Sunday, 10 February 2013

Impossible dragonflies

It’s impossible to imagine dragonflies dancing over the water here as I look through icy reeds to a frozen Great Pond. But in July and August the air will throng with damsels and dragons hunting on the wing – for food and mates.

A snow-laden dragonfly sculpture on the pond margins reminds me that summer belongs here too.
The charcoal grey branches of an oak tree outlined in snow look more like a woodcut artwork than a living tree. Snow plays strange tricks with perception.
Snow has turned the jumbled shapes, textures and colours of a winter meadow into a stark monochrome landscape. The Common is all simplicity now: bare architecture of trees, clean white slopes. We followed the deep slots left by the hooves of roe deer, trusting them to pick a safe route through the drifts, forgetting their light-footedness and ability to leap yawning ditches.
I paused by a scrub island where adders bask in early spring, warming their bodies after a long winter sleep. Moss and bushes hide their hibernaculum underground. They must be coiled around one another now, among the roots of dormant vegetation, deep in suspended animation.

And finally we went to pay homage to a favourite veteran oak and see how it was faring in the whiteout. We found it full of character as ever. Anyone who can walk past without stopping to admire it has lost the sense of nature’s grandeur.

This beautiful Common - all mine to enjoy!

Friday, 11 January 2013

DON'T stone the crows

If you want to watch wildlife, you probably won’t drive to a giant supermarket car park on the urban fringes of London. As you park there to load up with your weekly shop, it's easy to overlook the avian spectacle flapping around your feet. Not just a wildlife spectacle but a miracle of adaptation.

Sainsbury’s megastore on the London side of Epsom is home to scores of crows. Now you’re disappointed: crows! Those horrible black scavengers, common as muck and mythologised as harbingers of doom– even associated with the devil in medieval times. Collectively, they’re known as a “murder” of crows. In Van Gogh’s last and darkest painting, the crows gathering among storm clouds on a black horizon are omens of doom. 
But if you share my interest in wildlife behaviour, pause by your car for a few moments to watch them next time you go shopping. I’ve long been fascinated by the way these crows, one of our most intelligent and adaptable birds, have created a perfect habitat for themselves in a massive car park – a human cityscape ironically symbolic of everything we are doing to harm the natural environment.

High rise lamps provide the perfect lookout to survey the site for battles and feeding opportunities. Car roofs and trolleys put the crows nearer the ground to scout for scraps of food, while keeping them safe from traffic, and the pavement outside the store front is a tablecloth covered with sticky wrappers, sandwich crusts and crumbs dropped by snacking shoppers. Think what they save Sainsbury's in litter removal...

The supermarket has thoughtfully planted some trees among the parking aisles, shading windscreens from the sun in summer and helping to re-oxygenate a large outdoor fume cupboard. But they’re good for perches too – just high enough to escape from a tetchy shopper – and there are some of those about.

Behind the car park is a long screen of mature trees whose branches hold a sizeable roost. The colony is so large in winter that I thought they must be rooks, but no, they are indeed carrion crows, Corvus corone.
I spent a couple of hours watching and photographing the Sainsbury's colony ("murder" is such a loaded term) in their most urban of habitats. And, as I did, I felt a growing sense of thankfulness that at least some wild creatures are able to adapt and thrive in our tarmac towns. None of these species is universally popular: crows, foxes, grey squirrels, rats and pigeons are often lumped together under the term “vermin” – a word I refuse to admit into my personal dictionary (unless we accept homo sapiens as “environmental pest-in-chief”. And look at the photo below: what a bird with attitude!

Imagine if there were no wild creatures capable of exploiting urban habitats…Our towns and cities would feel so empty. 

I’ve spent fruitless hours googling the phrase “Stone the crows”, an expression of surprise or annoyance, and I can’t find an adequate explanation of how it acquired this meaning and usage. When farming was a widespread occupation, children were employed to throw stones at crows stealing crops. I can easily understand that the arrival of crows in fields ripe for harvest would have been annoying, but surely not a great surprise!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Best laid traps of mice and men

bank voles like jumpers
Mid-November is no time to be surveying the British countryside for small mammals. Especially when it involves setting and checking humane traps before dawn and after dusk around the marshy edge of a lake, in waterlogged clay. And when you’re looking for our tiniest (and rather elusive) mammal: the harvest mouse. Probably in the wrong place.

Mr Amiable
There are compensations, undoubtedly. The midday trapping shift brings sunshine and bank voles, smaller cousins of the watery variety immortalised as “Ratty” in Wind in the Willows, and surely our most amiable little furry critter. Most will happily sit in your hand, nestle into a jumper, or even crawl into your hair, posing patiently for photographs.

