All posts by Chris Gibson

September in the Beth Chatto Gardens

Mid-September and coastal Essex is well into its third drought of a worryingly bizarre summer. At least at this time of year, some moisture is available, if only in the form of morning dew:

While summer blooms still cling on, autumn flowers are reaching their best, creating a rainbow of colour…

… including bulbs celebrating the ‘second Spring’, one of the special features of Mediterranean climate zones worldwide. Instant transport to places one might like to be after a lockdown summer…

Now is the time also to take in the immense variety of fruiting and seeding flowers, some sculptural, others attractive, and almost all one of the resources which make good gardens a haven for wildlife.

Often overlooked, ornamental grasses should form a key part of any garden, again for wildlife, shelter and food, and especially in late summer, as many of the flower spikes mature, a whispering soundtrack to the garden in even the lightest breeze.

And of course, always the foliage. Emerging from the limelight of summer flowers, noticing the shapes and colours again feels like a rediscovery, while new colour bleeding into leaves and fanning the seasonal flames is the epitome of autumn.

   

But it’s not just about colour. Light and shadow on a sunny day provide a transient lift, one given added potency at this time of year, as the canopy thins and the lower angle of the sun illuminates with sidelight.

Insects and other invertebrates are rapidly becoming fewer and further between…

… but any concentration of the right resources, nectar and pollen especially, can pull in large numbers. Witness the bushes of Ivy, the newly opened flowers teeming with Ivy Bees, a recent arrival in the UK which has been numerous in this part of Essex for only the past four or five years.

And most exciting of all, a small(ish), black(ish), hairy ladybird which flashed bright orange when it flew: Rhyzobius forestieri. Also new to the UK (in 2014), and now well known in parts of the far south-west of Essex, we have never come across it, nor even heard if it occurring round here. As a predator of scale insects, rather endearing (to some!) shelled bugs which can build up to damaging proportions on some plants, this is one new arrival the gardens should welcome.

 

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: September – Barrier Marsh, The Chase, ant-hills and more…

Another very pleasant set of walks was held at the beginning of September, to an area which we had not fully explored as a group before. The hour passed very quickly for each session, and we hope that everyone enjoyed learning a bit about the history of the place as well as the ecology. Thanks to all, and we would like to send a special Get Well wish to a dear friend, a regular ‘B&B-er’ who unfortunately is poorly in hospital at the moment.

First the history of ‘The Chase’ and the seawall. Four hundred or more years ago, to protect sheep flocks which grazed on the marsh, a seawall was built along our stretch of the estuary (as well as much of the Essex coastline). The clay/soil was burrowed out to build the wall, leaving ‘borrow dykes’ ie the ditches that we see today. The wide path, ‘The Chase’, leading from the wall towards the old railway line, historically belonged to the otherwise landlocked parish of Elmstead, provided a legitimate access to the water and its trading potential. Trade would have been food and agricultural produce shipped up as far as London, the barges often returning with horse dung for manure. Where extra ballast was required, this was readily available from the gravel pits in north Wivenhoe, and easily transported to the quays via Ballast Quay Lane.

Facing the water, the marsh to the right of The Chase is in Wivenhoe, whilst that on the left to Alresford.  A cursory glance at each will show their differing topography, the Alresford expanse being much bumpier than the Wivenhoe counterpart.  The reason?  Each ‘bump’ is in fact an ant-hill. The Wivenhoe stretch of marsh was given over to agriculture during the war, the area flattened out, thus fewer and smaller bumps remaining today.

The number of ant-hills on the Alresford stretch is truly staggering.  Each, probably housing thousands of ants, is a small ‘island’ with its own peculiar suite of vegetation, at this time of year some with Sow Thistles, others Common Toadflax or lichens eg Reindeer Moss.  Rushes (‘Sedges have edges and Rushes are round’) grow on the damper soil in between. See Chris’ blog from earlier in the year for illustrations of the wonderful flora of the marsh https://www.chrisgibsonwildlife.co.uk/lockdown-diary-the-ant-hills-of-barrier-marsh/.

Bugs weren’t particularly thick on the ground, though the Saturday groups were able to see a splendid Brassica Shield-bug, as well as observing some dragonflies in action looking for flying insects to catch for dinner.  A few butterflies were seen flickering over the marsh – a Small Copper, Small Heath and Large White amongst them.

Both of the Monday groups were treated to a close up of a huge Fox moth caterpillar….it was wandering to and fro across the path by the Sailing Club, possibly searching for somewhere to pupate for the winter. We helped move it to a safe spot, and hope it decided to stay put and not attempt to cross the busy path again later in the day.

Some estuary plants of interest included the Tamarisk trees now growing in abundance along the old railway line, as well as Sea Wormwood, Strawberry Clover, Cord-grass and Sea Aster.

