Blog Archives: Britain’s Wildlife

A New Year springs in the Beth Chatto Garden

Just two months since our last visit to The Beth Chatto Garden (see blog here), and it is as though the winter shutdown never happened…indeed, thus far it really hasn’t, with barely a handful of frosts interspersed with unseasonable warmth. So it was no surprise to see those traditional harbingers of Spring, Snowdrops and Winter Aconites, in profuse bloom.

Being an insect-pollinated plant at this time of year is a rather dodgy strategy, given that insect flight is severely impaired by cold temperatures, but the flowers are still appearing, in the hope of attracting a passing early bumblebee into the illuminated lanterns of Spring Snowflake or the rich nectar-pits of Hellebores.

Some flowers advertise their wares visually, others by scent. And on a still winter’s day, the pool of fragrance surrounding the most extravagantly scented can and does stop us in our tracks. I challenge anyone to walk past a flowering Sweet Box without being uplifted by the olfactory promise of warmer days.

One of my favourite early spring flowers though is notable not for showing off, but for its demure flowering, requiring a search through severe spines, such that every one you find feels like a prize. Butcher’s-broom is showy enough in fruit, large red globes from a year previously, but its subtle flowers are each a gem. Three-parted, signifying its liliaceous ancestry, they are placed in the centre of the ‘leaves’; we may call them leaves but a developmental botanist would call them cladodes, in essence flattened stems, hence the oddly-positioned flowers.

While the new season flowers stole the crystal January limelight, and the previous two frosty nights no doubt kept insect life at bay, a few winter gnats danced in the still air, and a single, nymphal bark-louse demonstrated that Jude’s close-up vision has not suffered from lack of use since the autumn! Add to that a sprinkling of perennial fungi such as Diatrypella quercina, and it is reassuring that, irrespective of the turbulence of political life at the moment, the wonders of nature will keep on giving.


Epping Forest: Autumn Glory

Some years, Autumn exceeds all expectations. And 2018 has been one of those. It all started with that long, hot, dry period from late spring: it is widely recognised that those stressful conditions are a significant contributor to future autumn colours. Then early Autumn: few windy periods, which in some years strip the trees before they have chance to change. And finally the occasional sharp frost in later Autumn, to actually trigger the colour changes.

So it was that today, on what may well be one of the last ‘summery’ days of the year, in the Snaresbrook section of Epping Forest, that jewel in the crown of British historic woodland and plains, straddling the Essex-London border.

And at long last the hoped-for autumnal flush of fungi is under way, another phenomenon which depends on a complex series of environmental triggers, including the sufficiency of autumn moisture before the winter frosts bring the season to a halt.

The smells, sights and sounds of autumn!

Autumn at its best in The Beth Chatto Garden

The burnished fires of Autumn were rampant under crystalline skies as we strolled round Beth Chatto’s today:


Foliage and fruit – a colourful feast for the eyes as well as the hordes of berry-eating thrushes:


Usually a feature of the autumn, in common with most of the droughted south-east it seems, fungi were few and far-between:

And the remaining flowers: some expected, others more surprising hangers-on from the summer, but all valuable sources of nectar or pollen for late-season insects:


But amazing to see the number of insects on the wing, a nod to the wonderful summer past and a promise that the days will again be getting longer in just six weeks’ time. Hornets, Red Admirals and Common Darters are perhaps to be expected, at least until the first hard frosts, but Caddis Flies and Willow Emerald Damselflies? Strange times are afoot as the seasons disintegrate…:


#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: October – King George V Field, Wivenhoe Wood & Ferry Marsh

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, yes, Autumn has crept up on us, and today we looked at some of the ways nature has been able to ‘fill all fruit with ripeness to the core’.