Susy loves voles
Woodmice prove the most frequent visitors to our traps, so much more wriggly and bitey and almost impossible to photograph unless you’re happy to settle for a brownish blur with whiskers. I have to admit to a soft spot for them, though. They are feisty little beasts, adaptable and determined survivors in our degraded countryside.
Field vole, darker with v short tail
In case you’re alarmed by all this talk of trapping, let me assure you that each creature is handled expertly and minimally, before being returned to the spot where it was found – in one piece. A few decades ago it was common practice to clip off selected toes of small mammals in order to recognise re-captures. Thankfully, this is now illegal.

I could write an entire post about the different types of traps we use, but I can already sense you reaching for the mouse (no pun intended) to click away to another site. Suffice to say that volunteers – yes, we’re not even being paid for this – are perfectly happy with Longworth traps. 

Help! I'm not the target species
Trip traps, allegedly favoured by harvest mice - though we never had the chance to find out - are cheap smoked plastic constructions which look to me like a family-sized toothbrush holder. They require a daub of sticky bait supplied to us in the form of peanut butter mashed up with maggots and seed – perhaps worth marketing as a sandwich filler. (It has to taste better than the “sandwich spread” my mum put in my packed lunches for school).

hair vole
But whoever designed the Sherman trap deserves serious retribution in another life, perhaps reincarnation as a woodmouse. Very like an Ikea flat pack with instructions only in Swedish, but all on a miniscule scale, it takes true determination to assemble in the dark with wet, cold fingers, by the light of a headtorch.
Susy & Alison at work

A big thank to the Surrey Wildlife Trust and their volunteers: Jo, Emma, Sheila and Nicky, who travelled to the Common from far and wide to help us out.

So, harvest mice, I hope to meet you on the Common one day and admire your golden fur, feather-light body and prehensile tail, unique among British mammals. But I think you had the last chuckle this time…
harvest mouse nest?
Afterword: Having penned this post, I went for a sunny walk on the Common this afternoon and found what I think is an abandoned harvest mouse nest on another part of the Common… Just too maddening!

Friday, 9 November 2012

Autumn on the Common

tunnel of light
The Common is preparing for its long winter sleep – already waterlogged this autumn and very short on acorns, crab apples, hazelnuts and berries, which birds and small mammals rely on through the coldest months.

I ventured out into autumn sunshine after an absence of several weeks and my spirits lifted immediately as I approached the tunnel of light leading to my favourite stretches of wood pasture. It felt quiet and lonely without the grazing cattle, returned to the farmyard for winter, and the bush  where adders like to bask was abandoned.

woodmouse nest
But in the wildwood corner where we sited our dormouse nest boxes there were abundant signs of woodmice: boxes crammed full with dry brown oak leaves, and in one a family of four popping out of the back, one by one. They’re not fussy about who the boxes were designed for, just happy to make do with whatever shelter is available. Perhaps that’s why they’re so successful.

des res for dormice
A few days later, after a heavy frost, I found a very torpid adder snatching a few weak rays of sunshine before hibernation. He was like a stubborn child refusing to accept it was bedtime even though he was clearly cold and tired - so sluggish, I could easily have picked him up if I’d been feeling stupid.

torpid male adder
Our hot dry spring in March, followed by thewettest summer on record and a similarly drenched autumn, has been disastrous for most fauna and flora. Frogs found empty ponds when they wanted to spawn; many bats and dormice failed to gain enough weight to breed; songbird broods perished in torrential rain; it was too wet for bees to pollinate fruiting trees; butterflies foundered.

amethyst deceiver
Fungi, though, are having a ball in the sodden ground. The meadow margins are festooned with vivid colours, peculiar textures and weirder shapes, most of them nibbled by hungry mice. The amethyst deceiver dazzles me every time with the depth of its colour, its delicate shape and exquisite curvy gills. You would think from the name that it contains deadly poison – but no, it’s very edible.

fungi on dead log
A local fungi expert gives sound advice for an amateur forager keen to avoid poisoning herself: “Don’t eat anything with gills”. There are more than 4,000 species of fungi in Surrey alone, most with variable colours and forms and some extremely hard to tell apart, even by mycologists.


Friday, 13 July 2012

Rain cows

Blondie giving me a broad smile as he tucks into young willow

This year anyone could be forgiven for thinking it's raining cows, not just cats and dogs. Yesterday I set off under a steady drizzle to check our conservation grazing herd on the Common. This involves walking the fence line of three separate meadows to confirm it's all intact - we don't want cows escaping onto nearby roads - as well as counting the cattle in each area and making sure they're all in good health, and checking their troughs are full.

betony in Rye Meadow
The cows displayed a bovine indifference to rain. Their coats have an oily waterproof sheen and water falling from the sky wasn't going to deter them from eating and digesting the green riches around them. This is a 24-hour a day job for them and their dedication to it is admirable. Perhaps if I stop washing my hair, it too will develop a waterproof layer of oil, but friends and family might complain about the smell...