NATURE ON YOUR DOORSTEP

And thanks to everyone who has been sending us interesting bugs and beasties that they have found in their gardens and living rooms.

An Orange Swift moth in Little Oakley and a Harlequin Ladybird in Lawford…

…and an Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar in Wivenhoe and a Large White butterfly just about to emerge from its pupa near Brighton, showing clearly the pattern on its wings through the translucent pupal skin. What a photo!

As ever, we are indebted to everyone who has been in touch with photos, anecdotes and has supported our walks.

Additional photos: Nicky Meckiff, Caroline Hall, Nel Mooy, Val Appleyard. Thanks all!

The Wild Side of Essex: day tours with Naturetrek in August

One side effect of Covid19 has been the near-elimination of most overseas travel. Looking positively though, this gives us all chance to reconnect with the wildlife and landscape around us. And so it was that Naturetrek started to offer socially-distanced day tours in Britain, and gave me the chance to continue what I spent much of my working life doing, putting Essex on the wildlife map.

Billed as ‘The Wild Side of Essex: Autumn in the Colne Estuary’ seemed a little pessimistic given they were starting in August, but as it transpired the weather on both occasions was less than summery. The first coincided with Atlantic Storm Ellen sweeping across the country, 50mph winds buffeting us all day, and the second was as the next named storm, Francis, was subsiding…but leaving turbulent weather in its wake, storms of almost tropical intensity interspersed with hot, humid sunshine, and an abrupt change of wind direction near the end of the day which saw temperatures plummet by several degrees in just a few minutes.

Nevertheless, we had fun in the unseasonal wind and rain, and found plenty of wildlife to keep us interested.

Estuary birds were starting to return from their northern breeding places, with many Black-tailed Godwits in particular still in smart summer plumage, hundreds on the downstream itinerary, but also some, giving much better views, on the upstream walk.

Also downstream, lots of Redshanks, about sixty Avocets, and a few Curlews, Turnstones and Little Egrets gave added spice, as migrating Swallows struggled into the wind, and a couple of White Wagtails completed the migrant roll call.

Smaller birds in general were kept very low by the inclement weather, although the woods and hedges were shrilling to calls of roving Long-tailed and Blue Tit flocks. In Wivenhoe Park, a Green Woodpecker put on a good show of hunting for ants.

Insects were also hard work, given the weather, but by heading for shelter and taking advantage of sunny spells, we came upon seven species of Odonata, mostly Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers. Upstream, the latter were almost swarming in places, and the aggregations included single Brown Hawker and most excitingly given its only recent arrival in these parts, a Southern Migrant Hawker…sadly without providing a photo opportunity.

 

Butterflies included both summer stragglers (Common Blue, Small Heath, Small Copper and Gatekeeper) and the autumnal fare of Red Admiral and Speckled Wood…

…while moths provided interest in their larval stages – Cinnabar (on Hoary Ragwort), Toadflax Brocade (a recent recolonist of the UK) and the impressive case of Coleophora kuehnella.

Other invertebrates included Green Shield-bug and Scorpion-fly, Batman Hoverfly and Pine Ladybird, while an Elm Zig-zag Sawfly larva was only the second time I have found this recent British arrival around Wivenhoe.

Of course, one doesn’t always need to see a creature to know it is there, for example when its activities trigger the formation of a gall in a host plant. Autumn is the best time to find these, and on our walks the most productive hosts were Pedunculate Oak (spangle, silk-button, marble and knopper galls, for example), Dog Rose (smooth pea and Robin’s pincushion galls) and willows (bean and camellia galls).

Much the same is true of fungi, microfungi in particular. Some of those do indeed also induce galls: others however, while not distorting the leaf growth, do give rise to distinctive symptoms – take for example the mildew Erysiphe alphitoides on the summer leaves of Oak, and tar-spot Rhytisma acerinum on Sycamore.

Large fungi though were few and far between, the main ones being long-lived bracket fungi like Chicken-of-the-Woods in Wivenhoe Park. No doubt this reflects the two intense drought periods of spring and summer this year: perhaps the late August rains bode well for the rest of the autumn?

The final flowerings of summer included all sorts of specialities, from block-paving rarities (Jersey Cudweed and Four-leaved Allseed)…

… to salt and grazing marsh specialities like Sea Wormwood, Strawberry Clover, Golden Samphire, Sea Aster and Perennial Glasswort …

… showy remnants of the summer meadows (Chicory and Field Scabious) mingling with autumnal nectar sources (Common Toadflax and Perforate St John’s-wort) and nationally scarce Lesser Calamint, feast for the nose as well as the eyes …

… to the colonisers of ‘life after gravel extraction’ at Cockaynes Reserve,  such as Common Fleabane, Trailing St John’s Wort, the non-native Epilobium brachycarpum, Smooth Hawkbit (at its only known Essex site), and Heather at its last locality in the area, this year more magnificent then ever before.

