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It’s a garden, so yes there were flowers. Spectacular blooms, interesting forms, a multicultural mix of plants from over much of the world.

But it wasn’t the flowers themselves which grabbed our attention this time. It was the insects, burgeoning biodiversity benefitting from the floral resources, and repaying the debt with pollination and pest control, sprinkling the garden with stardust for anyone with an eye to see and appreciate them. No names here; indeed, we don’t even know some of them. But names are not the point: what is important is that they are here, delighting us, inspiring us, and doing their jobs.

This unpaid army of garden workers, not just bumblebees and honeybees, but solitary bees and wasps, sawflies, beetles, lacewings and a whole lot more are all too easily overlooked and ignored. And abused.

 

So it is good to hear that there are changes underway in the garden management phlosophy and practice at Beth Chatto’s. A trend away from over-tidiness and manicuring. No more slug pellets. Progressive reduction in the use of sprays, those poisons which now drench our world and threaten its life-blood. Step by step, every step of the way is one more step on the road to a sustainable future. All it needs is a more relaxed mindset: there may be some holes in the Hostas, shredding of the Solomon’s–seal,  but think of those as natural art installations, a badge of honour instead of a sign of ungardenerliness….

Would Beth have approved? Maybe, maybe not. She did of course come from a very different gardening era, when perhaps it seemed that it didn’t much matter what was done in the garden because there was abundant wildlife out there in the countryside. But no longer: as the wild world outside has become more and more depauperate, so have gardens assumed an increasing role as a haven for the little things that make the world go round. So thank you Beth Chatto Garden for moving with the times, and stepping up into your role as inspiration for gardens of the future.

 

 

 

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Another successful Naturetrek tour to my ‘second home’, Berdún in the Spanish Pyrenees, with again the main focus being the lepidopteran delights, both by day and by night. While the number of butterfly species may have been a little lower than in previous years (see here), perhaps a legacy of the 40-degree plus inferno the week before we arrived, and the fact that we had a thundery breakdown towards the end of our stay, the abundance of many species was as high, if not higher, than in previous years. And anyway, who can complain at 105 species and counting, as the images of puzzling puddling blues, skippers and fritillaries are worked through?

As ever, the garden meadow at Casa Sarasa was heaving with butterflies – probably 25 species over the week – with Marbled Whites, Spanish Gatekeepers, Clouded Yellows and Great-banded Graylings especially numerous – together with a frantic band of pollinators working the Scabious, Knapweed and Chicory from dawn ’til dusk.

[click any image to enlarge to full size]

By night as well: five nights’ trapping, when weather conditions permitted, produced a very respectable list, with some stand-out highlight moths and other denizens of the night. And for the first time in four years we were not ‘plagued’ by thousands of Pine Processionaries. Either we missed the peak emergence, or local control schemes are having an effect.

It would almost have been possible to fill the week effectively without leaving Berdún. But as daytime temperatures peaked at 37°C, the prospect of ten degrees or more cooler at higher altitudes was a good enough reason in itself to chase up the higher mountain specialities.

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This month’s Walks on the Wild Side were explorations of some of our town’s amenities, which are there on the face of it for us humans to use and benefit from.  However, thanks to now-sympathetic management from Wivenhoe Town Council, each of these is enhanced by the proliferation of wildlife that has been allowed to move in, bringing enjoyment to anyone who takes the time to stand and look.

First up, the Old Cemetery in Belle Vue Road.  This ancient burial ground had for years benefitted from adherence to a Management Plan which prescribed mowing half of it in alternate years, which kept the vegetation under control whilst allowing refuges for over-wintering insects.  Until, however, a few years ago when incredibly the decision was taken to destroy the rhythm of the place and clear the lot in one fell swoop.  Bare and barren,  Mother Nature responded with vigour, and while still not properly back in rotation, in time, assuming the agreed plan is adhered to, this will return to the peaceful and beautifully untidy place that most of us love.

What did we see?  Well some insects are certainly more in your face than others!.  Butterflies were showing off, whizzing around in the warmth – several species of ‘Browns’ (Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Ringlet), plus Small White and various Skippers.

Damselflies darted about and grasshoppers and Speckled Bush-crickets hopped out of our way as we walked around.  Our old favourites the Hogweed Bonking-beetle and Thick-thighed beetle were hanging about in various poses on a multitude of flowers.  The Bramble, a plant which soon takes over if unchecked, is at this time of year a very valuable source of nectar and was veritably humming with bees and hoverflies.