Horton Heath steer tackling trees

Under the rain, which grew steadily heavier over the next two-and-a-half hours, I viewed the countryside as a green smudge around me, with somewhat blurry edges. A bit like some of my photographs, but bear with me, it was raining, the cows were moving, and I was desperately trying to keep my camera dry.

Pincushion gall on Horton Heath

Despite the weather, I felt a deep contentment. The rain had driven away all other human disturbances - even the dog-walkers had gone home - and I had the Common and it's wildlife all to myself. Incredibly, a few butterflies were on the wing: brown ringlets. Later I read, in a doom-laden article about butterflies in trouble in this wettest of summers, that ringlets (and speckled woods) like damp conditions.

Roebuck by the fence in Rye Meadow

water figwort

In Rye Meadow, my favourite piece of pasture, I spotted a roebuck lying beside the electric fence right out in the open. As I approached like a child playing grandmother's footsteps, I began to fear that its determination to stay put was a sign of injury, but at the last moment it bounded away.

This part of the Common resisted the plough during the wartime "dig for victory" campaign, unlike our main grazing area, and it has retained a diverse seedbank of wildflowers, rushes, sedges and grasses. It was cleared of secondary woodland just two to three years ago and, with sunlight striking the ground again for the first time in decades, the seeds germinated. Yesterday I found water figwort and betony in flower.

In deep cover in the main grazing area
I didn't notice how wet and tired I was until I got home...

ps We don't normally give our cows names but Blondie seemed an obvious choice for the only white one. They belong to a local farmer and are destined for the table eventually. At least they enjoy one of the best summers a cow could wish for on the Common. And as dairy steers, most of their peers are killed at birth: males don't give milk and their breeding makes their muscles unsuited for prime cuts.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Kaleidoscope fritillaries

Marsh Fritillary - male

Finglandrigg Wood sounds like a setting from Lord of the Rings or one of the Icelandic sagas, but the reality is even more magical. It is among four sites chosen in Cumbria to re-introduce the marsh fritillary butterfly after it reached the brink of extinction in the county around the millenium. I made a round trip of 100 miles to reach it from our Lakeland cottage.

“Kaleidoscope” is one of several collective nouns for butterflies but it suits the marsh fritillary perfectly. Its latin name, Euphydryas aurinia, roughly translates as “golden floating checkerspot”.

The site, managed by Natural England, has a magic of its own. In the lay-by where I parked, I bumped into another butterfly enthusiast from Norfolk (again!), who explained in detail the mile-long trail I needed to follow to find the butterflies and assured me they were flying in dozens and much easier to photograph than the elusive mountain ringlets. With my hopeless sense of direction, I might easily have missed them altogether without his instructions, despite the helpful butterfly waymarks.

With rising anticipation, like a child on Christmas Eve, I walked first through dappled woodland, across a stream humming with damsels and dragons, through a gate into boggy heathland dotted with grazing cattle. There was a sign warning of adders and I thought to myself, “Can it get any better?” but sadly it was already too warm for basking reptiles. Then I came to a buttercup meadow, a splash of gleaming yellow in the sun, possibly the most splendid buttercup meadow I’ve ever seen.

Beyond that another field, damp grassland and suddenly the kaleidoscope started spinning. The word “fritillary” comes from the latin “fritillus” – dice box. Romans kept their dice in boxes with an inlaid chequered pattern, just like the wings of the butterflies named after them.

The Marsh fritillaries flitted from one clump of damp grass to another, undefeated by a strong gusting breeze in their mission to find a mate. The foodplant of their larvae is devil’s bit scabious, not yet in flower when I visited in late May.  In summer the black caterpillars live gregariously on webs spun across it. When I stopped in nearby Kirkhampton to buy some lunch, the shopkeeper told me that local children had been planting devil’s bit scabious for the butterflies – “to help them come back”.

After a few photographs, I sat down in the damp grass to marvel at the marsh fritillaries’ checkerboard orange, almost red and creamy yellow wings, separated by a fat furry body. A mating pair landed on a tussock beside me – the male larger with broadly open wings, the female fluttering her wings closed from time to time. The male walked them, oblivious, onto my hand.

The story of their reintroduction to Cumbria is worth retelling, though you can find it in more detail on the website of Butterfly Conservation’s Cumbria Branch. At one time there were some 200 colonies of marsh fritillary in Cumbria but by the year 2000 they had dwindled to three and four years later were facing extinction in the county. The situation continued to worsen despite attempts to manage their habitats carefully to suit their needs. Conservationists found just one egg batch on the last site in 2004.

