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.
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.
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.)
Someone asked the other day, “Who reads the articles?” The answer is not what I expected when it was set up: few locally, but about 60% are in the UK, after that it is USA, Canada, India, China, Russia, Philippines and virtually every country except South America. It is now a worldwide package and the most read is: Plants are Clever 2.
Around 1300 articles are downloaded each month.
See Mammal Society: Dormouse_complete.pdf for more information on the species
An article lifted from The Guardian newspaper, today 29th September. This newspaper is at the forefront with environmental articles and, at least, a scan of their articles is worthwhile. The are UK and worldwide editions.
Why the copy? I believe it offers a new insight into the world around us. Generally we see butterflies as the attractive, good-guys of the world. But, like most organisms they can have a darker side.
Occasionally a similar milkweed species arrives in the UK. Milkweeds are quite common on the west coast of USA. I have encountered two hibernation groves in central California.
Also, it is worth noting that male butterflies fight over access to females, and you will spot this in your own gardens. Generally butterfly males fly in vertical circles around a potentially receptive female in a pre-mating dance wafting sex pheromones in her direction. How the females decide to mate or to ignore the male is a mystery to me. Information please!
Now, all thoughts of sex are probably on hold for surviving adult UK butterflies as they stock up with resources before the overwintering species prepare to hide away in hibernation. Other species will spend the winter as eggs or underground as larvae.
I delay cutting some parts of my wild meadows until I can be confident that insect larvae are safely underground. It is also delayed to ensure slow worms have hibernated (they can be killed during the cutting process) and to give some space for the short-tailed voles.
The butterfly that drinks caterpillars alive to bolster its pheromones
Milkweed butterflies in Indonesia have been discovered to supplement their diets with the juices of larvae
The complexity of insect behaviours is a frontier we have barely explored. As conspicuous, charismatic creatures, butterflies get more attention than most, and yet there is still so much to discover.
To produce mating pheromones that attract females, male butterflies may supplement their diet with other chemicals. Usually these are obtained from plants but the milkweeds have been observed scratching caterpillars and apparently imbibing their juices with their proboscis.Advertisement
“The caterpillar larvae would contort their bodies rapidly in what appeared to be futile attempts to deter the scratching,” said Yi-Kai Tea from the University of Sydney, who observed this never-previously-reported behaviour with colleagues.
Even stranger is the fact that the milkweed butterflies are feeding off similar caterpillars to their offspring – not their own species but from their own subfamily.
Like all good scientific discoveries, this “kleptopharmacophagy” – chemical theft – only raises further questions.
Central Wales is probably less visited than the north and south coasts, yet for wildlife it offers some gems. It is a largely remote area of high hills, although some people feel they are mountains. Sheep dominate the lower elevations, and their winter pastures are so improved that only grass seems to grow, so, like many parts of our small island, one has to search out wildlife locations.
On the A470, just north of Rhayader is Gilfach, a 166 hectare Radnorshire Wildlife Trust reserve. For centuries Gilfach was a working hill farm, yet its owners did not follow the trend to adopt new agricultural techniques – their winter pastures were neither ploughed, reseeded, nor chemically treated. As a result, it has kept its floral diversity and the resulting food chains. It is a place with multiple habitats, from high open land down to marshy meadows and a salmon river … and a diversity of wildlife (55 species of breeding birds, 6 bats and 413 lichens).
The reserve is adjacent to the A470, with all-weather seating, good car parking and picnic spots. Even folks with limited mobility can access many locations, with a small road giving good routes. Paths, varying from easy to demanding, so encourage walkers to explore the farm.
The human centre of the hill farm was a 1600s longhouse that gave human accommodation with the animal sheds attached. Nearby is a dipper-watching hide.
Bell heather, common heather and gorse bring a blaze of colour to the hillside in late summer. Their nectar-rich flowers attract insects like the mountain bumble bee (Bombus monticola) and fox moth.
Butterflies love the wildflowers and grasses with the small pearl-bordered fritillary, common blue and green hairstreak to name but a few found here. Over seventy different types of bird have been recorded with over two thirds choosing to breed here. Redpoll, yellowhammer, whinchat, linnet, red kite, spotted and pied flycatcher and cuckoo all spend time at Gilfach.
The Marteg river runs through the reserve, with occasional visits from otters and a winter run of salmon joining the brown trout and bullhead fish.
Our visit was in late September, so much of the flora was past its best, yet the diversity was clear and a spring trip to see its oak woodlands filled with bluebells and stitchwort would be wonderful. Then too the insect diversity would be driving the insectivorous food chain.
Combining Gilfach with the Elan Valley, with its RSPB reserve, would be a good contrast.
Not too distant to Gilfach is the 200 hectare Hafod Estate, with excellent public access. It is a few miles south and east of Devil’s Bridge – near Cwmystwyth / Pontrhydygroes. It is signposted from Devil’s Bridge.
A large car park with limited picnic tables and toilets is provided. Disabled access would be demanding. This is a remote location.
If you are a mammal person this could be the spot for you. There are pine martens, otters, badgers and many other species … and a remote cottage to hire. Or stay at Devil’s Bridge and enjoy the steam mountain railway.
Hafod has a great range of walks, often following the Ystwyth River that finally enters the Irish Sea / Cardigan Bay at Aberystwyth. Being high-hill-country the slopes are clothed in commercial conifers, plus sessile oaks and rowan.
Just north of Aberystwyth is the coastal village of Borth. Adjacent are Ynyslas and Cors Fochno (Borth Bog), both part of the Dyfi National Nature Reserve and places I have visited for over 50 years.
The prevailing winds have, over hundreds of years, have whipped up the beach sand and deposited it on Ynyslas – it is now a calcareous dune system.
Parking is available, and there is a visitor centre with loos. The downside being the dogs. How a NNR can allow itself to become a dog walking / running area is beyond me. It is a disgrace. Nature reserves are few in number and should be reserved for nature, with even much restricted human access and no dogs. The RSPB generally gets this right.
As at Studland (Dorset) the sand dunes show succession from pure sand hills adjacent to the beach through to mature dunes stabilized by grasses. With the calcium carbonated seashells incorporated into the thin soil it is akin to a chalk downland in its mature flora.
Summer brings a varied display of flowers to the reserve. Marsh and bee orchids appear in the early summer in the dune slacks (the wet areas of the dunes) followed by pyramidal orchids. There are also colourful saltmarsh flowers, sea pink, sea aster, sea spurrey. Butterflies and day-flying moths fill the air, while dragonflies dart around the raised bog. You might spot wildlife like osprey and otter on the estuary.
For me the special plant is the late-flowering marsh helleborine orchid. This is generally uncommon but flowers in profusion here. Animals include adders, grass snake, sand and common lizards, myriads of rabbits and night-hunting polecats. The Welsh vernal mining bee is active during the spring. Nightjars can be heard in the summer.
With up to 8 metres of peat beneath the surface the raised bog of Cors Fochno is a huge carbon store. At one time the site was destined to become a potato farm, yet it was rightly saved.
The waterlogged bog surface is a hostile place for most plants, and those that thrive here, like bog cotton, bog asphodel and bog myrtle, all have special adaptations.
Carnivorous plants also come into their own here including all three native species of sundews.
You’ll have to work hard to find access to the bog. Adjacent to the Ynyslas to Tre-Taliesin (B4353) road is a miniscule car park set down from the road. Pull in here and open the gate, ignoring warnings! Drive down the track to a car park and one can access the boardwalk from here.
The acidic, wet conditions encourage mosses. The most important bog specialist plants (and the main peat-formers), are the sphagnums, which form colourful carpets on the open bog and raise its surface into a shallow dome as their remains accumulate. Fifteen species of bog moss occur here including three national rarities.
Heathers are common here, together with myrtles and bog rosemary. Reptiles and amphibians enjoy the location.
RSPB’s 800 hectare Ynys-hir is just a few miles towards Machynlleth. It has a difficult access, but it is well worth it. There is a visitor centre, car park and four diverse habitats: wet land, woodland, hillside and estuary marshes.
Spring Watch featured the reserve a few years back and showed snakes being predated by buzzards, and then fed to their young. Not so now. On talking to a warden, we learned that a nearby estate had started releasing thousands of non-native pheasants; they have spread and eaten out the reserve’s reptiles. All so idiots can shoot at such slow-moving birds that it are difficult to miss. Breeding and releasing non-native birds should be banned. If people want to eat them, keep them like chickens.
The RSPB says of its reserve: There are an exciting mixture of habitats to be explored at Ynys-hir. Stunning Welsh oak woodland which in spring has breeding pied flycatcher, redstart, wood warbler and lesser spotted woodpecker as well as the early spring flowers such as bluebells. The estuary saltmarsh and lowland wet grasslands support breeding lapwing and redshank. During the autumn and winter months this habitat is important for Greenland white-fronted geese, golden plover, lapwing, wigeon and barnacle geese. Other areas to explore include freshwater pools, reedbeds and peat bog. Birds to be seen here include grasshopper warblers, water rail with hen harrier in the winter. There are many species of dragonfly and butterflies including small red dragonfly and brimstone butterflies, otters, common lizard, slow worms and grass snakes.
Finally, Hafren Forest. This is located near Llyn Clywedog, a lake / dam that attempts to control some of the flow down the River Severn – that starts here.
Hafren is a huge forestry site, with car park, picnic tables and toilets. Plenty of signed walks can be taken that mostly wander along the river valleys. We encountered an uncommon carnivorous plant on our rambles – butterworts. It was just a single colony, but possibly 100 plants on a steep wet slope.
You will be able to spot ospreys on the lake and explore lead mines alongside the dam wall.
We spent a glorious two-week on tour through Central Wales. One hotel will soon be quite exceptional: The Black Mountain Lodge near Glasbury-on-Wye. The current owners only took over the place in May 2021 and, given six months, the few early snags will be sorted. The food was exceptional. Great location for walking the Wye Valley and the Black Mountains of the Brecon Beacons National Park.
Dr John Moon (main words) and David Beeson (images and introduction). 1st September 2021
Photographing the Naked Ladies … now do not get too excited, this may not the article you thought it might be!
As you will all know, Naked Ladies is a common name of the Autumn Crocus, Meadow Saffron, scientific name: Colchicum autumnale. This is a toxic, UK native that flowers in September and resembles true crocuses. This is, however, in a different plant family. It is not the plant that gives us the kitchen saffron. Biologically extracts from the plant can be used to disrupt nuclear division in the laboratory, hence its toxicity.
The photographs were taken in Everleigh Ashes, Salisbury Plain. This species also occurs in Collingbourne Woods near Andover. The plant is not common, but commercial bulbs can be purchased in a variety of colours.