A visit to Wivenhoe car park may not be your first choice for a nature walk venue,  but a quick look at the shrubs and bushes soon revealed that even there nature has been hard at work producing berries and seeds.  Colourful, in an array of shapes and sizes , these are all intended to be noticed and eaten by birds and other wildlife, therefore enabling the plant to be multiplied and spread further than could be managed by just letting its seeds fall to the ground. Of particular interest were Berberis, Snowberry, Pyracantha and Viburnum, with Rose hips and festoons of White Bryony.  Hollies were there too, some with and some without berries – the reason? Well, it is the female that bears the famous berries, whilst the male flowers (on separate trees) earlier in the season provided the necessary pollen to fertilise the female flowers, leading to the formation of the berries. Lots of ideas here for those wishing to improve their gardens as a resource for wildlife.


It was interesting to walk over KGV and see how the now-cut ‘Meadow’ is faring.  This year’s ‘experiment ‘ in leaving a small portion of the field unmown for a few months proved very successful,  the sheer variety of plants that sprung forth, and the benefit to butterflies, bees and other insects has been enormous. We trust the Council will allow, indeed encourage, this to be repeated next year and beyond.


We had hoped to find a variety of fungi today, but a reccie yesterday was disappointing (due to lack of rain over the past few weeks) so we spent only a short time in the woods. A Parasol mushroom was seen on the edge of the wood, and a patch of Honey Fungus on a dead tree stump further in.

We concluded our morning with a walk through Ferry Marsh, following an incongruous peanut trail! It was interesting to see how the marsh has fared through its unprecedented period of inundation this summer.  It was good to see (and hear) the Reeds thriving on the re-wetted marsh, and just bursting into flower, as well as discover a few other marshland plants, including Sea Club-rush and Redshank.


The small oak on the edge of the seawall was rich in galls – Spangles, Silk-buttons and Smooth Spangles, as well as Oak Apple and Marble Gall. Each of these home to minuscule creatures, which we can only identify by the shape of their gall home and the plant on which it is found. At the foot of the tree was a tennis ball shaped  Earthball fungus. When prodded this puffed out smoky spores: we had pre-empted the rain drops which were soon to fall and which would do the ‘prodding’ naturally.

What of the bugs promised on our walks? Well, given the cold and damp conditions, most creatures were tucked up in the warm somewhere, but we did find a few things of interest:  Dolycoris  baccarum (Hairy Shield-bug), a crane fly complete with gyroscopic halteres (modified hind wings), several newly-emerged caddis-flies and large Garden Spiders, everywhere, waiting…..


All the photos in this report are our own, but due to the poor light today, most were actually taken in more favourable conditions!

Thank you to all who turned out on this less-than-nice day, and to everyone who has supported our Botany and Bug walks this year.  We hope to offer a new season of outings next year and hope that at least some of you will be able to come along.  We may arrange a walk for November if conditions are right, and will advertise it accordingly.

A Cornish Cornucopia…

The last knockings of a remarkable summer, as September slides into October: Cornwall – landscapes, both ancient and modern, and those innerscapes we so rarely take the time to see, let alone appreciate. Thank goodness for holidays, time to wait for lighting, perspective and detail to illustrate and illuminate the world around us.


St Michael’s Mount: even as the summer fades, flowers, both wild and cultivated, are still in bloom, some so bold they wouldn’t look amiss on the walls of Tate St Ives up the road. Natural Modernism, complementing the bold colours and shapes of the Patrick Herons. And where there are flowers there are insects…with spiders waiting their turn.


At St Ives, ‘twixt cobalt skies and azure seas, traditional seaside pursuits run alongside modern art and architecture. While everywhere there is natural art: rocks splashed with lichens; dappled sunlight filtering through Japanese anemones, illuminating the hairs on a Tobacco flower, and the start of next year’s hoverfly population.

Truro Cathedral – only a century old, but beautiful and artistically inspiring.

Revisiting the delights of rockpooling, with topshell and limpet.



Windswept, salt-pruned hedgerows, and hidden hollow-ways.









Ivy everywhere, its intoxicating scent attracting insects galore to late-season riches: Honeybee, Ivy Bee and Painted Lady.

Oaks also demonstrating their role in supporting the web of life: galls on every leaf and branch – artichoke, silk-button and spangles, miniwasps with very different larval homes.


