal.

So, next time you encounter a dead woodpecker look at its design: long, sharp claws for adhesion to the tree trunk (two forward and two rear-facing toes), strong but flexible tail feathers and a lightness to its body. (Indeed, looking at a bird’s feet is always instructive – compare water and wetland species’ feet with perching types.)

The Andover Sewage Treatment Works

David Beeson, February 2023

When one of my granddaughters arrived for a half-term stay she brought along a homework project – to make a webpage of the biological processes of cleaning waste water. So, what is a grandfather to do? Take the 13-year-old (and her 11-year-old sister) to the local treatment works!

Top of the site. Input on the left and dumper being filled with wet wipes from the initial screening.
The place was well-organised, neat and tidy. Great safety, too. Impressive.

Fullerton Works is owned by Southern Water and do not usually allow visits … but, if you do not ask, the manager cannot say yes. And, he did say, “ I‘ll show you around.”

The site processes the water from the Andover town area. A population of around 50 000. But, the surrounding countryside has indirect inputs via their septic tanks, with tankers collecting the effluent and bringing it directly to the site. So, the place processes the waste water from around 70 000 people.

So, what is in the input? It is 70% water, plus urine, faeces, washing up and showering chemicals and anything else that reaches the domestic and commercial drains.

In many places in Britain, it is permissible to discharge untreated input into the sea or larger rivers – despite this being very negative. However, with the local River Test subject to stringent controls that should not occur. The waste needs to be processed thoroughly and the end product almost to drinking water standard. (No, it is not drinkable without further filtering and chlorine treatment.)

The site is gently sloping, so the watery materials can flow naturally down towards the river.

The majority of the site is covered in biological filters employing microorganisms and small animals.

The first stage is to pass the fluid through a filter. This removes larger objects that should never be in the drains, including wet wipes. The input is slightly smelly (it was a cool day!), very watery and carrying undissolved sediments. Initial sedimentation brought out stones, grit and quantities of yellow sweetcorn. I guess from this view, sweetcorn must be considered a slimming product!

Stage two: huge, slow-flow through sedimentation tanks allow the faeces’ solid materials to settle. There is a series of tanks to optimise the removal of the organic solids. The sediment is scraped away and passed to the anaerobic digesters in stage 5.

Stage four. Bacterial especially will inevitably start to break down any organic materials – urine, food fibre and other input materials such as detergents. Now vast, deep beds of clinker, gravel and sand holding bacterial and protozoans get to work. These are aerobic tanks through which the fluid is sprayed and percolates. The organisms take in the organics and digest them, releasing carbon dioxide and some ammonia-like gases.  

Birds enjoy the site, picking off worms, insect larvae and other life. So, our waste feeds into the wild food chains.

Grandchildren and Southern Water’s helpful manager. The large circular structure gives an idea of how deep the biological filters are below the ground level usually.

The organic materials are being taken out of the water and used in microorganism metabolism and growth, so the fluid that escapes the bottom of this biological filter will require settling to remove this debris.

You’ve guessed already that there are a series of these biological filters until the water is clear and can be released into the River Test. Continuous monitoring of the outflow occurs and if something has gone wrong the water can be poured onto a grassy field to further ‘polish’ it.

Stage five. The deposited debris is passed into a vast closed anaerobic biodigester. Here the bacterial breakdown the dead organisms and fibre from the faeces into gases like methane and carbon dioxide. The methane is burned to make electricity that drives the works. Finally, after days of digestion, the remaining sludge is dried by centrifugation into pellets and these are used as an agricultural fertilizer and soil improver.  Any extracted water is passed back to the start of the whole process.

Only four humans work the site, but they enjoy the company of resident rabbits, badgers, deer and foxes.

There are alternative systems for processing our water-carried wastes. The main one is when air is pumped through the materials to encourage its aerobic breakdown – the activated sludge process. Sometimes, the final water can be passed through a reed bed.

Humans generate the organic wastes but we rely on mainly microorganisms to convert the water suitable to be released back into the system. And, London’s residents (including King Charles) drink water that has passed through six sewage works.

It is too easy to ‘write off’ bacteria and other microorganisms as irrelevant, yet they process this water plus dead and decaying other organic materials in the environment. As an ex-microbiological biochemist, I am always stunned by how these minuscule organisms can be used to human benefit.

The biological filters work 24/7/365.

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The Ecology of Spring

David Beeson, February 2023

Brimstone butterflies emerge in late winter.

Our chunk of rock we call Earth and it sits in space, some lucky distance away from our star.  We neither freeze nor fry at this distance. Our planet had a minuscule chance not to rotate and a near 100% chance to turn on its axis and this rotation gives us our day and night sequence. Any other rotational speed would not give us our 24-hour days. In a similar way, we had a very small chance that our axis was square to the Sun and a near 100% chance that it would be angled … and that ensures we have seasons. In summer the northern hemisphere is angled towards the energy source and warms, and in winter it is turned more away and our country receives less solar input and is cooler.

In Southern England, I am experiencing the phased warming of my environment as I’m turned to gain more solar radiation … spring is coming! About time, as I’ve had enough of a cold winter, thank you. Forgetting for a moment global warming, I’m looking forward to a warmer environment and a bursting of plant life.

We all understand that sunlight energy is the driver of life on Earth. That energy warms the soil, seas, organisms and the air as well as being partly absorbed by photosynthetic plants.

The universe is about gradients. Cars move down hills, without using their engines, along an elevation gradient. Currents (electrons) move in a circuit, from a battery, along an electrical gradient. Oxygen moves into our blood along a chemical gradient. Energy flows from the Sun to us along a gradient. Indeed, heat energy moves from our planet into space along a gradient … but can be delayed by carbon dioxide (and methane etc) in the atmosphere, giving us atmospheric warming. Some warming is vital to life as we know it, too much is an issue. A very worrying issue.

Native green hellebores at Forest Edge.
Woodland plants usually store resources underground and can grow as soon as the temperature is suitable for them.

All solar radiation is not equal. It arrives in a wide spectrum of wavelengths, with only the red and blue aspects capable of being used by most green plants. Of course, green plants look green because they cannot absorb green light, just as a red jumper can absorb all wavelengths except red, which is reflected into our eyes. So, it is the red and blue wavelengths that drive the food chains on Earth and cause the release of oxygen.