 

A feature of this year seems to be the early and heavy fruiting of trees and shrubs, Nature’s autumnal bounty writ large. No doubt these will feature heavily in the next few walks:

And last but not least, the one things pretty much immune to the vagaries of the wild weather (we hope!) there were magnificent trees everywhere, especially in Wivenhoe Park with its historic 200 year-old Cork Oaks.

 All part of the Wild Side of Essex, from birds to botany, galls to geology!

Late August in the Beth Chatto Gardens

Summer 2020 continues to confound. Deep droughts, with brief spells of heavy rain; some very hot sun but other spells of unseasonal gloom; and two named Atlantic storms before the end of August….while some plants are clearly struggling, as ever the garden was a late summer delight of flowers, foliage, fruit and followers – the insects.

Just a few photos here, no commentary needed…except to mention the Painted Lady, the only one we have seen so far this summer.

Back to the Sandlings…

Drawn to the South Suffolk Sandlings again, on one of the hottest days of the year. Too hot for many things – people, birds, reptiles and even many of the insects were lying low for respite.

In one of the driest parts of the country, these heaths are drought-prone, and their plants have to be drought-tolerant. Two heathers form the backbone of the floral landscape: Ling and Bell Heather, both in good flower (the latter just past its best and the former working up to its peak), along with Bracken and Western Gorse. Lower, spinier, deeper yellow and restricting its flowering to late summer, in contrast to Common Gorse,  if ‘kissing is in season when Western Gorse is in flower’,  life would be lonely….

In the grip of the second drought of the summer, just a handful of other flowers (Harebell, Viper’s-bugloss, Hare’s-foot Clover and Small-flowered Crane’s-bill) were showing, alongside dried-up fruits (Hound’s-tongue). What a selection of ‘animal plants’!

Small Coppers were everywhere, colour-clashing furiously with the heather, and also homing in on the nectar of last few Bramble flowers…

…which they were sharing with the last of the battered Gatekeepers.

Graylings were still abundant out on the open heaths, their camouflage well suited to lichen backgrounds. In the heat, many were also retreating into the shade of the trees, settling on trunks as they and related species are prone to do around the Mediterranean; wandering Fox Moth caterpillars were probably seeking shade likewise:

One insect group showing no signs of heat stress were the bees and wasps, from Bee-wolves to leaf-cutters and spider-hunters of many a kind.

Sand Wasps were particularly abundant, feeding themselves on Bramble, and provisioning their nests with paralysed caterpillars:

In the windless calm, a constant ‘pitter-patter’ among the birches was not as I had expected the rain of caterpillar frass, but the sound of Birch Catkin-bugs falling from the aggregations of both nymphs and adults.  A swarm on a leaf is easy to see, but on a catkin, the bugs are much more difficult to discern – it is as though the catkin was budding bug nymphs instead of shedding seeds:

A selection of the other invertebrates includes the south-eastern heathland spider Neoscona adianta…

… but best of all was the Red-breasted Carrion Beetle. Never seen this before, although it seems to be pretty widespread in Norfolk and Suffolk. An absolute cracker!

Great News from Beth Chatto’s!

Carnage averted! It is a delight to report that the the concerns for our pollinator populations that have been voiced (for example here) over the past year have been heeded – the flower spikes of Thalia dealbata, deadly assassins that kill slowly by trapping insects in their fatal embrace, have been removed. While a few remained when I visited yesterday, and mortality was taking place, I felt that every one gone meant lives saved; but then I was doubly happy to be told that the remaining spikes had been removed by the end of the day.

Beth Chatto Gardens, thank you, on behalf of the little things that make the world go round! It is reassuring to know you are keeping alive Beth’s ecological gardening principles.

In other news, it was a rare dull and humid day, with the second drought of the summer starting to take a grip. Predominant among the flowers were members of the Asteraceae, perhaps better known as composites, or members of the daisy family, as is typical in late summer. A kaleidoscope of colours, each flower-head a plate of food for passing insects:

Also coming to the fore are lace-cap hydrangeas: although unrelated to the daisies, they have an analogous flower structure, with a disc of small, fertile flowers surrounded by showy infertile flowers, to attract insects to the resources within, and in doing so, hopefully effecting pollination. They come in a pleasing array of forms from ‘frothy blue’ to ‘dolly mixture’….

