All posts by Chris Gibson

The Wild Side of Essex: day tours of the Naze with Naturetrek in April

After three months’ enforced absence, it was all change at the Naze. Clearly, the winter wet and hefty storms had caused a lot of erosion, with cliff-slips and tree-falls evident during the first of four @Naturetrektours day walks in April.

And even in ‘the month with no rain’, the preceding winter’s deluges kept lubricating the landslips into activity right through the month: #The WildSideofEssex at its best!

The slumping cliffs, naturally disturbed, are the aboriginal home of plants that may be more familiar as followers in the wake of humanity. Colt’s-foot was already in flower, replaced at month’s end by its ‘dandelion-clocks’ and unfurling leaves:

And the erosion has other up-sides too. It provides sand for the beaches downdrift, it creates clean faces for Sand Martin nests and to reveal the geological strata, telling the story from Tertiary times…

… and providing new crops of fossils to be searched for on the beach.

Whether 50 million year-old fossils and septaria to modern flotsam, there’s always something to find. From sharks’ teeth to Angel’s-wings, Alpine upheavals to winter landslips, at the Naze ‘then’ meets ‘now’ and rubs shoulders with ‘the future’ in the month that the contribution of renewables to the UK energy supply exceeded 60%.

And while the sea was very quiet for birds on the days we were there, save for a few Cormorants and gulls, and a single female Eider…

…shorebird numbers actually increased during the month, as Dunlins (up to 500), Sanderlings and Turnstones especially gathered before heading to the Arctic for the summer, by the end of the month many of them moulting into summer plumage.

… while on the marshes the number of Shovelers grew to an impressive 50 early in the month.

Landbirds were rather more difficult to come by in the cold to very cold north-easterly winds which persisted all month. The cliff-top scrub proved a reliable site for wheezing Greenfinches and mating Kestrels, the fields around had displaying Lapwings, and ever-increasing it seems, angrily-singing Cetti’s Warblers, six or seven around the headland.

But summer migrants were mostly seriously held back by adverse winds. Sand Martins, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps had made it through in March, but the martins all but disappeared until the very last day of the month. Other hirundines did little more than trickle through, and Whitethroats arrived in mid-month, with 15 or more singing on territory when the first Lesser Whitethroats dropped in a week later. Otherwise, it was a merest sprinkling of Yellow Wagtails, Sedge Warblers, Wheatears and Sandwich Terns. There is still much to arrive…

Another increasing species seems to be Muntjac. It is now the norm to see several during a walk, and this is in spite of the huge number of dogs walked over the Naze. The last walk of the month also gave us other mammal records, including Stoat, Weasel and a magnificent bull Grey Seal offshore.

Flowering, by and large, has been held back by the arctic air and night frosts. Take Blackthorn, normally peaking here in late March, at the start of April much of it was still in tight bud. The peak occurred some three weeks later than is usual, and many bushes were still in fine bloom and feeding bumblebees and Peacocks at the end of the month.

Otherwise the main nectar and pollen resources were Gorse, a coconut-scented blaze of colour in the sun, albeit badly frost-scorched in exposed places, and Alexanders, a non-native perhaps but one that pays its way in terms of ecosystem services.

 

Other plants starting to show were White Ramping Fumitory and Sheep’s Sorrel on the clifftop, Sea Rocket germinating on the dunes, Hog’s Fennel sprouting and the first flush of salt marsh blooming with the emergence of Common Scurvy-grass.

And a final couple of botanical findings, fascinating fasciations, where the shoot tips of Shrubby Sea-blite and Sycamore have both become flattenened and proliferated.

It was a very difficult month for insect-watching. Late emergences and reduced activity meant that only at the hottest times of the day, when the sun was out, and in sheltered spots out of the wind was there much to see, with basking solitary bees, cuckoo-bees, hoverflies and ladybirds.

The Blackthorns were hosting some impressive larval webs of Brown-tail Moths, and the Gorse as always came up with the goods in the form of Gorse Shield-bugs and Gorse Weevils, most noticeable perhaps by the holes they excise in the petals.

And then at last on the final day, an emergence of St Mark’s Flies, behind schedule by some five days: black, hairy and dangly, fearsome-looking perhaps, but entirely harmless, indeed beneficial as food for Swallows and as pollinators.

So, all-in-all an interesting month. A bit of an endurance test at times in the teeth of the wind, but Spring has advanced a little. And as we head into May, the dam-burst of held-back birds and delayed flowerings is surely only days away….

 

 

 

The Wild Side of Essex: day tours of the Colne Estuary with Naturetrek in April

Three #WildSideOfEssex walks on the Colne Estuary with Naturetrek  in the month from the very end of March were expected to span the transition from winter to summer. And so they did, albeit rather in reverse order…

The first post-lockdown walk on the last day of March coincided with the last day of the mini-heatwave, with temperatures rocketing to 22°C – unseasonably, almost unreasonably, hot, even for the Essex Riviera! That very afternoon, skies clouded over, bathing the landscape, by now devoid of birdsong, in cloying yellowish light. Sahara dust was on its way, and when the rain came that evening, the dust blanketed everything as the temperatures plummeted. Thereafter April was a month of no rain, but icy winds from the north-east. Plenty of sunshine, but no real heat, and more night-time frosts than the whole of the preceding winter.