(Incidentally, our planet’s atmospheric oxygen is from the photosynthesis carried out by non-decayed plants – our fossil fuels. If they were fully decayed the process would use up all our atmospheric oxygen. A good reason for leaving them underground.)

Here, in late 2022 a few hazel leaves still held. By February the winter frosts had encouraged them to be shed. With low temperatures and a lack of solar energy the woodland floor is bare. But, the bluebell bulbs have stored supplies and growth will soon commence.

So, with spring approaching the energy input to my local environment, Harewood Forest, is increasing. Here the dominant vegetation is deciduous trees, mainly oak and ash. They have lost their leaves when their roots were too cool to absorb replacement soil chemicals and their flimsy leaves lack protective chemicals to inhibit leaf freezing. With freezing conditions, water molecules in leaf cells change from liquid to solid, and expands. Under these circumstances, the cells would burst and the resources both be lost, and their extracellular availability would encourage bacterial and fungal disease. So, the plant is better to shed its vulnerable leaves and cut the losses, having first hidden away useful resources in roots or trunks.

With February moving to March, sunlight energy now increasingly reaches the ground and warms it. The few surviving green leaves can potentially capture this in photosynthesis and use it. The question now is, how best to use this? There are options, including a) growing new leaves, b) reproducing, c) protecting themselves chemically or d) storing the energy chemically as starch or oils. And, as you already know, each species will make different choice packages. Dog’s mercury will use it, with previously stored resources, to flower. Woodland grasses will grow new leaves and leave reproduction until later. Ferns may build up protective cyanide in their cells. Those species with better strategies for that site will increase in numbers, and the less well-adapted will slowly vanish. Survival of the fittest, extinction for the rest.

We all know sites where fires or human management have changed the environment with a resulting change in the ground-level plant species. Change the environment, change the successful species.

With warming soil, and the promise of more input energy to come, some plants use up stored resources from last year. Plants with bulbs, corms, tubers or rhizomes can mobilise these and generate new leaves very early in the season. These are the species that often dominate in dense summer-shaded places. Early flowering is also a possibility as pollinators will be keen to get involved, so enhancing their own resources.

Native daffodils at Forest Edge. They occur wild in the adjacent woodland.

Locally we already have bulbous snowdrops and daffodils and crocuses, together with green and stinking hellebores all in bloom. In more open locations common daisies have been flowering for some time. (And gardens will be filled with the odd plants that buck the trend to flower in cold conditions – forsythia, witch hazel and some viburnums.)

As spring approaches, plant chemistry is speeded up by the elevating temperatures. The growth rush begins as enzymes ramp up plant metabolism. Even a small raise in the environmental temperature can double the speed of plant activity. Meanwhile, enhanced fungal activity will break down the autumnal leaves releasing their growth-stimulating nutrients. Life ramps up.

Soon deciduous trees and shrubs will produce their leaves, causing wind speed in woodlands to drop and put an end to easy wind pollination. Hazel catkins will fall away, their task completed. The light at the soil level will soon fall as it is captured in the canopy, soil moisture may decrease, and the woodland floor will become comatose again. But, until then, those of us who enjoy ecology will relish the delight that is spring.

Snowdrops and crocus at Forest Edge.
On warm days the bees take advantage of early-year flowers.

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Madeira’s Laurel Forests

David Beeson, February 2023

A rugged coastline and high hills covered in laurel forests – the north coast.

Many people visit the Portuguese island of  Madeira for winter sun or summer lounging, yet the island has an interesting geology and some important conservation areas.

Madeira is located off the West African coast in the Atlantic, level with Moroccan Agadir. It is 800 square kilometres in size and of volcanic origin, although the dome generated by that activity has thrown up sedimentary rocks that sit beneath the lava flows and are exposed by weathering.

The total height of the island is really 6Km, as this is total elevation from the seabed … but, yes, only a maximum of just over 1.8Km sticks out!

The top of the island

Beyond the coast the land is mountainous, rapidly reaching 1800m – which was totally cloud-covered and very cold in early February. So, no botanising happened for us. For adventurous folks, there are numerous signed walks heading from this location.

Madeira is a well-watered island and the landscape is sliced with steep deep valleys that naturally support laurel forests. The predominant trees are Laurus azorica, Ocotea foetens, Persea indica (a relative of the avocado plant), and Clethra arborea (lily-of-the-Valley-Tree). The first three are laurel species. Laurus grows to 15m and Ocotea to 40m.

The laurel forests are now mostly protected but difficult to access, being situated on north-facing steep valley sides with almost zero easy access. Such areas also exist on Tenerife and the deserted islands off the Madeiran coast. We had a brief exploration by wandering along a manmade water course called a  levada. (If you want to try our access point, head to the trout farm – Ribeiro Frio, and walk downhill until you encounter the levada on your left.)

With the rain mostly falling on the north of the island, and the population on the south, levadas were constructed to move the water.
Laurel forest
Wonderful. No people!

With the dominant laurel trees overhead the ground is moist, cool and shaded. Perfect conditions for some of the little, ground-hugging, non-flowering plants such as liverworts, club mosses, mosses and ferns. Also, the habitat of the giant Madeiran cranesbill (geranium) – Geranium maderense, that reaches 150cm.

Streamside vegetation
The levada is in the channel to the right on this image.
Gennaria diphylla – I hope!
Mosses and liverworts dominated some rockfaces.
Mosses, club mosses and ferns.



(Many in the UK know laurel as an evergreen hedging plant. The usual species is Prunus laurocerasus – so not the Madeiran plant.)

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An Andover Badger Set

David Beeson, 25th January 2023

Not my image.

Several people locally have asked about badger sets and badger watching, so I today explored one I first saw 40 years ago … it is still modestly active. 

Grid ref of starting point: SU413 429 – A footpath and start of a part of the Test Way. It is on the A303 to Wherwell road the B3048. 

Parking is not easy and there are lots of warning signs if you go under the old railway bridge. 

The Test Way is signed and it skirts Patchington Piggery and all the grot associated with it. This is not the most attractive part of Harewood Forest!

