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Spring in WildWivenhoe, Part 3 – the ‘little white jobs’

My previous post took a look at some of the showier flowers appearing around Wivenhoe right now. But there are others, less showy and more of an acquired taste perhaps: the ‘little white jobs’, of which there are many in our gardens and waysides.

Several of these are in one family – the Brassicaceae, or cabbage family – and easily recognised as such by their flower structure, usually having four petals and sepals, six stamens (male naughty bits), and a single female part (style) in the centre. After that, the separation into species is best done by looking at the distinctive fruits and seed pods, which in the annuals below are produced only a very short time after the first flowers.

Shepherd’s-purse (above) is so-called because of the lobed, almost heart-shaped seed pods.


In contrast, Hairy Bittercress has long, thin, upright seed pods, the tips of the pods projecting above the flowers and so distinguishing from other Bittercresses.

 And smallest of all, Common Whitlow-grass, barely 6cm tall usually, and found especially where the soil is on the sandy side. Definitely worth adopting the Botanist’s Pose for, nose to the ground and bum in the air, check out its petals, each deeply divided into two lobes, its pointed oval pods, and then its leaves covered in whitish, branched hairs – just click on the right-hand photo above to get a closer look.

Finally for now, one further species which may look similar, but is soon revealed to be in a different family altogether. The Caryophyllaceae (campion family) generally have five sepals and petals; five to ten stamens, and three to five styles. Common Chickweed (below) shows this well, especially the five petals, again divided to the base, and so looking like ten; and three female styles, each bearing a pollen-receptive stigma.



Spring in WildWivenhoe, Part 2 – Return of the Bee-fly

Yes, Spring is here. Nothing can stop it now, surely…. Each day, new flowers are blooming, new insects are stirring, new birds are singing, including Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps, mostly just arrived from their wintering grounds, and merging seamlessly with the swelling voices of our resident songsters.

True Blackthorn in the hedges, leaves only just showing, if at all,  as the flowers open, Green Alkanet and Lesser Celandines have large open flowers, available to all insects.

In contrast, tubular flowers such as Red and White Dead-nettles restrict access to their precious nectar resources to the largest, heaviest, long-tongued insects – be more selective, and you maximise the chance of pollination with the right sort of pollen. And then there are the gems, tiny flowers such as Ivy-leaved Speedwell, which are such a morsel as to be of interest only to the smallest flies and wasps.

Many of the newly-emerged flowers are rather showy, and have to be if they want to attract appropriate pollinators. All it takes is for the sun to go in, or an easterly breeze to kick in, and temperatures stall, such that insect activity grinds to a halt: they are ‘cold-blooded’, needing warmth from their environment to allow them to stir. But patchy-cloud days are useful for the photographer, imposing periods of inactivity on insects and other invertebrates which are otherwise difficult to pin down (in the pictorial sense!). Basking Drone-flies and Nursery-web Spiders can sometimes seem to be everywhere, and this week, on 6 April (some two weeks later than typical) Dark-edged Bee-flies emerged in Wivenhoe. Always a delight to see, it was a treat to be able to see these ‘flying-noses’ as anything other than a fast-moving blur.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: April in Cockaynes Reserve

Thank you to all who came along to our inaugural ‘Botany and Bug’ walk this morning – we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.  Despite a rainy start, the weather improved and we were able to sample some of the wonderfully diverse wildlife on our doorstep, in Cockaynes Nature Reserve. 

We do not intend these short reports to be a list of all that we saw,  but some highlights include the Scarlet Elf Cap fungus, extremely noticeable amongst the understorey in Villa Wood; other fungi included the Maze-gill, King Alfred’s Cakes and Turkey-tail – such wonderful names! 

Woodland flowers included Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage; Town-hall-clock in all its unique glory; and Primrose and Wood Anemones bursting forth. 

The woodland edges had good examples of male and female Sallow flowers, attracting passing bees, and the Gorse looked particularly bright, giving off its characteristic coconut fragrance in the sunshine; even the ground-hugging mosses are starting to look their best, covered in flower-like reproductive rosettes.

 Amongst the bug life, we started off with a Green Shield-bug, but one that belies its name as it was in its drab winter colours, just having emerged from hibernation. Likewise, a Hornet was seen emerging from a decaying wood stump; the rare and local mining bee Colletes cunicularis was seen in large numbers (more it seems every year) in the sand banks; and a Zebra Jumping-spider with its fly lunch posed on a gatepost.

An ex-Minotaur beetle (in two halves) was nevertheless an interesting find as this fairly local beetle is able to make its home in this much needed invertebrate-friendly reserve. Sadly, Green Tiger-Beetles were not showing for us (the photo is from last year) – all the more reason to return in the next couple of months!


The next walk will take place on May 5th when we shall be looking to discover some of our local flora and fauna at Barrier Marsh/Grange Wood.  We hope that some of you will be able to join us.  If you are interested please email to book your place.  A fee of £8 will be payable on the day please.

Spring in WildWivenhoe, Part 1: The saga of Ferry Marsh

In calendar terms, Spring is here at last…not that the dismal rain of recent days encourages much in the way of exploration. But in gaps between the showers, every day is moving Nature’s calendar on a notch or two. The first Sand Martins and Swallows have been seen flying through, while Chiffchaffs are coaxed into song at every hint of sunshine and warmth. Buds are bursting before our eyes, vibrant new greens brightening up the greyscape, as violets reveal their welcome intensity underfoot. And not just colour, but also scent, at least with some species. Best of all is the Sweet Violet, bearing a fragrance so intense it can anaesthetise our scent receptors: time then to revert to other identification characters. The picture below may not be a classic portrait, but it does show clearly the bluntly rounded sepals and stems with copious deflexed hairs, features that confirm the species’ identity.

