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.)
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.
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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.
Just a ramble through some of my recent images. A bit of this and that!
The Dorset area called Purbeck is a great wildlife location. It also offers ‘family’ entertainment and great cream teas at Worth Matravers. When the steam railway is not operating the track bed offers good sightings of adders. Badgers are common here and exploring the woods just north of Corfe Castle is fun.
To access 100 advert-free articles go to http://www.nwhwildlife.org and scroll down. Some are technical, others (like this one) are just a bit of fun!
And it has most certainly been late spring, but, finally, it is here and everything is bursting to make up for lost time. Reeds that seemed forever stuck at ankle-nibbling height are now shooting up over my waist, nettles are over my shoulders and various Cow Parlsey-like plants are threatening to tower over my head. The same is true for Odonata. For weeks, when spring should have been filling the reed beds with various Damselflies, such as Common Blue, Azure, Blue-tailed and Large Red, all I’ve managed to find are occasional individuals that look almost embarrassed about being there. Now the switch has been flicked on that ball of fire in the sky and the air is, once again, filled with the shimmer of tiny wings.
It was hot, the car said 27 degrees, as I scrambled over the gate of this privately owned pond. When I enter an area, whether a smallish site like this, or a glade in a wood, or a fresh reach of hillside, I always like to stop and wait for a minute or two. For me, this allows me to take in what is there and where it is. For other creatures that may be around it gives them a little while to realise that I’m there and, hopefully, to accept me and start to ignore me as they get on with the rather more important business of living their lives. There is a pair of Swans on the bank of the large pond, and out on its surface a family of eight Canada Geese, two adults and six goslings. I move slowly forward and start scanning the reeds that run along this side. Plenty of the common Damselflies, including Common Blue, Azure and Blue-tailed, then the untidy flutter of a female Banded Demoiselle as I approach just a bit too close for her.
I’m not bothering to try and get photos of these since I already have a choice of a number in my photo library. Then something catches my eye which I decide I will have a go at. The angle is awkward, as I am poised right on the edge of the steep bank, on top of which there is gusty little wind blowing just to make it more interesting:
A male Large Red, apparently having a mid-afternoon snack.
I pass beneath the drooping branches of a medium-sized Weeping Willow and start searching the reeds just beyond. Not seeing anything overly interesting and stand for a moment and look out across the water – which was, perhaps, what I should have done earlier. A male Emperor Dragonfly was patrolling over the large spread of lily pads at this end of the pond. This way, that way, this way, that way, diverging from his course to shoot up, down or across the water to grab some unfortunate insect. With a 95% success rate once one of these decide you’re lunch, then you are lunch. I move on round, now spending time searching for anything else flying out there, and it isn’t long before I spot the glistening wings of another Emperor across the far side. So, they’ve carved this large pond up between them, I thought. Perhaps in this case the pond really was large enough for the both of them!
Then another flies in, but what? This one seems slightly paler and the male Emperor on the far side, rather than attacking it, seems to be following it. As the insect moved into the territory of the Emperor nearest me the one this side stormed towards the intruder.
A female, I thought, and, sure enough, rather than chase her the Emperor began to do the equivalent of trying to woo her. Swooping around her and trying to move into a position where he could try and use his claspers. She made it clear she wasn’t interested, dropping down and starting to lay eggs on the edges of the lily pads. The male wasn’t giving up, though, and after a minute or so she got fed up with his continued efforts and raced away.
As I mentioned in the piece I wrote about this place last year a stream runs along this, the western side, and, having checked the reeds along the pond bank turned my attention to the undergrowth along the side of the stream. I was very quickly rewarded with a couple of Banded Demoiselles. Again, no photo attempt, I have some great shots of these already. They like flowing water and the Test Valley and its tributaries are full of them. What was interesting, was a pair in tandem and clearly intent on finishing the job. That I did want a shot of, unfortunately they must have known that I did and carefully hid themselves away amongst the greenery. I knew where they were and I could see the male, but there was no way I could get a photo of the pair.
There is, however, another species here that loves the fresh flow of the local streams. I moved very slowly along looking for the dark wings and was rewarded very handsomely:
This is a female Beautiful Demoiselle. This is nowhere near as common locally as the banded demoiselle, probably because they supposedly like acidic water while the chalk streams of Hampshire are alkaline. I saw several males but only one was kind enough to sit for me and, unfortunately, the wind had decided that this was just the time to surge up. As a consequence this is nowhere near as sharp as I would usually deem acceptable:
On the other hand, this specimen is rather interesting. This is an immature male, which is why the wings have the noticeably brown colouration. When mature they turn to become an inky blue-black.
I didn’t know at this stage whether the photos I’d got were any good, I never do until I get back, pop the SD card into the computer and bang them up on screen. I was pretty pleased with what this site had given me so far, even if I was offered nothing else – but this magical pond hadn’t finished with me yet. I continued slowly round the pond until I reached the second, much smaller one. Approaching unhurriedly it seemed to take off from its chosen perch right on cue to grab attention. My first thought was Broad-bodied Chaser, but I immediately got the feeling of a more torpedo-shaped abdomen, not the broad and flattened one I should have seen. Then it clicked. A Four-spotted Chaser.