Meadow Saffron has an interesting biology in that, at the time of flowering, the ovaries are underground and connected to the above ground stigma and style. The style is contained in a long, narrow perianth / corolla tube. The germinated pollen (on the stigma) has to grow 15 cm down to the ovaries. The flower is topped by the petals which also contain the stamens. Pollination, via various insects, occurs above ground and fertilization underground. In the spring the seed capsule comes up above ground on the end of a stalk along with large glossy green leaves. All parts of the plant are toxic to animals and historically this led to many colonies in damp meadows being deliberately destroyed. The corms of the plant are also the source of the drug colchicine which is used as a gout treatment.
Remember: Pollen germinates on the plant’s stigma to form a multicellular structure called a pollen tube. This grows down inside the style to reach the ovary, which will contain an egg. One nucleus from the pollen tube joins with the egg cell in fertilization. Another pollen tube nucleus joins with the non-egg nuclei and that eventually forms the endosperm (food store). THERE IS A FULL ARTICLE ON THIS IF YOU EXPLORE THE ARTICLES ALREADY PUBLISHED – PLANTS ARE CLEVER 2. Plant sex is far more interesting than most folks understand! Alternation of generations!!
Plants are clever 2 is our most read article … to my surprise!
http://www.nwhwildlife.org is the HOMEPAGE. Visit and scroll down for 120+ ad-free articles on: UK wildlife, orchids, Yellowstone NP and many insects.
It is seldom that the Beesons go to the same spot twice. That we went to Yellowstone twice in two years is unprecedented. It was just so magnificent, and I urge you to go! The geology, botany and wildlife just blew us away, also the Americans are great at providing comprehensive literature to push the visit to a higher level of understanding.
Firstly, a couple of warnings. 1. There are coach trips that ‘do’ Yellowstone in a couple of days with a single overnight – DO NOT do this! Yellowstone needs your own transport and a week to get even close to enjoying and understanding the place. 2. Accommodation is an issue. To stay inside the park you will need to book a year in advance. This we did, but also we took an AirB&B house in Gardner, just outside the north entrance and added Teton Village (more later) after. We also stayed at Cooke City by the northeast Yellowstone entrance before moving on to Cody in the fringe zone.
Be aware that the ‘season’ for Yellowstone is very short. It closes down at the end of September for most functions. So, check this out.
How to get there? We flew to Denver first time, visiting the Rocky Mountain National Park before moving towards Yellowstone. The second exploration was via Seattle, going to Olympic then Glacier National Parks before Yellowstone. If you can drive, do it yourself. Driving in the USA is easy and comparatively cheap. We went as a group of six each time and hired small minibuses.
While Yellowstone is known around the world, Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming) is less famous yet equally stunning. What’s more, the two are virtually attached with Teton to the south. Do both, please. In fact, we had better walks in Teton and wild beavers are easier to watch.
Next tip: Buy ‘Yellowstone Resources and Issues Handbook’ before you start planning your trip. The $20 you pay (plus postage) will be worth it. The near 300 pages are a goldmine of information. For added stimulation obtain the BBC trio of DVDs on Yellowstone, especially because the content covers the times when access to the park is difficult or impossible.
Next tip: if you are still deciding between The Grand Canyon (Colorado) and Wyoming do note we have been to both, and Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon alone gets our vote – yes, smaller, but for us more impressive.
The road system in Yellowstone is a figure of 8 with access from the north, south, northeast and west. The caldera of the ancient volcano contains the main geysers, with the ‘honeypot’ of Old Faithful near to the popular west entrance, yet there are better and quieter volcanic displays elsewhere including West Thumb on the fringe of Yellowstone Lake.
Next tip: We enjoyed the Lamar Valley especially. It was quieter than many areas and held buffalo and wolves, and we had close views.
Grand Teton is quite different in its structure and is accessible from Teton Village or Jackson (to the south). Teton’s mountains are not all around the park, but mainly to the west as a stunning skyline. The foothills provide great walking for all abilities and the river plain has open vistas and easy access to the river and its wildlife. It is quieter than its neighbour.
Okay, last tip: do not even think about going – just plan your trip and go. You’ll not regret it.
It has been an indifferent summer in Hampshire. Yet we are hugely appreciative of having no fires or floods or plagues of locusts. I guess dampness is preferable to desertification. The cool rainfall enhanced grass growth by removing growth-limiting factors, so with some of the meadows now cut the compost bins are full to overflowing.
The cutting of meadows is an art rather than a science. Which do I cut and when? The Main Lawn and Spring Meadows are easy and have already been cut. The Summer Meadow is always a conundrum. The issue being the short-tailed voles, slow worms and butterflies. All will be adversely affected by cutting. My solution is to rotate which areas are cut when each year, leaving some uncut until spring to allow some butterfly larvae the opportunity to slowly snuggle down into the soil and thatch even over the winter.
Cutting will remove the late flowers, yet they are now few and adult butterflies low in number. Not so the grasshoppers and crickets; they have done well and still chirp.
If the meadow remained uncut shrubs would grow and the zone slowly would move towards scrub and woodland. WE want a flowery meadow with its associated wildlife, so annual cutting is vital.
With time, ponds always fill to form marshland or bogs. Our pond is now over 30 years old and this year has had a big clean. Over a metre of yellow iris gunk has been cut out – akin to cutting peat! Some composted, the rest ultimately to rest in an adjacent hedgerow. Dragonflies are still mating and laying eggs – Common Hawker and Darters. Newtlets are in the weed and some remain as larvae over winter, but the froglets have spread far and wide.
Pulling the iris rhizomes from the water disturbed a long leech – 10 cm or more. It has no willing humans to donate blood, nor fish, so must be feeding from the occasional frog that visits.
To my surprise the dormice have moved on. Possibly they migrate with the supply of natural foods (Hazel nuts are abundant now, but not near feeder.) and prefer them to donated peanuts in the feeder. The moles are making new runs through the lawn and dug borders … hopefully they will stop now the run system has been extended.
As the meadow loses it colour the late herbaceous plants and the fruiting shrubs give garden colour and food resources.
http://www.nwhwildlife.org is the HOMEPAGE. Go here and scroll down for 100+ ad-free articles. Topics include: Dragonflies, Water Meadows, Orchids, Forest and freshwater Ecology, Okefenokee Swamp in the USA and soon Yellowstone Park!!
If you have semi-scientific articles to offer freely to the world, we would be happy to consider them.
With time to spare in Salisbury I took the opportunity to re-visit the water meadows there. (If this topic is of interest see the previous article.)
The C17 innovation of water meadows changed agriculture in Southern England. Comparatively warm river water was flooded onto the meadows to warm the soil and produce a flush of grass. Excess was lead away through lower channels.
The new grass provided food for sheep when there would otherwise be none, and allowed far more animals to be kept on the same land. It was a technological breakthrough, but at considerable cost and effort. Whole meadows needed changing to dig the input and output channels. The river needed weirs, or similar, to divert the water into the input channels.
Few working meadows exist today. There is one near Winchester, on the River Itchen, and another just south of Salisbury – the Britford Meadows. There remains are, however, common along the wet margins of local rivers.
Clearly this meadow can not have been ploughed since it was made in the 1700s or early 1800s. Hence an interesting flora with many unusual grasses. Few were seen in August as they had been chomped by the sheep!
The meadows will be FLOATED in late February or early March 2022. Go to their website for updates.
Now, just for fun – late summer colour.
http://www.nwhwildlife.org for the HOMEPAGE. From there you can scroll down for 100+ ad-free articles. Topics include: wildlife gardening, mayflies, butterflies, botany and even slime molds!
It could be argued that wildlife enthusiasts spend too much time looking and too little in thinking. I bet you disagree! Sure, I do. The sights and sounds of the natural world is alluring and gives me a buzz. I am never more content than exploring for the unknown or simply enjoying magnificent redwoods, oaks or a green scene. Yet, there is more to be had. Why is that plant there, but not living two kilometres away? How can a mole live underground, while a similar sized rodent needs the open atmosphere? That is ecology and ecology depends on the chemistry of the environment and the organism.
Moles, bloodworms (Chironomid larvae, non-biting midges) and vicuna have the same problem. They dwell in oxygen-deficient places. Moles underground, the bloodworm in the mud of aquatic places and the vicuna high in the mountains. Oxygen is the vital component in aerobic respiration – the release of energy from organic materials that drives the organism’s metabolism. (Anaerobic energy release is less efficient and leaves potentially toxic end products such as ethanol or lactic acid.)
Atmospheric oxygen decreases with height and so the gradient from the air to the vicuna’s blood capillaries in its lungs is lower – and diffusion could potentially not supply enough for its needs. Blood’s oxygen-carrying pigments can combine with diffused oxygen and carry it away from the lungs, so maintaining a good diffusion gradient. That oxygen is then dumped (released) where the local oxygen concentration is low. There is a graph that explains this – the oxygen-dissociation curve. This varies with different oxygen-carrying blood pigments. Haemoglobin (Heme for you Americans) is less willing to pick up oxygen than myoglobin, for example.
Here I need to divert to chickens. How would you know if a butcher sold you leg or breast chicken meat? Colour. That’s because chicken legs work aerobically and to run away from a foxy predator they have an oxygen storing pigment, myoglobin, fixed in their muscles. Explosive flight, when the fox is just too close, is anaerobic and so breast (flight) muscle has no fixed myoglobin and is white. (Now you know why some supermarkets shine red light onto their beef displays – because beef also has myoglobin and the public seemingly believes the more the better.) Have you noticed how deeply coloured heart muscle is? Not sure about you, but the more oxygen reserves in my heart the better.
Myoglobin picks up oxygen better than haemoglobin, yet only releases it when body oxygen levels are low. Ideal for the vicuna and the mole.
A baby needs to change its blood haemoglobin type soon after birth as the oxygen conditions from the womb to air have changed.
Bloodworms can be very different organisms because this is a loose non-scientific name. Midge larvae and small aquatic (earth) worms have the same common names. Both habit oxygen-deficient, muddy environments and need haemoglobin-like pigments in their blood, while open-water relatives do not. Mud is both dense and absorbing of oxygen as organic material decays, but open water draws oxygen from its surface, so is richer. Open water livers do not need to waste resources in having the extra oxygen carriers. Different chemical conditions, different physiological answers.
There are many oxygen-carrying or holding pigments, even in plants such as legumes – that need it to aid nitrogen fixation.
