Of Dukes and Men

John Solomon

Harewood Forest, 2 May 2020.

A butterfly exploration.

I make no apologies for this probably being the shortest blog I’ll ever post. I
left the house around three o’clock with one target species in mind, driving up
past Walworth Industrial Estate and taking the B3400 towards Whitchurch.
Here, driving past the Arbory rest home on the right, is the mile long stretch of
road known as Andover Down with some rather pleasant properties,
particularly to the right hand side. At the end of the straight the road curves
round to the left and on the right hand side is a lay-by that is very handy for
where I wish to go. I pull in and lock the car up, then walk back along the
verge. Just past the first house, which used to be a pub years ago, is a
footpath that ultimately leads to the Middle Way, although I am not going to go
that far.


The public path is completely shaded here with coppiced hazel and overhung hundred-year-old oaks. I pause here. Usually I would be seeing some butterflies, at this time of year brimstones, a peacock or two, perhaps a tortoiseshell or a comma; but today I see nothing. Not a good omen, but understandable as although the sun is out and the sky clear it is still only around 16 degrees and there is a light but fresh wind blowing. The insects have decided to keep out of sight and I am glad I have my fleece on.

I follow the path on beneath towering oaks with their fresh leaves. After three hundred
yards there is a large area to the left which was cleared perhaps ten years
ago and planted with young trees. Their growth has been remarkably slow
and it is still very open – a good potential location for today’s quarry.

This estate was previously owned by Captain Andrew Wills and was effectively open to the public, so long as they behaved themselves. He actually recognised the value of this wood, the largest ancient woodland in Hampshire outside the New Forest. At one point the estate was offering a significant section of it to the local council, specifically for public use providing they took on its upkeep. However, the council of the time did not consider that it could afford this.

Captain Wills died in 1998 and the running of the estate, including Harewood Forest, became the responsibility of his son, Richard, who clearly has a different approach. The local nature fraternity has attempted to open a dialogue to permit scientific observation, but so far has been unsuccessful.

The estate breeds non-native pheasants* for shooting and has deer stalkers.

When I was an art student, some forty-odd years ago, a keeper (Mr Heagren) took me round to some of their sites in the wood allowing me to photograph and sketch the birds for a college project. Clearly the few members of the public who visited the place
did not make for a problem then. With the pheasant breeding they may well not want the public running everywhere, willy-nilly, particularly if those people brought with them dogs on the loose, but it is difficult to see what problem the occasional nature geek with a notepad and camera might cause. Also I wonder if the owners of this unique environment wouldn’t be interested to know what is actually here, on the land they have ‘borrowed’.

Anyway, advice, if you visit this delightful wood do not step off the footpath.

Not far, just a few yards. I am near the location where I would hope to
find my target species, that is less than a hundred yards away, and I have
heard that last year one or two were spotted here … but not by me.

I emerge into the sunshine at a small crossroads of tracks. As if to warn me I have simply chosen the wrong day the sun immediately goes in and it is suddenly very chilly.

This is where I first found the species I am looking for today. Twenty years
ago I brought my girlfriend here and we spent the afternoon sat right beside
this crossroads underneath the Scots pine and all afternoon another flirty pair
joined us. I didn’t realise what they were at the time. It wasn’t until perhaps
ten years ago that she and I were walking here in very early June, by which
time I was much more actively involved with wildlife, that we found a very pale
and worn specimen sitting on the bracken fifty yards further on along the left
of the footpath.

Now I am moving very slowly and searching for a glimpse of anything that might be something … but I still miss it. Something is startled up off the ground by my clumsy steps and flutters away … for just two or three yards, then lands and although it is very small, wings only around a centimetre long, I can see it … and I can see it is exactly
what I came here for:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


This is a Duke of Burgundy butterfly. Very rare for a long time, but over the last
decade making a strong recovery, mainly down to work done by various
conservation groups, not least Butterfly Conservation. There are believed to
be at least two small and vulnerable colonies in Harewood. (How many more if only we could get to explore this large site?)

I’m extremely happy with the photo but, of course, would now like to get one of the upper wing surface, so spend the next 45 minutes being led a merry chase. I do manage to get a couple of good sightings and can see that it is a male. This is to be expected. The date is early for the butterfly and in the insect world it is usually the males that emerge first, ready to “romance” the females as soon they join them. As far as nature is concerned the only thing that matters is that creatures mate. Nature clearly couldn’t care less whether or not I gain the picture of the upper wing surface that I want. Perhaps another day.

* David adds: Pheasant breeding is banned in the Netherlands due, they say, to its adverse environmental effects. Many in the UK environmental / conservation organisations would encourage the UK government to follow a similar approach. Chris Packham has views which you may wish to look up.

The Wildlife Garden in Early April

The Wildlife Garden in Early April, 2020.

David Beeson

While the UK ‘lock down’ for coronavirus (Covid-19) continues the natural world carries on as usual. Yet, the year has felt wetter and windier than normal – but, that is what is predicted by Global Warming. Now, as April develop, the weather has changed and we are experiencing less rain and sunshine is bathing us, occasionally.

Our wild cherry in flower

The wild cherries are full of white flower and rich with the buzz of hundreds of hive bees plus an occasional bumble. The pollen and nectar flow should be good as neither rain nor frost has hit hard since the blossom commenced. In parallel the damsons have their creamy-white flowers clustering along the new branches.

The wild, hedge damsons are ancient. Recently they were trimmed and so, last year, threw up plenty of vigorous upwards growth. This is now trimmed with those most delightful flowers.

We await the apple and hawthorn’s exuberance – which should be with us within two weeks. The may’s buds are swelling daily.

At a lower level the blackthorn (sloe) is waning. It’s delicate flowers are turning a brown shade as they prepare to shed its petals to enhance the litter on the ground.

Meanwhile the aspens, beech, oak and walnuts remain in slumber. Although all their buds are showing some willingness to awaken.

Our flower borders raise the spirit. The herbaceous (non-woody) species are in a hurry to reach their potential and appear softly green and vibrant in their newly grown foliage. Many are flowering, and, though many are not natives, their nectar and pollen is as welcome as any wild plant’s. The snag is that they lack the insects that can consume their leaves. Plants protect themselves with toxins and UK native insects do not have the antidote to foreign poisons. (Is this why we left the EU? To rid ourselves of foreign plant types? Surely it wasn’t only to drive away all the EU NHS staff and the people who pick all the fruit and vegetables.)

The main lawn has been edge trimmed to give it a touch of neatness. The bulk has been uncut and the daisies are being appreciated by occasional butterflies and bee flies. Even here wild orchids are showing themselves. Twayblade and pyramidals are not quite ready to send up their flower shoots – that is still a coupe of weeks distant.

The wild pond is a problem, and your advice would be helpful here. It is artificial, having been dug 30 years ago. The aquatic vegetation is: water starwort, water lily, Canadian pond weed, an alga called Chara and some filamentous alga– probably Zygmaema. The water is currently 100% rainwater.

The frogs arrived and spawned in early February. I counted in excess of 50 spawn masses. The spawn was protected from mallards by netting and hatched well and then fed and clustered in the shallows.

As usual, the palmate newts then showed themselves and certainly have eaten some of the many thousands of miniature tadpoles. The newts are still around yet not one tadpole can be seen, even with close exploration. The tadpoles vanished again last year and none emerged as frog hoppers. Why? What is going wrong?

There are no toads locally. No mallards have visited the pond.

Is the Chara toxic? Is there a disease that kills month-old tadpoles? I can not believe that the newts have demolished everything.

Flower border around the Spring Meadow.

With the ‘say at home, or else’ instruction the flower borders are receiving plenty of attention – whether they want it or not! The excess Iris sibirica fought my fork like Vikings but, like them, ultimately failed to win the battle of Edington (around the 10th of May 878, if you want to know) against King Alfred. The plant’s problem is that they only flower for two weeks and then sulk for fifty.

The flower border I’m working on.

Some Geranium endressii will shortly be joining them on the compost heap. It appears demure now, flowers for a long period and them turns into a rampant thug that demands drastic action in august. So, it is being tolerated at the back of this five-plus metre border but not within two metres of the front. Likewise, the Spanish bluebells will be reduced in number with plants relocated to these spots from elsewhere.

Part of the Spring Meadow with an island border. The wild daffodils are now into seed production.
Summer Meadow.

The Summer Meadow is still mostly at ground level with cowslips giving the main colour. It will soon change as the herbage grows strongly and the hundreds of wild orchids flower.

A composting area.
Beneath one of our 100+ year old walnuts
Some free tulips delivered with Martagon Lilies last autumn.

Swallows have arrived. Red kites and buzzards patrol the air and the smaller birds peck around the flower borders and seem to find plenty of food.

A pair of long-tailed tits have found their desired nesting spot – luckily within sight of our breakfast location. So, that should soon be entertaining. And the bird song can be delightful.

The wildlife meadows are unpredictable. One is never quite certain what will grow where and what new treasures will be spotted. The flower borders have their uses too – with blackbirds and their friends exploring the nooks and crannies for tasty nutritious foods. There is a place for wild and tame in our garden.

John has been on his first butterfly transect and we have a good number fluttering here – although no orange tips or blues yet.

Do feedback if you feel the desire.

Woodland flora is now wide awake.

Scots Pine

Conifers

David Beeson

Conifers are a magnificent group of gymnosperm plants that produce seeds without the need of fruit or flowers. They include some incredible trees such as the Giant Sequoias of North America that can grow over 110 m tall.

Conifers do not have flowers that a child would recognise. Instead they bear male and female cones, with the seeds being released eventually from the female cone.

These plants belong to a group called the Gymnosperms, meaning: naked seeds as they are not within a fruit but open to the air when the female cone is mature.

Gymnosperms include our own conifers, plus cycads and various odds-and-sods such as the Ginko tree.

These plants hit their distribution peak in the dino-era and have since been overshadowed in many parts of the world by the flowering trees, although the conifers still hold sway in many colder regions.

You will immediately think, why have they lost ground in that way? I would suggest that the thin, needle-like leaves are less well designed (adapted) to capture sunlight energy but especially their water transport system is far below par. Their xylem tubes (woody tissues mainly involved in water transport)have many cross walls with only holes to allow the movement of water. The Angiosperms, flowering plants, have true tubes in their xylem with, consequently, minimal resistance to water flow.

Hence, conifer wood (softwood) has a different structure to Angiosperm wood (hard wood). Mainly small,cross-walled xylem tracheids in conifers, mainly wide xylem vessels in the Angiosperms.

The woody tracheids and vessels have been coloured red for clarity. Above them, non-red, are non-woody cells on the outside of the xylem.

Water movement in conifers is around 1mm per second. In Angiosperms it is 11mm per second. Ten times better, allowing them to cope in a wider range of habitats.

Male cone, above. Year 1, 2 and 3 female cones, below.

Spring is the time to search out the male cones. They are at the growing tips and you should spot clusters of pollen filled bags and eventually they will burst to liberate clouds of air-carried grains. (One source of spring hay fever.) To give the grains lift they have two air bladders, so spread long distances.

Below: single pine pollen grain. Microscopic image showing the two air bladders.

The female cones on the Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) are about 3cm long and it is, in fact, already a year old. Once the egg cell is fertilized it needs to grow for another full year before the seeds are released.

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) female cone. Light micrograph of a section through a female cone from a Scot’s pine tree, showing the woody ovuliferous scales and bract scales. Two ovules are produced side by side on the upper surface of the ovuliferous scale. Each arises as a group of cells that forms a rounded hump of tissue called the nucellus (blue-green). Magnification: x3 when printed 10 centimetres wide.

Locally squirrels and crossbills feed extensively on the pine seeds. Both species are to be seen in Harewood where there are exotic Douglas firs.

(With all plants the reproductive system is not as straightforward as in animals. Real botanists need to look up their breeding strategy when feeling bright and alert! It isn’t what you think it should be!)

Scots Pine leaves (needles) are covered on their upper surface with a waxy layer to reduce water loss, and the stomata (breathing pores) are sunk down for the same reason. Their wood is resinous in an attempt to reduce insect damage, they often grow on acidic soils (So, not many occur naturally near Andover), their bark is nutrient-poor and that ensures they are little colonised by mosses or lichens.

INTERESTING FACTS

Scots pine can live for up to 700 years. It is the only true native pine in the UK. Mature trees can grow up to 35m in height. Its bark is scaly and orange-brown in colour. Scots pine timber is one of the strongest softwoods available and is widely used in the construction industry and in joinery. It is used in the manufacture of telegraph poles, pit props, gate posts and fencing. The tree can also be tapped for resin to make turpentine. Other uses include rope made from the inner bark, tar from the roots and a dye from the cones. Dry cones can be used as kindling for fires.

Conifer trees are immense and hold the records for the world’s tallest, widest, oldest and largest trees.

Tallest: Coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) – 115 m

Widest: Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) – 11.42 m

Oldest: Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) – 4,700 years old

Largest: General Sherman, a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) – ~1487 m³

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/a-z-of-british-trees/scots-pine/

Do add the WOODLAND TRUST tree app to your smart phone. It is free and there are no adverts.

Dino-botany in Andover

Rooksbury’s Dinosaurs

David Beeson

Best time to visit is late spring or summer.

If you enter the Rooksbury Local Nature Reserve from the old Test Valley railway line and soon turn right you will spy a miniature forest of horsetails on your right. They grow up to 60cm in height. Their relatives were around with T. rex and Stegosaurus. Forests of tree-like horsetails were the food of many dino-herbivores and when they only partly decayed after death, they donated us coal. (Of course, flowering plants such as oak trees had yet to evolve.)

For over 100 million years horsetail relatives dominated the understory of late Paleozoic forests. Some of these plants were large trees reaching to 30 m (98 ft) tall.

The most striking feature of our horsetails (Equisetum is the scientific name of the genus) is the whorl of green branches arranged one above another up the stem. The plant’s minute leaves are located where these branches join the main stem – a ring of fused miniature leaves that is easy to miss.

Being green, the stems and branches are photosynthetic and trap sunlight energy to drive the plant’s chemistry.

I’m told that during World War Two German’s were send out into the fields to collect horsetails for the war effort. What they were used for is unknown to me*.

Horsetail stems are abrasive as they contain sandy silica (SiO2) and this makes them feel like Brillo pads. This silica would have worn down the teeth of the dinosaurs and is still a deterrent to grazing animals.

Horsetails, like mosses and ferns, are non-flowering. The tall plant we see growing in this soggy part of the reserve produces spores from cones. These spores germinate to form miniature structures that make eggs and sperm. When these gametes join the resulting embryo can grow into the big horsetail that we see.

So, like the other non-flowering plants there are two distinct stages to the plant’s life history – called Alternation of Generations.

There are relatives of the horsetails found elsewhere in the UK. Club mosses are sometimes encountered in the New Forest and in mountainous areas. Yet, there is one place you might encounter them which is slightly unexpected – garden centres. A small club moss called Selaginella is sold as a house plant. In the wild I’ve found it in diverse spots such Southern Italy and West Wales.

Gardening tip. Horsetail is an invasive, deep-rooted perennial weed that will spread quickly to form a dense carpet of foliage, crowding out less vigorous plants in beds and borders. Best keep it in a wild part of the garden.

A plant (Hippuris or mare’s tail) that looks similar to a horsetail, but grows in water, is unrelated – being a flowering plant.

Some, overseas cultures, are known to eat* young stems and to use it in traditional medicine (Unproven). The stems are said to taste rather like asparagus. However, the plant is said to be poisonous to horses … so, I’m NOT trying it!

Some of the first land plants: Mosses.

Moss in the Grass

David Beeson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woodland moss without spore capsules

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

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

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

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

Image result for moss life cycle diagram

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

A similar life cycle occurs in liverworts.

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

Image result for angiosprm life cycle

You Cannot See the Wood for the Trees

Surely you wood know

David Beeson

Sitting under a walnut or apple tree when the fruit is ripe is hazardous. A chunky apple or a dozen woody nuts may aim for your head. Ouch! A half-kilogram apple would certainly hurt me. Yet, the tree holds dozens of them aloft … and all the branches, leaves, a dozen squirrels and thirty rooks. How does it manage it and why?