We don’t get many of these around Andover. Historically, there usually seems to be one a year turning up at what is known as the Tench Pool at the town end of Anton Lakes, although not one was seen in the area last year. Like Skimmers Chasers will often find a perch they like and use it as a base while it holds the sunlight. Launching themselves out to hurtle round, hunting food or a possible mate, or even both, and then returning to the same spot over and over. I noted its current favourite spot and made my way round. It didn’t seem to take the slightest notice of me allowing me to snap away, examine the proceeds, trash everything and then snap away again. Eventually, through my highly trained photographic skills, and the ancient truth that if it cracks off enough shots eventually even a Chimpanzee will get something passable, I ended up with this:
In Dragonflies the norm is for the male to be blue and the female green or yellow. In this particular species the sexes are virtually identical, certainly in terms of identification in the field. However, a quick examination of the photograph on the screen on the back of the camera tells me all I need to know. If you look at the claspers at the end of the abdomen you will see that they flare outwards. This, then, is a male. On the female they are straight.
I went back to the larger pond for a while. There was something out there I was seeing, but it wasn’t landing where I could get to it yet. I waited. The sun would move slowly round and we would see. A hunter must be patient. After half an hour or so I took a look back at the smaller pond, and the Four-spotted Chaser had itself relocated to a different vantage point. Earlier, as you can see, it choosing to use a stick protruding out over the water, but now it had relocated to the top of a plant spike. This allowed me a different shot altogether, although it took a good twenty minutes or so as the wind was playing gusty games again:
And so it was back to the larger body of water to see if what I had spotted earlier was going to give me a sporting chance. Previously, it had been using a stick poking out of the lower bank, similarly to the Four-spotted Chaser, but now it had moved to adopt a position atop a stick pointing straight up out of the water:
A Black-tailed Skimmer. This is an immature male, and one of our prettiest Dragonflies. When they are very young they are a bright yellow all the way along their length, with black linear markings dividing the abdomen into rectangles. As they move towards maturity, as this one is, a blue pruinescence gradually bleeds through the blackish lines and then out across the whole abdomen, the adult male’s colouration being wholly blue with the dark tip the insect is named for.
As ever, I snap and snap and snap as the insect darts off to circle low over the water, hence the name “Skimmer”, only to repeatedly return to its chosen vantage point. All of a sudden, it seems, the sun has moved that few degrees and a shadow closes in on the chosen perch. Another flight, but this time there is no return. It is late afternoon and the line of trees along the western side of the meadow, in which the ponds lie, is casting a shadow across most of the water. Everything here will now roost. Damselflies into the reeds, Dragonflies into the bushes and trees … and it’s certainly time for me to head home for tea.
I’m not too familiar with Salisbury Plain but David visited there last year and, so he told me, saw huge numbers of Marsh Fritillaries. A plan was hatched. He knew where they were and I had the toy, a small, two-seater sports car with rather too much engine, endearingly known as “Psycho”. He would give directions while I would provide the mobility. In spite of a rather overcast sky, off we went, west out of Andover to Everleigh. We then turned south for half a mile before leaving the road, on a sharp right-angle band, and setting off along a track south. Half a mile across the Plain, on what used to be called the Marlborough Road, we parked underneath the spreading branches of a clump of trees and headed off to hunt. The sun had come out and it was not only somewhat humid but rapidly getting very warm. A track headed east out of the car park, wooded along the north side but on the south opening up to miles of rolling chalk grassland. This was to be my hunting ground for the afternoon.
Chalk grassland is a rare habitat in this country and supports very specific flora, which, in turn, support very specific fauna, including insects. The magic ingredient for the Marsh Fritillary is the Devil’s Bit Scabious plant, which, later in the summer, will pepper the grassland with its soft-blue flowers. We left the car, checking the camera gear and heading for the east-bound track.
Immediately David found a Small Blue. I zeroed in to check it out, but it was elusive and flying around with great gusto, then we turned our attention to the open Plain to our right. There was definitely a lot of butterfly action and we quickly spotted Small Heaths and the target species of Marsh Fritillaries. Before long we were also seeing Adonis Blues. We spent a while hunting together, but David was keen to turn his attention towards finding his own speciality – orchids. He left me to my own addiction.
I always find the problem with hunting things with wings with a camera is that they have an annoying tendency to fly. The thermometer had ratcheted up considerably over the short time we’d been there and the butterflies around me appeared to have limitless energy. I persevered, but after half an hour or so I was beginning to feel that I would have absolutely nothing to show for my efforts. The problem with these beasties, and dragonflies, is that when the sun is out they are easy to find, but impossible to photograph, while when the sun is in they are rather easier to photograph, but impossible to find.
Such is life.
What I was noticing was that the condition of the Marsh Fritillaries I was seeing varied enormously. Some were so decrepit you half wondered how they flew, and must have emerged perhaps 4-6 weeks ago, while others seemed to have popped out of the box yesterday. While it is normal for there to be insects of obviously different ages, it seemed that the disparity was rather more marked than usual. As the afternoon wore on I found a similarly large range of age in the Dingy Skippers I saw. I wondered if the poor spring we had experienced, where a couple of very good days would be followed by an overcast and rather cold week or so, had led to the emergence period being extended.