On one occasion I set my students to assess the numbers of earthworms in two different environments – a lawn and later an acid heathland. The technique was learned on the lawn first and the latter was on a field trip. They marked out a area with a quadrat and poured a mildly irritating chemical onto the soil. Worms move to the surface under such conditions and can be captured washed and counted. (You can do the same with a solution of mustard in water.) On the heathland they found no worms. Worms cannot cope with acidic soils, which partly explains why the humus does not become incorporated into the subsoil.
pH, the scientific measure of acidity, varies. pH 3.5 (acidic) or less is known and at the other extreme pH 9 (Alkaline). Most plants live in the pH 5.5 – 7.0 range.
Soil is composed of water, air, humus (decaying organic materials), rock particles and living organisms. The rock particles can decay and release their chemical components or surface chemicals can be released by chemical action or water flow. These chemicals may be needed for the plants’ metabolism, especially nitrates (or similar), phosphates and potassium (N, P, K) but also numerous other micro-nutrients (iron, manganese, cobalt etc). As the soil pH changes so these chemicals are held or released in various proportions, and there may be too many or too few for any specific plant. For example, calcicoles need to grow in calcium-rich soils, calcifuges where calcium is lacking. Calcicoles are found on chalky or limestone areas, calcifuges are not there but on acid heathlands where the calcium is leached out by the acidity.
In Wareham Forest the soils are acidic, yet the roadway through it was made from calcium-rich marine gravels and the flora is strikingly different.
As global carbon dioxide increases it enhances sea acidity and this can adversely affect the shell composition of molluscs and corals… it dissolves away. Atmospheric acidity impacts on lichens and their tolerance determines where they survive. Xanthoria, the yellow lichen often spotted on roofs, is quite acid-tolerant and is encouraged by bird excrement, so occurs frequently in urban places.
Life in the gut and other exciting places.
Of course, living in or from another organism poses more chemical issues. We will avoid Covid-19 and the chemical mechanisms of immunity or disease or death, but the alimentary canal is filled with acids (human stomach) and digestive enzymes designed to kill and break down organic matter. Our gut flora will need either a wonderous body coating or chemicals to neutralise their opposition. I well recall my first dogfish dissection, for its body cavity and gut was filled with parasitic worms. What a difficult spot to call home.
Okay, now where else do you not fancy living? As a bacterium on human teeth? A dung or sewerage works specialist? You’ve got it … the point I am making is that chemistry is always needed if the organism is to survive, and we know little or nothing about it. Now there are some great research projects for new graduate biologists or chemists.
So, give chemistry a thought. All organisms only work because of their chemistry. Biochemistry is the chemistry of life.
PLUS: photographs of plants on Eastern Salisbury Plain Army Training Area.
But, firstly let us separate the two different genera of ‘helleborines’. There are Epipactis and Cephalantherahelleborines.
The Cephalanthera genus contains the white, red and narrow-leaved helleborines. The white helleborine I find locally, sometimes in good numbers. I associate it with beech woodlands, yet given a chance it will spread to thin chalky soils on the woodland edge. The red helleborine is very rare in the UK, yet much more widespread on mainland Europe – Slovenia, France and Switzerland. The narrow-leaved type I encountered only once on a Hants Wildlife Trust reserve in east Hampshire. All flower in early summer.
Outlines of where to seek these plants out are available, for example in: The Flora of Hampshire by Brewis, Bowman and Rose. Harley Books.
Epipactis: Most of us would be allowed to think that many of these helleborine ‘species’ are just variants of one species. They are strikingly similar. Of course, all organisms show variability due to genetic changes and those between the different members of the genus Epipactis are no different.
Marsh Helleborine. The three purple ‘petals’ are sepals. There are two petals plus the labellum (pointing down). The yellow structure contains the reproductive parts.
Epipactis have much chunkier flowers than the other genus, and they are at their best in July through to August. I first encountered the genus on a NNR in wet, sand-dune slacks at Ynyslas near Borth in West Wales. This was the Marsh Helleborine, a species also found on Stockbridge North Fen and around the Basingstoke Canal.
Epipactis palustric is beautiful and spreads easily vegetatively. However, my attempt to establish it from purchased plants was unsuccessful. (Plant World Seeds sell packets of the dust-like seeds, and I have bought some to try again.)
The other local species grow in much drier habitats, often associated with beech trees.
The plant most likely to be encountered is Epipactis helleborine, Broad-leaved Helleborine. It is said to be locally common – but not in my estimation! I consider it rare, but it occurs far up into Scotland. This plant may show its flowers as late as October.
It is described as: A tall (75 cm) orchid of woodland and scrub, the Broad-leaved Helleborine has greenish, purple-tinged flowers that look a little ‘drooping’. Strongly veined, oval leaves spiral around its stem. Its habitats include deciduous and coniferous woodland, shady banks, streamsides, roadsides, dune-slacks, limestone pavements, screes and hedgerows. It also occurs in urban habitats, particularly abandoned gardens, and said to be more common in Glasgow than anywhere else in Britain.
The nutrition of the Broad-leaved Helleborine and its relatives is interesting. They obtain much of their carbon and nitrogen compounds from trees (yes, trees!). This is through soil fungi that provide the conduit. The plant can grow even when respiration is consuming more energy than arrives from photosynthesis – hence why they can grow in dark environments.
(In the US it is sometimes referred to as the ‘weed orchid’ as it is an introduced species which has spread rapidly.)
Some species of wasp and bee that are attracted to broad-leaved helleborines have been noted as becoming ‘intoxicated’ after visiting these orchids for nectar – it appears that the flowers can contain a kind of alcohol as a result of a fungus! The bees like it so much, they come back for more, ensuring the flower is potentially pollinated.
Because the different dry-land Epipactis types are so similar I investigated their DNA. Well, I wish I hadn’t! It is a real mish-mash and I ended up confused, but deciding they may well just be variants of one species. But, the books record them as separate species. Why the problem? They are mostly self-pollinating, so mutations can stimulate differences that repeat. (BSBI website is worth investigating for serious botanists.)
Separate species (genetic variants?) include Violet Helleborine with purple stems and leaves, Narrow-lipped Helleborine and Green-flowered Helleborine.
Epipactis phyllanthes occurs in scattered colonies throughout England in Dorset, Kent, Norfolk and Cumbria. In Wales it occurs in some coastal dune systems, particularly at Kenfig National Nature Reserve, Whitford Burrows and Morfa Dyffryn. In Flintshire it occurs in woodland. In Ireland there are sites in Co. Dublin, Leitrim and Fermanagh.
Epipactis phyllanthes is also recorded in parts of western Europe from Denmark south to Belgium, France and northern Spain.
The Hardy Orchid Society has practical sessions to aid your growing of UK orchids from seed. They also organise field trips.
National parks supposedly at the heart of efforts to tackle the climate crisis and boost nature are dominated by intensively managed grouse moors, according to new research.
Driven grouse moors, which are associated with the controversial burning of vegetation and the illegal persecution of birds of prey, make up 44% of the Cairngorms national park, 28% of the North York Moors and a fifth of the Peak District, a study by the charity Rewilding Britain has found.
A total of 852,000 acres – an area more than twice the size of Greater London – inside Britain’s national parks is devoted to driven grouse shooting, with grouse moors covering a quarter of the Yorkshire Dales, 15% of Northumberland national park and 2% of the Lake District.
“With over three-quarters of a million acres of our national parks devoted to driven grouse moors, the parks are being held back from tackling Britain’s collapsing biodiversity and the climate emergency,” said Guy Shrubsole, policy and campaigns coordinator for Rewilding Britain.
“The prime minister’s pledge to protect 30% of Britain’s land for nature – and count national parks towards this total – rings hollow when you realise that vast areas of our national parks are dominated by these nature-impoverished and heavily managed areas.”
Britain is the only country in the world to practise driven grouse shooting, a tradition which requires intensive management of heather moorland to produce large numbers of wild red grouse for shooting in the weeks after the “Glorious Twelfth” of August.
Grouse moor managers undertake controlled burns of moorland in patches to stimulate fresh heather shoots for young grouse, but research by Leeds University has found this can damage peat soils, releasing carbon and increase flood risks downstream.
Mark Avery, the wildlife campaigner and co-founder of Wild Justice, said: “Is this really what national parks are for? We should ban driven grouse shooting anyway but let’s start with inside our national parks.
“The current trend is for rewilding upland habitats to make them more nature-rich but 44% of the Cairngorms national park is dewilded because of a rich man’s hobby.”
According to the Moorland Association, owners spend £52.5m each year conserving moors with 75% of Europe’s upland heather moorland found in Britain and more than 60% of it designated sites of special scientific interest for its unique vegetation and ground-nesting birds.
Gamekeepers’ predator control to protect ground-nesting native red grouse also benefits other rare and declining birds such as curlew, lapwing and golden plover, while grouse moor owners have planted 1,275 hectares of trees in recent years on the moorland fringe.
Amanda Anderson, Director of the Moorland Association, said: “In terms of tackling climate change, grouse moor managers in England have achieved 60% of their peatland restoration targets, making a valuable 26% contribution to government targets for 2025.
“Grouse moor managers are wholly committed to their considerable conservation efforts which help protect and enhance the natural world – an ambition we all share. There is not a binary choice of grouse shooting or not. Any report that claims land is solely given over to driven grouse shooting must be scrutinised as moorland has multiple uses and land tenure.
“Grouse moor owners see their conservation efforts as a work in progress measured by handing it to the next generation of custodians in better condition. All said and done, we are wild at heart; very much a part of nature.”
There is concern amongst conservationists that the annual mass release of these birds – with a total biomass greater than that of all our native birds combined – has an adverse impact on native wildlife.
A study on trends in the ‘game’ bird shooting industry demonstrates that with the increasing size and intensification of shooting estates comes greater risk to the environment. As a greater proportion of hunters come from urban rather than rural areas, there is a decreasing connection between these shooters and the habitats of their prey.
The consequential increasing intensification of the ‘game’ bird shooting industry, associated with the large-scale release of captive-reared birds and decreasing interest in sustainable management techniques, is likely to have negative implications for the local biodiversity around shooting estates.
Furthermore, studies and recent reports link grouse moor management with environmental degradation, river pollution, contributing to climate change and the potential link between grouse shooting moors and urban flooding.
With millions of non-native birds released each year there is undoubtedly much destruction. Snakes, butterfly and moth larvae and other invertebrates are eaten by these birds, as well as the keepers destroying potential native predators of these released birds. In a pheasant killing site known to me, the badgers and foxes suddenly totally vanished when there was a change in ownership. Killed just for pheasants to be so blasted full of lead that even supermarkets refuse to sell them!