Why? That’s easy. Any plant’s chemistry, its metabolism, is driven by energy – sunlight energy trapped in photosynthesis. The leaf’s internal organelles, called chloroplasts (the only green bits), absorb light energy (photons) and use their energy to bind water and carbon dioxide together into energy-rich fats and, especially, carbohydrates. Leaves are energy transfer machines, a bit like a photo-electric panel on the roof.

Within reason, the more incident light the more energy is available. Once trapped the energy can be used to drive the plant’s growth and reproduction.

Plant leaf structure. Cutaway computer illustration showing the structure of a typical plant leaf. In most plants, leaves are the major site of photosynthesis. Chloroplasts within the leave’s cells use chlorophyll to convert the energy in sunlight into chemical energy that the plant can use as food in the form of glucose. Each leaf is made of many layers sandwiched between two layers of tough epidermal skin cells, which also secrete a waxy substance that forms the cuticle. These layers protect the leaf from pests. Within the epidermal cells are pairs of guard cells, which form a pore (stoma), the site of gas exchange. Most food production takes place in the palisade mesophyll. Gas exchange occurs in the air spaces between the cells of the spongy

A strong woody stem can be employed to lift that plant’s leaves above the competition. They will be able to outcompete non-woody plants, like primroses or daffodils. Unfortunately, wood is expensive for the plant to manufacture – so the woody plants are often comparatively slow growing.

Wood grows from living cells – the cambium meristem, located between the water-carrying xylem (wood) and the food-carrying phloem (towards the outside of a stem or trunk).

Xylem is composed of long cells that are joined end to end. Their cellulose cell walls are slowly impregnated with a chemical called lignin (waterproofing and a preservative) that changes cellulose into wood. In the process the cells are killed. Wood is dead.

Woody stem. Xylem is the WOOD. This stem is just three years old. This is a cross-section.

There are two main components to xylem. One is mainly found in conifers the other mainly in the non-coniferous plants. The non-coniferous system is more efficient.

As you’ll know already, but I will recap, it is heat that (mainly) drives the water flow up the xylem. Water molecules are evaporated (Evapo-transpiration) by heat from leaves and that pulls more water up the stem, main roots and in via the minute root hairs on the smallest roots. Dissolved in the water will be the minerals required for the metabolism of living cells.

Evapo-transpiration is not the only way water is driven through the plant. In some, but not all cases, the roots can pump water upwards. This is VERY expensive for the plant and is really a last resort. But plants do use it in the spring when the leaves are not present or still growing. You may have noticed this if you cut a leaf-free stem or trunk and it bleeds.

Xylem pipes are plumbed into the leaves and flowers. In autumn that section of xylem plumbing becomes mostly redundant, and only the wood towards the outside of a trunk carries water as it is connected to new growth. So, a hollow trunk is not a big disadvantage to a tree. In fact, a hollow trunk can be stronger than a solid one and, if fungi breakdown the wood, the nutrients can be absorbed and reused by the tree. A double win.

Because wood is expensive plants try to avoid making much of it. Primroses and daffodils contain very little and hope that they can keep out of the shade; they stay small and quick growing. Clematis plants, like old man’s beard, save wood by climbing over woody plants and still reach the full sunlight.

Wood is fascinating stuff! Builders have used it since the ‘dawn of humans’, it gets trees and shrubs up into the light and it holds apples high enough to fall on Sir Isaac Newton’s head and give us the theory of gravity.

Botany and Geology

Understanding out local botany

David Beeson

As we all wander the local terrain plants come to our notice. Some people record these and dump their data onto spreadsheets. I do the same with mammal sightings. Only when this information is amassed onto a map do those sightings have real meaning. Then one can see how organisms are often only found in one area, perhaps on a single soil / geology type – in their ecological niche.

For each and every plant, animal, bacterium or fungus they have an ecological niche in which they can survive.

An ecological niche is the role and position a species has in its environment; how it meets its needs for food and shelter, how it survives, and how it reproduces.

For example, a garden spider is a carnivore of small invertebrates that it finds amongst vegetation, possibly employing a web to help trap its prey.

In our gardens we can push a plant’s ecological niche to its extreme. For example, common ling, a heather found growing in acidic soils, can be encouraged to grow in an alkaline soil (for a while!) by adding masses of garden compost. This will not happen ‘in the wild’.

A look at the Andover Geology Map (Sheet  283) will show you that we are dominated by an underlying rock called Upper Chalk (green on map). However, the hill tops have this covered by either clay (Northern part of Harewood) or gravels (Harewood Forest towards Longparish). One has to travel towards Kingsclere before that geology changes.

For a plant, growing in a thin, chalky soil is quite different from a sticky clay that is soggy in winter and baked hard in summer. Hence, the surface botany of upper chalky areas will be markedly unlike that found in the northern parts of Harewood.

Also, living in the top centimetre of the soil will be a contrast to deeper growing plants, for the topsoil is enhance with leaf litter and will be more acidic or less alkaline.

 In the river valley water content will be higher and more constant and, from that you’ll correctly guess the botany will be unique as well.

Suggestion.

Leave your car in the layby on the B3400 at the Whitchurch end of Andover Down. Walk the footpath south through the forest (Clay over upper chalk geology). At the open field it changes to a gravellier soil and is open to sunlight. Take the path, leading off the Middleway towards Forton. At Forton explore the field leading towards Longparish. You should spot dramatic changes in plant distribution.

Return to your car. A walk of 5.3 miles.

A complex series of geological features.

War!

Primula Wars

David Beeson

Primroses are as much part of spring as bumblebees and the first butterflies. A wander through Harewood, or any similar habitat, will delight your senses. The primrose yellow (What other colour could I call it?) of their blossoms enliven the green of the fast-growing ground vegetation. Nearby you’ll spot blue and white violets, wind flowers (wood anemonies) and possibly wood sorrel with its delicate white flowers. The dog’s mercury flowers, they’ve separate male and female plants, are waning yet their leaves stay put all year despite the shade of the hazel and oak trees.

Harewood beyond with its fringe of primroses.

Look as closely as you might, but it is unlikely you’ll spy the primrose’s close relative – the cowslip, on the woodland edge.  Both primulas, but evolution has sent them down different paths.

My own garden abuts Harewood forest. The forest throwing a delicate shade over the end four or five metres of our garden. Of course, the degree of shade varies with the elevation of the sun and so the light levels change. Nearest the boundary the light levels are lowest and they rise as one moves away, until near 100% light falls.  This is how the light changes on any woodland or glade edge.

Within Harewood, beyond our boundary, there are 100% primroses. Just into the garden it is the same. With 100% light we have 100% cowslips and where the light levels change with the time of the year we have a mixture. The mixed boundary is thin – only a metre .

Battle zone

Presumably the primroses cannot cope with the temperature associated with 100% light levels and cowslips gain too little light energy under a woodland edge’s canopy.

There could be other reasons for this ecological separation. The soil within the woodland will have potentially more humus and the forest’s herbivores could more readily eat the cowslips. With differing flower designs the two species will have different pollinators and the dispersal mechanisms may cause the other habitat to be unsuitable. It sounds like a PhD project here!

Elsewhere in the garden we have long had some colourful polyanthus. These plants are a ragbag of mixes of many different primula (Primulaceae) species (of which there are perhaps 100+). The insects have been spreading the pollen of these colourful polyanthus plants around and some has been donated to our wild primula population. This has resulted in pink primroses, deep red cowslips and cowslip x primrose hybrids. This latter looks like an oxlip, but technically is not. That is a separate species found naturally only in East Anglia.

Summer Meadow in its cowslip phase.

Just as there is war between the primroses and cowslips at Forest Edge, so the same occurs in East Anglia between oxlips and primroses.

It seems that primroses produce seeds containing a small food store, which attracts ants. The woodland edge ants carry off the seeds and so aid their local dispersal. The oxlips seeds have no such help and these plants occur deep inside the wood where those ants do not reach.

In the sunshine.

In the early days in developing our wildlife-friendly garden I bought in wild bluebell seeds. They were, in fact, Spanish bluebell seeds but we only found that out years later when they flowered. Native bluebells naturally occurred in the garden and the two have crossed. We now have 100% pure native types, 100% Spanish and every combination in between. This is not good as there are genuinely wild English bluebells nearby. I have most probably contaminated them. It is impossible to correct this damage.

Feedback, if you wish!

Lawns

Life at ground level

David Beeson

We often ignore our lawn biologically. Some humans, normally males, obsessively cut and de-weed their lawn and a few, poor creatures, spend time putting stripes in it. Others are idle and leave the green space to grow tall until a towel is thrown down so the occupant can sleep away the day in the sunshine. As people, bright enough to appreciate the natural world, us, wildlife enthusiasts, can see the lawn through enlightened eyes.

Natural lawns are uncommon in nature. They occur where grazing pressure keeps the natural vegetation cut to near ground level.

Immediately the chalk downlands and fells of the Lake district spring to mind. Care here. Are these natural or man-made? Both, I would suggest, are due to a vast over-population of sheep. Economist now suggest, an uneconomic excess of sheep that will soon be swept away by the removal of agricultural subsidies.

Knepp may be establishing some semi-natural lawns in its rewilding, and some will occur where nutrient levels are minimal or the climate is extreme. But, lawns with their grassy swards are mostly human made. That, regardless, does not make them uninteresting.

So, what do we have in our obsessively mown lawns?

It’s grass. Well, some of it is grass, especially if the area is ‘weed killed’ and treated with fertilizers. But, let’s start with the grass.

Grass is important. Grasses occur almost everywhere on land. With light and moisture at ground level, if you seek them out almost anywhere you’ll encounter a grass plant. It may well not be one of the species in your lawn, but one will be there. And, some of them are clever enough to encourage humans to look after them. Think of the hectares of land planted with oats, wheat, barley and rice. They are all grasses – members of the grass family – GRAMINEAE.

Plants grow from specific areas called MERSTEMS. Most human cells can grow, but that is not the case with plants. Their meristems are often only located at the shoot tip, root tip or towards the outside of a stem (the cambium, for example). Grasses, however, are unusual. They have a very useful adaptation to being grazed or mown – their stem meristems are in nodes along the stem and NOT at the tip. Look at the swellings along a well-grown grass stem: these are the meristems. This is where the grass grows. Cut the top off a grass plant and it keeps on growing from these nodes. Chop off the stem of a non-grassy plant and it takes ages for side shoots to develop, grow upwards and so recover.

Grasses are not leguminous – they do not have podded seeds and nitrogen-fixing bacteria in root nodules. Hence, they grow most vigorously in nitrogen-rich soils. So, if you fertilize your lawn the grasses grow rapidly. If, like me, you never do that and remove all the lawn cutting to a compost heap the grasses grow poorly. That leaves room for plant diversity.

Good, biologically diverse lawns and hay meadows occur on nutrient-poor soils.

Evolution has had a few millions of years to generate plants that can survive in amongst grazed grasslands. They are particularly plants that keep their heads down for much of their life or are sneaky.

Look at clover. Its stems creep along the soil, protecting its meristems from chomping. It is a legume, so makes its own nitrates. Daisies have leaves flattened to the soil, avoiding cutting, and only throws up its flowers skywards. Meadow saxifrage hides below ground from summer until spring and still keeps a leafy low profile. These are some of the clever strategies of plants that were once very rare … before humans stared mowing lawns and over-grazing areas.

Remove the grazers or the lawn mower and we’ve all seen the results. The seedlings that previously were eaten to death by the removal of their tip meristems can now develop. Taller plants take over the sward, hawthorn, bramble and seedling trees grow and survive. The grassy area starts through succession that could cause the patch to develop into scrub and eventually woodland.

For folks interested in wildlife, a diverse lawn provides habitats for many animals. Give nature a sporting chance – don’t feed or over-cut you lawn. Have a flowery lawn and you’ll notice the difference.

Good News

Beavers and Knepp

David Beeson

If you haven’t heard of the Knepp Estate you have a positive time ahead. What they have achieved is a breath of fresh air.

It is in West Sussex and is a re-wilding project. The owners have finished with conventional farming (on admittedly difficult soils) and are reverting the estate back to its wild-like origins.

Isabella Tree has written a superb book about the project that can be downloaded for £0.99 – amazing value, or bought from Waterstones in Andover or via the Internet.

YouTube has many videos about the project.

One of the last pieces in their jigsaw was to re-introduce beavers. (They were probably on the site during Saxon times but have long-since been killed off.) Just recently they, together with several others, have been given permission for that re-introduction.

Beavers can now be found along the River Tay in Scotland, the River Otter and other locations in Devon. Re-introduction to the Forest of Dean occurred in 2019.

The EU has been pushing for such moves for many years.

Watch out for more re-introductions: pine marten (already in our New Forest, Forest of Dean and Central Wales) and even European lynx into Kielder Forest in Northumberland.

Fancy a trip to the New Forest? Well, aim for one of the big, central blocks of woodland and try to get there at dawn or dusk. You might be lucky enough to spy a marten!

Suggested location: Reptile Centre, just to the west of Lyndhurst or near Burley.

Mammal Mapping and Badgers

Mammal mapper

David Beeson

When I’m out and about I record the mammals that occur in the area. Now, mammals are notoriously difficult to see. Plants are everywhere, butterflies sometimes in their hundreds and aphids coat the garden’s roses … but mammals hide away. But, if we all keep our eyes open you’ll be surprised how many signs you’ll notice. In my article about Harewood you’ll encounter how to spot the territorial markings of roe deer, but other signs are easier to spot.

Even walking around the newish urban park at Picket Twenty I found rabbit droppings. Adjacent to Andover College were mole hills and dead badgers sometimes line the A303. All of these are mammal signs and it’s good sense to send them into the Mammal Society.

And, its so easy to achieve. I downloaded Mammal Mapper for my ‘phone and it will automatically record my location (or one can put it in manually on a supplied map) and send the data into the central record system. Job done.

A brown rat in my compost bin … send it the record. A dormouse nest along The Middleway .. click, click and I’ve told The Mammal Society and, indirectly, HCC and TVBC. Every record may influence planning applications and possibly save spaces for wildlife.

Badgers are having an ‘interesting’ press in recent years. I once ran a badger group and have spent a day with the Oxford University badger experts at their research reserve at Wytham Woods.

Where to look for badgers?

Firstly, they do not enjoy ploughed agricultural landscapes. If you spot a huge wheat field with no permanent pasture or open woodland or hedges – then the chance of encountering a badger or its sett is remote. Their main food source is earthworms – and they occur in highest numbers on permanent pasture, especially if it is botanically diverse. For that reason dense woodland is not ideal, although setts are sometimes located there as farmers don’t often appreciate them in open land.

Locally, I found the best way to locate a sett is to walk about 20m inside a woodland and parallel to its edge. If you spy earth excavations or patches of nettles or elderberry explore – as badger digging and urine encourages both species.

Narrow pathways lead to and from the sett and they can be useful indicators, especially if the track goes beneath fallen trees, branches or scrub (deer cannot easy do that!).

Badgers poo. They leave dung pits (about 5 -10cm wide and about 5cm deep) often showing semi-solid faeces. Most likely these will be some distance from the main sett and usually around a field margin or popular feeding site. [In the past badger researchers would leave peanut butter laced with small coloured beads adjacent to setts. The animals would show their used territory by depositing these beads in dung pits around their area. Much of this work was carried out in the countryside just north of Corfe Castle.]

Deer signs. Probably fallow.

Where should you explore locally?

There are setts in the southern part of Harewood – south of the A303. At Danebury and Broughton Down. Explore Buryhill near Anna Valley. Chute Causeway and the surrounding area used to hold a good population. Porton Down is said to have one of the largest badger populations in the UK.

Try to gain access to Wytham Woods near Oxford – that is the research location used by Oxford University. PTES sometimes have ‘open days’ there and I have a private pass.

Do badgers really spread TB?

Yes, as do deer and especially cattle.

The Isle of Wight badgers do not swim and do not have TB. Suddenly TB was found on the IOW. Most likely cause is from imported cattle.

But, cattle are TB tested.