Finally the butterfly gods smiled down on me and a light cloud cover moved across the sun. It was still warm, but the temperature quickly dropped a degree or two and the difference on the flightiness of my quarry was marked. Having noticed the widely varying ages of the individuals I set myself the task of collecting photos to show it. The very first shot of a Marsh Fritillary I managed was this venerable old male:
He was very patient with me and allowed me plod around after him as I tried to get a clear view through the grass. Butterflies don’t have a great life expectancy once they take to the wing, around 4 weeks or so is pretty good, but he really looks as if he’s been stretching this out to the max. I hope he had many liaisons during that time and his sons and daughters will be filling the air with their fluttering wings next summer. I then managed to find this one, an other male, which seems to have lived a little but still has a reasonable amount of its life still before it:
Then I managed to get this shot of a female, who has the lovely, bright colours that make this butterfly one of our most beautiful:
I then turned my attention to Adonis Blues. The food plant is horseshoe vetch and the place was close to being carpeted with it, so there was no surprise that this nationally rare insect was well represented here. Eventually one sat for me and I rattled of several frames in the hope that one might prove acceptable. I ended up with this:
I always find that blues rarely photograph as blue as you see them with your eyes, but this one had come out very nicely. Once you’ve seen an Adonis you can’t mistake them for anything else. If you told a child to draw a blue butterfly this is how it would look. BLUE!!!!! Gorgeous. Obviously, then, I started looking for a female. If their male counterparts are glaringly unmistakable the females are anything but. I honestly didn’t see any butterfly there that I would say was definitely a female Adonis, although there must have been some. It seemed as if there were no Common Blue males there, so, working on the assumption that any female I saw was quite possibly an Adonis, I succeeded in tracking and snapping this one:
Unfortunately, having had a good chance to look at it I am very sure this is a female Common Blue … that’s life.
I was also seeing day-flying moths out there. One of the first David and I saw, just after leaving the car, was a striking Cinnabar. This one isn’t that striking, but it’s the one that actually sat for me:
The food-plant is that bane of farmers with live stock, ragwort, and the larvae the vibrant black and orange caterpillars so often found on it. 5-Spot Burnets were everywhere, and I stumbled on a large number making sure that there would be more next year:
The food-plant is bird’s foot trefoil, which it shares with the common blue butterfly. The very similar 6-spot burnet emerges later, usually beginning in late June and running through July into August, and also has bird’s foot trefoil as its food-plant, along with horseshoe vetch. I also saw a number of the Burnet Companion moth:
This one was rather tucked away, but the yellowy-orange of the hind wings can made out. A fresh moth can be quite vibrant in colour, especially in flight when the similarly coloured underside can be seen. They’re very difficult to catch with a camera as they are ceaselessly restless, no sooner landing than taking off again. They also have an annoying habit of burying themselves right down in the undergrowth. Again, the favoured food-plants are legumes such as the various vetches. Older specimens, which lose that yellowy-orange, end up being a drab brown:
This discoloured they are easily confused with the Dingy Skipper:
This is a very old one that sat nicely for me, but, just as with the Marsh Fritillaries I found a great range of age in different individuals, some appearing very fresh. There were also plenty of the very localised Cistus Forester moth:
I really don’t know why this moth is so uncommon. Its food-plant is common rock rose, which is present all over chalk grassland hillsides, and which it shares with other species such as the Green Hairstreak and Brown Argus.
It was late in the afternoon and shortly after I took this photo that I caught a glimpse of something hovering to nectar at flowers, moving sharply from one bloom to another. I know an insect whose flight pattern matches that exactly, the Hummingbird Hawk moth, but this didn’t have the tell-tale checkering to the rear of the abdomen. I moved quickly closer and, for a moment, thought it might be some kind of bee. Then the penny dropped and I realised what I was seeing and dashed closer, urgently readying the camera just in case. I never got the shot, it was moving around too much for me to even find it in the viewfinder let alone click the shutter, but I had around twenty seconds watching an example of the rather rare Narrow Bordered Bee hawk moth.
That made my afternoon.
I turned and began to retrace my footsteps towards the car. I decided to follow the track that led up to where we were parked as I had explored the chalk grassland and wanted to have a look along the verge that edged the woodland. I stopped at the first big clump of grass I came to as a Small Blue caught my attention. Then I saw another, then a pair engaged in courtship … in all, this small clump of grass about 2-3 yards long, or metres if you prefer, had no less than 8 of the butterflies. There was a lot of pre-mating manoeuvring going on, but, unfortunately no pair actually indulged however much my itchy camera trigger finger wanted them to. Nevertheless, they did give me one nice shot:
The food-plant is easily identifiable kidney vetch, and there was plenty around. It was just gone five as I began to wander unhurriedly up the track and I noticed a change in the air. A coolness. Around me the activity suddenly stopped. It’s surprising how marked this change is. There suddenly comes a time when everything, altogether, almost as one decides that the day is done. There is still movement, if you search for it, but the time for dancing in the sun, courtship, mating and egg-laying is done. Now that movement is about finding a place to roost for the night. The calming gave me a chance to snatch this quick shot of a Small Blue with its wings closed:
There is a marked similarity with the underside of the wings of the Holly Blue, and it’s quite common for me to meet people with the less experience who claim to have seen Small Blues when I know this uncommon butterfly is not present at that locale. I wandered unhurriedly up the track and counted a couple of dozen of this tiny insect, there were clearly plenty here. This is definitely a site I shall be looking to return to next year, while praying for a rather better spring, and hoping for another sighting of a Narrow Bordered Bee Hawk moth … and perhaps a realistic chance of a photo.