In the race to feed before leaves fall, plants being pierced by bugs – Squash, Spittle and Green Shield – and munched by leaf-beetles and caterpillars – Alder Sawfly in its woolly extruded coat, and a Pale Tussock moth larva in defensive posture.

Even on a fairly dull day, Hedge Bindweed seems to generate its own sunlight.


And finally some birds. Kingfisher and Dipper in the River Fowey, loved by all. Not so perhaps the ubiquitous Herring Gulls, but really it is us intruding in their space, not the other way around. Struggling in the ‘natural’ world, who can deny them a piece of their pasty?


#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: September – Grange Wood & Whitehouse Beach


The sun shone and breeze was pleasant for our walk this morning: thank you to everyone who came along. The main focus this month was the various salt marsh plants, found both along the slopes of the sea wall and on the marsh at Whitehouse Beach. Each is specially adapted to live in the salty conditions, some by virtue of their fleshy, succulent, leaves which preserve moisture (e.g Marsh Samphire and the Seablites), and others by processing salt water and excreting the excess salt (e.g. Sea-purslane). Many of the plants we saw are members of the Spinach family, the most halophytic (salt-tolerant) of families worldwide, mostly edible, and all with unfortunately ‘subtle’ flowers…..

…but there were some species with more showy flowers, including three oft-confused members of the Daisy family: Golden Samphire with yellow rays, and occupying the upper tidal limit, and Sea Aster, in both its forms, one with with purple rays, the other lacking rays completely.


Other plants included Cord-grass, in full flower with its feathery pollen receptors poking out, leading to a discussion about its unique and really quite recent formation as a species (come along next year if you’d like to know more!). Likewise provoking a chat about the sex-life of (some) flowers, a Hawkweed was flowering in the wood, and along the highest level of the marsh, Common Toadflax was in lovely flower, a special plant for us as a main foodplant for the Toadflax Brocade moth, one of the highlights of last month’s walk (see here).


Due to the exceptional conditions of the summer, and delay in the start of autumn there was very little in the way of fungi in the wood. In fact we only found rather dull example of Wood Mushroom and Parasol, and not the spotty red and white Fly Agaric which we had hoped for,  but which can often be readily seen along the woodland trail, near Birch trees.

As always we were on the watch for bugs and beasties … a few nice examples included the smart red and black sawfly, an Arge species, although difficult to narrow down to an exact ‘Make and model’, there being many similar  versions of this little wasp.  Another sawfly, in the form of a gall caused by it, was found on the leaves of Willow: the gall even had the exit hole showing it had been vacated. Galls, along with fungi and fruits are likely to be the main focus of next month’s walk. A rather splendid Forest (also known as Red legged) Shield bug was discovered,  basking in the sun and enjoying his lunch, by means of his specially adapted piercing beak-like sucking mouthparts. This species is omnivorous,  also preying on caterpillars and other insects.

 On the marsh it was good to see a good number of the rare stripey-bottomed Sea Aster Mining-bee, which feeds almost exclusively on Sea Aster. It therefore emerges only in August-September when is food source is flowering. Its nesting colonies, on sandy ground above the reach of spring tides, cannot be too far away.


So what else did we see?  Um, let me think…..oh yes!, thanks to a tip off from our friend Glyn, we were very privileged to witness the majestic flight of a magnificent Osprey, circling at length above us. It was mobbed  by a couple of Buzzards, as one of our group exclaimed ‘3 birds of prey in my binoculars at once!’.   Although our walks being ‘non-birdy’ ( Richard Allen’s successful monthly bird walks are the place for a birding experience in Wivenhoe on a Saturday morning), we had to make an exception!  This bird was probably a migrant, on its way back to Africa. We can’t help thinking that this will be the lasting impression of our September outing. We managed just the odd snatched photo but no doubt Glyn’s magnificent efforts will be posted on the Wivenhoe Forum before too long!

And true to form, check out Glyn’s excellent photos of the bird here, on Page 31…