Badgers are, in theory, a protected species but I found a jaw trap at one site and old cyanide tins at another. One of my students, some while ago, reported a very rare honey buzzard being shot on a pheasant shoot when he was a beater. Of course, there are allegations of so-called royalty shooting a protected hen harrier … we will see if that ends up in a ‘tell all’ autobiography.
We all have to have our own views. I started my journey through conservation helping to protect otters – then hunted with dogs (for FUN), even as their population approached near zero. I would ban shooting of grouse, pheasants, partridges and their like. Deer control should only be for trained and licensed marksmen, and not anyone with some spare money and a blood-lust. I dare not start on fox hunting …
It really is time for these Victorian blood-lusts to be sent to the history books.
Do look at the Rewilding Britain website if you have time. They are a very positive organisation and deserve support.
(I know that’s not very efficient, so offers to improve it will be welcome.)
Images from the wildlife camera last night.
The Guardian newspaper / website has a great range of environmental articles and it is worth keeping an eye on! Have a great life. I’m off seeking, with help, high summer orchids this weekend … so, expect an article soon.
My Apeman Wildlife camera has again been pointed at a peanut feeder just alongside our garage. This is adjacent to where I found two (rare) UK dormouse nests in November last year, and then recorded a pair on this feeder. Since that time brown rats found the feeder and started to dominate it – hence a new, highly protected feeder. Which is sad as I quite like rats, having kept two as pets, and the images on this feeder are less good. Yet yet rats dominated too much and had to be moved on.
The UK has a limited range of small mammals – the voles (long and short-tailed, the mice (yellow-necked, long-tailed, dormice and house mice) and shrews (common and pygmy). Edible dormice (introduced) are found in an area north of London but not around here. We also have brown rats and a remnant population of black rats in a few locations. Regrettably, we have no harvest mice here, although they occur with a couple of miles.
Dormice are found in Southern England, East Wales and a few other scattered locations, where they are being enhanced or re-introduced. They are deciduous woodland specialists, especially where there is a well-developed shrub layer. Mature hedgerows are also occupied, and ours is a conifer hedge (our neighbours’) enhanced with a diverse range of deciduous shrubs on our side. Ancient woodlands are ideal, but some dormice have been found living in coniferous areas.
I recently found a dead dormouse in a zone of pure oaks with no under layer, although a diverse range of plants was within 100m.
Dormice are almost exclusively nocturnal, and they can travel up to the tree canopy. Ours, so far, have been nocturnal and are content feeding from shelled walnuts, hamster food and peanuts. Droppings showed flowers were also being eaten. Our hedge has an array of food sources throughout the year: holly berries over winter through to ivy fruits in the autumn. There are climbing roses for hips, honeysuckle, cherry plums, damsons, apples, hawthorn berries and more. Dormice are poorly equipped to digest cellulose, so prefer softer vegetation and may avoid nuts.
Litter size is said to be between 2 – 9. Typically 4 or 5. They usually breed the year after being born. Life span, in the wild, at least 4 years. It is said that crows and magpies drop dormice they have caught, and that could have been the origin of the one I discovered under pure oak.
Dormice have special UK protection and handling them without a license is an offence – not that it was when I first caught one!
During the day long-tailed (bank) voles dominate the feeder, at night it becomes the realm of the mice – long-tailed, yellow-necked and dormice.
I have been checking this feeder since April, yet the dormice only reappeared in early July. Perhaps they had been feeding elsewhere since ending their hibernation or were very late in emerging. To date I have seen no signs of nests.
In summer dormouse adults: head and body 80 – 85 mm plus tail, 57 – 68 mm. Weight up to 25 g in pregnant females.
So, here are wildlife camera images; I regret not to John’s standard.
Wood mice range in size in summer: 80 – 100 mm plus tail, 70 – 95 mm. So considerably larger than the dormouse at maturity. Of course, young will be of various sizes. Yellow-necked have tails longer than their body, not so with the long-tailed mouse.
House mice are uniform grey, wood and yellow-necked brown in back colouration … not that I can see that on black-while images! House mice are largely creatures of urban environments as combine harvesters and ‘clean’ farming has decimated their food supplies in non-urban areas. Of 1536 small mice captured during a study in Wiltshire only 5 were house mice. The species is virtually never found in woodland areas. It may still occur in intensive poultry and pig units. One location that they do still occupy is off-shore islands. There, if other mice are not present, they may survive but they fail to cope with competition.
The camera has been moved higher to attempt to achieve more accurate size measurements.
A, wood mice. B, young dormice.
So, we have a family group of dormice adults and young, plus wood and yellow-necked mice. And, yes, given access we would see brown rats too.
For more articles on wildlife see: http://www.nwhwildlife.org – scroll down for 100+ ad-free articles. Please feel free to comment as I / we may get things wrong or you may have ideas to add.
The UK’s three commonest Damselflies are the Common Blue, the Blue-tailed and the Azure, and they can be found throughout our islands, even up into Scotland. In the lower half of England, not so much into Wales, broadly below a line drawn across between Liverpool and Kingston-upon-Hull, they are joined by a fourth, the Red-eyed Damselfly. This last is not as ubiquitous as the other three and, although it tolerates different acidity fairly well, prefers still water. It likes larger ponds, lakes, canals and very slow flowing rivers. It demands emergent and floating vegetation, such as lily pads and pond weeds, and loves to flit around away from the bank and over the water. The insect is fairly easy to identify, even though it may be several yards away, as the dark, red eyes and black back of the thorax make it look almost as if it is wearing a dark cloak.
In the 1990s a very similar species was expanding its range in Germany and the Netherlands and, in July 1999, it was discovered over here, at three sites in Kent. The Small Red-eyed Damselfly had landed. It established itself in its new home with extraordinary rapidity and by just 2002 it had become locally abundant in south-east England. Now it has become widely spread in a triangle roughly described by a diagonal line heading up, north-west, from Brighton to Northampton, then across to The Wash. It is establishing colonies throughout a larger area described by a line drawn upwards diagonally north-east from Exeter to Kingston-upon-Hull. Unhelpfully, this is a very similar area to that in which the Red-eyed may be found. It also likes the same environment as its larger cousin, and has the same behavioural characteristics, enjoying dancing out across the open water and landing on emergent and floating vegetation away from the bank … and you!
This behaviour and its strong similarity to the commoner Red-eyed Damselfly make it difficult to identify, and for a number of years, watching the spread of the insect across the country, nature-watchers in Andover had wondered if it had managed to reach and establish itself here.
In 2017 I was very new to the world of odonata and was simply going out there and hunting any insect I could with my trusty bridge camera and snapping away. Later I would get back and pop the results up on the computer screen to see if I had anything, and, if so, then open the book and try and find out what. During the autumn I heard that a local Otter expert had found Small Red-eyed on both Rooksbury and Charlton lakes and had the photos to prove it. Unfortunately, in spite of requests, neither I nor anyone else has managed to actually see the photos he had, but a fire had been lit. It was the time of year for ploughing through all those I’d taken, reviewing them and editing what I would keep and what I would trash, and I had found Damselflies on both lakes that had red eyes. I set about analysing what I had, always with the foolish optimism that would be the lucky little bear that had accidentally snapped the rarity.
Astonishingly, I found that I had caught a mating pair at Charlton Lake:
Having discovered their presence there, come the next year, the hunt was on. Unfortunately, fate was not with me. In 2017 there had been plenty of emergent and floating vegetation right up to the bank near the car park of the lake. In 2018 that had all gone and the nearest such vegetation was yards away and well out reach of any camera I had. Anton Lake looked extremely good as a potential site, having large areas of floating and emergent vegetation, but there, too, it was at least 6-10 yards away from the bank. As I suggested to the area Dragonfly recorder, only half in jest, we need a boat. Forget a bigger one, we just need a boat!
The boat was not forthcoming … but rain was.
The water level of Andover’s lakes began to rise quite quickly and, although I have understanding of why, this seemed to encourage the spread of emergent vegetation and the growth of an aquatic moss that seems to affect all three of Andover’s lakes. By last year this became obvious, but it still wasn’t close enough, then, this year it looked as if it was.
On Monday 19 July I visited Charlton Lake and sat down for a while on the edge of the bank, by the car park, to see if there were Damselflies of any type with red eyes … and there were. I fetched the camera from the car and started taking photos. The insects weren’t as close as I would have liked, but modern technology is a wonderful thing … when it works. One of its great gifts is being able to take a photograph and then, immediately, not just see if it has come out okay but also zoom right in and examine what’s there. This might seem a big “so what?” to many of you reading this but I first picked up a camera when people still remembered pinhole cameras. I grew up with rolls of film that you didn’t get developed until you’d shot the whole roll. Then you had a wait of a week until the results came back … and you couldn’t touch them up or improve them on a computer. Those were the days! Thank God we’ve moved on!
One of the first shots I took turned up trumps:
Yes, it’s not a great shot, it’s not very sharp and it’s not beautifully posed and composed … I know these things! It was a good two yards away and it’s been cropped to death, but what mattered was that I could see enough to positively identify it as a male Small Red-eyed. I took a stroll around that end of the lake, to try and find more and get some idea the size of the colony there, but that was the only part of the lake where the vegetation on and in the water came close enough to the bank. Incidentally, there was a lot of Emperor Dragonfly action on the lake, and I saw three females busily engaged in egg-laying, which was excellent.
My next trick was to visit Anton Lake, which I did the next day, in spite of not having any time to spare. The most suitable part of the lake for species I considered to be the east end, nearest Andover town, and I went and sat on a fishing pier overlooking it. I had barely touched down when a Damselfly with red eyes landed and couple of yards away on the floating moss that covered so much of this art of the lake. I snapped and caught:
They were here! I didn’t have the time to spare to investigate properly, so I left with a plan. I was due to walk the Anton Lake transect later in the week. I would have more time and I would take a good look around. On the Thursday, that is precisely what I did. It was another very hot day and I sat on the same fishing pier, snapped, examined the photo and snapped again. Most of the insects were not coming close enough, but of those that were I managed to positively identify all 14 as Small Red-eyed Damselflies. Very encouragingly nearly all were locked in tandem as egg-laying pairs … mind you, perhaps that explains why they have spread across the country so quickly!
Moving on around that end of the lake there were plenty of insects out over the water. It was impossible to identify them as going around the lake meant that they were silhouetted by the sun, but it was reasonable to assume that a good percentage were Small Red-eyed. Even more, the area of suitable vegetation at that end of the lake covered a good two acres. Judging by the numbers I’d seen in a very small patch, around 3 yards in diameter, this is clearly a sizeable colony.