Some insects, however, are more secretive and can only be noticed by careful searching.  The weeny Virgin Bagworm moth spends its whole life in a little lichen-covered silken bag wedged into minute places –  the carvings on gravestones are ideal for their purpose.

A close inspection of tree trunks revealed a number of delights – a robber-fly tucking into his crane-fly lunch, a splendid plant-hopper Allygus mixtus, a fabulous little moth Dasycera oliviella, plus rather weirdly a mayfly, normally associated with water . 

A Least Carpet moth was in full view on a nearby bush, but, by using its clever disguise as a birdpoo, was almost invisible.  We observed Mrs Nursery Web spider carefully carrying her egg sac to somewhere safe and a Great Pied Hoverfly was enjoying the sun.

Of the plants, the prettiest flower was without doubt the tiny Scarlet Pimpernel, whilst in contrast the spectacular  Himalayan Pine with its amazing cones and long, gracefully drooping needle, was a statuesque example of the splendour of nature.

Next, over the road to the New Cemetery, where it was pleasing to see a new native hedge beginning to take shape on the boundary wall, plus patches where the grass had been allowed to grow up a bit, bringing forth a multitude of flowers with their resident butterflies and other insects.

So onward to our next destination, King George’s Field and the Wildlife Garden.  The field had two interesting areas to look at.  The central ‘seam’ halfway down has this year brought forth a couple of nationally scarce clovers.  Possibly due to last year’s severe drought, the bare scorched ground allowed the seeds of these plants to take hold.  Were they already in the soil, just waiting for the conditions to be right to allow germination, or did they arrive on someone’s boot?  We will never know.

Anyone visiting the field this summer, or last year, will have noticed the patch of ‘hay-meadow’.  The many and varied plants here have all appeared by themselves,  having waited patiently to spring forth once the previously punishing mowing regime was relaxed.  Numerous grasses, Black Knapweed and Lady’s Bedstraw were all looking fine, and again we were treated to butterflies dancing in the sunshine and beetles and flies waiting to be discovered.  Who said flies are black and boring – this little grass-fly was very cute!

The meadow will be mown at the end of the season  and the resultant hay used to provide seeds for other wildlife areas, eg patches of St Mary’s Churchyard where a wild area is also now taking shape.

Many of you will remember ‘GardenGate’ a few years ago when the Wildlife garden, having been lovingly created by locals, was virtually ruined by overzealous mismanagement.  Fortunately the Council stepped in to try and repair their damage  – another native hedge was planted to replace the one which was ripped out, and a more relaxed regime has now been adopted.  And of course the wildlife loves it.  A Heterotoma planicornis plant bug was one of the most interesting finds there, and we were all thrilled to see a number of dragonfly exuvia on reeds in the pond.  These are the empty cases of dragonfly nymphs which they leave behind having spent their first stage of life in the water.  They then crawl out, split their skin, find somewhere to pump up their wings and turn into the aerial acrobats that we all know and love.  It all seems pretty miraculous.

A final mention must be to our old favourite, the Stag Beetle.  We saw just the one, on the ground adjacent to the Wildlife Garden as she went about her business of the day.  Wivenhoe is an important hotspot for these amazing insects and anything we can do to assist them, such as allowing a woodpile to go undisturbed in your garden, is to be commended.

Thank you all who joined us, your observations and enthusiasm, and we hope that you enjoyed it as much as we did. If anyone feels moved to congratulate Wivenhoe Town Council on is estates management, the Town Clerk can be emailed at enquiries@wivenhoe.gov.uk.

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Lower Lodge keeps cropping up in these blogs – see here and here. No wonder: it is one of the most exciting places for summer wildlife in these parts, all the more exciting as much of that wildlife has moved in over the past ten years or so.

Farmed until the 1980s and now owned by Colchester Borough Council, until relatively recently it was all repeatedly mown throughout the summer. But now, as an integral part of the Colne Local Nature Reserve, the regime over substantial blocks of the site has been amended to mowing on a two or three year rotation. This is enough to control the incessant attempted colonisation by trees, and provide a rich floral mix which is a magnet for insects.

At this time of year, Hogweed stands proud from the grass heads, great horizontal plates of food – nectar and pollen – for vast numbers of flies, beetles and other insects.

Hogweed Bonking Beetles live up to their name, often multiple pairs per umbel, and with careful searching it is possible to find the deadliest of hoverfly predators, the crab spider Misumena vatia. Coming an a range of colour forms, they are likely to be most effective as hidden assassins on a background which matches their own colour closely.

Another of the valuable midsummer nectar sources is Field Scabious, attractive especially to butterflies and moths.