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It is a small meadow ‘given’ to the local population to compensate for the urbanisation of other local habitat. The meadow will end up as a dog-running area but the thick hedges will supply additional dormouse habitat, nesting sites and food for many other creatures. Good to see the additional planting around the site.
My own dormouse feeder was being dominated by climbing brown rats. The feeder is now covered in wire netting that only allows small mammal access at night. I’ve spotted woodmice, long-tailed voles and one blurr that was possibly a dormouse. More photographs needed! No brown rats!
I have been looking in three spots for plants, on one occasion as John wielded his camera in pursuit of butterflies. Spot one was in my own garden: spotted, southern marsh, twayblade and lesser butterfly orchids are currently in flower. Location two was alongside the A303 road, the route from London to The West Country and Devon. And, finally, Salisbury Plain.
In the garden. The spotted orchids brought themselves here, yet I transported additional orchids from a garden about to be bulldozed. The latter reside in the flower border. The lesser butterfly orchids are from French seed, and have been flowering for around six years. A near relative, in bud but not flower, the greater butterfly orchid set itself into our main lawn. The southern marsh are seedlings from a couple of donated plants, that first arrived at least 25 years ago. Twayblades have spread in themselves and so enjoy it that they have moved far and wide. Our soldier x monkey and green-winged orchids have failed to flower this year, while the pyramidals are gearing up to show their colours.
2. The edge of the A303. The interchanges are the places to seek out orchids. In this case I parked beneath the A303 on a sliproad. Bee orchids are due to flower shortly, with the pyramidals in advance of my own because of a warmer soil on the chalky slopes.
Site three is on Salisbury Plain.
To explore further about UK orchids refer to a book. I use: Orchids of the British Isles by Foley and Clarke. There are others … and remember, if you are short of cash, pick one up second hand via eBay or similar.
Hayloft Plants (www.hayloft.co.uk) are offering three UK orchid species by mail order.
If someone attempts to steal your money would you be happy? Here you are, have another £1000. I doubt it. So, plants will feel the same about being eaten … the organism is taking the plant’s resources and giving nothing in exchange.
Okay, what do you do to stop the thieves and scammers? I use an alarm system, security windows and a big lock on the door. I even remember to use the lock occasionally! Scammers … I always say ‘No’, and am wary. Plants use poisons, toxins. Virtually every plant, except quick-growing annuals and grasses, are protected at maturity with toxins. (Grasses contain silicates that wear down herbivores’ teeth and limit their consumption.)
Major Toxicity: These plants may cause serious illness or death.
Minor Toxicity: Ingestion of these plants may cause minor illnesses such as vomiting or diarrhoea.
Oxalates: The juice or sap of these plants contains oxalate crystals. These needle-shaped crystals can irritate the skin, mouth, tongue, and throat, resulting in throat swelling, breathing difficulties, burning pain, and stomach upset.
Dermatitis: The juice, sap, or thorns of these plants may cause a skin rash or irritation. Wash the affected area of skin with soap and water as soon as possible after contact. The rashes may be very serious and painful.
Acer spp. Maple 4
Achillea millefolium Yarrow 2,4
Aconitum spp. Aconite; Monkshood 1
Aesculus spp. Horse chestnut 2
Agapanthus spp. Agapanthus 2,4
lcea rosea Hollyhock 4
Allium spp. Wild onion 2
Alnus spp. Alder 4
Aquilegia spp. Columbine 2
Aster spp. Aster 4
Atropa belladonna Deadly nightshade 1
Aucuba japonica Japanese aucuba (A common hedging plant) 2
Begonia spp. (some species) Begonia 2,3
Bellis perennis English daisy 4 (Our rabbit ate the ‘flower’ stem but did not touch the flower head.)
Berberis spp. Barberry 2,4
Betula spp. Birch tree 2,4 (Luckily the syrup, like maple syrup, is fine and delicious!)
Generally, the toxicity builds up with time. Growing new leaves is an energy intensive process, so the plant delays the energy-expensive toxin production until the leaves are established. This gives the leaf-eating insects a chance to feed – a rush before they are inhibited by the increasing toxicity of their food. This why birds such as tits, feeding on tree-dwelling larvae, must complete their breeding cycle before the maturity of tree leaves.
Heracleum sphondylium – Common hogweed.
The name of this tall wayside wildflower comes from its farming history, as it was once frequently collected and bundled by villagers in the summer months and used as pig-fodder
Keeping with this theme, it is also said that when in flower this plant gives off a less than pleasant, rather pig-like odour!
As a gardener, I come across plant toxicity on my skin. In the past ( I Poison Myself article) with euphorbia sap and today with the leaves of Common Hogweed … I was wearing gloves, but the leaves still touched my uncovered arm which had a mild rash. (Water washing has calmed it down.) (Hogweed is edible: young leaves are blanched, and then cooked in butter – giving a spinach-like end product.)