Identification of Small Red-eyed is difficult because they tend to be yards away. I recommend the use of a strong lens! A bridge camera with a super-zoom is a very suitable weapon. They are also very similar to the standard Red-eyed. I haven’t been able to get what I would call the definitive shot of either the male or the female, for the reason just mentioned, but I should be able to show you enough. I’m going to start by cropping in on the first photo I took of them, the mating pair:
This focuses on the male attaching himself to the back of the female’s neck with his claspers.
First we’ll take the female. If you look at the pale green shoulder stripe that runs along the side of the upper surface of the thorax you will see that it is complete and runs the whole length. This is a female standard Red-eyed and she clearly has a very indistinct and broken shoulder stripe. Very often the female has no stripe at all:
Moving on to the male here is another I took at Anton Lakes:
1 – circles the last segment of the abdomen, section 10. Unlike the standard Red-eyed the blue colour that circles this section is broken by black. This can also just be made out in the cropped photo of the mating pair.
2 – shows a “blob” of blue colouration that reaches up from underneath the abdomen on section 8. The standard Red-eyed does have some colour reaching up but in the Small Red-eyed it is more marked.
3 – highlights a similar swell of blue colour on section 2 that runs along into section 3. The standard Red-eyed has nothing like this.
4 – focuses on the side of the upper thorax where, as with this specimen, there is a green shoulder stripe. In this case short but it can stretch along the whole length as with the female. The Standard Red-eyed male doesn’t have this
This is a standard Red eyed male, compare and contrast:
I have since visited Rooksbury several times, search for the insects there, but with no luck at all. On the other hand I have seen very few Damselflies with red eyes round there at all lately, so I shall persevere.
Living in fresh water sets up challenges for organisms. It is quite a different environment from dry land or from salty marine places. And it is a rare space on Earth – 2.5% of the earth’s water is fresh. Yet most of the earth’s fresh water is unavailable: locked up in glaciers, polar ice caps, atmosphere and soil. Additionally, some is highly polluted or lies too far under the earth’s surface to be extracted at an affordable cost. As a result only around 0.5% of the earth’s water is available as running or open fresh water, and much of that is in large lakes (think North American Great Lakes) and major rivers such as The Amazon.
Fresh water is a rare habitat, and with ever demanding human populations flowing waters are extracted with increasing regularity. The 1,450-mile-long North American Colorado River, draining 264,000 square miles, is a mere trickle when it nears the sea most years. (This year it is said to be dry.) In Hampshire (UK) our rare, clear, chalk rivers have water extracted in multiple locations, yet flow well most years.
My hometown, Andover, is located near the head of the River Anton, a tributary of the River Test that reaches the sea at Southampton. It is a crystal clear river – a shock to fishers more used to seeing silty waters. It has brown and introduced rainbow trout, some salmon, eels and many other fish species, plus oddities such as brook lampreys. The fishing is both exclusive and expensive*.
* Artificial lakes offer trout fishing at around £200 for a day, and allowing a maximum of 4 fish, and around £500 a day on the main river in May.
The water seeps out of the chalky hills as small streams and bubbles up from river beds. As the water table rises so the waters emerge higher up the valleys, for many streams are ‘winter bournes’ arising only after the winter’s rich rainfall, and slowly falling back as the summer and autumn progresses. Spending possibly years before the slightly acidic rainfall emerges to the surface it has had time to dissolve the chalk (calcium carbonate) and has become slightly alkaline (pH 7.4 – 8.7), and at a temperature of around 10 degrees Celsius all year. Soon the water will absorb oxygen, but at a level far below the 21% in the air, and often between 4 and 10 parts per million (% is parts per 100, of course.) There is much less oxygen* available for respiration in water than air, so one must expect a lower rate of metabolism (body working). In addition carbon dioxide levels are much higher, and that can be a negative influence.
The relatively warm winter water is the reason this part of the UK has many watercress growing businesses, with the natural plant growing in specially prepared gravel-lined beds and fed with spring water.
*Putting it another way, at 5 degrees a litre of air holds 210 cm3 oxygen, water 9 cm3.
The water’s oxygen levels fluctuate with light levels and the associated photosynthetic release of the gas. Sewage or the breakdown of natural organic material can reduce oxygen levels to zero, killing off most life. (Inputs of fertlizers will encourage weed growth, eutrophication, and when they die back later in the year they can ‘kill’ a water course.) Decay uses up oxygen.
Luckily, water allows good light penetration, so plants and algae can grow on the river’s bed. Exploring stones will show up the attached algae.
The final important factor will be current speed. This can be assessed by throwing an orange (fruit) into the river and timing its movement over a set distance. Of course, this gives only the surface speed, and in amongst the gravel or weed it will be near zero speed. Hence, small, swimming invertebrates live amongst weed and gravel to avoid being washed away or using up too much energy in maintaining location. Snails and many insect larvae will adhere to rocks or vegetation and so try to avoid being washed away.
To extract invertebrates we need to sample amongst the weed or the river’s bed. Traditionally I used a scientific instrument* to disturb the bed and washed the beasties into a net located downstream.
(* a Wellington boot at the end of my leg.)
The negatives, such as water flow and the possible lack of light, are mitigated by the buoyancy, less need for structural support, no wind pressure on fragile stems and diminished threat of desiccation in water. That water plants need to be near the surface is obvious, to that end they can reduce their density by having oxygen-filled spaces in their structure.
Water can be absorbed over their whole structure, minerals, oxygen too. Just as the leaves of aerial plants, if water plants’ leaves do not contribute sugars to the plant they will die or be shed. It is the decay of such structures than can reduce oxygen levels as decay is mostly an areobic process.
Phloem and a minimum of xylem is in the central core, beyond are the air-filled spaces of this hydrophyte. Little need for structural tissues such as collenchyma. (See articles on plant structure.)
Plants in flowing water will often have bisected leaves to reduce resistance. This is river crowfoot, Ranunculus fluitans.
Once plants emerge from water they will need more support, so woody xylem and collenchyma cells, with thickened cell walls, are found in the stems and leaves. Their roots will need to supply water and nutrients to aerial parts, so need to be more extensive than in a free floater. The roots will have an aerated structure.
Water lilies have their leaves spread on the water’s surface in slow moving water. They have their stomata on the upper surface only.
Aquatic plants need to flower. With the Canadian pond weed (Elodea canadensis) the filamentous flower stems (up to 15 cm long) bring the minute flowers to the water’s surface. While flowering in this species is said to be infrequent, no one has told my pond specimens this. They flower yearly in June and July.
Algae are common on rocks, stones and sometimes are free-floating in ponds. I have the common stonewort, Chara globularis. It was useful in the laboratory as the flow of cytoplasm is clearly visible in its long cells under the microscope. Diatoms, also algae, are seen in microscope samples.
Freshwater diatoms, drawings. These are photosynthetic and are at the base of the food chains and pyramids.
As on land, there will be herbivores, carnivores, omnivores, detritivores and parasites in the water. Some life will migrate from the water to land, for example newts, dragonflies and many fly species. These movers will have to modify their structures to adjust their physiology.
Of course, not all of these ‘water’ creatures live in the water, some make their homes on its surface with its surface tension providing their solid floor. Locally these will be whirligig beetles and pond skaters. The former can dive underwater if danger threatens, while both are carnivores.
The whirligig (Gyrinus natator) has a streamlined body but with its second and third limbs modified as paddles – being flattened and heavily fringed with hairs. Its eyes are in two sections – so is capable of vision above and below the water line at the same time.
For those living below the surface their oxygen requirement can be acquired in two ways. Either by still employing air’s oxygen or by extracting it from the water. Air breathers will include great diving beetles (Dytiscus marginalis), mosquito and similar fly larvae. They still use spiracles and trachea, with the former in the regions that are protruded from the surface. Another air technique is to carry bubbles of air with you – hence the silver sheen visible on biting water boatmen (Notonecta glauca) that swims upsidedown (or the underwater nests of water spiders). The smaller, but similar looking, lesser water boatman swims normally and is a herbivore.
Certain snails are also semi-aquatic, visiting the surface at intervals to take air into a chamber beneath their mantle, which works as a primitive lung. The great pond snail, Limnaea stagnalis, does this especially when crawling along the underside of the surface film of ponds.
For larger true aquatics they need a gill to allow the absorption, by diffusion, of oxygen into the body and to allow the loss of carbon dioxide. To make this more efficient, especially in mud-living invertebrates, they have a form of haemoglobin – hence the colour of blood worms (normally a fly larva, despite the name! But there are some red annelids, Tubifex sp, too, yet I seldom encounter them.).
Smaller invertebrates that are fascinating include the hydras and protozoans. I find hydras by collecting weed from a still or slow-flowing area and holding it in a tank with one-side illumination. Green hydra are photosynthetic (and carnivorous) and will move to the light and adhere to the tank’s side. They can be kept as pets, being fed on wild water fleas, Daphnia sp or Simocephalus sp. For mobile protozoans merely use mud samples or grow a biofilm on the surface of a water sample kept in the dark.
Daphnia are common in ponds and can be studied by capturing them in well-thinned cotton wool on a microscope slide. You’ll easily spot the beating heart and, if you pre-feed them with food dye-coloured yeast, you will see the gut clearly and its feeding method.
Midge and other fly larva are common in freshwater, as are young mayflies, damselflies, stoneflies etc. These are caught using proper sampling nets.
The list of organisms could go on for ever! In clean rivers I find swan muscles and occasional brook lampreys, and the obvious range of fish from the bottom dwellers to the salmon and trout of the faster flowing sections. Seeing fish is easier in a clean canal – if you live in Hampshire try the Basingstoke Canal near its tunnel at Greywell.
One experiment I once carried out was to look at competition between sticklebacks and leeches. Would the fish eat the small leeches or leeches attach and feed off the fish? (Answer at the very end of the article.)
One speciality I have encountered only once is the fairy shrimp. My students and I had cleaned out a village pond (near Hatherden) that had been lost, even with a tree growing out of it. Shell had donated a huge liner to keep in the water as ‘puddling’ the clay was beyond our abilities. When it naturally refilled the eggs of the shrimps blew in and hatched in their billions. (https://sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/news/the-fairy-shrimp-just-add-water). It did not end well, however. A drunk driver drove into the pond shortly after we had completed the task and destroyed the liner. By then we were exhausted.
These shrimps sometimes appear in puddles on Salisbury Plain.
The River Test has ploughed its valley through a chalky landscape. The chalky slopes are increasingly being used for wine production with the John Lewis / Waitrose vineyard nearby. Local wines have been winning international prizes. If you want to visit the Test Valley, the hotels at Stockbridge offer a good location.
Answer: the leeches fed off the fish. The fish ate supplied water fleas.