Sure, but the TB test does not work on cattle carrying a parasite loading … and do you think cattle are free of gut worms? Humans get them, as do dogs, horses, foxes and all other wild mammals.

Vaccinate badgers!

https://www.badgertrust.org.uk/

Odonata 1

Rooksbury Mill LNR, Andover.

Damselfly Exploration, early June.

John Solomon

Rooksbury Mill Local Nature Reserve is situated south of Andover town centre and adjacent to Watermills Park.  It has two lakes which are fed by the River Anton and were created soon after World War II through gravel extraction.  The site now encompasses a range of habitats including areas of wet woodland, chalk grassland, scrub, riparian habitats, two large lakes, ponds and a stretch of the River Anton. [TVBC website]

Odonata of Andover and the Surrounding Area

Introduction

Odonata is the Latin term for the insects known more commonly as Damselflies and Dragonflies. While superficially very similar they do differ in several ways. Firstly, Dragonflies are larger than Damselflies and when they rest they always do so with their wings stretched out from the body. The nymphs, the immature forms that live in rivers, streams, lakes and ponds, add another major difference in the positioning of the gills they use to breathe. Damselflies have three feathery gills, known as caudal lamellae, attached to the end of their abdomen. Dragonfly nymphs, on the other hand, have their gills inside their abdomen, actually taking water in and then expelling it through the rectum. If necessity demands they can eject this water very forcibly to give them a short burst of speed, perhaps to escape a predatory fish.

Being insects all Odonata larvae have six legs, an exoskeleton with wing buds and a hinged jaw that allegedly provided the inspiration for the Alien in the films. They live in submerged vegetation or even down in the silt and sediment at the bottom of bodies of water. They are very active hunters, preying on anything they can catch and overpower. For Damselflies and young Dragonflies that may be Water-Fleas and other almost microscopic creatures, but larger nymphs will go after a wide menu including crustaceans, tadpoles, leeches and even small fish.

As insects they cannot grow by simply getting larger, their exoskeleton prevents that, so at regular intervals they shed the exoskeleton they have replacing it with a new one a size larger. The smaller Damselflies will go through 5 such moults but the larger Dragonflies might moult as many as 14 or 15 times. Similarly, the larger the insect the longer it takes for it to feed up and reach the state of emergence. The Common Emerald Damselfly lays its eggs towards the end of Summer and they do not hatch until early the following Spring. The larva then feed voraciously emerging only 2-3 months later as adults but this is exceptional. Most Damselflies take 1-2 years to reach the point where they are ready to leave the water and take to the sky, but this is dependent upon the availability of food. Larger Dragonflies, such the Golden-Ringed, can remain as nymphs and feeding up for as long as 5 or 6 years.

When it is time for the emergence the insect climbs up out of the water, often using a reed. The exoskeleton of the nymphs splits and the adult insect starts to push itself out. It pauses once the head, thorax and legs are free, waiting for half an hour or so to allow the fresh and soft new exoskeleton to harden. Once the legs are firm it then hauls out the abdomen. By pumping fluids around the body and through the veins of the wings the abdomen is extended and the wings reach out into their full glory. The fluids are then drawn back into the body and the wings and exoskeleton allowed to dry and set. This is a crucial period in the insect’s life. Not only is it intensely vulnerable to any predator but if the expansion of the wings is compromised, for instance by being restricted by vegetation, then the wings will not form properly and it will not be able to fly … and if it cannot fly it cannot catch prey and feed.

The newly emerged adult, or teneral, may not necessarily have its full adult colouration and patterning. Dragonflies are often pale green while the Damselflies offer a variety of different colours, the female Blue-Tailed Damselfly being an excellent example, and the insect may take around a week before the full, adult pigmentation is seen. This can make identification interesting.

With wings dry the insect now heads skyward to take its place as one of the most deadly predators on Earth. Their hunting success rate has been estimated at 95%, so if you are a small flying insect and a Dragonfly or Damselfly decides that you are lunch, then you are truly lunch. They owe their devastating prowess in part to their four magnificent wings. They can operate all of them independently through a wide range of movement, enabling them not only to fly forwards, upwards or sideways but also to hover and even fly backwards. Furthermore, they are able to execute a change in direction at blinding speed. To guide this amazing flying ability and pinpoint their prey they have remarkable vision. All insects use what are known as compound eyes, being formed of a series of what are effectively tubes, known as facets or ommatidia. These contain light sensitive proteins, or opsins, which respond to different wavelengths of light. In the case of Dragonflies and Damselflies there four or five different opsins enabling them to see beyond our own spectrum and into such optical regions as ultra violet. Each eye can contain up to 30,000 of these ommatidia and, thanks to their round structure, the two eyes give them a fully spherical field of vision. Last, but not least, careful examination of those 6 legs will reveal what look like hairs or bristles, but they are not. Instead they are stiff, hard spikes of the chitin that forms the insect’s exoskeleton. When it attacks its prey it wraps them up in its legs, which form a cage known as the ‘basket’, and those spikes help hold it secure. Damselflies and Dragonflies really are the dragons of the insect world.

As adults their main aim in life is to breed. To this end male Dragonflies will often commandeer a stretch of bank or reed bed which they will patrol relentlessly, investigating any intruder. They will drive away possible rivals but the insect will endeavour to mate with any suitable female that passes through, often quite forcibly. Apart from the Large Red most of the Damselfly species found in the area are not so territorial, mainly living in large groups throughout the reed beds around the local lakes, although the males are just as bent on fulfilling their obligations. The weather can be conducive, or otherwise. The hot early summer of 2018 filled the reeds and even the air with courting couples, while the rather lower temperatures and gustier wind of the same period a year later, in 2019, saw a much lower level of activity.

Male Odonata have two sets of sexual organs with the primary sperm producing organs situated at the very base of the abdomen. The insect transfers sperm from here into what might be thought of as a pouch on the underside of the second section, known as the ‘accessory genitalia’. During mating the male holds the female by the back of the ‘neck’ using the claspers at the very tail end of his abdomen. If the female is agreeable she then reaches the tip of her own abdomen forward and up, so it meets the male’s accessory genitalia, and the sperm is transferred. This position is technically known as in copula and more commonly described as ‘the wheel’, although any observer will see from the shape the insects form that perhaps the term ‘the heart’ would be more fitting in more ways than one. The length of time the partners remain in this position varies considerably and has little to do with the size of the insects. The Blue-Tailed Damselfly is one of our smallest but the pair may remain attached to each other for up to 6 hours, while in the Chasers it lasts only a few seconds and can even take place in a brief mid-air encounter.

The fertilised female will spend most of her adult life engaged in laying eggs. Most species lay their eggs in floating or emergent vegetation, sometimes depositing them directly into the water but more often using a needle-like ovipositor to inject them into plant stems. A Damselfly will lay hundreds of eggs during the 2-4 weeks of her life and a Dragonfly, which may live for couple of months, could lay thousands. To give an idea a Banded Demoiselle was observed laying 450 eggs in one 45 minute session, while another unidentified Dragonfly was seen hovering over Rooksbury Lake laying at the rate of one a second for 7 or 8 minutes, giving a total of between 420 and 480 eggs. Normally the eggs hatch within 2-5 weeks although, as mentioned above, some species, such as the Common Emerald as well as some Hawkers and Darters, wait until the following Spring.

Damselflies

Dragonflies and Damselflies are insects, which means that, in basic terms, their bodies are formed of three sections. Their head, which is self-explanatory, holding those over-sized eyes, the crushing jaws and a pair of very small antennae. The mid-section is a large and solid box, known as the thorax, which has the wings on its upper surface, holds the powerful flight muscles, and has the under-carriage of the legs underneath. The third section is visually its tail, stretching out long and slender behind the insect, but is in fact the abdomen. In the Andover area there are two species of Demoiselle and eight of Damselfly. While the Demoiselles are reasonably easy to tell apart the Damselflies often have a blue male and a green female and it is only the careful study of the different colours and sometimes very slight and subtle variations in the patterns of the markings which enable differentiation. For identification it is also important to remember that the long abdomen is formed of ten sections. As mentioned above the male has accessory genitalia. This is effectively a bag seen as a small bulge found on the lower surface of section 2. In the description that follows there will often be references to sections 8, 9 and 10 where some of the minor but important differences between species can be found.

As a general rule Damselflies emerge earlier than Dragonflies and that is certainly so for the species found locally. They will start to be found in small numbers towards the end of May, rapidly growing the populations through June and into July, then gradually disappearing through August. All three of Andover’s lakes have healthy populations but they are easily the most numerous at Rooksbury, so head there, on a sunny day in mid to late June, and walk through the arched entrance from the car park through the hedge to the smaller lake. Follow the path round to the left and across the bridge and over the river. Now stop and look around you.

You will see small, blue Damselflies. They will be landing on the stinging nettles to your left, the vegetation in front of the bench ahead of you, that looks out across the lake, and in the weeds to your right. Some will even be landing on the path. At first glance they will all look much the same but slowly and carefully move in when one perches and examine it more closely. Then look closely at another. You will discover that there are, in fact, two species here. One has a blue thorax with blue markings all along its abdomen, towards the end of which there is a thick band of blue. This is a male Common Blue Damselfly which, as its name suggests, is very common. The other is a little bit smaller and although it, too, has a blue band towards the end of the abdomen this band is thinner, also although the thorax appears blue the abdomen is black with no apparent markings whatsoever. This is the Blue-Tailed Damselfly. We will look at the Common Blue first.

Male Common Blue
Female Common Blue, blue form
Common Blue, female, green form.
Common Blue, female, mature.

The sides of the thorax are a bold slab of electric blue. Atop this is a black stripe and then another bold stripe of blue. This top stripe is known as the antehumeral stripe and is another useful species identifier, particularly with Red-Eyed and Small Red-Eyed Damselflies as we will see later. The mature female of this Damselfly is an unimpressive grey-brown but when younger they come in rather more attractive blue and green forms. The pattern of the marking is very similar to the male, with the same bold colour on the side of the thorax and a similar antehumeral stripe, so it can be tricky to tell a blue female from a male. To do so look at the very end of the abdomen and you will see that while the male has a very blue band of colour wrapped around sections 8 and 9 on the female whatever the colour the band is broken on the top side. This is probably the most common UK Damselfly being well distributed and usually the most numerous, present everywhere from Lands End to John o’Groats.

The second most common Damselfly, both locally and nationally, is the Blue-Tailed. Stay where you are, near that bench at the edge of the lake, and look carefully at those small Damselflies around you with the finer blue-banded ‘tail’ and suddenly you will realise that they are not all the same. It is true that there are some there that have a blue thorax and a blue tail but there are others, with a green thorax and a blue tail, yet others with a brick-red thorax, a brown thorax, even lilac and an occasional one that doesn’t seem to have a blue tail at all. These are all Blue-Tailed Damseflies, and if you don’t see all those variations here you will do so as you go around the lake and search in the reeds.

Blue-tailed, immature, male.
Blue-tailed, male, mature.

To start with the male, a young male will have a green thorax and a blue tail. As he matures he will take on his full adult blue colouration. He keeps things simple, unfortunately the female of the species does anything but. A fresh, young female will either have a raspberry-red thorax or a lilac one, both having a blue ‘tail’. The raspberry-red form will gradually turn brown, including the blue ‘tail’, often passing through a very attractive golden phase. The lilac form is more complicated, the thorax either turning green and the band around the end of the ‘tail’ an olive or brown, or else the insect taking on a colouration to all intents and purposes identical to the male. The only way of telling the blue form female apart from the male in the field being to get a good enough photo or magnified view of the underneath of section 2 of the abdomen, which is where the male’s secondary genitalia will be found.

Blue-tailed, female, raspberry form.
Blue-tailed, female, raspberry to golden form.
Blue-tailed, female, mature, raspberry form.
Blue-tailed, female. lilac form.
Blue-tailed, female, mature, blue form.
Blue-tailed, female, mature, green form.

Move forward, perhaps to stand on the concrete over the outflow from this smaller lake, and you will see floating vegetation very gradually getting caught in the slight current and dragged towards the exodus beneath your feet … and there are Damselflies here, playing as if hopping from one short-lived raft to the next. Of course, you recognise the Common Blue and Blue-Tailed, but there is another. At first it looks like Common Blue, but there is a darkness over its shoulders, almost as if it is wearing a black cloak. Then, if you are patient, one will float close enough for you to see the eyes. Red! Very aptly, this is the Red-Eyed Damselfly and the blue ones you see are the males. If you are lucky you will see a mating pair, the male flying them from short perch to short perch, and you will find that the female he is linked to is green. You find them easily here but to actually see them properly we are going to have to get far closer, and that means finding them on land.

Turn to your right and follow the footpath anticlockwise around the lake to the second footbridge over the stream. Don’t forget the Red-Eyed Damselflies but here we will take a very slight detour and walk onto the bridge. Beneath you is thick with Water-Cress and reeds reach the water’s edge along both banks but scan around and very quickly you will glimpse a fluttering, almost like a butterfly’s wings. When it lands it holds its wings along the length of its body and you will see they are clear with a dark blue, almost black, smudge of a thumb print across the middle of them. The body itself looks a dark and ever so metallic blue. This is the male Banded Demoiselle, a lover of streams. Wait and keep searching and soon enough you will see another similar insect, but this one looks green, its body still very metallic. This is the female of the species. This Demoiselle is supposed to prefer slow-moving water courses but is evidently very happy along the chalk streams of the Test Valley.

Banded Demoiselle, male.
Banded Demoiselle, female.

Still on the bridge scan carefully around. This time of year, as mentioned above, is more the time for Damselflies but there is just a chance that you will see one of the earlier emerging Dragonfly species and here is a good place to spot one of them. This is the striking and rather handsome Golden-Ringed, with a black thorax and black abdomen strongly marked with contrasting yellow. Unlike most Dragonflies, which prefer still water, the Golden-Ringed likes streams and rivers. The end of the male’s abdomen has a swollen, almost club-like appearance, easily seen if the insect lands and allows you to move carefully closely. The abdomen of the female, on the other hand, is thicker along the whole of its length and straight right to the end. This is our second largest Dragonfly species, for our largest please read on.

Golden Ringed, male.
Golden-ringed, female.

Back to the path and follow along beside the bank of reeds on the right examining as you go. There will be plenty of Common Blues and Blue-Tailed, but stop around two-thirds of the way along. Searching the reeds you should soon start spotting blue Damselflies with those remarkable red eyes. Yes, Red-Eyed Damselflies and here, on the land, you can very slowly move closer and get a good look at them. This is where it really does help to have a camera. This will enable you to get a photo and then, wonder of the digital age, zoom in on the image on the viewing screen on the back and see what it actually is that you’re looking at. With this insect the first thing you will notice is that there is no blue antehumeral stripe, instead the top, or back of the thorax, is completely dark, almost black. That is why when they are flying it almost looks as if they are wearing a black cloak. Next, study the block of electric blue that covers the side of the thorax and you will see a small finger of a black marking reaching into the blue. This known as the Coenagrion Spur and is a strong identifying feature present on three species around the local lakes, two of which are found here. Now hunt for green Damselflies and, when you find them, examine the eyes and start taking photos. The female’s eyes are not as obviously red as the males but they are still discernible, what the photograph will enable you to do is look at the antehumeral stripes on top of the thorax. Unlike the male the female does have these but they are not full length, reaching only about half way backwards along the length of the thorax. If you are really lucky you may discover a third version of this insect. This looks like a female, having eyes that are reddish but not as strikingly so as the male, although the colour of the markings is more a yellow, sometimes quite strongly so. If you can get a good look at the top of thorax, where the female should have that short antehumeral stripe, you will get a clue as to what it is. Just like the male of the species there is no trace of that stripe. This insect is actually a very freshly emerged, or teneral, male Red-Eyed Damselfly.

Red-eyed, male.
Showing spur.
Red-eyed, female.
Red-eyed, male, teneral.