The snag for me is that common hogweed spreads too well in my garden. If I did not spend some time controlling it the garden would be covered in nothing else. So, I remove the flowering shoots of the biennial, and this keeps it at a low population level.
In eastern European countries and especially Romania, H. sphondylium is used as an aphrodisiac and to treat gynecological and fertility problems and impotence. It is also sometimes recommended for epilepsy. However, there are no clinical studies to prove its efficacy at treating any of these problems.
It seems that my allergic reaction was uncommon, but it was a high light intensity day (a rare thing this year!) and the skin irritant was enhanced by UV light.
Hogweed toxins can induce phytophotodermatitis – irritating the skin of susceptible people and causing blisters with exposure to ultraviolet radiation. The furanocoumarins are changed temporarily into a high-energy state when they absorb photons from the sunlight. They then release this energy into the skin where it causes damage to DNA in the skin’s epidermis, causing skin cell death.
You and I will have many toxic plants in the garden, and gloves should be worn when one is doing lots of weeding or plant manipulation. I have Deadly Nightshade in a hedge, and Monk’s Hood in the flower borders – two very toxic plants in category 1. I have just planted out some Ammi majus for its insect-attracting white flowers, and this, I now note, is highly toxic. Guess it is more glove use for me in the future.
Sundews. On my New Forest trip last week, I came across two species of sundews – really interesting carnivorous plants growing in a mossy bog. Nearby was the semi-parasitic lousewort. These are plants fighting back too.
Now, just for fun … can anyone recognise this place?
This looks at a trial, about to start across the UK, into the most effective ways of removing atmospheric carbon dioxide – critical in reducing Global Warming. Worth scanning to give your day some optimism.
We fitted solar PV panels some 11 years back (2010), and they have generated 27 000 KW hours of electrical generation. We added them to our roof in the early days of mass PV sales and they paid themselves back in about 8 years, and the 12 panels now give us £1500 in cash each year. That is more than our energy costs of running the gas and electricity for the bungalow. It was a long-term project, yet has paid off and the money should flow in until the end of the 25 year contract. (Terms and conditions have since changed, so check current data if you wish to follow our direction!)
As John pointed out in the last article, it has been a dire month for sunshine but a great one if you desire lots of rain. Our plants are almost a month behind when compared to 2020, and our Summer Meadow will grow really tall this year with the growth-stimulating rainfall. Currently that meadow is quiescent with the decline of the cowslips and bluebells and the orchids yet to show their colours. Not so the Spring Meadow and our no-cut Main Lawn, both are swathes of buttercup yellow.
You may have read my Water Meadows* article on this site. This was a development in the 1700s to flush comparatively warm river water over flood plain meadows to stimulate early year growth of grasses. This increased growth fed sheep when food was scarce and increased agricultural output. It was an expensive yet very effective. Well, rainfall is having the same effect on my grass … although not a sheep is in sight! The compost heap will eventually be the recipient, and much of the trapped carbon dioxide will end up, for a time, in my flower borders. Indeed, our horrid clay-over-chalk soil has moved from potting-clay to lovely fertile soil over the years with the adding of composted humus.
The no-cut May (for lawns) has been well publicised in the UK yet I have not seen another yet. Hopefully it will catch on eventually, especially with people with larger gardens. It would be less attractive to those with a minute patch and football crazy children. Perhaps you know otherwise?
And now for something totally different. About twenty miles west is where the UK army plays tanks and shooting at each other. The Salisbury Plain Training Area. It can be biologically wonderful. Wild bustards, marsh fritillary butterfly in clouds and orchids.
*If you came directly to this article you may need to scroll down from the first page. So, go to http://www.nwhwildlife.org and just keep going down. There are some 100 articles, so keep going.
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So here we are, still grinding our way through the coldest spring I can remember with those long, hot days of summer feeling like a foreign country that we shall never reach. With the welcome exception of a stray warm and sunny day it seems to have been a relentless parade of grey skies and cutting northerly winds. The striking white blossom of blackthorn appeared late around Hampshire fields, many ducks were seemingly so depressed by the terrible weather that they gave mating a miss, and insects, too, have been reticent when it comes to emerging and taking to the air.
The first butterflies to be seen were those that hibernate over winter, being drawn out by warmer spring days, but there was precious little to see in March. The occasional Peacock or Brimstone, but I had to wait until nearly April before I found my first Comma, let alone Small Tortoiseshell. Having hibernated through the winter many of these butterflies are not at their best when they greet the new year. The exception is the Brimstone, which always looks to be freshly emerged as it takes to the wing.
The butterfly comes out of hibernation and the female lays her eggs on buckthorn, common in the hedgerows. After 10 days or so the tiny caterpillar emerges and feeds up through the first half of the summer. After pupation the adults emerge at the end of the season and feed up, ready to hibernate over the ensuing winter. This is a female laying eggs on buckthorn on Stockbridge Down:
The condition of the other hibernators can vary enormously depending on how long the butterfly had been alive and flying around the previous year. This is something of a favourite photograph of mine as it shows just how decrepit an insect can sometimes be:
This Peacock was still happily flying around, apparently completely unaware that it barely had any wings left!