Follow the footpath for about 2/3Km and you will see some sheds just appearing along the concrete path / old roadway. The set is in and around the chalk pit on your right. I watched here once and had young badgers sniffing my feet. 

GR: SU405 427 approx. 

What will you see? Many of the holes are unused and will show old leaves etc. Used entrances are obvious and you’ll spot some fresh bedding (leaves) and the groove made as excavations are dumped outside … producing the obvious mounds seen here. Look too for the small diggings – some for food (worms especially) others have excrement in them. I did not check today, but you should see scratchings on tree trunks as they sharpen claws. 

You will notice the holes are far larger than those used by rabbits and the excavations more extensive. No rabbit droppings, either. 

In summer the environment is often covered by stinging nettles that thrive with the diggings and extra faecal nutrients. 

Badgers prefer to dig sets on hillsides.

Some holes show signs of human activity, possibly from badger baiting or just to be nasty. Fox hunters fill in sets to keep out foxes and I’ve found cyanide tins and one spring trap in the old near Forest Edge.

It is not a set for many to watch at once, but in pairs it should be ok. Best time is around Easter as youngsters are just above ground. Dusk – be in place at least half an hour before. No perfume etc. Keep downwind of the set and be patient, badgers do not always come out to order.  Even BBCs Winter Watch’s badgers failed to come out during several programmes. 

There used to be other badger holes in and around the chicken sheds just beyond this set. These are small offshoots used by subordinate females / males. 

Do have an explore now to prepare for an Easter watch.

Regards, David

The Climate Book created by Greta Thunberg

David Beeson, January 2023

I continue to be shocked at how little some folks understand about the world around them. You will be the exception, or you’d not be linked to this site.

A neighbour recently admitted he had no idea where rivers came from. He thought rain immediately flowed over the surface and made them! Had he not looked at his garden when it rained? Did he see that happening? He was surprised that springs existed where underground water overflowed to make our local chalk rivers.

The environment is a baffle to many.

I encourage you to buy Greta’s book. £12.50 is all I paid and it is very digestible. Sure, it is uncomfortable but we all must slowly pass the critical aspects on to our fellow humans.

Oh, what an odd species we are …. David

Some Flowers of South-west South Africa

David Beeson, January 2023

Okay, this is NOT my image … but all the rest are ours. Why this one? Well, it looked so stunning.

We toured from Cape Town, via Table Mountain and Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens, up the west coast beyond Lambert’s Bay, Cederberg and further east into the Karoo, eventually to Prince Albert and via the Swartberg Mountains back to the south coast at Arniston. Later, we flew to Durban to touch on the Drakensberg Mountains and two wildlife National Parks.

We felt safe, although the Skeleton Gorge route down from Table Mountain to the botanic garden left big scars in our confidence and with severely overworked legs. We encountered cape cobra snakes (two), several other serpents and many tortoises.

The vegetation we saw was world-class and was certainly worth the journey. Highly recommended.

reen areas are mainly for conservation.

Cape Town has a confident swagger about it: it knows it is a bit special. Colonial-era buildings mix with more modern structures and a Mediterranean-like climate ensures outdoor life is the norm. With its setting beneath Table Mountain and with Robben Island sitting brooding just off the coast, it has an international location only added to with The Cape of Good Hope located just to its south.

And, The Cape and Cape Point should not be ignored. They are surrounded by part of Table Mountain National Park, called the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. The rugged scenery is awesome and the journey there gave stunning views along the Atlantic Coast. Walking, horse riding and cycling are all divergent possibilities with baboons, eland (the largest antelope) and zebra easily seen. Rare bontebok occur here but our brief visit did not encounter them. Cape angulate tortoises and a very large cape cobra did appear.


Atlantic coastline near The Cape.
Cape Town and Table Mountain – viewed from the north. Cape Point is to the south, beyond the conical peak.

A rotating cable car is available to take the less energetic tourists to the top of Table Mountain, where there are facilities, rock hyrax sunning themselves and a stunning display of fynbos plants, including proteas, ericas and surprisingly insectivorous sundews.

Rock hyrax
Vegetation types in SA, from John Manning, Field Guide to Wild Flowers of SA.

Fynbos vegetation is found on sandstone geology with damp winters, dry summers and with irregular burns at perhaps 10 to 25-year intervals. Shrubs seldom exceed 2 metres and show adaptations to prevent water loss.

Table Mountain vegetation
Proteas are unique to South Africa and the fynbos.
Take this route down from Table Mountain at your own risk! There is an easier route.

After Cape Town we followed Route 7 north, with the first significant stop at the 18000 hectares of the West Coast National Park, with its Atlantic views, flamingoes and sandy coastal soils. It is always a bird watchers delight but in spring has a stunning display of annual flowers.

The vegetation is dried out once the spring moisture is lost. You need to be here between August and October for this display … provided there has been sufficient rainfall.
Flower power. We were lucky as good rains had fallen.
Stunning displays.

This area is also rich in mammalian wildlife. Despite a fleeting visit we spotted herds of eland, small gazelles and zebra. If you wish to explore the flora in some detail you’ll need several days here and good ID books … there are some 2300 daisy species alone in SA. It can be exhausting trying to get the plants to species level.

Our route took us north to Cederberg Wilderness Area with its San people’s rock art. (The San are the original South Africans, with a history going back possibly 40 000 years. I had an outing with a San at Prince Albert, scouting for signs of larger mammals, such as caracal.)

San Art. The image is of unknown age.
A parasitic broomrape emerges from the ground. Its roots absorb food from the host plant.
SA has 470 orchid species.
Species diversity is high, especially bulbs.
Enjoy the tortoise, but the plants are lovely too.
Grey leaves are covered in hairs that help prevent transpiration.
Sometimes one plant dominated an area, while elsewhere diversity was high.

The Cederberg is full of bizarre-shaped sandstone formations and has craggy mountains up to 2000m. It is a prime hiking area and famous for its mountain fynbos vegetation. Clanwilliam is the main accommodation centre.

Watch for snakes as the terrain with a rich vegetation and streams is prime territory. I found two and several lizards.