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It was an overwhelmingly dull day on Sunday, the day of the Euros Final, but I had an itch I just had to scratch. Near Salisbury, just to the west of West Tytherley, lies Bentley Wood, which was bought by a charitable trust in the 1980s and is husbanded as a conservation project. It is particularly known for its Purple Emperors, but I was after prey of a different kind. Around a third of the way along from the western side, on the southern edge, lies a meadow, known as the Drainage Field, and in this field is a decent-sized pond. The nearest car park is sited a couple of hundred yards off the West Winterslow to East Grimstead road, at OS 240 296, or, if you prefer What-Three-Words it is found at spouse/smirking/expired – clearly somebody has a sense of humour!
Once you have found the car park, clearly sited up the wide track and on the right, disembark and set off down the track that leads to the right. After a 100 yards or so the track curves fairly sharply to the left and 250 yards later, roughly, there is another large track that comes in from the left in a “T” junction. Take this left hand track. This goes dead straight, down and up, then down and up for around a quarter of a mile, rising to where you can follow it round to the right, on a right-angled bend, or go straight on along a grassy path. Go to the right and follow the track down into the trees and round to the left. Another 150 yards and it will be falling away to the right. At the bottom you cross a wooden bridge and, immediately on the right, is a gate and footpath along the edge of the meadow. Along that path you will find a kissing-gate. Go through and walk diagonally to the left, through another gate and up a short flight of rough steps. The pond now lies in front of you.
The OS ref is 244 282, with What-Three-Words being at approximately lines/diner/educates, and the distance from the car park is the best part of a mile whatever my guesstimates of the various distances above suggests.
I am giving you this detail because if you decide to visit yourself you will discover that Bentley Wood is quite large and, like all woods, notably short of signposts and landmarks. It would be very easy to spend a whole afternoon simply trying to find your way back to the car park!
I was greeted by a gaggle of rather despondent-looking geese on the right hand side of the pond and precious little else. Not auspicious, but the insects I was looking for rarely travel far and tend to roost down in the grass and reeds when the weather is rather less than ideal. The pond is around half clear water, the part nearest to you when you arrive, and half reed bed. I walked slowly round the left bank towards where the reed bed started, watching out over the pond in case anything showed itself. It might have been dull, but it was certainly warm enough, and these insects can’t just hang around and hope that next year is better. They have to do their thing regardless.
Straight away I found my first:
This is an immature male Common Emerald Damselfly. Note that while the upper surfaces of the thorax and abdomen are a vivid green the lower surfaces are more a grey-straw colour. This is the normal adult colouration for the female. To tell the difference look at the very end of the abdomen, to the claspers. The male is much slimmer in this region, with an almost tapering rear end and hooked and pointed claspers:
As is immediately clear the female is rather heavier and stubbier with similarly short and stubby claspers and the small, black ovipositor visible.
We do have this species in Andover, in what is known as the Tench Pond at the town end of Anton Lake, but they are rarely seen as they like to hide away in the reeds. At the Tench Pond these are very difficult to access, so that is why I come here.
I wasn’t finding many at first and became distracted by another species I come here to hunt. A few yards away from the edge of the pond, in the thick but low undergrowth, I was spotting a number of yellow-coloured darters. It wasn’t a case of hunting them but of simply standing there and looking around. If I took a two or three paces forward then I would disturb just as many. It wasn’t long before I managed to get a shot:
This is an immature male Ruddy Darter. When adult they will be brilliantly red, but as young insect they start off their life in the air, as with Emerald Damselflies, they look much the same as a mature female. Speaking of which, I found several of those and here is one that gave me a reasonable shot:
The two sexes can be told apart by the marks on the abdomen. Both are blackish underneath, but the female has a second broken line of black markings running along a third of the way up her sides.
The real problem with identifying Ruddy Darters, of course, is that they are very similar to Common Darters. There are ways of telling them apart. Primarily, Ruddy Darters tend to emerge a little earlier in the year. The presence of so many immature males suggests that the Ruddy Darter is at the beginning of its flight period, I would not really expect to be seeing Commons for another couple of weeks. Just in case, this is a mature male Ruddy Darter:
While this is a mature Male Common Darter:
Note that the Ruddy darter really is a bright red, against which the Common looks dowdy. Also see that the male Ruddy has a club-like form to the lower half of the abdomen while the male Common is much straighter.
The females are tricky and really require a photograph. Here is a female Ruddy:
Here is a mature female Common:
The difference is in the pattern of markings on the side of the thorax, so I’m going to cut in. Female Ruddy:
Now you can see that the female Common has a clearly marked rectangle on her side while in the Ruddy that rectangle is missing its upper line. Like I say, a reasonable photograph is necessary.
I leave you with a female Emerald. This is an immature, and I found a number like this:
As she matures that beautiful rose-pink colouration, so clear along the underside of her abdomen, will fade to a rather duller grey-straw.
I’d been there a couple of hours and a light drizzle had settled in, so it was time to head for home. This year has been rather poor generally, although Black-tailed Skimmers seem to have done well around Andover, but at least at the pond in the Draining Field at Bentley Wood it appears to be business as usual.
As usual, good hunting!
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Flies have a single pair of wings and, before them, a pair of halteres (shown). Halteres are a pair of small club-shaped organs on the body of two orders of flying insects that provide information about body rotations during flight. They have compound eyes and a breathing (gas exchange) system of tubes (trachea) leading from external holes (spiracles) in their semi-rigid chitin exoskeleton.
Hoverflies, hover and look similar to bee drones, but the latter have two pairs of wings. As a group, they have striking colouration.
The diagram below is NOT a fly, but it shows the gas exchange system clearly. With a captive, large grasshopper the movement of the abdomen to drive oxygen-rich air through the breathing tubes can be easily watched. A dead animal, opened under water will show the silver looking (because they are air filled) trachea clearly. And, by sealing an animal with light cotton wool (or similar) in a tube you can expire air into the tube and see the effect of a slightly enhanced carbon dioxide level on the breathing / ventilation rate.
Adult hover flies live for about a month and their life cycle takes place in four stages (complete metamorphosis). The stages include egg, larva, pupa and imago (last stage is the adult).
Adults feed mainly on nectar and pollen. Beside nectar, hoverflies feed on honeydew produced by aphids. Hoverflies are one of the few kinds of insects that can digest pollen, which is a protein rich source for the eggs. The surface coating of pollen is resistant to most insect digestive juices. The yellow patterning can reflect the amount and type of pollen which the insects have eaten, they are often seen hovering or nectaring at flowers.
Larvae may feed externally on plants or they may be internal feeders, attacking the bulbs; for example the narcissus fly (Merodon equestris). In other species, the larvae are insectivores and prey on aphids, thrips, and other plant-sucking insects. In the latter case they are the gardener’s friend. In the former, there is little to be done about it! So, relax and enjoy the animal.
In some species, the larvae are saprotrophs, eating decaying plant and animal matter in the soil or in ponds and streams. For example the rat-tailed maggot, larva of the drone fly (Eristalis tenax) is found in polluted pools. They obtain air by extending their snorkel like tail breathing tubes to reach the water surface, breaking it with feathery hairs which emerge from the tube.
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On 23 June a friend of mine, Brain Cartwright, a local birder who haunts Anton Lake, sent me a series of photographs he’d taken that day. There was no special reason for this, he’s keen on local wildlife and a very keen photographer, so he regularly emails the latest crop of images around other local naturalists. He also appreciates, or at least, I hope he does, my modest input for identifying Odonata. Largely, the photos were entirely predictable, a Tortoiseshell Butterfly, a Meadow Brown, several female Banded Demoiselles and so on. So far, so pretty, but then, the third photo from the end, slammed me between the eyes. Taken directly looking along the length of the back of the insect there was no mistaking the striking markings running down the top surface of the abdomen.
I was instantly back on the net and emailing him. Where had you taken it? When? No, exactly where. How far along the bank? I told him what it was … a male Southern Damselfly.
These are some of the rarest Damselflies in the country. They are on the wing through June and July. Their distribution is the Itchen, around Winchester, and the Test, up until recently believed to be limited to around Mottisfont. There is a notable residency in Pembrokeshire, and a small colony on Anglesey. Other than that it’s the very occasional few on Exmoor and a handful of tiny dots on the map. They’re covered by the GB Red List (Endangered), Protected in EU legislation, covered by the W&C Act of 1981, so it is illegal to catch or handle them without a licence, the NERC Act of 2006, which in this country covers only the Southern Damselfly and the Norfolk Hawker, and the UK BAP Priority Species listing. This last means that Biodiversity Action Plans have apparently been drawn up nationally to target them for actions such as monitoring, surveys and more practical conservation measures.
Two years ago the area recorder for North-West Hampshire, David Murdoch, found them at Bossington, just south of Houghton, and we went out one afternoon to try and find them further up the Test Valley. Ironically, the first site I took him to was Stockbridge Common. He decided it wasn’t really right for them, which leads us on to the environment they prefer. This is understood to be ditches and small chalk streams which are open, shallow and narrow, with shallow peat or silt over gravel and slow to moderate flows.
Brian told me that he had found this one on Stockbridge Common, on the reeds beside the branch of the River Test that runs down the almost mile-long western edge. That was both odd and exciting. That waterway was a river rather than a stream, and certainly nothing like a ditch. If they were there then that could expand the type of environment they might be found in, which also meant expand the territory.
The next day was rather poor weather, which seems to be the story of this summer, overcast and humid with a trace of a gusty wind, but nothing was going to stop me going off on a hunt! I parked in the car park, just off Marsh Court Road, and dragged all the gear out of the boot of the car – wellies, camera and monocular for identification. I locked the car and headed through the two kissing gates and onto the Common. I was not optimistic, in spite of Brian’s photo. These insects are not known for flying distances but Bossington was only a couple of miles downstream as the crow flies. Most likely a tourist, I thought.
A footpath from Stockbridge High Street emerges onto the Common over a narrow footbridge crossing a small stream. That was the first possible site I would come to and I reckoned it was the most likely place to find them, if they were here, rather than the larger river. It was barely 75 yards so very soon I was in hunter mode and creeping very slowly into the reeds … and within 30 seconds I’d found my first! The gusty wind made it impossible to get anything more then an identification photo, but there was plenty of time. I continued to search and managed to find another two.
It seemed that there was indeed a small colony here. I didn’t think they were really along the river itself, but I felt I deserved it to Brian to at least spend some time looking there for them. I left the stream behind and walked to the bank of the Test branch and started searching the reeds meticulously. Even though I suspected I wouldn’t find them here I most certainly wouldn’t if I didn’t look properly. After around 50 yards I found one and, eventually, another. Slim pickings, then I began searching patches of rough pastureland a few yards away from the bank. This started working. After a couple of hours I’d covered around 150 yards and, with the three I’d found straight off, managed a count of 18. I returned to the car happy and with a new goal.