While the most frequent butterflies – Skippers, Meadow Browns, Ringlets and Gatekeepers – are variations on a theme of brown, some of the moths are a visual treat. Both Narrow-bordered Five-spot and Six-spot Burnets are warningly-coloured, indicating to potential predators their caterpillars may have been eating forms of Bird’s-foot-trefoil which contain the precursors for cyanide formation; those precursors can be carried through the process of metamorphosis making the moth toxic. Although I saw only Six-spots on my walk a couple of days ago, both species fly here together.

But the moth to beat them all for me is the Brassy Longhorn, which feeds as an adult on Scabious flowers, and as a caterpillar on the seeds and then the leaves of the same species. It may be tiny, but the brilliance of its metallic scales is such that it can be spotted at several metres’ range.

Very scarce in Essex (see the Essex Field Club distribution map), presumably largely due to the scarcity nowadays of grassland with Scabious in it, the presence of Brassy Longhorn here raises all sorts of questions. Particularly, how and when did it arrive? Under the former mowing regime, Scabious may have been present, but never allowed to flower, and there are very few, if any, other concentrations of Scabious locally which could have held a  relict population of the moth. As to when it arrived, having got all excited about the ‘first site record’ this year, I have just noticed that we had seen and photographed it for our 15 July blog last year, but not realised its significance!

Always more questions than answers in nature – that is one of the values of a place such as Lower Lodge, to inspire inquiry. It is a model of multifunctional green space, for recreation (both formal and informal), education, providing outdoor health benefits, and very importantly a home for wonderful wildlife. And a model which has inspired a similar relaxation of intensive mowing in other places, most notably a part of Wivenhoe’s King George V playing fields, which I will return to in future blogs.

In the meantime, just a few other images from late June at Lower Lodge:

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This June has seen several new and exciting British native plants appearing (to us, at least) in the vicinity of Wivenhoe. While not all locally native, each has a story to tell.

First up, Greg Smith was walking over the regularly mown section of the King George V playing field, and came upon a patch of Knotted Clover. When we returned a few days later, it was clearly the dominant plant over a whole swathe across the sloping field. And when we got on hands and knees to look at it, we also found patches of Subterranean Clover in the same area, the fewer-flowered heads of off-white rather than pale pink flowers. Both species are scarce locally, the former found as here on thin, acidic soils, the latter mainly in coastal turf.

Despite years of walking the field, neither of us had noticed either of them here before. The reason why may lie in the geology. The abundance of Sheep’s Sorrel in the same sward suggests a sandy or gravel lens lies just below the turf. Last summer’s drought burned off the vegetation across much of the field, presumably especially where the soil is most freely-draining: the bare ground thus created is ideal for the colonisation of annual clovers, whether from seed-bank or from a few hitherto unnoticed plants.

Then Richard Allen told me of a colony of Purple Gromwell he had seen again this year by Cutthhroat Lane, near Alresford. This is rare in Britain, believed to be native only in the far south-west, but occasionally found growing in the wild as a remnant or escape from cultivation. The Beth Chatto Garden for example grows and sells it.

Although Richard has seen purple gromwell here for a few years, no-one else seems to have noticed it, and I can find no previous records of its establishment in the wild in Essex. Although obvious when the flowers are out, it can easily blend into the scrub-edge vegetation for the rest of the year. As is so often the case, when looking for one particular  plant, others appear: just across the track, there was a flourishing population of Hoary Cinquefoil, a genuine local native but far from frequent, and again new to me in this locality.

And finally, almost literally on our doorstep, just 20m from our flat, we stumbled across Four-leaved Allseed growing as a colonist of cracks in the pavement around the Shipyard. And lots of it: I cannot believe we have overlooked this in the past, even though it isn’t much of a looker.

Another nationally scarce south-western plant, I have previously seen it only in Cornwall and Scilly. But it is evidently spreading – perhaps a result of climate change – now being quite widespread along the banks of the tidal Thames and with just a few other occurrences in north Essex.

The arrival of Four-leaved Allseed in Wivenhoe echoes another recent arrival on the West Quay, Jersey Cudweed, which first turned up abour three years ago and is now well established. Both are rare southern natives, often coastal, and neither is garden-worthy. So how did they get here? Maybe the movement of pleasure craft between ports is one possibility, or perhaps earlier than that the movement of bulk trader vessels, and the resulting introduction has been unnoticed until encouraged into abundance by climate change?

Whatever the reason, this month shows that nothing in the natural world is ever static. And maybe, just maybe, the diminutive but scarce Four-leaved Allseed will help persuade Trinity Estates to discontinue their regime of spraying the public space around their development with glyphosate several times a summer….although our previous pleas have always fallen on deaf ears. And indeed, just two days after I first wrote those words, there they were obliterating any bit of green that dares to try and soften the hard edges of ‘progress’.