And naturally, this had impacts on the wildlife. Blackthorn was still in tight bud during the first walk, and only just past its best by the third, a good three weeks later than is typical round here.

But nothing if not contrary, Nature had its mixed messages – the first Bluebells were in flower by the end of March, well ahead of schedule, but then spent April in suspended animation, still leading up to a May peak.

Other interesting botanical finds during the month included Greater Stitchwort and Spring Beauty on woodbanks, Stork’s-bill and Early Forget-me-not on the heaths and White Ramping Fumitory closer to the tide:

But not all exciting flowers are showy. Some of the most subtly beautiful are green: Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage, Butcher’s-broom, Red Currant and the simply unique Town-hall-clock in the woods and Mousetail clinging to just one of the thousands of Yellow Meadow-ant-hills on the marsh.

A surprising number of fungi were found (perhaps as it has been a very wet winter) with Maze-gill, a fruiting Reticularia slime mould, and best of all that beacon of winter wet woodland, Scarlet Elf Cups, in profusion by Sixpenny Brook.

In the heatwave, spring insects were out in force with Bee-flies and Hairy-footed Flower-bees investigating the Red Dead-nettle and Ground-ivy…

… while butterfly numbers faded during the month, numerous overwinterers (Peacocks, Commas and Brimstones) giving way to the first emerging Green-veined Whites and Orange- tips.

And that just leaves the birds. All change! On the estuary, the waterbird numbers dropped away rapidly, although the summer-plumaged, glowing copper, tiger-striped Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits were simply stunning. Overhead several Mediterranean Gulls yowled imperiously and drifted over on implausibly white wings on each walk, while Red Kite and Marsh Harrier were both on the move. And by months’ end, the piping of the waders had largely been replaced by the screech of Common Terns.

Other summer birds were slow to arrive. A few hirundines were around at the outset, but numbers barely changed during the month. Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps had made it back before the adverse winds set in, as did an early Sedge Warbler, and then by the second walk, Whitethroats, and the last one, Reed Warblers. Resident Cetti’s Warblers seem more numerous than ever, and it was especially exciting to see a territorial pair of Nuthatches in Grange Wood, as this bird is generally absent on the Tendring Peninsula.

All of the above and more, including good views of both Fox and Muntjac. And what better than on the final walk, to take lunch sitting by Sixpenny Brook, a Treecreeper creeping overhead and singing Nightingales – new in just three days previously – either side?

 

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – the chills of April

Since the mini-heatwave in March that fired the starting gun for Spring, April has gone downhill, or at best been treading water. Persistent, piercing, chilly north-easterly winds have kept temperatures well down, despite some lovely sunny days, and the nights have brought more frosts than the whole of the rest of the winter put together. And to cap it all, barely a drop of rain.

The plants have told the story of those weather stresses. Out in the surrounding countryside, Blackthorn peaked three or four weeks after its normal time, although confusingly, Bluebells started to flower a month early, although the cold has put them into suspended animation ever since. In the garden, the results have been equally mixed, winter colliding with spring while edging towards summer…

And the same is true of the insects in the garden. Until mid-month all butterflies were hibernators, especially Peacocks and Brimstones. But at last the new season’s adults have started to emerge, with Green-veined Whites and Orange Tips mixing with the first of the Speckled Woods in the dappled shade:

In sheltered spots out of the wind, and when the sun is out, bees are starting to emerge along with hoverflies, and bugs and other creatures are there to be found basking.

But the real insect action has been around those plants which best provide what insects want: nectar and pollen. In March it was Scilla bifolia, while in mid-April Skimmia ‘Kew Green’ took over the baton. Among the bees and hoverflies, there were a couple of scarce flies, the Spring Bee-grabber (just a couple of previous north Essex records) and the bristly moth parasite Tachina lurida, with only four previous Essex records.

 

The Skimmia is starting to fade now, so what will take over? Certainly Euphorbia wulfenii is attracting flies, and both Cherry-laurel and Thermopsis are attracting the bumblebees.

By the end of the month, having been held back for so long, the dam-burst of Summer is hanging in the air. All it will take is the wind direction to reverse, night-time temperatures to rise and we will be cascaded through the riot of Spring, probably faster than any of us would like. If anyone is thinking of visiting for a welcome taste of the early season, best do it soon!

A couple of further highlights are perhaps more by accident than design. Where mowing is restricted by trees and obstructions, Daisies and Dandelions are showing through, a natural complement to the insects’ garden restaurant. Wouldn’t it be good if  ‘No Mow May’ could find a place in the garden regime? Not perhaps on the main lawns , but maybe in the car park or on the verges of the driveway: every little helps our beleaguered pollinator force.