I’d established that they were here, now I needed to find out how far along Common the colony stretched. If it went the whole way down then this would not only be a new colony but a very significant one.
With a couple of other sites to survey for butterflies it wasn’t until 30 June that I managed to get back down to the Common. This time I actually pushed away from the river 30 or 40 yards and searched more the grasses of the Common itself, and this turned out to be a solid hunting ground. It could well be that the rather unappetising weather – gloomy, humid and still with that gusty wind – was driving them to roost. By the end of the afternoon I had counted 31 in total, being 24 males and 7 females, and had ascertained that the colony did indeed run the whole length of Stockbridge Common.
I have since been trying to find the insect further up the Test Valley and have visited Chilbolton Common three times and searched around Longparish, but to no avail. I’ve not given up yet! The weather has been poor and I think there are possible sites around Whitchurch, the problem being, as ever with a river that is known for its fishing, is getting access to the watercourse itself.
This is a male Southern Damselfly, fresh from Stockbridge Common, Latin name Coenagrion mercuriale:
The identification of the male is relatively easy. If you look at the insect from above, along the line of its back, you will see a series of black markings running up the centre that look rather like spearheads, which I have labelled “4”. At the top of the abdomen, near the thorax, on the second section of the abdomen, is a mark that closely resembles the sigil of Mercury – hence the name “mercuriale”. This is labelled “3”. The circle labelled “2” shows you the Coenagrion Spur, which is the small black finger extending into the blue on the side of the thorax from the rear. This is also found on other species such as the Azure Damselfly and the Red-eyed Damselfly, but those species do not have the previously mentioned markings. The last and least important marking on the male is the fact that there is a bar of colour running between the eyes, which I have labelled “1”.
This is a male Azure and a brief comparison will make the two species very clear. There is no line of spear heads running up the top surface of the abdomen, the marking on section 2 is more like the outline of a bucket or beer glass than the Mercury sigil, and there is no colour bar between the eyes:
This is a female Southern Damselfly:
This is a blue-form female, they also come in a green form. She is almost identical to a female blue-form Azure, to the extent that many books will simply advise that because Southerns like moving water, unlike most, then wherever they are found they are often the only species of Damselfly. So if you find male Southerns any females you find are likely be female Southerns. This advice is not correct. The Azure is a species that can turn up in moving water, especially if there are areas of calmer flow, backwaters or reeds to offer shelter. The scientific method of telling the two apart involves examination of the pronotum, which is a tiny plate that runs across between the head and the thorax, the trailing edge of which varies between different species. Since you have to be licensed to catch the insect and do this that is an avenue unavailable to most of us. As it happens, it’s also unnecessary if you can get a half decent photograph.
The identifying markers on the female are exactly the same as for the male, except for the line of spearheads and the Mercury sigil. First, check for the Coenagrion Spur, as shown in the photo of the male Southern, above. If that is present and correct then examine the topmost side, or back, of the head. In the Azure the eyes almost touch and there is a blue or green splodge on them, depending on whether the insect is blue or green form. In the Southern there is a noticeable gap between the eyes and this gives room for a bar of the body colour, as on the male. I have marked these features on the photo below:
“1” is the bar of colour between the eyes and “2” shows the Coenagrion Spur. “3” shows the mark on section 2 of the abdomen which is usually so useful to identify species, but in this case is so similar the similar thistle marking on the female Azure that it is worthless as a defining characteristic.
The last photograph I am showing you is another male:
I am including this to show the variability of the markings in the insect.
In the more typical individual I showed earlier the spearheads running up the back of the insect are fairly chunky. I did, however, find this specimen in which those spearheads are rather minimal and more like sharp needles.
I finish with an earnest plea. These insects are very rare and at first I wasn’t sure that I should advertise their presence on Stockbridge Common. If you do decided to visit please respect their rarity, don’t catch them and if you come across any mating pairs please stay well away. We need as many of them as they can make!
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Many people feel that plants ‘do not do anything’. Clearly, that is far from the truth, they often just work at a different speed. The clearest example could be a giant US redwood – they generate more height, more bulk and more potential offspring then me. But it takes them a thousand years. At a cellular level their metabolism is complicated and incorporates many of the biochemical pathways we employ – respiration, lipid metabolism and production of DNA. They also generate a wonderful range of family-specific toxins.
Plant systems are quite different from those evolution donated to higher animals. Their water transportation relies, mainly, on leaf evaporation drawing up soil water. Organic materials are transported in the phloem using an energy-linked pump that has some comparison with a heart.
But they go nowhere.
Well, seeds spread widely and can potentially move from one continent to others. Wind dispersal of seeds is cheap and effective.
Oh, come on! They are not intelligent. Humans can do things.
Ah, a good point. Yet have you seen how wheat, rice, sitka spruce and rubber plants have moved around the globe? How, by getting humans do it for them! Intelligent I think. Why do something yourself when others will do it for you?
That’s cheating. I move and can even run (when forced).
I’m glad you said that, because movement is what this article is all about.
Organisms need to sense what happens around them. I bought some new glasses the other day, and their optical properties seemed a tad strange initially. I went into the sports centre and they were playing volleyball. I watched for a while, looked away, then glanced back. My glasses were playing tricks, it looked as though the ball was getting bigger. Then the reason hit me. Ouch, that hurts. (Joke? Well, I thought it was okay.)
Plants need to know where to send their roots and shoots on germination. Roots towards gravity (and water and nutrient resources) and shoots towards their energy supplies – light.
Plants can potentially respond to light direction, day length, gravity, touch, temperature and water. Air carried chemicals may cause them to manufacture chemicals to combat potential insect infestations. Carnivorous plants, such as sundews, will curl their leaves in a response to movement.
Plants recognise their environment and can potentially respond to those stimuli. For example, beet. If a beet plant is protected from cold temperatures it remains in a juvenile state and will never flower. Cold is the stimulus that induces it to respond to a later flowering stimulus. It has become vernalised.
Lettuce and poppies need light before they will germinate.
However, many responses involve growth – TROPIC RESPONSES or tropisms. Others, work by changes in cell turgor (water pressure) – NASTIC RESPONSES.
TROPIC RESPONSES are growth related. Positive when growth is towards the stimulus, negative when away. So, growing towards light is a positive phototropism (phototropic response). Of course, some responses are in between, eg an oak’s branches growing parallel to the soil level.
A tropism to gravity = gravitropism; touch = thigmotropism; chemicals = chemotropism.
Roots grow (mostly) down but will be influenced by water and chemical resources needed. Shoots grow up, but influenced by light direction. Runner beans shoots grow up to light and twine when they touch a support. Germinating pollen on a stigma has a positive chemotropic response and grows the pollen tube towards the ovary.
If cells on one side of a shoot or root grow longer than the other, or have more cells, the structure will bend. (Do you remember the bimetallic strips your physics teacher had at school? The two metals rivetted together expanded at different rates, so placed in a Bunsen flame it bent. Same idea.) How can it be achieved? Increased water pressure inside a cell or an unequally thickened cellulose cell wall, would do the job. (Think a balloon with tape on one side. What happens if it is blown up with more air? It bends. Think about stomata opening and closing!)
Now you are thinking, how is this controlled? It cannot be an animal-like nervous response, so it must be … hormones. And that is where we could come to: AUXINS, CYTOKININS, GIBERELLINS, ABSCISIC ACID, ETHYLENE – the main plant hormones currently partly understood. A hormone being an organic compound produced in one location but having its effect elsewhere.
How these plant movement responses are triggered, and how precisely they operate is still a partial mystery.
Gravity is reasonably understood. There are dense starch grains (statocysts) in root cap cells, and these slowly drift downwards because of gravity. Somehow, do not ask details here, that triggers the bending reaction. It needs time for this stimulation to take effect. The hormones presumably join a receptor site on the target cell’s membrane and are either imported or trigger a change in the cell’s metabolism through an intermediary. At that stage a possible routeway is for that chemical to switch on a gene, with it causing the final response.
So, an environmental factor affects the plant’s sensor, produces an organic chemical (possibly a hormone), which moves to its DNA target and it then influences that call’s metabolism and the response occurs. Isn’t biology wonderful, and plants do move and do things.
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Note: a garden meadow is a garden feature. It is designed as part of a garden and not as a wildlife reserve.The wildlife that comes with the garden meadow is a bonus.Our Summer Meadow is ideally only cut from early autumn and is part garden feature and part wildlife reserve.
With all the rain that north-west Hampshire (UK) has been given recently, the Summer Meadow has grown far more than I wanted. I do not consider our clay soil as lacking water for most of the year, but grasses are surface rooting, so perhaps their growth-limiting factor in summer is water. The other possibility is that rainfall releases soil nutrients, and they are the factor that encourages fast grass growth. Clay holds a big stock of nutrients that are available for release. Regardless, a big water donation equals exuberant grass growth here.
Why am I concerned? The essence is that tall grasses often crash down, leaving the ‘garden’ aspect of the meadow lacking, and will hide away the more colourful, garden-worthy, plants. Were this a nature reserve it would not be a concern*, yet we want people to adopt meadow gardening, so a good looking garden meadow is an advantage.
[*Short-tailed voles would be happy as they would be doubly hidden from kestrels!]
As with the two sites in the Waste Ground? article, thin soils can generate diverse and attractive grassland. Achieving that with a soil basedon clay is far more demanding. To make a flowery meadow Plant Life recommends** removing the top soil layer – sure, that would cost £s and leave us with a pure, yellow clay in which nothing would willingly grow***. Cutting and removing the herbage at some stage is vital in almost any situation.
[**With justification. It will work in most situations, but not ours. But is costly.]
We have cut and removed herbage for 30 years, and still have excessive growth some years. Clay is not a great habitat for a reliable, grassy, wild, summer garden meadow. Yet we do have potentially good diversity, and with over an acre of available garden, the challenge has been worthwhile. But it is not as good a garden feature as the ‘waste meadow’ just a kilometre away. However, it is an attractive feature in dry years and from April through to mid-June … then it all depends on the rainfall.
[***Keith Wiley (Wildside, Devon) took this to an extreme – he changed a flat landscape into peaks and troughs. If I recall correctly, 2m deep. His garden, which we visited some 15 years ago, was stunning and incorporated many planting zones. Well worth visiting.]