The rooibos plant is cultivated in this part of SA. Aspalathus linearis is a grim-looking, half-dead plant that is superficially similar to broom’s twiggy design. It is cut annually, dried and its leaves chopped to generate the ‘red tea’ that is sold. The drink contains no caffeine and little tannin, and some say is drinkable! Enough said. Try it for yourself.

Cut rooibos stems awaiting processing at a factory.

Fynbos vegetation depends on the rain and summer aridity, this coastal zone has the aridity but has much less rain as it sits in a rain shadow by the mountains to its southeast. Hence a different vegetation dominated by annuals, summer-dormant bulbs or water-retaining succulents. This is the succulent Karoo of Namaqualand – the richest semidesert in the world, with more species of succulents than any other habitat.

The moisture often arrives from sea fogs that drift inland and the input is often less than 200mm a year. You will notice the vegetation is low.

Gazanias. They have a milky latex and mostly basal leaves covered in short hairs that reduce transpiration. 17 species. This is possibly G.leiopoda and was found in a gravel zone.

Having journeyed north, we now headed east, towards Calvinia – with two small nature reserves that we visited. One was in an area where the clay soil was stressed so much by changing moisture levels that plant roots were stretched and destroyed in summer. Evolution responded and that patch is home to huge numbers of bulbs that remain dormant over the summer (so have no roots to break.) – yet put on a unique display in spring.

An amazing diversity of bulbs. This is a minute remaining patch of diversity that once spread over hundreds of square kilometres.
Mc Gregor’s Farm. The Garden Reserve comprises over 6,200 ha of land on the Bokkeveld Plateau and is world-renowned for its incredible diversity of bulbous plants.
Weaver bird at its nest on the reserve.

At Calvinia there is also the Akkerendam Nature Reserve. This too is rich in rare bulbs, with lizards and tortoises to add interest. Situated two kilometres outside of Calvinia, this gem of a nature reserve protects the fragile fauna of the Hantam Karoo region, which comprises succulent Karoo scrub, Mountain Renosterveld and a wide range of bulbous flora. This includes 10 floral species, which are unique to the Hantamsberg (Hantam mountain).

Bulbinella nutans
Help, what is it? Blue freesia?
Moraea fugacissima
As we moved east, away from the coast, the water supply was further reduced and plant diversity decreased. We are approaching the dry Karoo.

Moving south we encounter another dirt road that went one, seemingly, for ever. This is the dry Karoo, but even here humans try to shake a living off the land with a sheep occasionally viewed. A hard land with only low scrub visible from our vehicle, however articles suggest grasses do occur.

Karoo vegetation.

Moving south we joined the N1 road and headed east to Prince Albert. This village sits to the north of the Swartsberg Mountains and they usually give a steady a water supply, so some lushness. It is an attractive spot with white bungalows, delicious lemon icecream and a private nature reserve.

The reserve, trapped between the municipal rubbish tip, sewerage plant and a potentially over-grazed sheep farm looked unpromising but delivered some fascinating features.

This reserve has around 50mm of rainfall a year and the local river seldom reaches it.

SA has over 50 different mistletoe species and on one acacia there were three … with two different species growing on another species. A plant food chain! Acacia > mistletoe 1 > mistletoes 2 and 3.

The star plants were the lithops – living stones that were invisble in a gravel / rocky patch until they were shown.

Most of the plants here have an unusual photosynthesis – Crassulaceae Acid Metabolism – where they only open their stomata at night, store the carbon dioxide, then use this during the day. It is less efficient that traditional photosynthesis but it is better than dying in a dry arid place.

Additionally the plants manufacture aromatic compounds that help to reduce water loss. These are true desert plants surviving with soil temperatures up to 65C, often with a buffering wind, but freezing winter temperatures. Amazing plants, with toxic chemicals to limit grazing pressures and some needing to live beneath other vegetation to reduce sunlight damage.

The vegetation becomes even more extreme in that many of the species are very salty, despite being inland and dwelling in a calcium-rich soil.

Stapelia genus plants live on the reserve. These have flowers smelling of rotting flesh and are pollinated by flesh-eating blowflies.

What a place!

Wikipedia says: The hairy, oddly textured and coloured appearance of many Stapelia flowers has been claimed to resemble that of rotting meat, and this, coupled with their odour, has earned the most commonly grown members of the genus Stapelia the common name of carrion flowers. Such odours serve to attract various specialist pollinators including, in the case of carrion-scented blooms, blow flies of the dipteran family Calliphoridae. They frequently lay eggs around the coronae of Stapelia flowers, convinced by the plants’ deception.

Dr Sue Green led us over the reserve.

In the morning I had a bushman walk. Together we spotted droppings of: caracal, meercats, kudu, baboon and steinbok, yet their populations were low and the animals kept to themselves.

The local mountains again offered fynbos vegetation and King Proteas were in flower.

King protea.
The King.

Oudthoorn showed off its ostriches, Gamka its mountain zebras and Cape Agulhas and Hermanus its right whales before we again arrived in Cape Town.

A trip of a lifetime, but with Durban, St Lucia, Imfolozi, Hluhluwe and Drakensberk still to come.

Our Approach to Eco-gardening / Wildlife Gardening

David Beeson, Winter 2022 / 2023

Annette and I believe that wild organisms have a right to exist. As such, they need places to live – a home range, some might say. We have just over an acre of land, so have space to share. In addition, we have big positives – we dwell on the edge of ancient oak woodland and are non-urban. Negatively, we have some very non-ecological neighbours who sometimes wish to consider our land their own, e.g. shooting protected birds of prey / rabbits / hares in our garden or allowing their animals to eat out newly planted wild hedges.

Occasionally we have hares breeding in the garden. They can be quite tame, sleep in the borders and allow us to approach.

We feel that some gardens miss out on a dimension – the movement of birds, insects and other creatures than can be removed in very traditional gardens. We actively encourage our wildlife companions and enjoy their company.

We have lived here for almost 35 years and initially started to establish a conventional garden. It took little time to discover that carefully selected plants arrived in the wrong colour or species and a good number promptly died, despite being theoretically suited to our soil and climate. Why try to grow these plants when the local wild plants were both attractive and survived perfectly well untended? So, we partially switched – grow those exotics which survived and add in suitable wild species.

In winter the meadows are cut and look like a conventional lawn.