Now start focusing on those insects that appear to be male Common Blues. With experience the very end of the abdomen, the “tail”, can appear slightly different but it is best to take a few photos of different insects. Eventually you will find one that looks like a Common Blue and has the same blue eyes but, like the Red-Eyed, it has that little black finger, or Coenagrian Spur, reaching into the block of blue on the side of the thorax. This is a male Azure. Similarly to the Common Blue the female comes in either a blue or green form and, exactly as with the female Common, the blue banding towards the end of the abdomen is broken giving a clear differentiation from the male. However, both sexes are very similar to their Common Blue opposite numbers underlining how useful a camera can be for accurate identification.

Walk on now the few yards to where a kissing gate opens to the right allowing entrance to a bush-covered tunnel flanked by light wooden fencing. I call this “the walkthrough”. You will find Common Blues here but a favourite pastime of Blue-Tailed Damselflies is sitting on the top bar that has been warmed the sun. As you walk along stop and search the streams for Water Voles, particularly the first one, and examine the second one for Banded Demoiselles. You emerge onto the large lake and along the wooden walkway towards the bench, past the nettles and reeds on your right. The orange-flowered plant is Orange Balsam. This is native to North America and was imported to decorate herbaceous borders through the 19th and 20th centuries. As such species are prone to do it ‘escaped’ and is now widely found, often seemingly preferring proximity to water. The plant’s sap has medicinal properties with Native Americans using it to treat skin rashes, such as Poison Ivy, and the sap has proven fungicidal properties having been used to treat athletes foot.

Azure, male.
Azure, female, blue.
Azure, female, green.

If you can brave the nettles it is worth striking out through them towards the lake. You will find all the species we have met so far here but there is also just the chance of coming across a Large Red Damselfly. For a Damselfly this is, as the name suggests, a large insect and it is also very obvious and distinctive. There is only one other it could possibly be confused with and that is the Small Red Damselfly which isn’t found locally. It is quite unusual around Rooksbury, being much more likely to be seen at Anton and with a good population on Chilbolton Common. It likes ditches and thick reed beds and Rooksbury is not well-served by either.

Large-red, male.
Large-red, female.

This corner of the lake is a favourite place for the Dragonflies that will start emerging in force as we move through July but, as mentioned earlier, there are early species and this spot is just as good to see them. You may well see something flying low and fast across the water. A powdery blue with what seems to be a dark end to the abdomen. This is a male Black-Tailed Skimmer. Note how the name fits. It has a black tail and its typical flight pattern is to skim low across the lake’s surface. Often the insect will have chosen a vantage point, usually a twig or branch that juts out over the water, which it will return to repeatedly before shooting off again. Once located a careful creeping up on this special place will often allow an excellent viewing and, of course, an excellent photo-opportunity. The female is hardly ever seen but she is a striking black and yellow.

Black-tailed skimmer, male.

One other early Dragonfly might be found here. Clearly larger than the Black-Tailed Skimmer it will also show a different flight pattern. While it will occasionally drop low to the water it will also climb high and swoop around, then cruise, then suddenly accelerate – these insects can reach the best part of thirty miles an hour! Examining it as it flies past you will see a green thorax and a blue-marked abdomen, then you might notice that the abdomen is drooping slightly down along its length. This is an Emperor Dragonfly, not only our largest Dragonfly but the second largest in the world. It is very common around our local lakes and as they emerge and the numbers rise on a good day it is easy to count 15-20 or even more around Rooksbury. You are probably, but not definitely, seeing a male. The two sexes are very similar but the female appears a little paler.

Emperor, male.
Emperor, female.

Back to the path and don’t bother looking for Dock leaves to treat any nettle stings, they really don’t work! Follow the path around the bushes and the River Anton is now on the left. This is a favourite site for our now old friends the Banded Demoiselles, but there is another species here, too, so search the reds along the bank well. When you first find this you will think it is just another Banded but then, if it is male, you will see that the “thumb print” trademark on the wings seems to have taken over the whole wing, leaving it completely blue-black. This is a Beautiful Demoiselle, found in much the same places as the Banded but nowhere near as common. While the male is fairly easy to differentiate from the other insect the female is rather harder, although it becomes easier with familiarity. While the female Banded is green the female Beautiful is brown. This sounds rather dingy but these insects are very metallic and the wings are translucent, meaning that when the sun catches them just so she can be lit up like a golden jewel.

Beautiful demoiselle, male.
Beautiful demoiselle, female.

Continuing around the lake exercise your new-found knowledge. Blue-Tailed and Common Blues will be found in large numbers. Azure Damselflies are all round, often more  in the weeds, grass and nettles rather than right on the lake, but they do need a good sighting and ideally a camera to tell apart. Standing on the fishing piers will show you more Red-Eyed Damselflies as they love to be out over the water, resting on floating and emergent vegetation. You should also see many mating pairs, particularly Common Blues. 

Broad-bodied, male.
Broad-bodied, female.

There are three other species found in the Andover area at this time of year, one is an early emerging Dragonfly and the other two are Damselflies. The Dragonfly is the Broad-Bodied Chaser. The male is a soft, powder blue but the female is a rather more eye-catching yellow which, due to the similarity in size and colour, has seen her called the Hornet Dragonfly. They are occasionally seen at Rooksbury but the rarity of the sightings tends to suggest that they are not resident here. They are also seen occasionally at Anton but the local hotspot seems to be Charlton, although they tend to prefer small ponds, such as the garden variety, so it may be that those seen around the lakes are more likely to be breeding in your back garden! They are often seen a considerable distance away from water, certainly Harewood Forest in May is a good hunting ground.

The Dragonflies are found at Charlton and Anton lakes, one at each. Anton Lake has a secretive population of Common Emerald Damselflies. Up until recently although it was felt that they should be here none had been spotted, then, in 2018 the first was photographed and several have been caught on camera since. They particularly like thick reed growth in a pond with a susceptibility to drying out, or at least a large water level drop, over summer. As mentioned in the introduction they lay their eggs into reed stems, both below as well as above the water, later in the Summer where they remain over Winter. They hatch in the early Spring into what are known as prolarva which have no limbs and hop or wriggle around until they discover water. Here they moult and the more expected nymph-style larva emerges. They feed voraciously. Whereas most Damselflies spend one to two years feeding up those of the Common Emerald can reach maturity in as little as 8-12 weeks. The adults begin leaving the water in July. The species has never been seen at Charlton Lake or Rooksbury, probably simply because those lakes don’t have the reed beds the insect needs. So far it has only been sighted in the reeds around the south-east, or town end, of Anton Lakes, particularly in the reeds of the small ‘pond’ that is there, but it could also be present in the more extensive reed beds of the much larger ‘pond’ at the other end of the lake, by the car park and Charlton roundabout. Incidentally, this would also potentially be a good site for the Large Red Damselfly, but proper searching would require a boat!

Common Emerald, male.

Back in 2017 I took a photograph of what I believed was a mating pair of Red-Eyed Damselflies at Charlton Lake. It wasn’t a great photograph and came close to being dumped, but it was a mating pair, of which I only had one other equally poor example, so I kept it. In Autumn 2018 I was conducting an end-of-season culling of my photo-library and had heard that someone believed they had seen Small Red-Eyed Damselflies in the area, so I checked my own Red-Eyed photos rather more carefully. I was rewarded by finding that the photo of a mating pair that I had so nearly binned was in fact a photo of a mating pair of Small Red-Eyed.

Small red-eyed, mating pair.
See text.

These are extremely difficult to identify in the field, particularly as both Red-Eyed species like identical environments and even have a similar national distribution. On top of that they both like to spend their time away from the bank and out on the lake perched on floating and emergent vegetation and both have Coenagrian Spur on the side of the thorax. The females are rather easier to differentiate than the males, but, even so, a very good sighting with, ideally, a decent photograph is still necessary. Describing the female Red-Eyed above I pointed out that the antehumeral stripes were very short, running only half the length of the thorax. On the female of the Small Red-Eyed they boldly run the full length. The only difference between the males of the species lies in the blue marking running round the tenth, or last section, of the abdomen. On the Red Eyed this colour runs around complete while on the Small Red-Eyed there is a fine break in it on the top surface. Faced with this strong similarity probably the best way to be sure you are looking at a male is to find a mating pair and identify the rather clearer female! There have been no more certifiable sightings since, but this could be mainly down to no such vegetation being close enough to the bank of Charlton Lake to allow the requisite photo – in 2017 such vegetation was right by the bank by the car park, which was where I got the shot. I feel that they are probably present at the town end of Anton Lake but, again, the emergent vegetation they might land on is far too far away from the bank. It looks as though Anton Lake needs a boat to properly search two areas!

Happy hunting!

https://british-dragonflies.org.uk

This website allows identification of Odonata and one can search species by the adult’s flight time.

Odonata 2

Rooksbury in August

John Solomon

August is the month of the Hawkers, the larger insects everyone thinks of when we talk about “Dragonflies”. Around Andover we have five species and all are found, in varying numbers, around all three of our local lakes. Some have emerged earlier in the Summer but, at this time of the year, are still present even if their colour is fading and their wings are becoming battered. Others are only now beginning to scramble out of the lakes in which they have lived and grown for the last four or even five years. Easing their way out of the nymph skin, leaving it as an “exuvia” clinging to vegetation, often reeds, to pump up their wings and let them harden in preparation for the maiden flight. To then take their place as adults, mate and then lay the eggs that will ensure the next generation.

I pull into Rooksbury car park on a lovely August afternoon, the sun generous with its warmth, an occasional light breeze to keeping the heat from being overwhelming. I lock the car and head through archway of bushes, turning left and walking down towards the bridge that crosses the river on my right, but at this point I turn left into a small meadow. Immediately I see white butterflies, but it is too far away to be sure exactly what they are. There are two large buddleia bushes on the far side and I can see activity around them but, again, too far away to identify the species.

Small white, female.

Walking slowly into the grassy area I am soon close enough to a white butterfly that lands and allows me to look for distinguishing features. It is medium-sized and the hind wings are a smooth, pale yellow. A Small White. Very common, its caterpillar feeds on a wide variety of different plants. This individual, as with most of the butterflies around at this time of the year, will be “second generation”. The first generation will have appeared in the Spring, laid their eggs, the larva growing up and pupating during the first half of the Summer. Now they have emerged and they, in turn, will be laying the eggs that hatch out into the caterpillars that will feed up and pupate over winter to emerge as the first generation of next year.

Green-veined white, female.

Another medium-sized white with butterfly lands nearby and I slowly make my way over being careful not to make any sudden or jerky movements. It lets me come in very close where I can easily see that the undersides of the rear wings have the veins marked out, almost as if they are dusted with a grey, or greeny-grey powder. This is another very common species, the Green-Veined White, again, second generation and again a species that feeds on a wide variety of plants, in this case what are known as the crucifers. These are plants with flowers formed of four equal petals arranged in a cross.

Common blue, male.

Now a small, blue butterfly sweeps past, perhaps a little subdued in its colouration. Maybe a little greyish or a tinge of lilac in the blue. It lands but it doesn’t need to for me to know it is a male Common Blue. The food plant is Bird’s Foot Trefoil and, once more, this is a child of the generation that would have been found here two months ago. Looking around it isn’t long before I discover a female, however, she is not blue but brown. She lands and opens her wings to the sun as she probes the marjoram flower she has alighted upon with her long proboscis, allowing me to see the line of small orange markings running along the borders.

Holly blue.

I am moving closer to the hedge and see another flash of blue, but this is no Common Blue. This is a more powdery colour and, instead of fluttering around the grasses of the meadow, is sweeping up and along the hedge. This is a Holly Blue and, again, this butterfly is second generation. The first generation, emerging the Spring, lays its eggs on Holly but this, the second generation, will lay it eggs on Ivy. So … the Holly and the Ivy!

Moving round to the large buddleia bushes and the activity I saw as I entered the meadow reveals several large and colourful butterflies. These are the Vanessids and are commonly found in gardens, particularly those with a “butterfly” or buddleia bush. The smaller one is a Small Tortoiseshell, the striking one with those eyes on the wings is a Peacock, the darker one with the red stripe running across the fore-wings and round the borders of the hind wings is the Red Admiral, while the large orange one is a Painted Lady. All four use stinging nettles as their food plants and all are second generation.

Small Tortoiseshell
Red Admiral, female.
Peacock
Painted Lady.

The Painted Lady is our most extraordinary butterfly and perhaps our most exotic. In our Winter the insects are in Africa, even sub-Saharan, and as the year starts they begin to migrate north. By early Spring they are moving into Europe and by the end of May or the beginning June the very first individuals start to arrive here. Throughout the Summer the migration continues, reaching up as far as the Arctic Circle and into Scandinavia and even as far as Iceland. As the last of the Summer warmth fades they are turning south and heading back to warmer climes, usually using the faster winds found at high altitudes. The whole round trip can easily be 9,000 miles with the butterfly continuously breeding along the way, so a generation might fly from sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa or the south-European coast and another might fly up to northern Europe or even make it here. The next might make it up towards the Arctic Circle, then their offspring start the long flight back. It could be the fifth or even sixth generation that finally lands back on sub-Saharan soil. Migrations vary in size from year to year but roughly every nine or ten years we will experience one much larger than usual while in some years these butterflies can be something of a rarity. This is probably determined by weather patterns. In 2009 there was an outstanding event, with hundreds being counted at a time at many locations, and this was repeated to a less extent in 2019. The 2019 migration might have been encouraged by the weather event commonly termed an African Bloom, where hot air from the Sahara is carried north across Europe, which occurred several times during the Summer from May onwards.

I return to the footpath and cross the footbridge towards the smaller of Rooksbury’s two lakes … and don’t have to wait long for my first sighting. This is over the river to the left. A large Dragonfly, black, with striking gold markings along the length of its abdomen. This is unmistakable and I immediately recognise it as a Golden-Ringed Dragonfly. By a millimetre or two this is our second largest Odonata. Most of them prefer standing, or at least very slow moving, water but the Golden-Ringed likes streams and small rivers. This one lands the brambles over-hanging the river and stays long enough for me to move in and see the swelling towards the end of its body. This means it is a male, the female being straighter and finally tapering. I can also see that the wings are a little bit ragged around the edges, in fact one forewing looks to have lost its tip, almost certainly the result of an attack by a bird, not that this will hamper its flying ability at all. This wear and tear is simply down to age. Golden-Ringed are one of the first Hawkers to appear, emerging as early as the beginning of June or even very late May, and this insect could easily have been on the wing for eight weeks.

Golden-ringed, female.
Golden-ringed, male.

As I turn to look over the lake I see another dragonfly that may have been out for a similar period of time. Distinctive in flight as the abdomen droops down slightly towards the end. As it passes close to me I can easily make out the green thorax and the blue-marked body and it confirms that I am looking at an Emperor and a male. This actually is our largest Dragonfly. As I am watching another insect flies in, looking very similar but the blue of the long, thin abdomen is noticeably paler and I recognise that this is a female Emperor. Immediately the patrolling male spots her and dives, curling his abdomen down and forward to try and latch the claspers at the very end of his abdomen onto the back of her neck. I watch fascinated as … he mistimes the stoop!

Tragedy!

Instead of locking onto the female and sweeping her up, hopefully for her to agree to his rough embrace and a mating tryst, he stuns her downwards and she splashes into the water. Suddenly oblivious to her and her plight – shucks, it wasn’t me – he wheels away to continue patrolling his chosen stretch of bank, chasing away any other male Dragonflies that encroach while continuing his search for a prospective mate.

In the water the situation is life and death serious. She might have lived four or five years in this element but it is no longer her natural environment and, while she is truly a dragon in the air, in the water she simply a nice meal for a fish. She flounders. Those wings, capable of such astonishing feats in flight that a helicopter looks foolishly clumsy, can do nothing but slap on the surface or, pulling upwards through the viscosity, threatening to drag her down. The seconds tick by … a minute passes. Her body is soaking. Surely at any moment there will be a swirl and she will be gone, yet she is still there and she struggles on. There is waterweed emergent through the lake’s surface and she is fighting to reach it, but she is so slow and she will be tiring, perhaps unable to breath through the spiracles along her side. I am rooting for her but there is nothing so unforgiving of carelessness, or simple bad luck, as nature.

It is life or death out here, no forgiveness and no mercy.

Two minutes.