And then there’s the borders that are becoming infiltrated with one of our most charismatic little ancient woodland plants, Town-hall-clock. Some might say ‘infested’, but I would say ‘skeined with a graceful filigree of unassuming, green-flowered delight’. Who cannot love a plant whose scientific name ‘Adoxa‘ translates from Greek as ‘without glory’; whose clock-face flowers have five petals each, whereas the one pointing skyward has (usually) just four; a plant whose relationships seem so obscure it was until recently considered unique, the only member of its family in the whole world? And which bizarrely, following genetic sequencing has been shown to share a family with Elders and Viburnums!

So spring may not yet have fully spring but the garden is already full of wild interest, And even on the coldest days, there are always the multi-species lichenscapes on the trees, ever-present whatever the weather!

As always, the Beth Chatto Gardens are brimming with life. While the weather, and over the longer term climate, are going awry, the importance of gardens like this in maintaining our countryside’s wildlife cannot be overstated.

To visit, unless you are a Friend of the garden, online prebooking is essential. Please visit https://www.bethchatto.co.uk/garden-nursery/planning-a-visit.htm

 

 

A Year in the southern Suffolk Sandlings with Greenwings: April – Spring steals in…

Spring it may be, but it felt more like February, with a Siberian breeze keening across the heaths, continuing the recent cold snap which seems to holding back summer birds, insect emergences, and flowering – the Blackthorn in places still in tight bud, at least three weeks behind schedule.

So Woodlarks, whose cadences should now be resounding across the Sandlings: reduced to a few half-hearted attempts in the sunny spells. Pairs each of Stonechats and Dartford Warblers added to the heathland flavour, as Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps sang from the Silver Birches. But for summer visitors at least, that was it, save for a possible, never-confirmed snatch of Redstart. Otherwise, bird-wise, the lingering memory is of the noisy groups of Redpolls flying over all the time, with Siskins and Crossbills too, but in much smaller numbers.

Plants likewise have been held back, but there are at least a group of interesting Sandlings plants identifiable by their distinctive leaf colours and growth forms, from the vivid red splashes of Mossy Stonecrop, to the tight, pinnate rosettes of Bird’s-foot and blue-green Buck’s-horn Plantain.

Common Stork’s-bill and Sand Sedge were just coming into flower in the sandier patches, and on the low trackside banks, Spring Beauty, Spring Whitlow-grass and especially Shepherd’s-cress, the mini Shepherd’s-purse so characteristic of Sandlings soils. Other specialities included White Horehound and Climbing Corydalis.

Gorse of course was in flower, although not the autumn-flowering Western Gorse here in an easterly enclave, as were the Birch trees, with upright female and dangly male catkins.

And it was Gorse that was the focus of insect activity, insofar as we could find any. During sunny spells, in the lee of a big clump of Gorse, the temperature was perceptibly higher, the coconut scent started to give promise of warmer days. An a few insects duly revealed themselves: Buff-tailed Bumblebees, a few solitary bees and hoverflies, basking Gorse Shield-bugs, tiny Gorse Weevils, smaller than the holes they were biting in the petals. And most numerously, what seemed to be a very fresh emergence of Lesser St Mark’s Flies.

Elsewhere warmth-lovers were absent. No sign of Adders, just a couple of Cream-spot Tiger caterpillars trundling their way across warm patches of sand, and also a couple of Viviparous Lizards, finding warmth and shelter on an ant-hill and an old, decaying log respectively.

Not perhaps the riot of Spring we had hoped for. But there is always, but always something to find. And after a long, damp, grey winter of Covid confinement, the sense of space and different scenery felt so good. And we still have the real riches of the season to come…!

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: Back in Action! The KGV and wildlife garden

Thanks to all who joined in with us for the first B&B sessions for 2021.  We both felt rather rusty, having had so many months off, but hopefully we managed to find enough to show you to make an interesting hour!

Due to the cold weather, particularly on Saturday, insects were very thin on the ground.  The main delight was the bees  – a few prospecting queen bumblebees  looking for a suitable hole to make a nest, plus some entertaining Hairy-footed Flower Bees. These are ‘sexually dimorphic’, ie the males and females are very different to look at, and they were very interested in each other (the males hovering closely behind the females) and the very important nectar sources of Red Dead-nettle and Blue Alkanet. This latter species is not native to the UK, but along with many other garden plants and escapes is such a lifeline to insects on the occasions when there is not much ‘wild’ nectar to be had.

This year’s season of Spring seems very ‘odd’ (but when doesn’t it?) – some things seem to be out early and others weeks behind what you might expect. For example some areas of Elm scrub have done flowering already and are producing seeds, whilst others have barely started to flower. This could be due, in part at least, to the vestiges of Dutch Elm Disease which has never quite gone away. This malady is caused by a fungus introduced to Elms by the Elm Bark Beetle.