Many folks ask: ‘Why are wild species better for wildlife?’ Okay, it’s a long answer, but here goes. When you leave your home, do you lock the outside doors and windows? My guess is: yes. Why? Because you have amassed useful products that you do not want to share with burglars! You lock your door, but do you have the same key design as all your neighbours? No, because then if someone had the correct key everyone would lose out.

Plants are just the same: they have stored energy and resources and do not wish to share it with every insect, deer and aphid in the area.

How do they avoid sharing their resources? They fill their leaves with toxic chemicals. However, making these toxins is expensive – so, they usually make only one type. But each type of plant makes a different protective chemical. Foxgloves, deadly nightshade and ferns have different toxin protectors just as you have a different key to your neighbours.

Yet, herbivorous wildlife must eat something, so they have developed anti-toxins so they can eat with relative impunity. These are very expensive, and they usually make only one type. The caterpillar might be able to detoxify foxglove toxin, but the deadly nightshade will kill it. Herbivorous small animals can often only consume one plant type.

Now, exotic plants will contain toxins to which UK wildlife is not adapted – so, they offer no food from their leaves, roots or stems. They will still offer nectar and pollen, but not a whole range of potential food.

(Animals, such as deer, eat a little or this and a little of that, so never eat enough of an individual toxin to kill it. Aphids bypass toxins by drilling past the surface plant layers with their proboscis. Annual plants and grasses seldom produce toxins, but grasses have sand-like silica in their leaves to discourage too much grazing.)

To optimise your wildlife companions, plant more native plants, and preferably single-flowered types as they offer easier access to the flower’s resources.

View from the forest. The wildlife pond is to the right. Walnut trees dominate the middle of the garden. Native shrubby species have been planted down both boundaries.

One thing to watch: your local wild plants do not dwell in optimised soil as you may have in your flower borders. Given ideal conditions, wild plants can become huge and dominate. Best to leave those (usually perennials, such as oxeye daisy and knapweed) that can do this in your meadows.

So, our flower borders are filled with single-flowered exotics that offer nectar and pollen, plus attractive colour and form, and wild UK plants. Well-behaved native plants are present in the flower borders plus a few bigger toxic ones to the rear (E.g. Deadly nightshade).

UK native rockroses and non-native euonymus in a flower border.

We have shrubs as well as herbaceous plants in these borders. Here we have mostly used shrubs with a natural colour to their fruits. The reason is that orange or yellow-fruited varieties of, for example, pyracantha or crab apple, never fully ripen and are seldom eaten. These plants fail to convert fruit starch to sugars, so are not palatable or give gut aches. On a positive aspect, when the non-eaten fruits do finally fall the fungi and bacteria in the soil will be perfectly content to consume them.

There has been plenty of publicity about Plant Life’s ‘No Cut May’ initiative. We go a further step with our main lawn: No Cut April, May and a bit of June. While we do cut winding paths through it to allow access and give it a sculptural feel.

The diversity of this lawn has provided a floral treat for our eyes and generated food for insects. Good numbers of orchids plus thousands of bulbous buttercups, daisies, clovers and saxifrages are giving pleasure to us. Indeed, three orchid species: pyramidal, greater butterfly and twayblades have moved in. Your diversity will reflect the soil and input of seeds, but Chiltern Seeds do offer wild UK orchid seeds at a very reasonable price, and we can supply some free if you ask (chalky soil needed).

The no-cut lawn has just been cut but still awaiting to be finally trimmed.
Lawn diversity.
No-cut glory.

As one progresses down towards the forest our garden becomes progressively less tightly managed. The Spring Meadow comes next, and it is uncut from November until late June. As a result, spring bulbs can develop, flower and seed. The sequence is: snowdrops, crocuses, wild daffodils and Tulipa sylvestris plus a declining number of hyacinths. Swathes of meadow saxifrage and bulbous buttercups are the star attractions in May and early June.  

All the green herbage from the Main Lawn and Spring Meadow will eventually end up in the compost heaps and, about nine months later it will be spread onto the flower borders.

Sedums flower into October and provide nectar for late-flying butterflies.

Beyond our last flower border is the Summer Meadow. This is uncut from November until the next September when it is slowly reduced to a low sward about 2cm high. This cutting is controversial. Some people believe the meadow should be left un-cut over winter and cut in spring. Yes, it would be preferable to leave the seeds and herbage for the wildlife, except cutting it in spring is difficult due to the equipment available coping with winter-sodden, long vegetation. Plus, the spring bulbs and early cowslips would be killed off by that cut. It is a compromise.

While we call this area the Summer Meadow it is full of colour from March onwards. Here are a few of our cowslips.

If the spring weather has encouraged an early flush of grasses, a spring cut will be employed, always attempting to avoid doing too much destruction.

Winding paths lead through the Summer Meadow.

Yellow meadow ants have high colonies in the Summer Meadow but are mown down elsewhere. These ants are fascinating organisms as, unless you open the nest, they are never seen. The ants find food and dwell exclusively underground.

By high summer our other meadows will have been mown, so crickets, summer butterflies and grasshoppers are mostly restricted to breeding in the Summer Meadow. Sometimes we have glow worms here too. Pheasants and domestic hens predate insects and beetles and are discouraged.

Slow worms and field voles spread into this meadow as the herbage grows. Moles are present all months.

In spring our annual, yellow rattle seeds germinate, with their roots connecting especially with grasses. The rattle diverts resources to its own growth and diminishes grass growth. Once the parasite seeds, in August, its effect on the grasses ceases and the grass recovers its vigour.

Our cutting and removing energy and nutrients from the Summer Meadow’s herbage effectively reduces the height of flowering grasses and allow the more colourful plant’s flowers to show – so generating an attractive and diverse garden meadow. (Not every year! Too much rain will encourage excessive grass growth and then it  crashes down … disaster!)

While butterfly numbers and diversity have decreased recently, we have had butterfly bonanzas some years – with purple emperors and marsh fritillaries were seen, together with hundreds of some species.

Orchids are the ‘royalty’ of plant types in many eyes, and we have done well. Species have been: lizard, bee, spotted, southern marsh, twayblade, pyramidal, green-winged and soldier x monkey; plus, greater and lesser butterfly orchids. Pyramidal numbers are the greatest and probably just get into the high hundreds.