And then … a leg, maybe just one hooked foot, finds a hold and she pulls herself forward and … slowly … out of the water. Soaked. Exhausted. Then up the reed a little bit more. The heat of the sun rapidly drying her she opens those wings and, unsteadily, takes to the air. Low over the water she sweeps up to land on the same brambles behind me that a short while ago had held the Golden-Ringed. I walk slowly over. She is truly an older dragonfly. Throughout the second half of June and right the way through July these magnificent insects have ruled the air above and around the lakes but by the middle of this month their numbers will have dwindled. Her wings are shabby and the colour is going from her thorax and abdomen, leaving them almost grey with only a trace of the original green and blue, but she is alive.

Emperor, male.
Emperor, female.

Almost as breathless as she I turn and follow the path to the right and around the end of smaller lake.  Turning the corner I slow down, peering across the water. Over on the far side of the lake, highlighted against the dense shadow of the undergrowth on the bank, I can just make out a small firefly of light cruising along to the right and then back. Another dragonfly but impossible to tell what … and then something flies across to the left just the other side of the wall of vegetation in front of me. I push forward, being careful to keep an eye on where the bank ends and the drop down into the lake begins. Waiting, a few seconds, then it cruises back, almost silhouetted. A dragonfly, again with a blue abdomen, but this time the thorax simply looks dark and this one is flying with its abdomen held slightly upwards. The signature posture of the Migrant Hawker. This one is a male, hence the blue on black abdomen, the female being strongly yellow on brown. Don’t be fooled by the name, the insect is very much a resident here, although its numbers are always boosted by autumnal migrants from the Continent. They are, along with Southern Hawkers and Common Darters, among the last of the Odonata to emerge and this is the first one I have seen this year.

Migrant, female.
Migrant, male.

A few yards further on a second bridge crosses the river. Unhurriedly, not wishing to disturb anything that might be around, I walk onto the bridge and look downstream. Almost straight away I see another dragonfly but this one is different. It turns and streaks upstream towards me when, almost close enough to touch, it shoots upwards, snatching a small something in mid-air and wheeling away back downstream. Coursing, hunting, coursing. This one is a chestnut brown and, as it came so close, I could see the line of blue markings down its sides. A Brown Hawker and a male. Until 2019, although the occasional one might be glimpsed around our lakes, it was not thought that they were truly resident and breeding here, but now they are regularly seen numbers locally. As I watch another dashes in and the two start a dog-fight, each trying to drive the other away, and they soar up and out across the lake. Seconds later the victor returns from the skirmish and restarts its patrol.

Brown Hawker, female.
Brown Hawker, male.

Then, a movement down in the stream, tight against the reeds, and a small brown shape paddles out a few inches and then swims back in. A young Water Vole. They are found both here and at Anton Lakes, but Rooksbury is something of a haven for them. Traditionally very shy here they seem to have no fear of the humans blundering around and “oohing” and “ahhing” when we spot them.

Water Vole

They dig burrows into the river banks, often with an underwater entrance. Here they begin to mate in Spring producing two to five litters of around four pups at a time. The young leave their mother after just a month and a pup born in July might be producing its own pups in the Autumn although, more usually, most reach sexual maturity after their first Winter. They eat a mainly vegetarian diet of reeds, sedges and rushes during the Summer, changing over to roots, tree bark and fruit through the Autumn and Winter. They will occasionally also eat insects and other invertebrates.

Banded Demoiselle, male.
Banded Demoiselle, female.

I look back upstream and find that I have been facing the wrong way. Over the water weeds covering the surface there the fluttering, almost shimmering shapes of blue, male Banded Demoiselles. Then, the paler, green forms of the females. I have no trouble counting half a dozen males and a handful of females. The males are quite striking when they land and they can be properly seen, their dark, metallic bluish green bodies and their wings with the easily discernible dark blue “thumb print”. The females are less imposing but beautiful in their own way, their bodies a dark, metallic emerald green. This, too, is their last hoorah. Before the end of the month they will have gone, leaving their legacy, their eggs and young, to rise and entertain us next year.

They are not alone. I see more Brown Hawkers, their wings golden in the sunlight, three straight away but then another, and another. There are both males and females dancing over the stream, the females having paler or yellow markings along the sides of their abdomen in place of the males’ blue.

After a few minutes watching the males dogfight and the females avoiding the males advances I leave the bridge to continue walking west alongside the lake. Entering the shade of the bushes I open the kissing gate and walk through being sure to close it behind me. I am following a walkway enclosed between two wooden fences that passes beside three rough, rectangular ponds on the left hand side. As I emerge from a tunnel formed by the bushes reaching overhead I am looking over the brambles that reach down to the water and am rewarded with a flash of orange. It alights a couple of yards away and I am looking at a Comma. A common butterfly, another Vanessid that uses nettles as the food plant, it is recognised by the irregular edges of wings. The first brood, which is seen in early Summer, is paler but this is the second brood and, suitably for its autumnal flight period, is a much stronger russet. Some of these will hibernate and be among the first butterflies seen next Spring.

Comma

Walking round and over the small outlet from the stream that is now to my right I wait for a few seconds and carefully examine the top rails of the fences either side. Back in June, even July, I would have been looking for Blue-Tailed Damselflies, which seem to love sitting on the wood warmed by the sun, but now I am looking for early emerging Common Darters. I am unlucky and there don’t seem to be any here today. I move on and, similarly, pause on the bridge over the stream and examine the water weeds. This is a favourite place for Water Voles during the Autumn and Spring and they can often be located by spotting the movement and twitching of those very same water weeds but, again, I am unlucky. I walk through the shade of another tunnel of foliage and onto another bridge, pausing, as usual, to see what there might be to see. This time I am luckier.

Beautiful Demoiselle, male.
Beautiful Demoiselle, female.

Just downstream, in the sunlight playing across the verdant growth on the left hand bank, I see the fluttering of wings so similar to those I have just been watching from the bridge by the lake. I think I have two more Banded Demoiselles until one perches and I see that the wings on this Odonata are not clear with a tell-tale smudge but are completely dark blue, almost black. Then the other lands, and I can just about discern that although this is a female Demoiselle her wings are not green but brown, almost gold when the sun catches them from the right angle. These are Beautiful Demoiselles, the same size and with the same flight as the Banded and also enjoying the same stream environment. Though both species are considered common the Banded is by far the most prevalent.

Off the bridge and along the wooden walkway I am once more searching the upper rails of the fencing on either side. Towards the far end, just before the right hand turn, I find what I’m looking for. The small, grey-brown shape of a female Common Darter. When they first emerge they take on a beautiful yellow colour which gradually fades to this far more subdued tone and, as they age, begin to show tinges of red at the joints of the wings to the thorax and along the length of the abdomen. The “teneral” males, which simply means very young, have an ochre colour which quickly becomes red along the abdomen, the thorax becoming dark and almost black. There is a similar species, the Ruddy Darter, but it isn’t found on any of Andover’s lakes so any Darter you see will be Common.

Common Darter, young female.
Common Darter, mature female.
Common Darter, male.

I cross the third stream of this walk-through and along a straight section up towards the bench. The left hand side is thick with Great Willowherb, the food plant, along with Rosebay Willowherb, of the caterpillar of the Large Elephant Hawk Moth. This is one of our most striking, if not beautiful moths, being a stunning mixture of pink and green with white legs and antennae. The larva is very different. When full grown it can be easily over 3 inches long and notably thick. It can be green in colour but is more often a muddy grey with the texture having something of the appearance of an elephant’s skin, but that is not why it is called the Elephant Hawk Moth.

Large Elephant Hawk Moth

The reason for this is its ability to extend its head forward like the extension of an elephant’s trunk. Immediately behind the head is a thickish section, almost like shoulders, and on the top are four circular markings, like eyes, which the caterpillar can use to scare of would-be predators … although how successfully is a moot point. In August they are nearing maturity, becoming ready to bury themselves under the leaf litter and perhaps an inch or so into the soil beneath, but have a habit of climbing up to feed during the late mid-afternoon. If you are walking this way around four o’clock take a little time to search for them since, as they are large, they are quite easy to find if they are here.

By the bench seat I step off the wooden dais and into the nettles and reeds. This is one of my favourite hunting spots and you may well find the trail my searching has worn. Eight weeks ago, even only six, these reeds would have been full of damselflies: Common Blue, Blue-Tailed, Azure and Red-Eyed, but now there is little about apart from occasional Common Blue and Blue-Tailed. On a more positive note there are a number of mating pairs but I am, of course, hoping for something a little more. I reach the lake shore and stop for a while to see what there is. Earlier in the Summer you might see Black-Tailed Skimmers here, although Rooksbury is not known for them particularly, Charlton Lake holding more appeal for this species. Today I see an Emperor,  cruising along the reeds to my left, then I am dive-bombed by a Brown Hawker which soars away through the trees behind me.

Black-tailed Skimmer, male.

I creep on, moving slowly and trying not to disturb anything that might be there. Much of this game is about finding them just before they get concerned about you …

A week or so ago we had some strong winds and the reeds have been flattened here revealing lower stems and even glimpses of the ground beneath. A tiny movement catches my eye. A young frog, only an inch or so long, pushing and half hopping its way through the tangle. I often see young toads here, too. The dense reed bed is an excellent nursery for these baby amphibians, this year’s brood, hiding them from predators while holding plentiful supplies of the spiders, small insects, slugs and snails that form their diet.

Now I am approaching the standing bullrushes and scan their height for anything of interest, but also search lower down over their base stems and across the browned off lower leaves. It is down on one of those, perhaps a foot off the ground, that I see a long, thin splash of colour. I ease back and find a gap that will let me move out a yard or so and then round and back in. When I carefully complete the manoeuvre I sink gently down to put myself as near the same height as the insect as I can and bring the camera forward … and get it. Another couple of shots to make sure. The striking colours of a male Southern Hawker. Yellow stripes on the sides of the thorax and the blue on black patter nation of the long abdomen. The telltale characteristics of this species are on the front of the thorax, or, if you prefer, the top front of the shoulder. Two immediately obvious bright yellow markings, like headlights. This is the first one I have seen this year and has great, fresh colours as perfect as you could ever wish for.

Southern Hawker, male.
Southern Hawker, female.

I move on through the rushes and see nothing more exciting than the occasional Common Blue or Blue-Tailed Damselfly and the pale Mother of Pearl moths, which also use the copious stinging nettles as their foodplant.

Back on the wooden walkway I turn right, to continue round the lake. As I round the corner ahead of me I now have the River Anton to my left and the lake to my right. It is always worth investigating the fishing piers around the lake. A few minutes standing here and searching over the water will usually show a Dragonfly or two at this time of the year and often you will find a Common Darter resting on the wood and soaking up the warmth. It is a good idea, too, to take a look at the reeds along the side of the river bank. Damselflies are here along with both species of Demoiselle, but the real gem is a fleeting glimpse of the stunning blue of a Kingfisher. If you are lucky it might perch on one of the branches that overhang from the opposite bank allowing a good sighting or even a photograph. The male has an all black beak but if you see one that has a red lower bill then you are looking at a female.

Approaching the top end of the lake I see the tell-tale golden wings of a Brown Hawker and, as I round the corner, another … then another. This has been an outstanding year across all three lakes for this species and, as I stand there, another one joins us and all four are surrounding me. Swooping, darting, their wings shimmering in the strong sunlight. I stay for several minutes hoping that one will land but, when it does, it is ten feet up a tree and well out of the range of my 60mm macro lens!

Speckled Wood

I move on and as I near the kissing gate I am joined by the superficially dull, and muted tones of a Speckled Wood butterfly. This is an insect of woodland and hedgerows, often ignored as just another little-brown-flying-thing, but if one lands near you, as they often do, take the time to move in slowly and look at it properly. A fresh one, with the dark brown background colour of the wings broken by an array of cream spots is quite a handsome beast. Look at the “eyes” towards the rear of the hindwings. The food plants are various grasses and, just as with most of the butterflies I am seeing, this individual is second generation. Weather allowing they could be flying into late September or even early October.

I am around half way down this homeward bound side of the lake before I see something just a bit special. I have just walked down onto a fishing pier and straight away have seen a dragonfly, an Emperor, and I know it is a female and she is egg-laying because she flying with her abdomen, the “tail”, turned well down. Low over the water she is searching for a suitable site. Emperors lay their eggs into floating debris with reed and rush stems being favourites. This is very different behaviour to Southern, Brown and Migrant Hawkers which prefer to lay into standing stems, the females often being heard rather than seen as their wings flap against the vegetation around them. She finds what she is looking for and drops down, which is when I notice another dragonfly hovering very close to her. At first I am worried, as this looks like a male and he could well try and force himself onto her, but then I realise that something altogether different is happening. Far from looking to take her and mate with her he is, in fact, guarding her. They have already mated and he is now standing watch over her as she lays the fruits of their joining and, all too soon, his help is called for as another male rounds the bushes and shows interest. The skirmish is fast and to the point and the other male is chased away. This is quite common and, as I have just seen, often necessary.

Almost back to the car park now. It has been a wonderful couple of hours, but I must just have one quick look in the small meadow to the left. White butterflies flit across the grasses or along the blackberry bushes, some Small and some Green-Veined. Perhaps a Large White, but too far away to see for sure. Still some distance away I can make out something on the brambles at the far side of the clearing, something blue, and move in. An Emperor, a male. I move in closer and closer and he seems totally at ease, letting me get a great look at him and run off several shots with the camera. An old Emperor, with rather tatty wings, but, to me, all the more special for that.

Just as with the older female I saw so nearly drown at the beginning of this walk.

These insects lay thousands upon thousands of eggs, yet, next year, there will still be only roughly the same number here as this year. The year after that, much the same number, and the year after that, and so on. Out of all those eggs just two will make it through to spread their wings, one to replace the male and one the female. All the others will be lost. Perhaps some will not hatch. Some will be eaten the moment they do. If they are not then every second of every day of their lives they will run the gauntlet of the jaws of tadpoles, fish, frogs, toads and a myriad of other predators including other Odonata nymphs. If they actually make it to finally climb out of the water and push their way out of the exuvia they no longer need then their wings must expand and fill and dry perfectly, otherwise they will not be able to fly, not be able to hunt and not be able to mate.

And so there they are, the old lady Emperor and the old man. They made it, heroic enough in itself, and now they have lived their lives, they have mated, probably many times, and they have fertilised and laid the precious eggs that secure the next generation. Their faded colours and tattered wings are the hard won medals of their success.

Fungi

Autumnal flowering of the fungi

David Beeson

Of course, fungi are not flowering plants, yet many people refer to their spore-producing structures as ‘fruiting bodies’ – implying plant. The basic plant has chlorophyll to trap sunlight energy and cell walls made of cellulose. Fungi have no chlorophyll or cellulose and have a totally different lifestyle. They are clearly not plants but a quite distinct living form – the FUNGAL KINGDOM.

One thread = hypha, many hyphae = mycelium.

https://sites.google.com/a/webstercountyschools.org/science-today/fungi

Fungal cells usually occur in strands (hyphae) and may, or may not, have walls separating one ‘cell’ to the next. Their walls are not composed of cellulose but of chitin, a product more often associated with insect bodies.

Nutrition in fungi is animal-like. They secrete enzymes that digest their prey before the simple end-products of that digestion are drawn into the hyphae. The range of materials they can digest is exceptional. Even complex and hard to breakdown materials can be used as food, including waxes and the material that makes cellulose into wood – lignin. All enzymes appear to be released from near the growing tip of the hyphae and some products released, e.g. penicillin, can reduce competition from bacteria.

Everyone understands that fungi are vital recyclers of organic materials. For example, fallen leaves may initially be fragmented by soil invertebrates and the fungi complete the task. These little regarded organisms are vital to any ecosystem.

However, organisms often diversify with time and that is true of the fungi. Many fungi are parasitic on flesh, e.g. athlete’s foot fungus, or attack living plants, e.g. ‘damping off’ fungus.

Experiment. Place some slightly damp bread into a see-through container. You’ll soon see hyphae!