The beetles are only able to burrow into trunks when they reach a certain size, the ingression introducing the fungus that kills the above-ground parts, whilst the roots survive, and suckers continue to sprout afterwards. Hence you will still see lots of small Elms around, but few large trees. A notable exception is in Brighton where a ‘fire break’ from back in the 1960s meant Elms within a mile or two of the town were felled when the disease was first noted approaching, the potentially damage-causing beetles being unable to fly that far to spread it. Social distancing! As a result the place can boast many fully sized Elms, which nevertheless need constant monitoring (Test, Track and Trace) as the pandemic may reappear at any time.

Back to our walks, we were at times serenaded by avian life including Blackbirds, Dunnocks, Chiffchaffs, Blue Tits and Wrens whilst Golden Plovers, Green Woodpeckers and a Buzzard were seen overhead.

We popped into the Wildlife Garden to see what has been happening.  Lots of hard work has gone into improving the pond which had been suffering from a leaky liner and had become rather overgrown. The overall impression at the moment is that all is rather bare, but lots of plants have been put into the areas surrounding the pond, which will be able to get going once the weather warms up, and a few Kingcups are in the pond itself. Sadly no sign of frogspawn this year, but we are confident that by next spring all will be back to normal as far as the amphibians are concerned and it will once again be a good breeding ground for our croaky friends. It is brilliant that there is a band of concerned individuals locally who are prepared to work hard for this very important site.

Directly over the field from the garden our attention was caught by the beautiful flowering Blackthorn bushes.  In full snowy-flower they were a sight to behold.  However, their usual promise of sloes to make our much-enjoyed sloe gin may not be guaranteed this year due to the distinct lack of any pollinators at this crucial time (having said that, our Monday group were treated to the sight of lots of hoverflies buzzing from flower to flower).

 

Other plants don’t rely on these third-parties for pollination but employ the powers of the wind – letting their male catkins dangle free and hoping pollen will be blown onto female flowers.  Good examples of this are the Hornbeam and White Poplar both found on KGV.

We finished our tour on the ‘Hay Meadow’ a section of the KGV which has been allowed to escape the regular three-weekly mowing regime for the past three years and is now an interesting area comprising all kinds of grasses, chickweeds, knapweeds and dandelions.  Not much sign of flowering at the moment, due to the extended cold, but we are confident once we have some warmth and refreshing rain all will be well.  We found what we think to be a newly recorded species there too – Field Wood-rush.

Short and sweet, and at least with its slow start we still have much of Spring to enjoy now we have been allowed out…

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – late March heatwave

The mini-heatwave at the end of March was welcome respite from what felt like a long, cold, grey, damp Covid winter. The  sun at the start of last week was so restorative, even though dizzy heights of 22°C were short-lived: as March closed, so arrived the Sahara dust-laden clouds, a blanket of uneasy silence, bird song quelled, and ultimately a rapid drop in temperature as the wind turned to the north.

We made two visits. One was just before the peak of the heat under perfect, powder-blue Persian skies, all the better to see Fritillaria persica as it is meant to be. Three days later and 12 degrees cooler was just after the break in the weather. Only three days, but a world of difference, the Trilliums and Flowering Currants having been pushed into flower. Conversely, the second visit was almost insect free, in total contrast to the bustle, buzzing and basking of the first.

It was the Scilla bed which first grabbed us: bees everywhere, from Honeybees and mini-miners to swarms of tiny grass-flies. The Honeybees looked very fetching, munching the bright blue pollen and stuffing it into their panniers.

 

Then the much-awaited first Dark-edged Beeflies of the year, one of the real harbingers of spring. The first ones had emerged just over a week previously along the south coast, and our entry into the ‘bee-fly club’ was most welcome. Much of their time was spent foraging on Lungwort.

As usual, a motley assortment of baskers was sunning itself, especially in the sunflecks of the woodland gardens, from Yellow Dung-flies, to Cereal Leaf-beetles, Peacocks and the tortoise-beetle Cassida rubiginosa.

And also a good range of true bugs: Green Shield-bug (just coming out of its brown winter plumage), the piebald Crucifer Shield-bug, Dock Bug and a Birch Catkin-bug, small, reddish and when on a catkin looks lust like a seed (with legs…).

A good start to the insect season and also a great opportunity to indulge in the artistic opportunities afforded by low-angled light on the floral riches of the season.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens

Those who read these blogs or have been to some of my talks will know that we have an inordinate fondness for the Beth Chatto Gardens. Just a couple of miles from our flat, it is in effect ‘our garden’, a place where we can go to escape.

And we do. Regularly. Gardens are of course about plants, but they are also a place where wildlife can live. Not just live, but positively thrive if the garden is managed with any degree of sympathy for the natural world. Thankfully, Beth Chatto’s comes out towards the top in any assessment, under any criteria, of wildlife-friendliness in the garden.