Hopefully some of the Four-leaved Allseed will have survived, and we can build a campaign around it.

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Our first (non-working) trip to Bristol last week gave us much of what we were seeking – history, art, architecture, food and the warm feeling of a place so proud of its green credentials. But, in common with much of the rest of the country, also a lot of rain, which rather curtailed our wildlife hunting.

For just half a day the rain held off, although the skies remained stubbornly leaden. Time enough to walk up the Avon Gorge, underneath the magnificent Clifton Suspension Bridge, to ascend through Leigh Woods, cross the bridge and back into the city. No blue skies so the landscapes were muted, and we concentrated upon those inner wildscapes which can always be relied upon to brighten up a dull day.

First the plants. To find a Bee Orchid is always a thrill; the parasitic Ivy Broomrape which reveals its achlorophyllous splendours only at close range; and the all-too-easily overlooked details, the black, stalked glands on Hairy St John’s Wort, hidden from all but the hand lens or macro setting.

Insects too. Stilt-bugs were previously outside our experience, but here was Metatropis rufescens, its knobbly ‘knees’ continued as a design theme into the joint and the final segment of its antennae.

And best of all, Jude’s sharp eyes caught sight of a small red grape seed, rearing up at her: a Deer Tick questing, seeking a host on which to latch itself. But the tick is blind, so how did it know we were there? Carbon dioxide, warmth, vibration? Whatever, it knew, and left a dramatic impression in our minds as the rain set in once again….

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Things all got off to a rather inauspicious start – a poor cow got hit on the railway line and so our connection to Colchester (and onward to Cambridge) was in considerable doubt.  We debated whether to get a taxi (unavailable), bus (would take too long), or to rouse Helen’s husband from his slumber (it seemed a bit rotten), whilst Anita, already at Colchester, had been befriended by a helpful knight in shining railway-uniform and was relaying messages by text.  We decided that the most painless thing to would be to just abandon all hope of going and have a nice walk on Lower Lodge instead, until a shout of ‘All Aboard for Colchester’ rang out from the station master and we all broke into a sturry  (see The Meaning of Liff !) and managed to get all aboard just in time.  Our select group of local nature watchers (Pippa, Helen and Jenny), as well as us of course , eventually arrived at Colchester where Anita was calmly waiting.  We piled on to the train to Ipswich and set off, shaken but not stirred.

Cambridge was rather overcast and decidedly muggy, but all the same pretty good conditions for a Grand Day Out in the superb Botanical Gardens. First impressions from the group (most of whom had not visited before) was ‘WOW’.  Not only are these famous gardens an important centre for plant science and research, but are also beautifully laid-out and well-managed, showcasing plants typical of specific habitats e.g. chalk, dry, fenland, tropical and alpine, to name but a few.  Evidence of ‘managing with wildlife in mind’ was apparent- large swathes of grass left unmown for wildflowers to grow.  To use their blurb – “the Garden (is) a green oasis in the City that’s great for spotting wildlife’ and “ our wildlife friendly approach ensures that the Garden has an army of birds, insects and amphibians to help control pests and diseases.”

First stop was for a much needed coffee in the café where we also eyed up the lunch options.  We were then treated to an hour and a half’s walk lead by Chris, looking at some of the many interesting plants and insects.

Nearly everything seems to have a story  – the Birthwort, which due to the decidedly ‘gynaecological’ appearance of its flowers was thought to aid abortions; the Common Reed which the Devil took a dislike to, due to it being so perfect, and so bit into each leaf out of jealousy (each leaf has visible ‘tooth marks’);  the Broomrapes which need no chlorophyll to live as they parasitise other plants and get all their nutrients from them, hence they always look dead and brown even when fully alive.

So many of the plants we seemed to catch just at their right time: the beautiful Hoary Plantain in magnificent flower; fruits of the Hound’s-tongue; the fabulous spiky leaves of Henry’s Lime; and, once you look closely, the multi-coloured Wild Candytuft.

Insects were looking marvellous – just a few of our favourites – a male Thick-thighed Beetle; a new-to-us, tiny Bordered Shieldbug;  a Painted Lady butterfly (an immigrant butterfly at the moment very plentiful in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire); the Garden Chafer beetle; and the ubiquitous Harlequin Ladybird, a useful friend to gardeners as it ravenously devours aphids, though has also had bad press as it may have lead to the decline of a once-common species, the 2 spot ladybird.