Many people have produced their own bread at home. This relies on a single-celled fungus called yeast. The fungus, under anaerobic conditions, breaks down starches and other carbohydrates to alcohol, releasing both carbon dioxide (to raise the bread) and energy for fungal growth.

In the autumn of 2019 a continuous dousing of Harewood’s forest floor and the still relatively high ambient temperature encouraged a glut of fungal fruiting bodies.

Clavarias-type fungus in Harewood
Puffball, Lycoperdon perlatum?

Roger Phillips, in his ‘Mushrooms’ publication, states that there are ‘in the region of three thousand larger fungi to be found in the British Isles’. And that does not count the myriads of smaller fruiting bodied types. Some fungi, of course, are edible while others deadly. Best perhaps to enjoy looking at them and leave identification and consumption to others!

Earth star fungi sometimes appear locally.

Occasionally one encounters a really odd organism. And, I not talking human now! Slime moulds.

A picture containing food

Description automatically generated

I think this is a slime mould! Growing on wet decaying wood.

Slime Moulds were once considered to be fungi but are now classified in a completely different kingdom. They begin life as tiny amoeba-like organisms which hunt for bacteria to eat. They mate to produce plasmodia which can grow to a large size feeding on micro-organisms. These slimy masses can move like giant amoeba. When food begins to wane, the plasmodium migrates to the surface and produces fruiting bodies (these are the fungi-like structures that we find). The plasmodia produce spores which hatch into amoebae to begin the life-cycle again.

Here is what Warwick University says about them:

Movement, memory and problem solving are abilities we normally associate with animal behaviour and a nervous system but is that always the case? Could a brainless organism exhibit intelligent behaviour, could it be capable of learning and if so, can we learn anything from it?

If you pay attention when you’re outside on an autumn day you might see something unusual. In amongst the leaves, around the mushrooms and toadstools, oblivious to the animals running around making their winter stores, there’s something that doesn’t quite fit it.

I guarantee that you’ve seen them but maybe not noticed. A few orange spots on the end of a twig, tiny iridescent baubles or a foaming yellow mass on the bark of a tree. If you stopped to look and waited a while you might even realise that these things are alive – and moving with a purpose, just not very quickly.

These strange organisms are not plants, they may be mobile but they’re not animals. They make mushroom like fruiting bodies but they’re not fungi. They are curious misfits in our labeled and classified world – Slime moulds – amoebae that make spores, a simple description that sums them up neatly but doesn’t remotely explain how strange they really are.

Visit: https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/lifesci/outreach/slimemold/facts/

Looking after a slime mould …… https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/lifesci/outreach/slimemold/care/Open publish panel

Longparish’s River

Longparish and its river – April and May.

David Beeson

The River Test is a monarch of a waterway. Its springs arise directly or indirectly from the chalk that lays beneath the surface layers of silt, clay or gravel. As such, it is crystal clear and carries with it traces of the calcium from which it has been born. As with most similar rivers, its course is often broken into many smaller rivers – it is braided, and our exploration starts with one of these braided waterways.

I’ve parked beneath the old yew tree that overhangs both the river and the sidetrack that leads off the Longparish road towards Upper Mill (that we will encounter later). Looking westwards the damp garden is rich in wild southern marsh orchids in June and July and offers a contrast in vegetation to the other bank.

Small tortoiseshell
Looking east

Especially in the early hours of daylight, the easterly facing side of the bridge shows the wild side of the river. Tall trees dominate the area allowing little light to reach the water and, as a result,  its gravel bed has little vegetation. It appears as if man has little impact here – no grassy path to allow fishers access to the river and the banks look natural. It is cool and calm and a delight to the eye.

I chatter over stony ways,

In little sharps and trebles,

I bubble into eddying bays,

I babble on the pebbles.

With many a curve my banks I fret

By many a field and fallow,

And many a fairy foreland set

With willow-weed and mallow.

I chatter, chatter, as I flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.

Part of The Brook by Alfred Lord Tennyson

I walk along the road, away from Longparish, for just a short distance, with that wild river to my right. So, shortly encounter a bridge and footpath leading over this arm of the River Test. Upstream I can glimpse the mostly unused commercial watercress beds that are now filled to overflowing with the deep green leaves of the slightly peppery tasting crop. A crop synonymous with Hampshire as it loves the never cold, clear and chalky water found here.

Cross the bridge.

With willows being dominated by the tall trees to our right we wander into a damp meadow. The grasses will grow waist high in summer, yet now are only just starting their growth spurt as the air and, eventually, the damp soil warms. The bulk of their height will be their flowering stems, while, at ground level, their laminate leaves mat together to thickly cover the soil. Beneath this green coat there is a network of short-tailed vole runs. These voles are short-lived but exuberant in their production of babies. They could already be on their second brood – all swaddled, at ground level, in a nest made of dry grasses.

The grass is mainly cocksfoot and it is one of the favourites of the minute harvest mice that also live here. I have found their nests in late summer woven into the tall flower stems well above those of the voles. These days harvest mice are much more likely to be found in slightly rank, over-grown meadows and in reedbeds than in a farmer’s field. The animal needs year-round cover and that is not found in a modern wheat or barley field.

With broad, bristly leaves you should spot wild comfrey (Symphytum offinale) with its pale cream or purple flowers showing. It is a plant loved equally by bees, gardeners and herbalists. The insects thrive on the nectar, the gardener can use it as a ‘green manure’ or to make up a liquid feed, while it has been widely employed (with success) as a healing poultice for sprains, bruises and abrasions. Its leaves contain allantoin that promotes the healing of the skin’s connective tissues. Richard Mabey reports that medieval herbalists called the plant ‘bone-set’ and its roots were used much as plaster of Paris is today. However, it is not a plant to use as a vegetable as eating it can, it is said, cause liver damage.

To our left the water, briefly, flows with grassy meadows on either side – that beyond the river is owned as public space by the village and a fine spot to search for signs of mouse activity.

The Long Bridge is ahead and the views here delight everyone. With deep river channels and shallower areas in which the massive trout play in the current. With light and shade inter-playing with the never still water’s surface and the aerial insects and birds catching the eye it is difficult to know where to look first.

Long bridge

The Middleton Estate, I understand, enhances the wild population of brown (Salmo trutta) and there are also some rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). You could see either of these species here. Both fish species are carnivores, eating invertebrates and smaller fish. Brown trout are natives while the other species has been introduced from rivers bordering the Pacific Ocean.

The brown trout is a silvery-brown, dark-spotted fish with a plain, dark tail fin. The rainbow trout can be distinguished from the similar brown trout by the broad purple stripe running down its flanks … which I never can see with wild, live fish!

[Sea trout are a migratory variant of the brown trout. They can be found in the rivers of the New Forest – ones that are comparatively lacking in year-round food.]

Brown trout can live up to 20 years, reach 100 cm in length and 20 Kg, but in a river system these are much reduced. Rainbow trout can reach 9 Kg but more normally 2.3 Kg would be big fish.

There must be a wide range of other fish along this stunning section of the River Test, yet I never spot them from the bridge. Swans nest here most years and, earlier in the year, frogs lay their spawn masses amongst the reeds and other bankside vegetation.

Birds enjoy the waterway. Mallard ducks are everywhere, coots and moorhens are regulars and herons maintain a wary eye out for humans as they stalk their fishy food. Today the migratory cuckoo is in good voice and chiffchaffs sing their tune. Less vocal are the wagtails and the spotted flycatchers that both fly up to secure their insect lunches. Of the kingfisher, I see nothing today.

I turn right at the lane, but a diversion to the left is always productive if time permits. There are great views and the common land, just as the river bends, allows more mouse investigations to occur.

My route follows an offshoot of the main river that only flows at high water. It is dry in late summer and autumn. Naturally, river water levels change with both the rainfall on the catchment but also with the amount of water weed in the river. In spring and summer the increased light encourages plant growth and so enhances water resistance – hence water levels rise. But the water keepers usually cut the water weeds to maintain open channels and a gravel bed, so that reduces the water’s height again. Up, down.

Brimstone

Many trees and shrubs grow along this section of the river. The majority are willows (use Woodland Trust’s free app to identify) and in spots such as the Somerset Levels they are coppiced to provide stems for basket making and similar. In cattle-grazed meadows willows are often coppiced at head height (pollarding), leaving the tasty shoots above browsing level. These trees are called pollards. On one occasion I was running a tame polecat over the water meadows in Salisbury when the animal entered and climbed up inside a hollow pollarded crack-willow. Two rabbits must have been living inside, as soon they jumped out for their lives from two metres high. Willows can develop substantial holes in their trunks.

Goat Willow (Salix caprea) is the ‘pussy willow’ producer in March. These lovely harbingers of spring are the bright yellow, pollen-laden male catkins of the plant.

There are several towering poplar trees along the metalled road. I’m told that similar trees were planted locally to be cropped for match production. Those unused when the company (Bryant and May) was taken over have grown into giant specimens.

To the right the trees are deciduous and light reaches the ground vegetation for much of the year. Compared to the evergreen laurel copse, to the left, it has a rich ground flora.

Watery vegetation is often interesting. Along here you will spot a good range of species. Wild watercress is ever present and hosts a myriad of invertebrates amongst its stems and surface roots. In summer its small white flowers are a magnet for small beetles and flies. Stinging nettles crowd the bank and fight with grasses, touch-me-not (balsam), woundwort and willow herb.

The nettle’s Latin name (Urtica dioica) has given its name to nettle rash (Urticaria) – a general condition characterised by irritation and inflammation. The plant is often found in soils rich in animal manure; here the rich bank’s soil provides a suitable spot and its tough and spreading yellow roots allows it to colonise widely.

Nettles have been eaten for centuries: Romans and the Celts used early growths in broths. During the Irish potato famine and World War Two they were again on the menu. Even today chefs will occasionally use them in their dishes.

A cotton substitute was obtained from the plant by the Germans in WW2. 40 Kg was needed to provide sufficient fibres from its stem to make a shirt.

The plant’s sharp, edge of leaf, spines contain irritants including histamine and choline.

Stinging nettles are the exclusive larval food plant for several species of butterflies, such as the peacock butterfly, comma and the small tortoiseshell. It is also eaten by the larvae of some moths including angle shades, buff ermine, dot moth, the flame, the gothic, grey chi, grey pug, lesser broad-bordered yellow underwing, mouse moth, setaceous Hebrew character, and small angle shades.

The deep pool by the sluice gate is as photogenic as any location. Occasionally in winter icicles form around the waterfall and add a new dimension to the scene.

Around the corner is the Upper Mill and the flow of water through the building is clear from the sound. My route is along the footpath, on the left, before crossing the bridge.

Watership Down

Watership Down – a celebration of a Hampshire Downland

David Beeson

A lark celebrates a new day with its complex territorial song as the world beneath it changes imperceptibly from night to day. Amongst the short grasses of the downland short-tailed voles, with their chestnut-coloured fur, feed on the species-rich vegetation, all the while maintaining an alert vigil for stoat or kestrel. A wren, with its warm-brown plumage flies off in search of insect food amongst the ranker vegetation around an old rabbit warren.

A tranquil start to the day, and perhaps there is even a small ‘band’ of rabbits, relatives of the famous Fiver, Bigwig and Hazel who made this hillside known to the world. For this is early morning on Watership Down made famous in Richard Adam’s *** book of the same name.

The north-facing 100-meter-high chalky slope, of which Watership Down is part, stretches from the A34 to the north of Whitchurch eastwards past the Ladle Hill Fort, on to Cannon Heath Downs and the adjacent White Hill.

This spongy, chalky grassland sward can be windswept in winter yet a delight in the mellower times of the year. Our hillside, which would have been naturally wooded before human interference, has been de-wooded and grazed by sheep for around two thousand years. It is now a rich diversity of mainly herbaceous plants and their dependent animal life. In fact, you could discover up to forty different non-woody plant types in a single square metre, making this plant association one of the most complex in the UK.

While sheep are the principal grazers of this area, the rabbits also help to maintain the short grassland. For without the constant nibbling of seedling shrubs and trees the area would revert to its woodland origins and obliterate the open-grassland plants.

Early in the year yellow dominates the hillside, with cowslips and lime-yellow mosses covering some slopes, and seemingly echoing the colour of the oilseed rape in the fields around. In late spring and high summer the yellows are superseded by blue, purple and mauve hues, with scabious, knapweed, speedwell, ground ivy and rarer flora such as spotted and pyramidal orchids taking centre stage.

Ground ivy

One attractive, uncommon plant that grows along the edge of the adjacent Wayfarer’s Way, that straddles the chalk ridge, is the perennial meadow saxifrage. It has attractive small leaves, that appear early in the year, pure-white flowers that seem to demand closer attention and the whole thing vanishes underground before summer. This plant is an ancient meadow indicator species and is lost by ploughing or ‘improvement’. (Look for it also in the Weyhill churchyard.)

The constant herbivorous pressure has largely killed off the coarser grasses leaving their fine-leaved relatives such as sheep’s fescue dominant. Such conditions also encourage horseshoe vetch and the delightful, slender, vibrant-blue chalk milkwort. These live alongside two aromatic bedstraws – the white-flowered hedge and yellow-flowered lady’s bedstraw.

Rockroses thrive on thin chalky soils.

There are yellow rockroses too. These normally prostrate evergreen shrubs, the wild relatives of the garden types, have small hairy leaves and flowers that seem only to open during sunny mornings. Their pollen and nectar is the life-blood for Watership Down’s bumblebees and butterflies.

Diminutive fairy flax has miniscule five-petaled, white flowers and precise paired oval leaves. Tall, and sometimes dominant, deadly nightshade (Atropa bella-donna) has sombre purple-brown flowers, black fruits, with their human heart-stopping powers, but the fruits are acceptable food to most creatures on the hillside.

Brown argus

Aromatic plants such as wild basil and thyme occur, and stemless thistles lie in wait for the tired walker to sit upon them.

All these plants support the animal and fungal food chain. Plant goodness is passed to voles, hares, rabbits and a host of invertebrates and on to the more carnivorous animals. Wasps, hornets, spiders, stoat, weasel and mole all make their living indirectly from the flora.

A young brown hare.

Butterflies and bumblebees are the insects most noticed in a ‘good’ year, but grasshoppers, spiders, woodlice and long-legged St Mark’s flies are around as well. The butterflies include skippers, blues and larger species such as marbled whites – each fluttering from one nectar source to the next to replenish their energy supplies. Banded snails and big, battleship-grey slugs eat the plants and leave themselves open to being eaten by the increasingly uncommon song thrush.

Marbled white, female.

Above the slopes the avian predators await their chance. Kestrels spot the surreptitious movement of shrews, moles or voles; buzzards keep their eyes open for slowworms, amphibians and rabbits.  Meanwhile, the magnificent red kites look to steal what animal material they can, even if it is from the very claws of a buzzard.

Comma

For any humans looking down from the chalky heights it is possible to enjoy the landscape’s features. Because the land’s form changes here as the geology* changes abruptly as the chalk meets the greensand at the bottom of the slope. Spot the differences in the shape of the land, the soil’s colour and the distribution of shrub and tree types. Look out for the spread of ash** trees, hawthorn, wayfaring trees, hazel and spindle.

Pyramidal orchid

But most folks will be watching out for rabbits – such is the effect of the Watership Down book. The signs of their presence, droppings and rabbit burrows, will be clear if disease has not killed them off locally. The beasts themselves usually maintain a low profile during the day. Best to seek them out early or late in the day.

Watership Down is best reached from the Wayfarer’s Walk. Parking is available on the Overton to Kingsclere road, B3051, at White Hill. The downland is itself private. Beacon Hill, adjacent to the A34, has a similar ecology and is owned and maintained by HCC. Parking available.

Male, large skipper

*A sensible wildlife enthusiast will always have a geology map available for scrutiny. It is the underlying geology that drives the soil, hence the plant life and the fauna that is associated with them.