Beth’s approach was always to plant ecologically, using plants matched to the soil and climate conditions, so as to minimise the need for unsustainable interventions. Visit any time of year to see those principles in action, and to see what a gardener’s garden that sustains wildlife AND points the way to gardening in the global greenhouse can look, smell and sound like.

So when the garden management team approached me with a view to forging closer links, to become ‘part of the team’ as Wildlife & Conservation Adviser, I didn’t have to think about it for too long! Their ethos matches ours. And so I shall now be helping to advise them on wildlife matters, so that we can continue to develop the garden in line with Beth’s vision. Do our bit for the planet, and (on the principle that many bits makes a lot) encourage lots of others to do likewise.

As part part of this work I shall be continuing to publish blogs on our own website, as well as helping with the ‘official’ channels. But as a taster, I thought it might be a good time to revisit some of the Wild Side invertebrate highlights we have found over the past couple of years.

There have been rarities: the first records in east Essex for Rhyzobius forestieri (a small, dark, hairy ladybird that flashes an orange body as it flies) and the bug Closterotomus trivialis (in both colour forms) ….

…. the only place we have seen the large, black Tanner Beetle and the rove beetle Tasgius morsitans ….

…. and only the second ever Essex record of the rare migratory Locust Blowfly, with distinctively striped eyes. This may well have come from beyond the shores of Europe – its larvae feed upon the eggs of locusts.

Other migrants too – Hummingbird Hawk-moths and Painted Ladies, much more regular here than the blowfly, but again potentially originating from the Mediterranean basin.

And new colonists – Willow Emerald damselflies are now a common sight in late summer, but they have been in this country for only the last decade or so.

Then there’s the interesting behaviour we’ve witnessed: a Scorpion-fly feasting on the body of a spider (normally, it is suggested, they use their long snout to extract flies from spiders’ webs) and ‘kissing’ Two-spotted Malachite-beetles, apparently sharing bonding pheromones.

And the gory side of life: how about this ‘zombie fly’, devoured by the entomopathogenic fungus now erupting from its abdomen and liberally producing a halo of spores, each potentially a death sentence to another passing fly. But before the end, the fungus takes over the mind of its host, changing its behaviour so that it crawls to the highest point available, all the better to be able to disperse the deadly spores into the wind.

And finally, still on the gore and carnage theme: we discovered the stately waterside plant Thalia dealbata has a dark side. It is attractive to pollinators, but in its native central America, those pollinators are big, strong carpenter-bees. Here it is smaller bees and flies, and they get their tongues trapped in the gripping flower parts…and die, slowly. Fortunately, the gardeners have started to try and make sure the spikes of Thalia are cut off before the flowers open. The ‘beautiful assassin’ has been tamed…

As well as revealing what is going on in the garden ‘beyond the blooms’ following each of our visits, we will also prepare more in depth blog reports on particular topics, such as Butterflies, Moths and Dragonflies in the Garden, and to keep a log of everything that we find moving in to enjoy the garden as we do.

And who knows, I may even still find time to unleash my shutter finger and look for interesting ways to see the garden plants through a lens…

We are looking forward to this becoming more regular, and do look out for the the next blog in a few days’ time, the things we spotted this week.

For more information about the garden, including current opening times, please visit the Beth Chatto Gardens website.

The Beth Chatto Gardens: on the starting blocks of Spring…

Six weeks have passed, the Snowdrops and Aconites are over, and the second wave of Spring is just starting to weave its magic. The birds certainly felt it, with singing Goldcrests, Greenfinches and Chiffchaffs. But its progress is slow – a cold and dull February has certainly slowed the advance of the year, as can be seen from photos of the Crown Imperials taken one year apart…

… last year, in full foxy-scented flower, with each petal with the ‘tears of Mary’ waiting to reward pollinators; this year maybe a week or two behind that stage, although more sunny days like today would surely speed things up.

But fortunately there are plenty of other nectar sources available as Honeybees and queen Buff-tailed Bumble-bees are out in force:

Otherwise, after a cold start to the day, the invertebrate world was apricating – the act of basking in the warmth of the sun: spiders (including a Heliophanus jumping spider with hi-vis green palps), hoverflies, and everywhere ladybirds, mostly Seven-spots with a  few Pine Ladybirds.

Twice we saw ladybirds sprucing themselves up after a winter of inactivity (does that sound familiar after the latest Covid lockdown?) – raising their wing cases, extending and inflating their wings several times as if to iron out the stiffness and creases of four months’ confinement.

Ladybirds and hoverflies are of course special friends to the ecologically-aware gardener, and early emergers will hopefully build large populations to help keep the populations of aphids and other potentially injurious insects in check, without the need to resort to poisoning the world around us. It was pleasing also note one of the borders had signs of another natural pesticide (in this case molluscicide) – the Hedgehog.