The first real signs of spring, of course, are the small Bee Flies, buzzing low over the ground. There are several different species but the Dotted Bee Fly, Heath Bee Fly and Mottled Bee Fly are all rare and confined to specific areas. The one seen in large numbers around here is the common Dark-edged Bee Fly:
These herald the emergence of the ubiquitous Orange Tip butterflies. The male is a welcome splash of bright colour after the cold grey of winter:
The female is rather less striking, being easily mistaken for a Small White or Green-veined White, unless she sits with her wings closed:
Now the mottled underside of the hind wings can be clearly seen. A clue, if the butterfly is sitting with wings spread open and flat, is that there is a firm black crescent round the edge of the tips of the forewings. In the Small White this is more grey and noticeably less distinct, while a Green-veined White may have little discernible dark marking at all. Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of that to show you … yet!
Towards the end of March the season normally gets seriously underway. The geology in this neck of the woods is chalk, or calciferous, grassland. This supports plant types that like an alkaline soil, and that determines the species that are here. Two local stars are the remarkably small Grizzled Skipper and the Dingy Skipper. Both are considered rare, but any decent untouched hillside around Andover will usually be found to be supporting modest populations of both. We had a warmish break of several days, barring the northerly breeze, around the middle April and I visited Stockbridge Down in anticipation. On the first afternoon, 19 April, I saw a Grizzled Skipper and also, to my surprise, a Duke of Burgundy. By 24 April I got 2 Dingy Skippers and 1 Grizzled, then the weather turned for the worse, but I managed to snatch a couple of photos. This is a male Grizzled:
And this the female:
Notice that in visual terms that at a glance the male has more background colour than the female.
If the weather turns cooler while you are out hunting these don’t turn your back and go home. These butterflies will usually not decamp to roost in the bushes but will stoically remain out in the open. They will fold their wings up over their backs, and if you can find them … be warned that they are barely the size of the fingernail on your little finger … they are actually rather charming:
Just for good measure this one of the Dingy Skippers I saw:
By this time, I was also beginning to broaden my search to include Damselflies. Usually, the very first can be found in the first few days of May, but the weather remained stubbornly cold and overcast. Undeterred I kept on searching and hoping. Supposedly the first one to emerge around Andover is the Large Red Damselfly, so I concentrated my search in the two main sites for them. Day after day I plodded around staring into the reeds in vain, but, at last, yesterday I had some luck at a large pond on private property that I have written about before, my “secret” pond.
This is what is known an exuvia:
When fully grown and ready to emerge the larvae, or nymphs, move into shallow water, near reeds, and what until they feel the time is right. They then climb a stalk, usually to a point around a foot, or 30cm, out of the water and make their way out of the exoskeleton they no longer need. They then pump up their bodies and their wings and wait while their new exoskeleton and wings dry and harden. They are aware of their vulnerability at this stage, they cannot fly and there are plenty of things out there which see them as lunch, so they remain hidden in the reeds until they can fly. They then take their maiden flight, which may take them well away from the pond that has been their home for the last year. They will return later and busy themselves with the mating game. In the meantime, they leave this behind.
The freshly emerged insect doesn’t look as it eventually will. Areas which are black in the adult form will be black on this insect, but those which will take on the adult colouration are a straw colour. This stage of the insect is known as teneral. Over a day or so the insect will colour up. This male Large Red I found has probably been out of the exuvia for a couple of hours:
I also found Azures, Common Blues and Blue-tailed, and all were that same straw colour. I didn’t manage photos of all of them, but this is a female Azure. She can be recognised by the Coenagrion Spur on the side of the thorax and the lack of colour on sections 8 -10 of the rear of the abdomen:
In a week or so the reeds will once again be busy with the fluttering of wings, males and females will pair up and mass on floating vegetation to perform crowd egg-laying. The summer will have arrived, and the next generation will already be on the way … weather providing, of course.
Rhamnus cathartica, the European buckthorn, common buckthorn, purging buckthorn, or just buckthorn, is a species of small tree in the flowering plant family Rhamnaceae. It is native to Europe, northwest Africa and western Asia, from the central British Isles south to Morocco, and east to Kyrgyzstan. In the UK it is often found in hedgerows.
Guide to dragonflies and damselflies of Britain. Natural History Museum / Field Studies Council. This is a handy field guide leaflet.
Dragonfly courses held by the Field Studies Council.
At one time the fungi were considered as part of the plant kingdom. Sure, they do produce spores (as are pollen grains and those liberated by ferns, horsetails and mosses) and a few have cellulose cell walls, but they contain no chlorophyll, and most digest their own food using exo-enzymes. For those of you who studied A-level Biology, you will be shocked to learn that mitosis and meiosis are unusual in this group. Indeed, they are an odd mob! Especially when one understands that some do move around like an amoeba and then morph to look like a mould … almost like an insect changing from a larval form to a flying adult.
There are at least 100 000 named species, with an estimated 200 000 remaining to be discovered. And, they are evolving into new species (speciation) at a rapid rate. If you want a career in science, choose to be a fungal expert. There’s plenty to study.