The wet fringe to the pond allows us to grow different habitat plants – Marsh Marigolds.
The pond in spring.

The pond was dug almost on day one of our stay here. It has no natural catchment and must be topped up in summer. That’s a snag as tap water is much richer in nutrients (minerals) than rain or river water. Sunlight, warmth and minerals equal too much plant growth, and hence eutrophication. With the subsequent decay depleting water oxygen levels. I do de-weed the pond some summers.

We have wild green hydra in the pond and an amazing diversity of microbes, including vorticella and amoebae. A drop of water can give an afternoon’s entertainment to me or keen youngsters.

Despite adding toad spawn, none has given us returning adults. The pond is too shallow. Frogs do find it very suitable, as do smooth newts, mayflies and dragonflies. Wild and honey bees come for water on hot days, and they are stalked by chunky hornets (which are more friendly to humans than many cartoons suggest.).

We ensured that the pond liner extended a metre beyond the pond itself, so have a marshy zone surrounding it. This adds plant diversity as the soil conditions differ from our clay-chalk meadow soil.

Bat diversity is difficult to determine, even with a bat detector, yet I can be confident of at least three species, and they often bomb the pond and hunt beneath our walnuts at twilight.

With wild hedges on two sides, plus some majestic trees, the garden is like a woodland glade with moving shadows, fluttering aspen leaves and small flocks of tits and finches scavenging for insects. Some of the trees are very mature. Our two walnuts and the wild cherries are over one hundred years old, and even our four birch species have reached their middle ages. Rambling roses, wild clematis and honeysuckles scramble up the woody plants, as do our hazel dormice and grey squirrels. The honeysuckle is the food plant of white admiral larvae.

I’m not good with birds and probably miss many species. One high point was having a woodcock roding around me, while a white stork visited us some twenty-five years ago. The most colourful experience was with a flock of breeding-coloured male crossbills. Redwing and wood pigeon flocks are common in winter. A tawny owl has often bred in the garden.

Our dormice have nested in the shrubs you can see here

I’m no longer a completely tidy gardener. The place looks good and mostly neat, but the fringes of the meadows are allowed to grow and most fallen and cut wood is left to its own devices. Beneath these chunks bumblebees and voles nest, plants grow tall and set seed, and mice clamber. The wood slowly decays, giving autumnal displays of mosses, micro-fungi and creeping slime moulds.  And why not let them have their own space? Believe me, a flowery no-cut lawn is 100% better than one closely cut, with added mower stripes. And how much damage does most small wildlife do? Sure, we do curse slugs sometimes, otherwise, we just do not look for aphids or insect larvae. Relax, and enjoy the wild side of your garden.

If you live locally you can have a garden tour. No charge. dandabeeson@gmail.com. Questions can be answered, too.

You will be able to spot Forest Edge, SP11 6LJ on Google Earth.

Wild evening primroses wander from border to border.

Homepage is: http://www.nwhwildlife.org. With 150+ ad-free articles.

An Eco-garden in Mid-Winter

David Beeson, 28th December 2022

A few hard touches of frost have killed off any tender non-native plants and the pond became a potential ice-skating rink for a while. The wild plants have ignored the weather and will be none the worse.

The winter-green orchids, such as pyramidal and bee, have been above ground for several months. After flowering in June and July, they vanish for just a month or two with the first ones appearing again in October. Their strap-like leaves* then slowly photosynthesise and rebuild the food stores for next year’s growth and possible flowering. Most of our UK orchids die back after seeding and only throw up their new leaves from their tubers in spring.

(*Spotting their leaves amongst a mass of grass and other herbs requires patience.)

The end of the garden, where it joins to Harewood Forest. Some layered hazel on the extreme right.

Looking through our gate: a grey woodland that grows on a thick clay geology over chalk.

We have a splattering of migrant birds around, but probably fewer than normal. Is this a reflection of bird ‘flu or my inability to count? Apart from our usual winter residents, such as tits, robins, wren and magpies, the red kites have been most visible. They hang in the air, circling with their seemingly prehensile tails doing most of the directional work. They are such stunning birds and their recovery from a relic population on the Hafod Estate in Wales to their common appearance is a credit to conservation.

Red kites are mostly scavengers, and we see them swooping down to grab roadkill. However, I spotted one harassing a buzzard with a rabbit in its talons seemingly attempting to acquire the food for itself. Our single go at feeding our local kite pair only generated a fat fox and some very content brown rats. Our birds live well off pheasant roadkill.

We placed a bat hibernation box on our English oak tree many years back. Birds are more likely to use it overnight than bats to use it at all.

For the very first time, we are not feeding the local birds this winter. On Spring Watch this year, Chris Packham said there was some data that suggested such an activity upped the numbers of common birds to the detriment of the less numerous types. Certainly, our naked sunflower seeds and peanuts did attract large numbers of blue and great tits and goldfinches, yet we saw few other species despite living on the edge of ancient oak wood. Those species are still around and searching for food on our trees and shrubs. I would appreciate your thoughts on the feeding / non-feeding issue. (Dandabeeson@gmail.com)

The meadows are cut down over winter. The photo is taken from within the Summer Meadow.

The nearest flower border has had a big input of oak and hazel leaves.

The fallen walnut stump righted itself them being cut up, with the stump impregnated with Lion’s Main fungus.

Forest Edge’s garden** meadows can grow too tall and become dominated by grasses if they receive plenty of water and have a rich soil. With our aim of having floral diversity and flowery meadows, we want the opposite: low grasses and attractive flowers above that level. I can do little about limiting rainfall, yet aim to reduce the energy and inorganic nutrients available to grasses. (Nitrates and potassium salts. Phosphates will always be high in our soil) To this end we autumn cut the meadows as low as possible until growth stops, so reducing the grass biomass, and I have now removed most of the fallen leaves. These oak and hazel leaves would otherwise slowly decay releasing growth stimulators to our soil. The leaves and cut herbage go, eventually, onto the flower borders.

Luckily, many herbs store food underground but the grasses do not. So, cutting has a greater impact on the grasses.