And everything else in the garden was looking just wonderful in the sunlight. From the wider views to the innerscapes …

…  to the spring-green flowers, subtle certainly, but with an undemanding charm all of their own…

… and the ever-expanding palette of the year, brought to life by the low-level sunlight and the residues of overnight rain.

Finally, musings on the Widow Iris, so called for the widows’-weeds it wears, disporting herself with a sombre malevolence that lends itself the the alternative name of Snake’s-head Iris. Having just spent time watching the queen bumbles going about their business, this drew us in: the petals have the colour and texture of an Bee Orchid. Could this be another example of botanical insect mimicry, promising a sexual bounty, but delivering only a load of pollen? Certainly had us fooled at first…

Signs of Spring: Nature Cure at Cockaynes

One of those February days when every little sign of spring brings joy unbridled. When everything feels so wrong it can never get right again, we have the turning of the seasons to reassure us that light and life and will return.

And where better to go to find the promise we though would never come in the depths of the pandemic: arriving before our very eyes, and into our hearts, Spring in the Cockaynes Reserve #NatureCure. A great day to be out, more like May than February, with a blue sky backdrop to Chiffchaffs singing, and Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock a-flutter.

Deep in Villa Wood, by the tinkling, twinkling Sixpenny Brook, Golden-saxifrages have yet to cast their magic on the banksides, but Scarlet Elf Cups are out. This is the species to which survival of this site can be most attributed 35 years ago … it’s a long story but one we hope will be told in the fullness of time in our Field Guide To The Essex Coast.

And Hazel everywhere, tassellating serenely but profusely…

Still there is yesterday’s news, the hangovers from last year: Autumn hues, preparing our eyes for the woodland colours to come, and Autumn fruits – Ivy, helping Blackbirds to reach breeding condition, and Reedmace (please, NOT Bulrush!), maybe a thug in the ponds, but so very important, its cigar-heads stuffed full of tiny seeds, late-winter nuggets of nutrition starting to be dispersed.

At this time of year, the mosses, lichens and fungi which are all too easily overshadowed, literally and figuratively, by the verdancy of summer have a brief chance to take centre stage…

… but every  flower that was open was a joy, especially the Common Field Speedwells on farm fallow, a sea of tiny blue faces tracking the sun across the sky.

 

And each flower at this time of year is a bonus for insects: Gorse buzzing with Honeybees, the first Dandelions waiting for the first queen bumblebees. But insects know where their needs are best met, and for Tree Bumbles especially it was garden Crocuses, with many a flower containing its soporific pollinator, seemingly drunk on the contents.

Away from the flower action, the baskers were out: a Pine Ladybird among the more numerous Seven-spots, and the tiny, hairy springtail Entomobrya nivalis

…  our first shield-bugs of the season, as iconic as the first Chiffchaff. A single Hairy, but lots of Gorse Shield-bugs – note how their antennal colour matches the red of the tips of fresh Gorse spines.

And in one patch, there were several ‘ghost bugs’ – pale, empty adult Gorse Shield-bug skins, the contents seemingly having been devoured by an entomopathogenic fungus. As we have described before (see here), the unfortunate victims were glued to the tips of shoots, the fungus having taken over their behaviour as an aid to the wind dispersal of the fungal spores…

Beth Chatto’s Garden: the rebirth of Spring

Today should have been the ‘Local Friends’ day at Beth Chatto’s, prior to reopening tomorrow. Covid19 (and,  it transpires, the snow from Storm Darcy) had other ideas, but hopefully reopening will be not too far down the line…

But quite by chance, my timeline reminded me this morning that I had been there taking photos on this very date 16 years ago. So here’s a few of the highlights of what to expect when we can once again make Beth Chatto’s garden one of our regular haunts.

It’s all too easy to have your head and heart swayed by the signs of the Spring to come. But do take time to lose yourself in ‘yesterday’s news’, the still decorative remnants of last year’s growth, like the memories in a faded photograph…and a much-needed reminder that in gardens, overtidiness is anathema.

With many trees devoid of leaves, late winter sun penetrates the garden gloom, and casts shadows and creates highlights more arrestingly than at any other time of year.

And then the promise of what’s to come. New shoots…

… new blooms: now it will be Snowdrops, Snowflakes and Aconites that grab the headlines, but gradually Hellebores and Daffodils start to broaden the palette…

… new scents: from the more subtle Laurustinus, Daphne and Witch-hazel, to the stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks olfactory grasp of Sweet Box (Sarcococca hookeriana, pinker flowers with undiluted sugar-sweetness, while Sarcococca confusa has a slight counterpoint of citrus) …

… and new lives: hibernating insects roused by the sun, from natural insecticides such ladybirds and wasps, to plant bugs, including the Bishop’s Mitre.

At any time of year, the garden is a place of calm and beauty, a place to reflect and reconnect with the natural world. And after the past year, that is a nature cure we all could do with, more needed this Spring than in any other.