However it is water which defines WildWivenhoe at the moment. Rain, snowmelt, and high tides have conspired to turn most walks into a mudbath. Around Ferry Marsh water levels are especially high, and indeed have been for most of the winter, because of a blocked sluice. Concerns have been raised about this, particularly as a result of footpaths being impassable and also potential effects on our best local population of Water Voles; as a result the Environment Agency is due to deploy pumps in the next few days to try and shed the surplus water.

But, at least from the wildlife perspective, does the flooding really matter? I tend to think not. The clue is in the site’s name: Ferry Marsh…not Ferry Meadows-with-a-few-wet-ditches. Marshes are meant to be at least periodically wet: this encourages wetland wildlife and helps to maintain wetland habitats. Water Voles are quite happy living away from water, at least temporarily, so the only real risk to them is if they are concentrated in particular parts of the site, and then become vulnerable to predation. Water birds are certainly making most of the water, with feeding Little Egret (surprisingly scarce in these parts since the February freeze) and displaying groups of Teal, both on the marsh and the river, taking advantage not only of the expanded habitat but also the lack of disturbance from humans and dogs.

A serious inundation will also do great things for the marshland habitat. One of the greatest problems marshes suffer from is the invasion by trees and other weeds (a weed being any plant which is growing in the wrong place) when the ‘marsh’ is dry: once they get a roothold, they can then dry the marsh out further and exacerbate the problem. A good drowning will help to kill them, and return the marsh to its wetland state. Hopefully, once the reserve becomes accessible once again, the flood will have set the ecological clock back to a time when our valued marshland wildlife is even more at home.

Canvey Wick: the accidental nature reserve

Take one tract of Essex grazing marsh. Add thousands of tonnes of sand and silt, and build an oil refinery. Knock the refinery down before it is ever used, and apply a liberal dose of informal recreation. Then let it stand for thirty years, and what do you get? A nationally important wildlife site.

This is the (somewhat bizarre) recipe for Canvey Wick, an area of around eighty hectares, forming the south-western portion of Canvey Island in Thames-side Essex. Over the past twenty years, this site has become recognised as a hotbed of biodiversity: as a result of its history, climate and land-use, Canvey Wick is now home to an incredible array of plants and animals. Most significantly, it supports hundreds of types of insects, many of which are locally or nationally rare, including some long believed to be extinct in Britain, and others never been found before in this country. Area-for-area it is the richest place we know in this country for rare invertebrates, hence my oft-quoted comment in The Guardian in 2003, likening it to a rainforest in terms of its biodiversity.

Securing the protection of this wonderful area as the first brownfield invertebrate Site of Special Scientific Interest is something I consider to be one of the highlights of my career with Natural England, culminating in the core of the area becoming a nature reserve, owned by the Land Trust and managed by Buglife and the RSPB.

Prime time to visit Canvey Wick is high summer when the insects and reptiles are most active, and the diverse flora – a multicultural mix of native and non-native species from around the world – is in full bloom. Pride of place must go to the orchids, at least four species, and sometimes stunning displays of Southern Marsh-orchids in mid-June.

In early spring, it may be more bleak, but as I discovered last week, there is still plenty to see. Willows are bursting into flower, and already providing a welcome meal for post-hibernation and early-emerging bees.

And best of all, the residual road system from refinery days was fringed with a dense yellow-green sward of Early Meadow-grass Poa infirma. Until recently, this early-flowering grass was known in the UK only from the extreme south-western coast and islands; whether through genuine spread, linked to climate change, or through increased awareness it has been spreading along the south coast, and eventually arrived in Essex around the turn of the Millennium.

Based largely in north Essex, I hadn’t previously seen it before in the county, so to find it in such abundance was both a thrill and a surprise. And surprisingly easy to identify despite its diminutive size: the colour is distinctive, if not diagnostic; its narrow flowering heads, with erect rather than spreading branches; and especially the tiny, almost imperceptible, anthers, each only a fifth of a millimetre long! Right at the limits of my visual definition, it seemed to me as though the open flower spikes were sprinkled with beadlets of silver sand.

Poa infirma may be small, and something of an acquired taste. But I have now acquired it, and it is just one of the many reasons to go back to Canvey Wick at any time of year.

Further details of Canvey Wick reserve can be found on the Buglife and RSPB websites

The Beth Chatto Gardens: beyond the flowers…

A few days ago Prof. Jules Pretty in one of his delightful series of Tweets celebrating #TheEastCountry inspired the idea of the Trapdoor Day of Spring, that precious moment, usually between start of meteorological spring and the Equinox, when Spring changes from a worry (that it may still go horribly wrong) to an unstoppable promise.

Today was that day for us, in spite of the knowledge of the return of snow tomorrow. With the first flush of Spring – Snowdrop season – already fading, The Beth Chatto Gardens were simply delightful in the sunshine and warmth. And quite apart from the flowers, the insects and spiders were taking advantage – feeding, foraging and basking – a selection of which are below. No names; some beyond my skills to identify easily; but they don’t need names to gladden the heart. ‘Biodiversity without labels’ is still vital, for the world and for our mental health



But of course, I cannot sign off without a peek at some of the flowers….It’s on our doorstep, and a delight at any time of year!