(** We try to show that meadows can be an attractive part of traditional gardens and have many insect associates.)

We are content with the added humus and slowly released minerals for our conventional flower borders. With warmth, bacteria and fungi break down the leaves that have been winter chewed by our soil fauna, so recycle the nitrates and other chemicals previously in the vegetation. With sunlight, water and these growth requirements the border plants can be especially healthy. And the more humus the better with our sticky clay geology.

Ours is a garden meadow system and we aim for ecological diversity and beauty. Our meadows are not nature reserves where areas are often left to their own devices. We need the grasses lower than the more attractively flowering plants. Grasses are especially stimulated into growth with nitrates – hence we attempt to limit them. We also employ yellow rattle, a semi-parasitic plant (especially on grasses) to further reduce their vigour. Being an annual, the yellow rattle is not yet visible, but it should appear in April or May.

Today, the meadows look green, and one needs to peer closely to spot the diversity of vegetation. But just wait until April, May and June when it will look stunning.

Where the dormice nested this year is a mystery, yet we saw three generations on the feeder. I guess they holed in in our neighbours’ horrid conifers. So, at least these trees are useful for something.

I seldom encounter bank vole (long-tailed vole) nests but their cousins, the short-tailed voles, still enjoy living beneath some metal put down for them in the meadow … except in the cold when they vanish underground … as do the yellow-necked and wood mice. Shrews seldom show themselves in winter, except in our attic.

Our pond nearly dried out in the summer’s heat. Now it is full of beautiful rainwater that lacks the minerals that are present in tap water (Sometimes used to top up in summer). Fewer minerals equal less weed growth, and in our shallow and warm pond, the plants can grow amazingly vigorously.

The fierce cold has finished off our white waterlily leaves, but growth is visible under the water. Yellow-fringed lily leaves are expanding ready to come to the surface in the spring, and the alga (Chara) is slowly growing as is the (nightmare) Canadian pond weed – that I try to control. Float grass always thrives despite my worst intentions towards it.

The pond was cleaned of much of its vegetation and mud in October. In summer the water’s fringe will be full of wild, wet-loving orchids.

We have no fish in the pond. The frogs will lay in mid-February and a month later the palmate newts appear from hibernation to eat up the majority of the small tadpoles. With a glut of predators around our pond, the frogs come and go as swiftly as possible – they are around for only one or two days.

On occasions, the pond’s water surface appears covered in talc. This, I believe, is from owls bathing in the shallows. Owls (and buzzards) take frogs from the water’s surface and come down to drink. I rescued one that had become tied in some string … wow, amazing talons, yet they were not used in terror at being picked up.

I suspect our artificial tawny owl nest will be ignored again in 2023. The resident pair are calling, but some distance away. When the owls ignore the box the stock doves often move in.

Mahonia ‘Charity’ blooms over the winter.

With nearly 100 honeybee hives a short distance away we have no shortage of pollinators. Now all the bees, both domestic and wild, are absent with no nectar or pollen available. However, oriental and UK-native hellebores are approaching flowering, so, on clear sunny days, we will spot the first bumbles and some hive bees. Late January will see the snowdrops in mass flower, followed by crocuses and the first narcissus will bloom in mid-February.

We do have a good diversity of bee species, including occasional leaf-cutter bees, yet we do not spot hole nesters. So, I have collected, dried out and cut to length plenty of hollowed-stemmed plants and created a potential nesting spot for them. These are often recommended in ‘bug hotels’ which also incorporate over-wintering bug spots. With our garden, the latter is not needed!

In the UK I assume winter lasts until around the end of February. Remember, however, that the days are now getting longer … so optimism is the word.

Support the Ukrainian people in their desire to not become Russian slaves.

Have a good winter. David

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Native to Easter USA, the grey squirrel is being culled in areas where it is in competition with the native red squirrel.
Dead trees are logged and many chunks are stacked haphazardly to give small mammal habitats. Forest’Edge’s garden is deliberately not tidy in places.
Teasel seed heads supply seeds to winter goldfinches and their chums.
The grassy areas are part of the Spring Meadow and will be a riot of colour from April.
We do grow some large, exotic grasses in the borders.
The dwarf palm was surrounded by low-growing conifers earlier in the year. Now a dry planting is being tried out … but already some of the plants appear to lack the conditions and have died.

Annette and I wish you every luck in 2023.


Harewood Ancient Forest in Winter

David Beeson, December 2022

There is usually a good reason for any current land use. In Harewood’s case, it is the underlying geology. A view of the geology map will indicate the current woodland is an exact copy of the areas of clay and gravel, and the 1810 OS map will show that the current outline is the same as in 1800. In essence, the soil was too difficult to plough with oxen, or too nutrient-poor to deliver a reasonable crop yield. Better then to leave the area as woodland – itself an amazing resource, providing structural timber, coppice stems, herbs and deer meat.


Oak and bracken line the footpath from the B3400 to The Middleway

The soil is suited to English oak trees, although they grow slowly and are not long-lived. Where gaps in the canopy occur silver birch trees thrive – for about 60 years, then they succumb to old age and fungal attacks, giving easier access to woodpeckers. Along the old Saxon boundary (ditch and bank) the disturbed soil allows ash trees to become dominant and, where spoil from Victorian railway cuttings has thrown up deeper deposits, the sycamore tree thrives. Occasional ancient yew trees can also join the canopy, especially along the old boundary.

Oak and birch trees

Occasional other tree species will be encountered – a few horse chestnuts exist and beech trees have been planted along the Test Way path. Wild cherries have been planted along one footpath and are much appreciated by the summer’s avian residents.

For those familiar with the forest, you’ll have sighted the more-recently planted conifers. These are mainly from the 1970s, while the huge Douglas Firs north of The Middleway are probably a decade earlier.

Beneath the canopy grow woody shrubs. Never strong enough to compete with the canopy species, these plants have to make do with any light not grabbed by their bigger neighbours. You’ll spot wild apple, plenty of hazel, hawthorn and blackthorn, while holly is slowly becoming more widespread. Added to these are shrubby privets and dogwoods. You would be an Eye-Spy expert to see the bird cherry in flower early in the year, as I know of only two plants.