The afternoon session, where we were joined by Annette,  a very keen naturalist and ‘moth-er’,  looked at some of the more specialised areas of planting and as the group went their separate ways, some of us had time for a quick tour of the glass houses before leaving.

We hope that everyone who came along enjoyed the Day Out – we certainly had fun and would like to thank the group for their enthusiasm, calmness in the face of traffic adversity, and wonderful company.

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Midsummer’s Day, and the garden is in full flow. At last the season has caught up with the calendar after a couple of relatively cool months, and spring is but a distant memory.

Now is the time for sweeping vistas of colour, but also more detailed plantscapes, celebrating the skill with which the garden display has been orchestrated.

And not forgetting the innerscapes of the plants themselves, the often surprising details of which are revealed by close up images.

The summer garden show-offs, Alstroemerias and Lilies for example, try to steal the show, but for at least for their evident value to nectar- and pollen-feeding insects, it is hard to beat (and even harder to walk quickly past) the Astrantias and Thalictrum.

So many insects, which way to turn? But speed was of the essence, as life was rushing by in the heat.

And where there are insects there are things that feed on them, valuable additions to the gardeners’ army of helpers in the control of what some may call pests.

As the water warms, so the lakes come into their own, with five species of dragonfly and damselfly seen in just an hour and a half.

And for the first time this year, butterflies in some abundance, with a total of ten species.

Lest we start to get maudlin, with the nights starting to draw in, at least the garden left me with a strong sense of the invertebrate riches to come, in the diverse forms of the nymphs of all sorts of late summer attractions. Nature has its way of healing both body and mind!

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A month after our first visit, and all has changed at Phyllis Currie. Cowslips and Green-winged Orchids, now no more than shrivelled remnants, have been replaced by Yellow-rattle and Southern Marsh-orchids in colourful swathes across the meadows.

And a whole lot more. Grass-vetchling has broken out of its grassy anonymity, its beautiful magenta flowers putting on their brief but welcome show, and Corky-fruited Water-dropwort has sent up white umbels. Both are scarce in Essex now with the loss of so much of this species-rich hay meadow habitat.

Down at the ponds, the Yellow Water-lilies are in full bloom.

Unfortunately the weather turned rather cool, breezy and damp on the day, so our insect-hunting was a little thwarted. It should have been just the right time of year for dragonflies and damselflies, but all we could muster were four species of damsel nestling in the vegetation.

Likewise, butterflies were sparse but moths included refugees from the night, like this Silver Ground Carpet, reliant for safety on its passing resemblance to a bird dropping…

…and several habitual day-fliers, including Cinnabar, Gold-banded Longhorn and one of the smallest moths in the world (and one of very few species that feeds on pollen as an adult), Micropterix calthella.

Most stunning though were several Alabonia geoffrella, an exquisitely -patterned micromoth of woodland edges.

Add to those a range of spiders, flies, bees, bugs and beetles:

And even when the weather was not suitable for a huge range of invertebrates, we could still add to the reserve list by recording galls, caused by rust fungi, gall-midges and mites on Sallow, Meadowsweet, Nettle and Field Maple, and a few caterpillars.

So far as we know yet, nothing seriously out of the ordinary in a county context, except for the fact that enclaves of this nature, rich in all kinds of everything, have largely been erased from our landscape, if not from our memories.

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Late May, and the gardens are burgeoning – flowers are flowering in abundance, insects and other visitors are active everywhere. And this year, the green bits are still green, such a contrast to last year when we were already in the grip of a severe drought. In fact this year overall the rainfall totals have been low, but there have been just enough downpours to keep the garden going. And with temperatures through May being on the low side, the flower colours set against the canvas of greens is simply vibrant. Feast your eyes on these, from plant panoramas ….

…to the finer details, the inner plantscapes:

It’s always a pleasure to see in the Beth Chatto gardens that the ‘gardeners’ curse’ of overtidiness doesn’t feature too much. While some may find long grass and dead flower heads unsightly, others – especially the insects and birds to which the garden is a home – don’t. Nature’s bounteous growth harbours food and provides shelter, all part of the natural ecology of the garden:

All of the insects and other invertebrates we found were exciting, but it was especially good to see the first emergence of Scorpion-flies of the summer. The males have the eponymous ‘scorpion tail’ although it contains no sting, just a genital capsule, but both sexes have a protruding snout with jaws located at its tip. Widely supposed to be an adaptation to extracting insects from spiders’ webs without alerting the owner, this is certainly not the whole story. For the first time ever, we found one feeding, its beak deep in the body of its hapless prey – a spider!

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