Common spotted orchids

** There is a free, and useful, app for a smartphone on tree identification from the Woodland Trust website.

*** Richard Adams lived in Whitchurch.

For INDEX of 100 nwhwildlife articles see: https://wordpress.com/post/nwhwildlife.org/1539

Water meadows

Water meadows and watery meadows

David Beeson

Water meadows abound in Hampshire. They used to line the Test, Itchen, Avon rivers and their tributaries and even today their remains can be seen. The first was dug in the 1600s. A few have been resuscitated and are regularly flooded – just south of Salisbury at Britford, the meadows between Salisbury centre and Harnham and just south of Shawford / Twyford in Hampshire. The meadows just south of St Mary Bourne’s viaduct show many of the original features, even if they do not function.

There is a distinct structure to true water meadows; a watery meadow is merely an area of wet or damp pasture without the carriers and hatches needed to drive water meadows.

Sheep farming was extensive in the 1600s. The limiting factor in the size of the flocks being the lack of grazing in the early spring – meaning that many animals had to be killed in the autumn to prevent later starvation of the animals. The solution was to flood the meadows in late winter and early spring with comparatively warm river water that had oozed out of the chalk.

While the air might still be too cold to stimulate grass growth, the river water ensured a luxuriant flush of sheep food. More grass, more sheep.

In 1733 a dry meadow was valued at 20 shillings and acre but water meadows at 40 shillings – a good reflection of their enhanced productivity.

Water meadows were built up of a series of ten-metre wide ridges (sometimes called beds or panes) and furrows. Water from the upstream river is fed, either by the natural gravity generated by the fall in the river or with aid of a weir, towards the meadow system. The flow was controlled by many hatches, with water initially passing from the river into a main carrier channel and eventually into individual ‘downer or float’ channels dug into the top of the ridge. These downers were also blind-ended and the water pressure caused them to overflow and, so, generate a continuous shallow sheet of water flowing over the meadows. Eventually the water dropped into lower blind-ended furrows and was fed back into the river at a slightly lower elevation.

Old, unused sluce.

In order to develop the necessary head of water the carriers often had to be diverted away from the main river some distance upstream. This, and the structure and levelling of the floated meadows, required considerable effort and money. It’s said that constructing a working water meadow took about three years. One suspects that the local millers would have needed talking to very carefuly!

The first watering of the year produced a flush of growth, called the ‘early bite’, which ensured a good supply of herbage when the ewes and lambs moved off the downland, which could then recover before the sheep returned later in the year.

A second flood often occurred in May to stimulate growth for a hay crop taken in July. In autumn a third flooding encouraged grass for the cattle.

Eventually all good things come to an end, and so it was for the flooding of meadows. Cheap imports of lamb, the sale of cheap fertilizers and animal feed, the lack of man-power to keep moving the water from one part of a meadow to another and maintenance costs all contributed to their decline. The cost of maintaining the meadow system outweighed their benefits.

Some water meadows remained functional into the 1960s and a few even into the 1980s. Finally, conservation has stepped in to salvage them and the unique assemblages of flora and fauna that lived there.

Flora and fauna

Wetland plants

Floodplain meadows are beautiful, ancient and fascinating places rich in wildlife and history. Throughout the spring and early summer, they are awash with wildflowers and waving grasses, humming with insects and the birds that depend on them. They provide a vibrant and beautiful spectacle that has now all but disappeared from the UK. The combination of wet meadow, cattle and sheep plus a hay cut produced unique environmental conditions and wildlife. The nibbling of the animals selectively removed some plants while encouraging those that are toxic to sheep or cattle. The hay cut having a somewhat similar effect.

The high plant diversity within floodplain meadows encourages a range of invertebrates, particularly early in the season, and the associated wet channels are also insect-rich habitats.

Unploughed and humus-rich the meadows are an ideal habitat for moles and te frequency of their hills confirms this. With tall vegetation sometimes lining the water channels these areas are also suitable for harvest mice, sort-tailed and water voles.

Bats depend wholly on insects for food, hunting along river corridors and over grassland. A number of generalist bat species are recorded as foraging within this landscape, but Daubenton’s bat is strongly associated with freshwater habitats and the soprano pipistrelle has also been linked with wet meadows.

The high small mammal and amphibian populations draws in predators, so barn owls, herons and weasels are sometimes encountered.

The plants will vary with the nutrient levels in the soil, the frequency of cutting, pH and calcium content. Locally meadows can often be described as ‘kingcup meadows’ with marsh marigolds holding sway in spring. Ragged robin, meadow rue, purple loosestrife and a wide variety of grasses and sedges join them. Marsh orchids and butter burr occur in the best locations.

Some of the few original water meadows are now SSSIs (Including Harnham, Twyford and Britford) and are amazing places. For a treat visit Cricklade North Meadow in Wiltshire during or soon after the snake’s head fritillary bonanza. This site is amazing!

Stockbridge Meadow offers some interesting flora and you’ll encounter other wetlands down the local river valleys.

One interesting side problem that the flooding had was in the build up in liver fluke. This is an internal parasite whose life cycle includes a stage in aquatic snails.

Liver fluke. Perhaps 3cm in length.

Adult liver flukes are greyish in colour and around 3cm in length. An infected liver can contain dozens of the organisms.

Wetting the meadows will have increased the snail population and enhanced the likely hood of the infection of the domesticated livestock.

A wonderful resource: http://www.floodplainmeadows.org.uk

How to age a meadow.

There are three types of common buttercups. This experiment is about the creeping buttercup.

Creeping buttercup

Common name creeping buttercup. Latin name: Ranunculus repens. Has spreading runners. Flowering in spring.

Buttercup species Bulbous Creeping Meadow
Sepal shape / position Bent back against the stem. Not bent back. Lie
against petals.
Not bent back. Lie against petals.
Stem Upright. Some creep over the surface
of the ground.
Upright.
Leaves Finely cut with pointed tips. Deeply lobed with
rounded tips.
Finely cut with pointed tips.

1.       Take an allowed route around your selected meadow.

2.       After one-minute stop and seek out a flowering creeping buttercup.

3.       Select a single flower and count the number of petals. Record this number.

4.       Walk on and soon stop. Repeat (3).

5.       You need to continue until you have 100 results.

6.       Calculation: Count the number of flowers that had more than five petals. Multiply by seven. The result is the approximate age of the meadow in years.

7.       You need to select your flowers at random. Choosing flowers with more petals will give a wildly inaccurate answer!

How the age testing works:

•        Most creeping buttercup flowers have five petals.

•        Mutations can cause the petal numbers to increase.

•        The older the meadow the more mutations will have occurred.

•        Mutations to petal numbers appear to occur approximately every seven years.

•        So, the more mutations the older the meadow.

Stockbridge Down

Stockbridge Down in May.

David Beeson, with butterflies by John Solomon.

 A butterfly walk that is best followed in the early afternoon.

North-west Hampshire’s geology is dominated by chalk.

Chalk is a soft, white, porous, sedimentary form of calcium carbonate or CaCO3. It forms under reasonably deep marine conditions from the gradual accumulation of the minute shells shed from micro-organisms. The rock is porous, soluble and alkaline in nature. As it is laid down in shallow seas it will also contain other sediments, such as clay. When rain dissolves away the calcium carbonate the clay is left behind and forms the clay cappings, with oak trees, so common on local hill tops.

Open, often sheep grazed, hills and pastures are called ‘downs’. Most of the shallower slopes have been ploughed for cereal growing. However, a remnant of the Hampshire downlands is owned and maintained by the National Trust – Stockbridge Down.

This exploration of this fragment of the once extensive Hampshire and Wiltshire downlands starts from the lower carpark, on the Winchester end of the land.

The area is described by the National Trust: ‘Discover breathtaking views and spot a variety of wildlife at Stockbridge Down on the Mottisfont estate. (It is) a chalk hill supporting grassland, areas of scrub and partially wooded margins, the habitat diversity of Stockbridge Down is hugely beneficial to local wildlife. (It possesses) the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, earthworks and around 14 Bronze Age burial mounds. This is a site of importance for archaeology, as well as nature conservation.’

Active management occurs in keeping a balance of trees, scrub and open chalky pasture.

The route you follow is not critical, but this clockwise walk will enable you to pick out areas in which you are likely to encounter particular species of, especially, butterflies – of which you could encounter thirty species over a year.

Just beyond the entrance gateway with its explanation board, one encounters the ubiquitous stinging nettles. Why here? The plant enjoys a nigh nitrogen input from human and canine urine, so grows especially strongly.

The chemistry of stinging nettles.

The easily broken, hollow stinging hairs (trichomes) that line the edges of the leaves act as needles and readily piece human skin. The chemicals they contain cause tingling, inflammation and pain that can last for several hours. An effective deterrent to pickers.

The hollow nettles are filled with two ingredient types: acids and neurotransmitters. The latter cause the inflammation (antihistamines should sort that out), while formic, tartaric and oxalic acids cause the pain. There is no scientific evidence that rubbing the area with dock leaves has any effect in reducing the pain.

The oak and blackthorn plants have a covering of lichens. These grey-green masses are a combination of algae and fungi in an inseparable mixture. Crusty, leafy and shrubby types can be encountered, with the last type usually associated with sulphur dioxide-free air. (The yellow-orange encrustation frequently seen on house roofs is a lichen called Xanthoria. It is stimulated into growth by bird droppings.)

Lichens

Early May is the oak’s breeding time. Small, pollen-laden catkins hang down from the new shoots, while at the end of other twigs are the minute red female flowers. The require some looking for! The light, yellow pollen grains are carried on the wind to the female flowers, so the plant is not associated with the buzz of bees.

Oak catkins

At this stage of the year, the oak trees are employing all their reserves into leaf growth. The plant needs the leaves to commence their photosynthesis as soon as possible. Because of this the leaves are unfilled with their ‘expensive’ chemical protection – tannic acid. This is produced mainly when the leaves are mature. Hence the young leaves are open to being eaten by the myriads of miniscule caterpillars that hatch now from the pinprick-sized eggs laid last year. Overwinter the tits have been seeking out the eggs for food, now they require the larvae for baby food. A poor caterpillar year equals a poor tit breeding year.

[https://www.gla.ac.uk/news/archiveofnews/2017/july/headline_536578_en.html] For information on urban tits.

This part of the reserve, with a patchwork of shrubs and open glades, has the correct environmental conditions for comma and peacock butterflies. Coppiced hazel is common and at ground level blue flowers seem to predominate – speedwell, forget-me-nots and the beautiful ground ivy. Later in the year the common bramble (blackberry) found here will be a rich food source with its flowers and juice-packed fruit. The plant is the food source for several dozen species of moth larvae, so, despite its aggressive habit, it is a valuable plant for natural ecology.

Peacock

Turning slightly left at the twin silver birches the chalky bedrock shows clearly on the pathway and by the burrowing of rabbits. Here there is more open scrub, and that variant of the dowland encourages other butterfly species.

Even on the dull day of my visit, dingy and grizzled skippers were present, although the coolness kept them comatose. Bird’s-foot-trefoil leaves supply the caterpillars with one of their food sources.

Female, grizzled skipper
Dingy skipper

Small copper butterflies were about in numbers and far more active than the skippers. Males are territorial, often choosing a piece of bare ground or a stone on which to bask and await passing females. They behave aggressively towards any passing insects, returning to the same spot when the chase is over. Sorrel is the larval food plant and there can be several ‘flushes’ of adults during a season.

Small copper

(See the Butterfly Conservation web site for more details on all species. https://butterfly-conservation.org)

Small copper

The other butterflies frequently seen over Stockbridge Down in May are the orange-tip and yellow brimstones.

Ant hills are becoming more obvious now. The Yellow Meadow Ant is familiar to us as the ant that creates anthills in grassland and downland habitats, but also appears in our gardens if the grass is not cut too often. They build a soil dome above the nest (which can extend a metre below the ground) to help regulate temperature and humidity. The Yellow Meadow Ant is social and forms colonies; the workers are mainly active underground and not often seen unless the nest is disturbed by, for example, green woodpeckers or rabbits.

Observe the vegetation on a mature hill – for it is often quite distinct from that nearby. Rabbit droppings, left on the site, are common and they add nutrients that encourages different plants to establish themselves.

With the surrounding area opening out beyond the white-leaved whitebeam tree there is a rich ground flora.  The vegetation is a stark contrast to the bare ground under the trees and dense shrubs. Beneath your feet will be aromatic marjoram, wild strawberries with their glowing white flowers, ground ivy with its pungent foliage, statuesque bugle and bright blue-flowered speedwells. The natural plant diversity is high on chalky soils – a stark contrast to what is found on heathlands.

Ground ivy

Various paths lead leftwards towards the old racing gallops (in the C19 there were race courses at Danebury and on the northern edge of Harewood) that run parallel to the road. Once there, my advice is to turn back (left) towards the parking spot. Along this route, on a fine May day, the skippers and other species (including green hairstreaks) will be around in abundance.

Conservation activities have opened the land between the path and the road and this has caused a burst in a rich ground flora. You’ll spot: burdock with its annoyingly adhesive seed heads, insect-friendly viper’s bugloss, creeping buttercup, St John’s wort and many other species. All of these will have their animal ‘partners’ – be that larvae that eat their leaves, butterflies feeding of their sugar-rich nectar or ground-nesting solitary bees taking both pollen and nectar. Voles, mice and shrews will feed here too. 

This location is usually especially populated with lepidoptera and deserves plenty of attention.

It is possible that you may have noticed male (yellow-coloured) and female (essential white-coloured) brimstone butterflies. Some think that it is the colour of the males that generated the common name of this delightful insect – the colour of butter!

Male, brimstone.
Brimstone

Having enjoyed the butterfly high spot of this mid-May exploration, perhaps it is time to resume the routeway westwards and up the slope, soon passing a semi-enclosed burial site of possible hangings (execution cemetery).

https://hampshirearchaeology.wordpress.com/2015/11/16/buried-in-time-an-execution-cemetery-on-stockbridge-down/

The downland is more open here, and less suitable for the butterflies already encountered, so, enjoy the views and vegetation.

When given options follow your selected pathway towards the right and you’ll encounter the Iron Age fort – Woolbury Ring. With the earthworks providing steep slopes and soil-rich bottoms the edges of the ring has a stimulating vegetation pattern that provides hosting for many butterflies. Rockroses, a magnet for early-day bees, and cowslips are common here. Look out for small heath butterflies and the amazing colour of the small copper butterfly whose larvae usually feed on sorrel leaves.

Small heath
Small heath

With the slopes facing the sun in the afternoon the area seems to attract insects.

The pathway leads us slowly down a gentle slope, through shaded areas and open chalky meadows and eventually back to the starting point.

Weather conditions earlier in the year, the previous year and around the time of your own visit influence butterfly numbers and diversity – so select your visit date carefully and try again in a few weeks’ time – you may well encounter new species.

Female, brimstone.

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/mottisfont/features/butterflies-at-stockbridge-down

Snelsmore Common

Snelsmore Common. May – June.

David Beeson

Lowland heaths are not common habitats. Over 80% of the lowland heathland in the UK has disappeared in just 200 years. The New Forest’s 10,000ha is the most extensive area remaining in Europe. Snelsmore Common, near Newbury in the M4 Corridor, is a small patch of heather-dominated environment.

Free-draining, surface gravel or sandy soils allow water to pass through easily, carrying any soluble minerals deep into the soil profile. Sometimes the iron in that water, in anaerobic conditions, forms an impermeable iron-pan (layer) beneath the surface that inhibits water passing deeper and the whole area may become waterlogged, especially in winter when rainfall exceeds evaporation. Hence, the place can be dry in summer and very wet in winter – generating an unusual mix of conditions that few plants can tolerate. This happens at Snelsmore, and the effect is increased by a second impermeable layer of clay beneath the iron-pan.

Iron pan working well! Early in the year.

With any mineral nutrients easily washed out of the gravel-enriched soil, and a wet environment, it is little surprise that the vegetation, and subsequently the animal life, is quite exceptional. This is a place where daisy, dandelion and their friends are unlikely to be seen. Heathlands are environmentally very special places and ones to be treasured.

Heathers, especially ling, dominate heathlands but here we will also see two other types: the locally uncommon, dry heath specialist, bell heather and the wet-loving cross-leaved heath. They are all in full flowers in August and September. Other heath plants, such as the ground hugging bilberry and the prickly gorse, thrive here too.