Book Review – Thirteen Paces by Four: Backyard Biophilia and the Emerging Earth Ethic

Thirteen Paces by Four: Backyard Biophilia and the Emerging Earth Ethic

by Joe Gray (Dixi Books 2021)     

Not being particular fans of ‘nature writing’ in general, we were slightly dubious about the prospect of reading this book.  However, neither of us need have worried!  From the outset we were both hooked. Joe’s profound knowledge and deep thinking is imparted in a readable and gently humorous style, whilst his clear affection, passion and concern for the natural world shine through.

In fact, ‘nature writing’ is probably a misnomer. All too often that falls into the trap of seeing nature just as a utilitarian resource for us, to use and abuse, care about or ignore, as we choose. Not so here: embraced in a philosophical package which doesn’t put humans at the centre, which asserts that its protection is of intrinsic value for its own sake, and which doesn’t shy away from humanocentric taboos, such as discussions of overpopulation, makes for us a refreshing change.

We found exploring aspects of ‘eco-psychology’ fascinating. ‘Eco-anxiety’ and ‘topoaversion’ are all states of mind we recognise (although Chris had them squeezed out of his consciousness by a lifetime in professional conservation, only to re-emerge during the liberation of retirement) but were previously  unaware had names; having these dark thoughts put into words was cathartic. This is not however a depressing read – in fact it is truly uplifting and makes we two glad that there are people like Joe on the planet. Certainly it makes us want to go further in changing our lifestyle to favour nature, but at the same time it doesn’t, as many authors seem intent on doing, engender feelings of guilt for the realisation that probably we will not do all that we could.

Born during the Covid pandemic, when we all have had to reflect on our physical and philosophical horizons, this book should be a mind-changer for many. And still in the grip of nature, we should use the time we now have to read it and think. By donating all royalties from this, Joe’s first book, to a worthy cause (the World Land Trust), you will not only be getting a jolly good read, but helping safeguard the planet. And it contains a very fitting tribute to Trevor James, friend and inspiration to many of us, who passed away recently: in fact, one can almost hear Trevor’s voice uttering one of the many apposite phrases in the book – ‘nothing makes my hackles rise quite like innocent, voiceless victims’. Nature needs those who wear their passion on their sleeves.

Chris & Jude Gibson

Thirteen Paces by Four: Backyard Biophilia and the Emerging Earth Ethic by Joe Gray (Dixi Books 2021)     ISBN-13: 978-1-913680-06-0

Publisher’s price £17.99. If you order from https://uk.bookshop.org/books/thirteen-paces-by-four-backyard-biophilia-and-the-emerging-earth-ethic/9781913680060, you may get a better price, and your purchase will help towards supporting independent bookshops.

Giving a Voice to the Wildlife of the Essex Coast

During the three decades I worked for Natural England and its predecessor bodies, much of my time was devoted to Essex, and among the many things I tried to do was put the wildlife of Essex on the map. Partly to counter the negative image of Essex, both in the popular media (Loadsamoney and Essex Girls in the 1980s), latterly in a sequence of Far Right Tory MPs), and even in the more refined sphere of conservation. That negative image is enduring: there is a story that someone, sometime as long ago as the 19th Century said of Essex that it is ‘flat and boring‘, to which the response was ‘no, it is slightly undulating and boring….’

Given the pressures on the coast, and its incredible concentrations of birds, salt marshes and other wildlife interests, not surprisingly my PR efforts focused on our coastline. That proved particularly apposite as we started to invent and embrace the ideas of respecting and using natural coastal dynamism in its protection. ‘Managed realignment‘ was born in Essex: we turned an idea in a back room in Colchester in the late 1980s into reality, and Government policy, in just a few years.

So to try and see the nature reserves and other protected areas of Essex coast taking their rightful place in the pantheon of ‘jewels in the crown’ I wrote a series of four booklets over thirteen years, each growing and (largely) improving on the previous version.

First in 1990 was a small A5, 12-page, black-and-white booklet, modelled on and indeed adopting the house style of existing, rather lo-fi, Nature Conservancy Council National Nature Reserve booklets. Only 3297 words long (thanks, Jude, for counting them!), it did feature specially commissioned line drawings from the renowned local artist Richard Hull. Sadly, through the editions, these were phased out as printing advances made the use colour photographs more feasible: all are reproduced below for posterity.

Rather less successful was my attempt at cartography, all Rotring pens, Letraset labels, and Letratone transfers for the shading, on tracing paper, using my university dissection scalpel. Those were the days! But, pretty soon, the print run of 2000 was exhausted, as it was a free publication, and at that time we still used to attend major events such as the Essex and Tendring Shows, where many disappeared into the voluminous bags of small children. But who knows, some may have hit home!