The Cumbria Marsh Fritillary Action Group brought together decision makers from Butterfly Conservation, Natural England and Defra, and thanks to a very supportive individual at Natural England gained a licence within a single day to take the last 150 larvae into captivity. Several reasons for the drastic decline were considered: loss of habitat as marginal land was brought into farming production, too much shading from trees on field edges, parasitic wasps which attack the caterpillars in waxing and waning cycles, and genetic weakness in the isolated and tiny colony.

One of the all-important grazers
Three batches of larvae were raised in captivity, one pure Cumbrian, one from colonies in Argyll and one a mixture of the two. The results suggested that genetic weakness was the problem as none of the pure Cumbrian stock successfully emerged as adults. By 2007 45,000 caterpillars of mixed Scottish and Cumbrian heritage had been reared and four sites were prepared for their release. Butterfly conservationists learnt a great deal from the process.

Finglandrigg, 13 km west of Carlisle on the Solway plain, is the only site open to the public, and what a site it is – not just for the fritillaries. It also counts red squirrels, brown hares, badgers, otters, roe deer, many species of dragon and damselflies and warblers among its residents.

Needless to say, the marsh fritillary is one of the UK’s fastest declining butterflies, though it is also found in Argyll, the west coast of Ireland and Wales and the English Westcountry. But the success of the Cumbrian reintroduction shows just how much a handful of dedicated naturalists can achieve. I owe them a debt of thanks: they made my heart soar.


Friday, 22 June 2012

Mountain ringlet

Mountain ringlet

Why do we love butterflies and dragonflies above all other insects? I think it has something to do with the way they embody the fleeting nature of extreme beauty.

A few weeks ago I visited the Lake District, in what must have been it’s annual week of warmth and sunshine. To me this was an invitation to seek out two rare species of butterfly which don’t exist on my home patch in the South East. Partly inspired by Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles, I decided to set out on a lepidoterous quest (lepidoptera, "scaly-winged insects", hardly does justice to these creatures.)

Mountain ringlet, the first species in my sights, seemed easy enough. The Cumbrian branch of Butterfly Conservation identifies a super-colony on Irton Pike, just up the road from where we were staying. We were a few days early for its annual emergence, but the weather had been warm and sunny for a few days. Sure enough, as we reached the top of the hill we started to see little dark brown butterflies dancing across the Fell and a few settled just long enough for us to see the red spots on their wings.

My partner chasing butterflies on Irton Pike

We met another butterfly enthusiast from Norfolk, also on their trail, who pointed us to the best areas to see them among the mat grass, the foodplant of their caterpillars. Soon we were seeing dozens, but they were far too flighty and fast to photograph clearly. My partner and I must have looked pretty mad chasing them up and down the fell, stumbling over tussocks and into boggy pockets.

Small heaths and green hairstreaks – something of a rarity in Surrey – were everywhere, but we had little time to stop and photograph them.

Mountain ringlet on my fingers
A couple of days later, I returned on a cooler overcast morning, on the hunt for torpid mountain ringlets hiding in the long grass. And my patience was rewarded. Having far less energy to fly, they posed for photographs from all angles and a couple even crawled onto my hand, as I sat in the grass, admiring them.

“Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quiety, may alight upon you.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, 19th century American writer.

Since returning to Surrey, I’ve learnt just how lucky we were to enjoy this bountiful sighting. Many butterfly enthusiasts with decades of experience have never seen a mountain ringlet. By visiting a super-colony on a warm, sunny day we had obviously boosted our chances significantly.

Mountain ringlet in mat grass

As the UK’s only alpine butterfly, the mountain ringlet lives at high altitudes on exposed sites, and emerges in small batches during its flight season – no doubt an evolutionary adaptation to increase the chances of at least one batch catching some fine weather. Individuals live for just a few days; it must be at least 15 degrees Celsius for them to fly and no hotter than 23.  The species is only found in the highlands of Scotland and a few pockets in the Lake District. As our climate warms, it is pushed further and further up the hillside, until eventually (scientists fear), it will run out of mountain to climb.

The view from Irton Pike towards Wast Water

Butterfly Conservation predicts that the mountain ringlet will be extinct in Britain by the 2050s (largely due to global warming). In the words of Peter Marren, author of Bugs Britannica, “this modest brown butterfly has at last achieved a kind of melancholy fame as a victim of climate change and an icon of the fragility of life in a rapidly changing world.”

Read about the second species, the marsh fritillary, in my next blog.

With thanks to the Cumbrian branch of Butterfly Conservation for their help in finding these beauties during my visit and for looking after them and their habitats.