Not a trace of photosynthesis here. No chlorophyll, no need to sit in the daylight, but they do need supplies of energy and nutrients, so they either steal it (parasites), share it (symbionts) or eat it by digesting decaying matter. The stealers can quite contentedly steal and eventually kill the host, and then eat up the decaying remains. Now, do not think this has nothing to do with you … think Athlete’s Foot, think Ringworm, think Candida (thrush), think gone-off refrigerated foods that are covered in hairy growths. Yuk! And some of these human infections by fungi are untreatable – people die.
Once, in a Black Museum in a hospital, I saw the preserved head of a sailor who had caught a facial infection of a fungus. He had lost half his face, including an eye to the infection. There were several other gruesome specimens, including an eaten-away penis.
Some of the parasitic fungi secrete chemicals that ensure their host’s cells leak, and the fungus absorbs the released nutrients. Others inject a hypodermic needle (haustorium) and suck up their share of the food, others secrete enzymes and break down their food supplies before taking them in. Yet others kill off the host’s cells with toxins and feast on the remains – soft rot on fruit is an example. (Including the ‘noble rot’ of some ultra-sweet wines.)
As if that is not enough, some make friends with algae and form the lichens.
As I said, a good career is here for someone, especially when you add the fact that many fungi produce antibiotics, and fungi are used in human food manufacture (yeasts etc).
The yeasts are single-celled, otherwise fungi are filamentous – long, undivided lines of ‘cells’ (hyphae) that mass to form a mycelium. They own a nucleus, so their DNA is enclosed – unlike the nuclear material of bacteria. Most other cell structures are present – mitochondria, ribosome, endoplasmic reticulum but no chloroplasts.
Generally, the bulk of the fungus is unseen. The hyphae are deep inside the host, be it dead or alive, with just the spore-producing body on show. (Of course, some fungi, such as yeasts, do not grow fruiting structures). Yet in two groups, the ascomycetes and basiomycetes, a highly organised spore body is grown. That structure can grow up to 1 metre in diameter in one mushroom type.
With the fruiting body full of potential food, it needs protection. Melanins do that job.
Microscope investigation: Looking at the basidia of a culinary mushroom.
You’ll need some sharp razor blades. Do not use old ones! Worn blades mean ragged cuts. Also, you’ll need slides and cover slips.
Slice very fine sections of the gills. Take lots, and then select the very thinnest.
Mount in water and observe under low power. Look around (always do this! It will save time and effort. Honestly.) to seek out the best bit to observe. You should see the club-shaped basidia and spores attached to the outer surface.
If you leave the cap on a sheet of paper this will give you a spore print and allow you to scrape a few spores onto a slide. If you have a graticle (in the eyepiece) and a measuring slide you can accurately work out the size of the spores.
You can try this techniqueon other fungal types, always recalling that some fungi are VERY TOXIC.
Damp bread will often grow Mucor or Rhizopus fungi. Samples, in a drop of water, will show their sporangia (Spore bodies).
Fungal metabolism and ecology
They can be anaerobic or aerobic in their respiration (energy release, not that dreadful misuse of the scientific expression to do with breathing!). Anaerobic respiration often liberates ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide.
Humans are very reliant on fungi to break down waste materials. My compost bins would be useless without them.
When I was growing UK orchids from seed I employed fungi to partner the orchid. Initially, I had to sterilize the orchid seeds in dilute chlorine, and then sow them onto a selected medium in sterile petri dishes. Then I inoculated specific fungi onto that plate, under sterile conditions in a laminar-flow chamber, and they grew INTO the orchid seed feeding it. After many months the seed would grow into an undifferentiated cellular mass and, given a bit of luck, would finally generate roots and shoots. Only then was the fungus repaid as photosynthesis started.
[More details from The Hardy Orchid Society in the UK] Or, better still, you can buy my book: Obsession, a gentle thriller about orchids. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fungi are vital to recycling, to the growing of most trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. Mycorrhizal associations with roots are increasingly being studied. Fungi cause economic loss in fruit damage and in destroying grain crops, e.g., wheat rust.
Antibiotics and yeast fermentation are million-pound businesses.
And now something special, just for you:
Slime molds (moulds)
These are exciting, and I grew some for a while. They are quite unlike other fungi and I recommend you spend some time finding out more.
The body of the organism is a large mass of protoplasm of several cubic centimetres with scattered nuclei. Amazingly it is capable of flowing around in an animal-like manner – aiming towards a food supply. [I grew them on blotting paper in a damp and warm petri dish, and fed them on crushed fresh oat seeds.] They eat plant material, bacteria and yeasts. Eventually, often when poor environmental conditions occur, they stop and grow a typical fungus fruiting body and shed spores. Stunning!
THIS IS A COPY of one of Ian’s slime mould finding method. Produced with permission.
Moist Chamber Technique
By putting samples in a warm, damp environment for a bit you can give yourself a better chance of finding your own wild slimes. The moist chamber technique is how we do this. It’s good for finding slimes but it can take a while – they sometimes show up after eight weeks or more, and you’ll get all sorts of other things showing up – including protostelids and cellular slime moulds.
Slime moulds are harmless but other moulds, and bacteria that grow might not be. Always wash your hands after handling your tubs, definitely don’t eat anything that grows or stick your nose in the tub.