By 1993 an update and reissue was needed, and it emerged in full colour, thanks to the design input from The Creative Company, who admirably didn’t feel constrained to operate within corporate design guidelines, although their choice of a stippled background tint to the text pages did nothing for legibility. (Note to self: don’t sign anything off until you have seen the hard copy in your hands!). 21x21cm (two-thirds A4, another break from ‘style’), 20 pages and 8185 words long, Richard’s illustrations remained, along with three (professionally drawn) maps and 8 photos, and the run of 3000 lasted for some seven years, at least in part because a (nominal ) charge was levied whenever we could. This edition even got an ISBN: 1-85716-129-7.

To mark the Millennium, in 2000 a new edition was in order (ISBN 1-85716-486-5), and this for me is the apogee in design and utility terms. A5, 40 pages, 12366 words, 67 photos, and still four line drawings, this lovely package fully met my ‘is it readable in the bath?‘ test, my ideas, words and photos expertly and coherently put together by Jacquie South (Jax Design), who also produced the maps. However, having mutated into English Nature, and with a greater focus on corporate identity, this edition never really found favour within the upper echelons of EN hierarchy as we had gone right away from their standards. I remain unapologetic, and its wider reception I think justified it: nominally priced at £2, it sold well (including a bulk order from Essex University Biology Department and hawked by me around the lecture and media circuit), with almost 3000 units shifted in just three years.

So we come to the final (for now) print iteration in 2003 (ISBN 1-85716-762-7): 32 pages, 12364 words, 49 photos but no line drawings, this time grown into the increasingly prescribed corporate style of A4 – and so forgoing ‘read-in-the-bathability’, much to my concern. The print run was 2000, and when English Nature became Natural England in 2006, a partial rebranding exercise with sticky labels was sanctioned as a stop-gap. But by the time the  Colchester office was closed in 2012, we still had about a third left. ‘Destroy them‘, the bosses said, because of the out-of-date branding. But I just couldn’t bear to. I took most of the boxes, and have been progressively handing them out (free) at talks, walks and other events ever since, both before and after my early retirement. Now, at the end of 2020, the well has run dry, and thanks to Jude’s hard work inputting my words (including finding errors – I have to admit to a proofread failure) we have converted the bulk of the 2003 edition into a PDF, updated where necessary with the hindsight of the last 18 years. And while photos for editions 2 and 3 were all created from 35mm transparencies, almost all have now been replaced with more up-to-date digital images. The benefits of time during Covid lockdown!

At the same time, we recognised the need for a smaller, less technical publication, so Jude expertly abridged the words and we produced the slimmer, more photo-heavy PDF, ‘Celebrating the Essex Coast‘. We are happy to send out copies of either PDF free of charge if you email us, provided that you accept the fact that your details will be held on a mailing list to shamelessly promote our wares at the time we have something to sell you…

Which, if Covid continues to exert its malign grip on our mobility, may not be too far away. We are now working on not one, but two books. The first, provisionally entitled ‘A Field Guide to the Essex Coast‘ is not a conventional guidebook. It won’t give step-by-step guides of where to go and what to see: there are plenty of other publications that do that already and all share the same problem – the coast is more-or-less dynamic, ever-changing under the influence of weather, currents and tides, so that anything prescriptive is immediately out of date.

Its subtitle is perhaps more accurate – this is a journey not from A to B, but ‘from A to see…’. It provides the information needed, from access points to must-see features to background information, to enhance enjoyment and give readers all they need to explore the Essex coast for themselves. That is explore and engage, involving the excitement of the unknown, rather than being spoon-fed, being told where to go and what to expect to see (and suffer righteous angers if, God forbid, you don’t…)

In three sections, firstly there is the ‘Why?’ Why explore the Essex coast, an introductory, largely pictorial celebration of that which makes to Essex coast so valuable. That moves into the ‘Where and when?’, taking each stretch of the coastline in turn in more detail. And finally, the ‘How?’ – the things you need to know in order to explore safely, for yourself and for the wildlife you may be looking at.

The planned second volume ‘A Field Guide to the Wildlife of the Essex Coast’ will address the ‘What?’. What are the habitats you can find on the Essex coast, how do they work, and how are we humans trying to protect them? What is the wildlife you can find along the Essex coast, both common and rare, large and small? Again not a conventional guide, but full of information about how things survive and thrive on the cusp between land and sea. Watch this space!

Times have changed. The Nature Conservancy Council  became English Nature became Natural England. I moved on from Essex to a national role and then took early retirement. And NE became largely a toothless mouthpiece of a Government at best unenthusiastic about environmental protection, especially insofar as it restricts opportunities for already rich people to make money out of our green and pleasant land…. Not its fault of course: one of the first acts of the coalition in 2010 was to tell us we were no longer an independent watchdog  for the natural world (as enshrined in law), but there to deliver government policy. Which of course was growth. Otherwise known as Rape of our Common Wealth…

Now as much as at any time in the past is the time for nature to be given a voice.