The solution I have is : cutting. Sections of the Summer Meadow are cut to about 2cm as necessary during the growing season. This takes away some bulk and most plants survive, although those that flower only once, such as orchids, will be lost. Also, the flowering period will be delayed. So I cut sections and try to avoid trimming everything at one time. The difference in height and development can be an attractive feature for a garden meadow.
Sure, this is not a perfect solution for a garden feature, yet the grasshoppers, wild bees and most invertebrates will hardly care too much.
A nutrient-poor, or very porous soil, will behave quite differently. Sandy or gravelly soils lose their minerals and moisture to the water table easily. The natural vegetation, heathers and their pals, have evolved to have small, scale-like leaves with few stomata and a thick waxy leaf cuticle to reduce water loss. They also grow slowly as they lack the nitrates, iron etc needed for their body chemistry. Excessive growth should not be an issue here. Likewise meadows on thin chalky soils.
We have one section of the Summer Meadow that has a more chalky, thinner soil structure. This is our most successful area and has never required spring or summer cutting, and that was why it has allowed, quite naturally, the first orchid colonisers and a good floral diversity.
In some respects, if you want a garden quality meadow on clay you would be better advised to go for the Spring Meadow approach. You miss out on possible flood of summer invertebrates but have great garden colour from February until late May.
At Forest Edge, with a long, thin garden, our Summer Meadow is not a critical garden feature. It is a distant wildlife area, so garden-quality displays are not critical … but would be quite acceptable!
Yellow rattle. This is described by Plant Life as the ‘meadow maker’. A valid description, with some reservations. Firstly, it seeds and ceases to control grasses from early July. Rampant grasses will then grow enthusiastically. Secondly, with wet spells the grasses outcompete the rattle in growth – the grasses have won in some parts this year.
The moral? You have to understand your soil and climate before you start your meadow garden.
Now, in early July, our first meadow brown butterflies are just emerging. Other butterfly species should appear soon, with the hatching season appearing later this year. There are good numbers of bumble bees and other invertebrates – almost none would be on an equivalent area of closely-cut grass.
The no-cut lawn for May, has now been cut. The buttercups and most other attractions had gone to seed, with grass and lanky dandelion-like plants then dominating. They now reside in the compost heaps. It was cut on the highest setting and will recover over the summer as a medium-tall grassy meadow.
One oval area in the lawn has been uncut all year. This has a fine display of snowdrops in late winter but, cleverly, has avoided cutting by growing a greater butterfly orchid in its midst. It will be cut once the orchid’s seeds have dispersed.
Beneath the walnut trees that part of The Spring Meadow performed as reliably as ever this year. Now it is cut to lawn height (1cm) and with the shade will remain comatose until the autumn. The open section of that zone has not been cut. I’m leaving it for a group from Hampshire Wildlife to view, and for the pyramidal and twayblade orchids to set seeds. It will be cut in mid or late July, once the seed pods have burst.
The hedges and layered hazel at the end of the garden are now left to grow, with the hedge to be cut for a second time in the autumn.
The pond’s surroundings are now tall with meadowsweet. This will be selectively trimmed over the next few days. The rain has kept the manmade pond well filled. We see little of the frogs and newts as vegetation covers the water surface, yet they must be around and a water scoop will usually yield some newtpoles.
Voles have moved into the Summer Meadow. I hope they keep their heads down when it is cut in September. It is always cut long first (2+ cm), yet the tyres occasionally crush the cute mammals, even if the blades miss. Scythe, you say. Yes, I have one, and I do occasionally employ it … but I’m 73 and the mower is easier, quicker and less demanding on my frame.
Garden birds are much quieter now, with just blackbirds, thrushes, wrens and stock doves calling. Wood pigeons are courting and calling all twelve months of the year. Of course, the kites and noisy buzzards are always overhead. The tawny owls have ignored our nest box again this year.
Surrounding The Lawn and Spring Meadow are traditional shrub / herbaceous borders with dense planting and many natives. There has been much replanting and their flowery impact has been lessened this year, plus the slugs have enjoyed the dampness – so some salvias and heleniums are smaller now than when planted a month ago and many have vanished. Annette’s herbaceous borders have had less replanting and look far better than mine! Just wait until next year!
With no chickens living next door, the slowworm population seems to be recovering. It would do even better if I could discourage the non-native pheasants to move elsewhere. They fail to take the noisy hint. Baby rabbits are living with us for the first time in several years; no doubt the stoats will notice.
I may be over hopeful, yet I see fewer signs of keepering and pheasant breeding this year in Harewood. Perhaps people who myopically point lethal, spray weapons at big, noisy, slow-flying big birds, that must be difficult to miss, are seeing the error of their ways and doing something sensible. What a ‘sport’!
So, is it now the season to sit under the walnut trees and read a book? And hope the walnuts thrown down less product this year – we were, and still are, overwhelmed with last year’s nuts.
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North-west Hampshire’s non-urban areas are dominated by three land uses. 1) Forest on the alkaline, chalky clay caps, 2) Damp riverine meadows, some of which were proper water meadows until the mid-1900s and 3) Traditional farmland, which is mostly arable, growing grass crops – wheat, barley and blue ryegrass for the biogas plant. Yes, we do have some cattle and sheep, but you must look hard to find them these days. Diversification occurs, and we have the occasional farm shop, and many would-be meadows are now horse paddocks. It is a landscape, from the air, as these features are frequently hidden from us riffraff, of new multi-million-pound houses and their estates. I know of a million-pound kitchen in one, and a 12 million-pound new mansion. Some people are not short of cash.
Yet between all this are a few chunks of ‘waste’ ground. The left-overs, the junk. I have two near me. One is a field where the farming estate gave up and left it to nature. The other is composed of dumped clay over a refuse tip. Both are now biologically diverse and worth exploring. To me, not waste ground.
The first is just a fifteen-minute walk, along the Harewood Forest’s most northerly footpath southwards. The field chunk is just a few acres and was arable farmland until about fifteen years ago. I suspect more money was thrown into the seeds, fertilizer and diesel than came out in crop. Now it is cut in the autumn and ignored. Nature has slowly diversified it. Winds blow in light seeds, birds carry more in their guts and the mammals bring adhesive seeds on their fur. Now, in early July it is beautiful. Soft grasses wave in the breeze at the bottom of the slope where the soil is marginally deeper, and on the thinner soils are masses of orchids, dandelion-relatives and a myriad of smaller plants. Butterflies have move in too, with meadow browns, marbled whites and orange skippers newly hatched. Young grasshoppers and crickets are growing rapidly and will soon sing their high-summer song. Mammals are sparse, although a female roe deer wearily kept me company for an hour.
Given a choice, ground diversifies and then slowly reverts to scrub … and eventually woodland – biological succession. Here that is stopped by that yearly mowing, probably to encourage pheasants to feed here and more easily to shoot them in autumn.
From here (SU 406 453) I headed towards Longparish, along a hazel dominated field edge that fringed a huge barley field that offered only one singing skylark. Here is the second site (SU 410 440) – landfill from the 1970s, 80’s and 90s, I guess. It was capped with more waste – grotty soil and left. The plants grow more strongly here when compared to the chalky field, although some chunks are short turf. Pyramidal orchids are in their tens of thousands, with other gems hiding away. Apart from the orchids, the vegetation is a contrast to the other site. This is moving through succession with hawthorn, privet, dogwood and other shrubs now reaching two metres. The grasses are higher – a metre when compared to 20cm and bindweed climbs the stalks. There are deer here too, and the twin black, long ears of hares can be spotted as they trot away. Soon the nests of harvest mice can be found by the determined wildlife enthusiast, as I have found the cute rodent on the edge of the site. Birds are here in good diversity – yellowhammers still calling today.
Between those two sites there is interest as well. Acres of medicinal opium poppies are flowering near the Buck Filling Station on the A303, adjacent to the landfill. A dead hazel dormouse on the path through Harewood, and the late-breeding calls of chiffchaffs keeping me company. And, eventually, the first hatching of silver-washed fritillary butterflies, and was that a purple emperor or a white admiral butterfly? Too much a glancing view to decide.
Graeme Davis is a guest contributor. 28th June 2021
The Barberry Carpet is a medium size British moth, now reduced to 12 colonies, though this is a recent increase in numbers, thanks to a project by Back from the Brink. The moth is a red data book species, and on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan for protection.
Back from the Brink is a project made up of several leading charities to save 20 of the most at risk species from extinction. Amongst this group of organisms the Barberry Carpet moth was included.
Fiona Haynes worked on the project under the lead charity (Butterfly Conservation) to help save this fragile species.
The issue: Barberry Carpet moth has declined across the UK as its larval food plant has been removed by farmers, to eradicate a rust disease which effected wheat. The moth feeds on native Barberry (Berberis vulgaris), a bush of woodland and hedgerows. Unfortunately, the bush also acts as a vector for the rust, and because of this barberry was grubbed out from the countryside. The plant is now uncommon, and missing from many of the counties where it previously occurred. As a result, the moth numbers have plummeted, and it is now only found in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Dorset and Oxfordshire.
When and how the barberry bushes are cut is also an important issue for the survival of this species – the few hedges that remain must not be trimmed until late autumn.
The Hampshire colony: Hampshire had its own colony of Barberry Carpets moths. Unfortunately, this was lost due to stubble burning. Since then short lived colonies have existed in Cholderton and Leckford (both near Andover).
I became aware of the plight of the Barberry Carpet moth, and contacted Back from the Brink. With the Hampshire colonies long gone, but Wiltshire is adjacent, I wondered … could Hampshire help? The moth does not disperse well, so the chances of natural reestablishment are very slim. However, as the barberry plant also provides food for the larvae of the scarce tissue moth and barberry sawfly, so it was worth a go. If the food plant is not provided then they will never increase.
Around 250 seeds of the rare native barberry plant were given to me. This was given to volunteers in Andover to grow on, and some were also given to Hillier Garden Centres to grow. A stipulation to the planting of new barberry bushes is that they can not be grown within 10 metres of wheat fields. Although the new strains of wheat are rust resistant, this was deemed sensible as a precaution.
At the moment the barberry plants are still being grown and not yet planted. One problem with barberry is its a slow growing plant.
Back from the Brink themselves have planted 4000 barberry plants over 4 years. These have been targeted at increasing the plant in known populations and making corridors between colonies, like in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire to help them disperse.
Hopefully with this concerted effort of charities and volunteers the Barberry Carpet moth may have a chance at surviving into the future.
I have a native barberry in the garden and contacted Graeme as I found the larvae below, thinking it was the barberry moth. It turned out to be the sawfly. My own attempts at growing the seeds and taking my own cuttings failed last year.