Water tight tubs
Magnifying glass or microscope
How to do it
A few old margarine tubs or other old food containers are perfect for this, clean them first and please don’t use them for food again afterwards. Fold up a sheet of kitchen towel and put it in the bottom of the tub, give it a good soaking of tap water and pour out all the excess liquid. Go outside and have a look around, try to find bits of twigs, leaves and things that have gone a little bit rotten already and put one or two small pieces in each tub, try to avoid picking up little critters like woodlice and earwigs – they’ll be happier outside. Put the lids on the tubs and bring them indoors. Now wash your hands!
Keep them in the dark, room temperature is fine. Every few days have a look. You might see thin tendrils crawling across bits of wood or on the kitchen towel, they might be bright yellow, they might be beige but they’re slime moulds!
They’re nearly impossible to identify when they’re in the crawling around stage, it’s the tiny mushroom like fruiting bodies you need for that. You could try leaving one in the light for a few days and see if it makes spores.
When you’re finished, put the leftovers on the compost or in the bin, wash your tubs and reuse or recycle them.
Why not take some photographs and send them in We’d love to know how you get on!
And they are not what you possibly think they are!
David Beeson, mid-May 2021
Biology is currently dominated by the FIVE-KINGDOM concept of organism diversity: plants, animals, fungi, protista and those organisms without a nucleus, such as bacteria – the prokaryotes. Generally, plants, animals and fungi are mostly easy to recognise. Protista contains those nucleated organisms which do not easily fit into those groups. The ALGAE are usually included in the PROTISTA KINGDOM because many of them bear little relationship with ferns or conifers or flowering plants, yet are mostly photosynthetic. And algae occur in huge numbers everywhere (billions on a single oak tree trunk) and I consider them the commonest green organisms.
Hint: Do you have your own microscope? I bought my ex-university Kyowa microscope via eBay for £100. New machines are available, but mine was great value, which I cleaned up and bought some slides, coverslips and stains to allow me to make my own slides. Commercial slides also available.
How about a university-level botany textbook? Mine? Second hand from eBay! Generally, botany textbooks do not go out of date. (Except the biochemistry!)
If you scrape a surface sample of most trees onto a microscope slide, add a drop of water and lower (from one side to avoid all the air bubbles) a coverslip you’ll spot thousands of spherical Pleuroccocus cells – a single-celled green alga.
Go to the seaside and look into a rock pool. The red, green or brown seaweeds are algae.
Look into a pond and the slimy threads are algae – probably Spirogyra or Zygnema. A drop of that same pondwater will be full of small algae.
Algae are everywhere, and in huge numbers because many are single-celled.
Divisions of algae: 1. Euglenophyta. Some are so mobile that zoologists claim them as their own! 2. Dinoflagellates. 3.Diatoms. 4. Chlorophyta – the green algae which I encounter most. 5. Brown algae of the rocky coasts. 6. Red algae.
Algae are organisms with nucleate cells, they photosynthesise and have a very different reproductive system to the more-typical plants, with some mobile sex cells (gametes).
I will only cover two alga types here: Euglenoids (Euglenophyta) and Chlorophyta, although any investigation of water will yield diatoms.
What a mixture! Some have chloroplasts, some never. Most are unicellular, yet a few form small multicellular organisms. Many can ‘eat’ food, while others absorb food through their outer layers. Even the photosynthetic species grow faster if they can engulf organic materials. They swim around using flagella (Whip-like structures).
I find them in green ponds, and most warm weather pond samples will yield some. You’ll spot them scooting around, and it will challenge your skills to work out their structure unless you kill them or buy a prepared slide.
Collect some pondweed. Leave in a jar with pond water in the dark. A brown scum will develop on the water surface. This will contain Eugena species and amoeboids.
Take a drop onto a clean slide. Add a coverslip, avoiding air bubbles by adding at an angle.
Always start with the lowest microscope power, adjust diaphragm, lighting and view of the slide for optimum viewing. Then work up through the higher powers.
You can find more details and videos on the Internet.
I am surrounded by chlorophytes! My garden pond is free of fish but full of green algae – Spirogyra, Zygnema and Chara, which are the easily visible types, and there are myriads of single-celled types, plus some beautiful multicellular, hollow balls of flagellate algae.
My trees have green bark which is covered in green single-celled algae. Even the soil surface has algae on it. Plenty to investigate.
Algae from a tree trunk: Pleurococcus. Despite algae being water-loving, this one survives living in the open air, although it prefers the cooler, damper north-facing sides of the trunk. Each cell has an especially thick cell wall to limit water loss. It uses a carbohydrate-rich slime to adhere it to the tree. Bacteria now attack that exudate and a biofilm develops – an ecosystem in its own right.
This is one of many types of filamentous algae you will find. The cells above show the spiral chloroplast and cell walls. An investigation will soon allow you to spot the nucleus and the starch granules. But the reproduction is really interesting, and I’ll not spoil it by describing. Do look for yourself and you’ll see conjugation tubes and male and female gametes.
The best algae to seek is Chara. I used it with students because its cells are huge and you can see cyclosis – the flowing of cytoplasm within the cells.
The algae are a diverse group of organisms, and much neglected by citizen scientists. Yet they have a wide distribution, an interesting sex life and are easily studied. So, grab a good microscope and set yourself up for a winter project.