Wet winter.

An all-weather path leads me through a gate that keeps the Dartmoor and New Forest ponies from escaping their designated home. These animals have a good life, being free to wander and graze or browse as their mood takes them. To ensure an even more perfect existence they have supplementary hay in winter. The question is: why are they here at all? They are not natives and Snelsmore is an important wildlife reserve. Even a quick look around will alert everyone to the problem: birch and gorse regeneration. Heaths are not fully natural; they are human-made by hundreds of years of domestic animal grazing. ‘Commons’ were communal lands open for anyone to graze their cattle, pigs or horses, to collect firewood and to harvest heather for thatching. With the demise of commoners, the previously intensively-cropped land changed – it started to go through a succession of plants: heather slowly replaced by young gorse and birches, leading eventually to a closed woodland and the death to the heathers. Woodland can soon develop from heathland and with it the loss of all its unique wildlife. Heathers are plants of open skies. They need full sunlight and shade kills them and all the beetles, bees and other creatures they support with their pollen, nectar and greenery.

The ponies, by their nibbling, help to stop succession. Even so, you’ll see that humans have still be used to help by cutting down young birches by the hundreds. Birch seeds, released in their millions, are very effective in producing more birches.

Beyond the gateway there is a contrast in vegetation: a mixed wooded grove to the left and more-open heathland to the right. The difference in ground flora is clear. Woodland and open heathland are very different in the plants they can support.

Smooth-barked beech, silvery white birches and the grey, crumpled trunked oaks are all to be seen to my left. Sweet chestnuts too, but almost no greenery thrives at ground level.

The nesting box has been protected from greater spotted-woodpeckers with a metal protector. Without that, there is a high chance the nestlings would have been reached by the predator enlarging the entrance hole. Result: baby great tits being fed to young woodpeckers. Of course, many free-nesting birds will lose their young to various meat-eaters, yet these nestlings should be safer.

Research by the University of Oxford into the lives of great tits has shown that many baby birds are killed and consumed by weasels. I have watched stoats climbing trees in search of bird food. Elsewhere, where pine martens occur (E.g. Scotland, Central Wales and The New Forest), they too eat many birds.

The ground along the edge of this pathway was saturated in early April, with the water stopped from percolating deep down into the underlying chalk by both the iron-pan and the clay layer. Now, later in the year, those pools have mostly been evaporated away and oxygen can again reach the heather’s (ling) roots.

Poor old ling! At one time it has to survive with no oxygen reaching its roots and surrounded by water, the next month being dried out by a hot sun and desperate for moisture. Such is life on the heath and why these specialist plants are found almost nowhere else.

  Scientific name Ecology Leaves Flowers
Ling Calluna vulgaris Heathland Small Pale purple
Bell heather Erica cinerea Driest heathland Irregular lengths Crimson-purple
Cross-leaved heath Erica tetralix Damp areas In fours Pink

It’s worth looking closely at all there three heathers. Here you will almost certainly be studying at ling. I’d describe it as a small shrub with miniscule tough leaves (2 or 3 mm long and in pairs). The rolled nature of the leaves reduces water loss. It is a species well adapted to the bone-dry soils of summer. Below ground, the plant’s roots are infected with a fungus (mycorrhiza) that is vital in helping the plant secure minerals and water. The ling receives water and minerals, the fungus is donated sugar from the heather in a mutual exchange.

Microscope section of ling leaf TS

Ling’s shoots are the food of the grouse (not found here), also both the adult and larva of the heather beetle (Lochmaea suturalis) and of a number of Lepidoptera species feed on the plant, notably the small emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia). The nectar feeds myriads of bees and moths in late summer.

Heather beetles

Gorse (Ulex europaeus), sometimes called whin, catches the eye. Its bright yellow flowers and delightful coconut aroma make it a popular plant … so long as one does not pick it. It is armed with leaves modified into vicious spines. All the better to stop both browsing and water loss. It is a shrub that thrives in poor soils where its nitrogen-fixing capacity helps it survive.

Gorse is a valuable plant for wildlife, providing dense thorny cover ideal for protecting bird nests. In Britain it is particularly noted for supporting Dartford warblers (Sylvia undata) and stonechats (Saxicola rubicola); the common name of the whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) attests to its close association with gorse.

While management here, until now, has not used burning, gorse is adapted to withstand fires, having seed pods that are to a large extent opened by fire, thus allowing rapid regeneration after they are consumed. Burnt stumps also readily sprout new growth from the roots.

Folklore says you should only kiss your beloved when gorse is in flower. The good news is that either common gorse is pretty much in bloom whatever the time of year! In fact, a few yellow flowers can generally be seen even in harsh winter months.

Soon I spot some climbing honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), also known as woodbine. Another plant with a delightful scent that is designed not to delight our noses but to attract pollen distributing insects. At night the sweet smell of honeysuckle is strongest and attracts pollinating moths, such as the distinctive hummingbird hawk moth. Moths can detect the scent of honeysuckle a quarter of a mile away.

Honeysuckle sports near stalkless, oval leaves and a weak twining stem which is supported instead by its host tree or shrub. It bears clusters of red berries in the autumn that are attractive to birds (including thrushes, warblers and bullfinches), but whose seeds pass through their gut undigested and so are spread widely. (Mammals have teeth that can crush and destroy the seeds. Not so with birds.) I will not be chewing any berries as the seeds are mildly toxic to humans.

The white admiral butterfly is a mainly woodland species that relies specifically on honeysuckle. White admiral caterpillars exclusively feed on honeysuckle.

White Admiral

Why do larval white admiral butterflies only eat honeysuckle leaves?

Plants do not want their leaves eaten. They need them to carry out photosynthesis – the trapping of light energy into food energy.

You have a lock on your front door to stop thieves stealing your resources. But, do you have exactly the same key as all your neighbours? Surely not!

Plants protect their resources by making toxins (poisons) to fill their leaves, roots and flowers. If all plants used the same chemical protection, as soon as one organism had found a way to by-pass it they would all be eaten to nothing. Hence each plant type has its own type of toxin.

Small animals, such as the larva of the white admiral need to eat something. Happily for them, they’ve managed to evolve so that they can detoxify the poison in honeysuckle leaves. But can make no other toxins, as anti-toxins are mega-expensive to manufacture. So, they can only eat honeysuckle. Any other leaves would kill them.

Unfortunately, toxins are chemically expensive to make. Each plant can only afford one type.

Especially insect larvae are linked to one, or a small range of similar, food plants. Which is why everyone should grow some native plants in their gardens. British wildlife usually cannot eat exotic plants’ leaves. British plants support the local wildlife and it doesn’t really matter if there is an odd hole in a garden leaf*.

Foxgloves have a different poison to honeysuckle. Death cap fungus, rhubarb or deadly nightshade each have their own protective chemical.

How then do horses and deer cope? They eat a little of everything – so never should eat a lethal combination of plant poisons.

The scots pine is just one of three types of conifers that grow naturally in the UK. It can live up to 700 years, yet most trees here will not live much beyond 100. It is a flowering plant though you need to peer closely to spot the flowers. Male flowers comprise clusters of pollen-producing, yellow anthers at the base of shoots. Female flowers are small, red-purple and globular and grow at the tips of shoots. Flowering occurs in spring with the female structures taking two or three years to develop mature cones containing the seeds. Once the scales of the mature cone open the seeds are exposed to the air and are distributed.

The scots pine is excellent for wildlife. Lichens and mosses grow around and in the cracks on the trunk. Insects live in the tree’s crevices. Birds such as the siskin, greater spotted-woodpecker and crossbill can feed well around a scots pine. Often pine seeds are cached for later consumption, some being left to germinate if the bird dies or forgets that seed.

Mature birch trees abound along the track. It’s a mistake to see them as single plants. They and other trees are colonies of plants. Mosses coat the trunk to soil junction. Lichens and minute, single-celled algae cling to the bark giving it a green tinge; higher up other flowering plants or ferns may have rooted into the bark or at the junction of trunk and side branches. These colonisers are called epiphytes. Many of the trees have an and orange-red lichen epiphyte – called Xanthoria pariena. (You may see it on your own roof. It is a species that enjoys bird droppings.) Xanthoria produces spores from the darker-orange discs you may notice and, like all lichens, the organism is a mixture of both a fungus and an alga.

Having spotted one lichen, I see them everywhere on the trees lining the all-weather pathway. Most appear blue-grey, some encrust onto the branches and twigs, others appear leafy and those least tolerant to pollution look shrubby. They deserve to be better known as they have their own delicate beauty.

To my left, the heath opens out and I spot a second type of heather. It is growing in soil that remains soggy for much of the year. This location is so damp that the ling is easily out-competed by a species that seems to relish these conditions: Erica tetralix – with, as the name suggests, four grey-green leaves in a cross: the cross-leaved heath. The sticky, adhesive glands on its leaves, sepals and other parts of the plant are toxic, containing tannins and oils that discourage them from being eaten.

To survive in this situation the plant contains air cavities allowing the oxygen from photosynthesis to reach the roots (which, like all roots, need the gas to survive).

I’m always thankful I can recognise this plant because walking where it grows can be hazardous. A boot full of water and mud is seldom appreciated!

As my path turns to the right the extent of birch regeneration, despite the effect of horses and conservation teams, is obvious. Silver birch seedlings are tolerant of a wide range of conditions and their roots contain swellings rich in nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These micro-organisms can convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrate to enhance plant growth. Birch is, therefore, less reliant on soil minerals than many other species.

Grey birch-moth

The delicate grey birch moth (Aethalura punctulate) has a wingspan of 30-35 mm. It is a small organism with a mottled grey ground colour and three darker transverse lines. The adults fly in May and June, and frequent wooded habitats. Birch (Betula pendula) is the main foodplant of the larval stage, but occasionally the alder tree (Alnus glutinosa) is used. The adult, like virtually all animals of a similar design, feeds on nectar or sugars excreted by aphids. 

The birch mocha (Cyclophora albipunctata) with a smaller wingspan of 20-25 mm also has a larva that feeds on birch leaves. It occurs in woodland areas in much of Britain and flies in May and June, with a second generation in August.

Occasionally I can spot the signs of narrow tunnels winding around within the birch leaves (and more often holly leaves). These are the feeding trails of minute larvae that feed on the internal green cells of the leaf. Insects of this type are called leaf miners. A rare miner attacks Scots Pine cones early in their development – their pin-sized exit holes can sometimes be seen.

A full list of the insects feeding off birches would fill half a page, so the tree is important in the food chain. Management here at Snelsmore aims to keep its population low enough that it does not crowd out every other plant yet providing a habitat for organisms needing it. Extermination is not wanted.

By viewing the dominance of young birch trees growing in some locations it is easy to forget the bigger picture – a mature silver birch is a beautifully elegant tree with a black streaked trunk and dangling branches that float and dance in the wind. It is a stunner!

By using a light trap at night Snelsmore’s researchers have recorded hundreds of different night-flying moths, each with possibly only a single plant type providing food for the larval stage. The greater the diversity of plants the more varied are the moths encountered.

Apart from the imported horses and an occasional roe deer this heathland lacks many larger mammals. The reason becomes clear when the flow of energy through the plants and animals is studied. Of the 50,000 kJ* (about 10,000 Calories) of energy a square metre of heathland absorbed by photosynthesis each year about half is used by the plants to keep them alive. Of the remaining energy, which is passed down the food chain, 99% goes to the small organisms (decomposers) that break down their dead leaves, flowers and the like. Only 1% is passed to animals that directly eat the heather. So, unless an animal eats woodlice and other decomposers there is little food available here. Hence snakes, eating slow worms, lizards or amphibians, will always be rare.

*The valley mires (bogs) here are even less efficient at trapping sunlight. They probably only capture 13,000 kJ. A UK forest will absorb at least twice as much energy as the dry heath heathers at Snelsmore and four times more than the mire vegetation.

Snakes need friends; their numbers are declining rapidly across the UK. I have carried out some basic research into adders on an RSPB reserve. They are timid creatures and maintain their distance from humans, horses and dogs – if allowed. They deserve their place on Earth and only eat a handful of, mostly, reptiles each year. If you spot a black and white male or an olive female enjoy their company and leave them alone. They’ll do the same to you.

A friend was filming ‘Serpents’ Secrets’ for the BBC. He needed to capture wild adders for the production. Most of them had shotgun pellets embedded in them. Shooting adders is illegal. Humans can be objectionable.

During the filming he had to lie down in his home-made snake pit to capture their activities at ground level. One female managed to evade the cycle clips holding is trousers tightly to his legs … she went up inside and rested for quite some time on his backside! He lived to tell the tale.

Research has been carried out here, at Snelsmore, on their adders. They have been radio-tracked. The results showed that the males travel around much more than the sedentary females. With their sensitive nature it is important to stick to the accepted pathways and to control any dogs that accompany you. Snakes are important components of this area.

Grass snakes, olive-skinned reptiles with normally a yellow neck collar, also occur on the site. They can be larger than the adders.

The trackway takes me back to the car park … but I cannot resist investigating one of the valley mires.

Beneath my feet, near the edge of the mire, the ground feels flexible. By jumping, I can even feel the vibrations on landing. It is as if the very soil beneath my feet is alive. And, I’m not too far from the truth.

With a waterlogged soil any fallen or dead vegetation hardly decays at all. It forms deep black peat. It is this water-filled organic component that can vibrate. But, beware … on a field trip to the New Forest an adult, who had been warned and should have known better, decided to run across an area similar to that before me. It took us nearly twenty minutes to extract him from being waist-deep in the mire.

The way to take a vertical soil sample is to screw an auger down, pull it out and this allows one to view the profile of the site. If this was tried here the auger would go straight down and, if one was careless, it would be lost forever. The ‘soil’ is pure peat and hold no firmness when wet.

Auger

The soils on Snelmore are acidic. So acidic that the growth-promoting minerals (nutrients) in the soil have been solubilised and washed out, leaving a poor soil barely capable of encouraging plant growth. Nitrates will be at a low level, so some plants have taken drastic steps to gain some more – they have evolved into carnivorous plants. The round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) is a small, red-looking, summer plant found in these peat-rich wet soils of the mire.  By looking closely, I can see that some of their hairy red leaves bear shiny droplets onto which insects stick. Once the prey is secured the leaves curl up and digest their prey with enzymes (similar to the ones our bodies employ on a chunk of steak). The digested insect is absorbed and its chemicals used for the plant’s growth.

There is a range of other native UK plants that also extract nutrients from animal prey – other species of sundews, butterworts and bladderworts.

Mires can grow slowly deeper as their peat develops. They can be up to 9m deep. With the anaerobic, wet and acidic conditions the dead plants (especially the sphagnum mosses) and materials such as pollen, fail to break down fully. That is what we call peat. By taking a vertical core out of the mire and extracting the still recognisable pollen grains, it is possible to chart the changes in plant populations in that area over time. The key being that under the microscope pollen from different species can usually be identified.

Each year, for thousands of years, the pollen produced by the local plants has fallen into the mire and been preserved there. The deeper we sample the older the pollen. Indeed, the age of this pollen can be dated to within 100 years. This depends on the fact that Carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of carbon, was absorbed into its structure and this decays at a known rate. It is possible to estimate when the pollen was deposited in Snelsmore’s mire.

Mires hold an accurate chronicle of the past environment.

Soon after the ice departed from Southern England birch trees arrived. Their pollen can be first dated to around 9000BC. As the tree cover was cleared by humans for agriculture the birch pollen decreased and was replaced by grass pollens. That generally occurs around 1500BC. The date for Snelsmore is much later – indicating that the soils here were known to be poor agricultural land and clearance occurred much more recently.

By looking around where there is a slope from dry heath to mire it is easy to see a change in the plants. Those species adapted to dryer conditions fade out as the dampness increases and wet-loving specialists take over.

Within the mire are pools. These support their own wildlife, including some beautiful dragonflies and developing fly larvae.

It’s all to easy to see the wildlife in a place like Snelsmore. A mature wildlifer will look beyond that and see the inter-relationships. Take one organism away and the rest of the jigsaw will inevitably change.

We must strive to protect not only places but individual species.