Harewood is probably named from the Saxon word for grey – Hoare. With grey trunks to the oaks it was called Greywood Forest. Harewood today.

Wild hops are absent from Harewood, yet the calcium-loving wild clematis (Old Man’s Beard) climbs high and outstrips honeysuckle.

Nearer the ground, there is a good diversity of herbaceous plants, with bluebells often dominant along the southern boundary. Near Longparish are wild daffodils to liven up the view in March; soon after wood anemones, dog’s mercury, bugle and a woefully low number of orchids show themselves. In many spots, where the oaks are dominant, bracken is advancing and in May covers the wild primroses that feed the immature Duke of Burgundy Fritillary butterflies.

But, now, in December, the vegetation is comatose. Several harsh touches of frost have hit the remaining green deciduous leaves and is sending them scurrying to reside on the soil. Many are still green, and were hopeful of absorbing the little sunlight that reaches them, but the temperature has stopped that and the plant decided that these leaves were more parasites than food producers. They have been terminated and their borrowed resources have been donated to the soil organisms. Recycling will begin and soon the leaves’ resources will be spread to the fungi, bacteria and soil fauna.

The plants are obvious in winter, while the animal life is less easily seen. Sure, I spot some tits and eventually a herd of some twenty fallow deer, but little shows itself. Many small, insectivorous birds have migrated and the incoming red wings and fieldfares are not around in numbers so far. Today, even the woodpigeon flocks are elsewhere and our residents are out of sight. It’s too quiet and even a breeze has neglected to say hello.

If one was to circumnavigate the woodland one would follow the old, now diminished, Saxon boundary. It’s still there, separating woodland from what would have been pasture, for it must only be recently that these fields have seen a plough. Without fertilizers, the ground would have given a poor return to the farmers, so better to pass the scarce vegetation through some cattle or sheep. The energy return from animals is but a tenth of that from the vegetation itself, but that is better than nothing and easier to crop. Yet animals need to be killed early; once they have stopped growing they give no extra value. This is why birds (Chickens, turkeys, wild pigeons) are good value – they grow to full size in weeks whereas cattle take years. If you ate humans, you would ‘crop them’ as mid-teenagers!

As food passes along Food Chains the energy is ‘used up’ in living (movement, respiration). It comes off as heat. And, there is little energy there to start with! The most efficient plants only trap 5% of the input light energy. Most hit only 0.5% over a year. Why? Well, look at the farmers’ fields now … almost no greenery to trap the light energy, much soil is bare and, with cool temperatures, photosynthesis is barely happening. For many crops, they are only efficient energy trappers from spring until harvest in July or August. Natural ecosystems beat them easily, with wetlands the best. Even a natural coniferous forest beats agricultural energy gain. With fuel prices increasing the future of energy-absorbing ploughing must be in doubt. Re-wilding can make more sense on marginal soils, and soil scientists would argue that ploughing is counter-productive to agricultural efficiency.

Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the play of sunlight on this crisp winter’s day on the grey, oak tree trunks; on the bright green of mosses and lichens, the mosaic of fallen leaves that enliven the ground and the delightful grace of silver birch trees – always my favourites.

Some hazel leaves still hold on to life, but many have been nibbled over the year.

Hazel catkins – pollen producers.

Harewood Forest covers some 5 square miles in north-west Hampshire. It is just west of Andover – a Saxon market town. In ancient times Harewood joined to other great ancient forests and animals could move unhindered far to the west, to Windsor and to Kent. Now it is isolated by agriculture to its boundaries and genetic exchange has been halted. Perhaps in a more enlightened time wildlife corridors and an ecological approach will be established … but do not hold your breath. Until then we have to ‘put up’ with Harewood being a killing field – a ‘sporting’ playground for those with nothing more constructive to do.

My Dormouse site in the foreground. (See the previous article.)

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Dormouse nests – now is the time to search – December.

David Beeson, December 2022

WHEN? Finding the nests of dormice is difficult. However, December is the very best month as the leaves will have fallen from the shrubs in which they nest, and the flimsy nests will not yet have been destroyed by the winter weather.

WHERE? Here, in Northern Hampshire (UK) the dormice are most easily found in shrubby woodland, especially if hazel is frequent. In the past, I have searched in semi-open, coppiced woodland with poor results. However, now I have the perfect location.

The local landowner had a road margin layered about five years ago. This involves half-cutting shrub stems and bending them down. Stakes hold the living stems in place and they respond by sending up multiple vertical shoots that thicken the hedge. Dormice find the habitat ideal and I can walk the country lane and look into the hedge. I found 7 nests in about 200m of this layered coppice.

NEST DESIGN & LOCATION? Woodmice and yellow-necked mice usually wild nest underground, so one is unlikely to see these in a coppiced hedgerow. Voles nest at ground level. Shrew nests are similar but more difficult to locate. Harvest mice nests are mostly within a metre of the ground and flimsy in construction.

Above: two harvest mouse nests. Breeding and individual. Both low down.

Field or short-tailed vole nest. Short grass used, but not long stands or woven.

Decaying wren’s nest. Unwoven and included many leaves – but the same dimensions as a dormouse breeding nest.

Dormice generate two main nest types. Imagine your two fists together – that’s about the size of a breeding nest. Individual animals build smaller and less compact sleeping nests in summer – smaller than a single fist.

Construction is with fine bark or, more often, grassy-like materials. It is dome-shaped with no clear entrance – unlike a wren or long-tailed tit’s nest. Leaves are seldom incorporated into a dormouse nest but are common with wrens.

The dormouse nests that I have located (some could well be lower) are at head height to two or more metres into the shrubby vegetation. They are wound into a branching point.

By now, the dormice should be hibernating underground and the nests will be unoccupied. I last spotted my garden dormice this year at the start of November and last year in late November. (Of course, they could have been active elsewhere after those dates.) The single hibernating dormouse I have located was in a nest in open woodland just beneath the leaf litter layer. It was encountered during hazel coppice conservation.

GENERAL ADVICE. Select your search location carefully. Find continuous shrubs that are diverse in their species range and dense. Bramble is an advantage and should be viewed carefully as that is an ideal spot!

My survey location.

If you want to see images of extracted nests, please look at previous dormouse articles on this site: http://www.nwhwildlife.org