And of course, there are many more plants worthy of a photographic mention, a pastel profusion brought to life with a scatter of vibrant highlights:

  

Last but not least, the insect visitors. Butterflies have faded away a bit over the past couple of weeks, but bees and wasps, from Bee-wolves to Figwort Saw-flies, have flourished:

Hoverflies too. Often mistaken for wasps, one in particular, the Hornet Hoverfly, one of the largest flies in Britain, is a very effective (harmless) mimic of its (sting-bearing) model, the Hornet.

And a final assortment of insects. It will be interesting to see what survives, what thrives and what wilts in the forecast intense heat over the next week…

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: August – a tentative return to Lower Lodge

How we enjoyed our foray into the natural world with our Botany and Bug friends this weekend. The past few months have seemed long and difficult at times, and I think we all felt it was good to get back to a shade of ‘normality’ (whatever that will come to mean). So thank you to everyone who came along and supported us. ‘Social distance’ was no problem and we all saw lots. The small groups for an hour worked well and we look forward to arranging some more events soon. Our outings took place on two separate days, so the following report is a compilation of the ‘best bits’.

Our place of discovery was Lower Lodge, somewhere that is bounding with insect life and botanical interest. Important nectar sources at this time of year include Knapweed, Wild Carrot and Scabious. Many insects could be found enjoying these in the sunshine – butterflies such as Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Whites and even a Purple Hairstreak, as well as the rather smart Burnet moths,  both 5- and 6-spotted varieties, which are not as numerous as in some years, a probable result of the drought in April/May. One of their major food plants is Bird’s Foot Trefoil, a pretty, low-growing plant which suffered during the dry weather, thus not being there when the moths needed it. Another insect not to have done well this summer seems to be the Common Blue Butterfly which also depends on this particular flower.

Bees were out and about in force – Buff tailed Bumblebees, Leaf-cutter Bees (‘bum in the air’ trademark), plus tiny but charismatic Green-eyed Flower-bees. These can often be heard before being seen – their loud (for their size) buzz heralds their arrival, and then when they come into view their green eyes are distinctive.

Other insects seen were three kinds of ‘true bugs’ in various stages of development – an empty clutch of eggs plus ‘teenage’ versions of Dock Bug, Box Bug and Green Shield-bug.  All quite endearing little critters.  A Candy-striped Spider was enjoying her lunch under a Wild Carrot umbel, and we espied a large funnel web of a spider who was no doubt waiting in her lair to catch anything silly enough to land nearby.  A family of Buff-tip moth caterpillars were seen on one walk, but had mysteriously disappeared the following hour.  We wondered if a bird had had a good feed!

 

Lower Lodge, part of the Colne Nature Reserve, is a large area divided into patches of grass which are mown on rotation every three to four years allowing closely cropped patches (places of recreation for humans and their canine companions which also provide good ant-digging territories for Green Woodpeckers), plus areas of different levels of growth, all important for biodiversity. Other feathered friends seen and heard included Yellowhammer,  Whitethroat, Blackcap and Buzzard.

Oaks are an important feature of the landscape here – not only the statuesque mature ones, but also the many self-seeded saplings. Although we tend to revere oaks, when in the wrong place in the wrong quantities they are in effect ‘weeds’ and should be removed before becoming  too large and start to shade out important nectar plants.  Having said that an oak tree can be home to many kinds of insects, including  small flies, aphids and wasps. Often too small to be seen or identified with the naked eye, these creatures can easily be named by looking at the little ‘homes’ (galls) they organise for their larvae. These ‘gall-causers’ introduce a specific chemical into a tree, which carries out a damage-limitation exercise, creating these often remarkably designed growths. Oaks support over 50 gall-causing insects, and we chalked up quite a few different ones – Silk Button and Spangle galls on leaves, Marble galls (a source of tannin for ink and dyeing in days gone by) and Artichoke galls attached to branches, and Knopper galls on acorns.

 

We observed others on Wild Rose, including the familiar Robin’s Pincushion and the slightly  more unusual but delightful Sputnik gall.

Many more of the photos we have taken of wildlife on Lower Lodge over the past month can now be found on a new Gallery on our website – Wivenhoe’s Lower Lodge.

Talking of Oaks we would like to plug a book by our friend Dr James Canton ‘The Oak Papers’ – just published, it is a personal account of his encounter with an ancient tree, the Honywood Oak at Mark’s Hall estate. Excitingly it is being serialised on Radio 4 Book of the Week, this week .We are delighted that we were able to help in a small way and we get a mention!.  Whether we are immortalised by Radio 4 remains to be seen (heard) of course!

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Before we finish the report with details of future events, we just wanted to let you see some of the photos sent to us by nature-watchers now dotted all over UK and Europe. Please keep on sending your images: Poplar Hawk-moth in Spain…

Jersey Tiger moth in Islington…

… and touching stories:  a special Red Admiral which brought comfort to a sad lady and landed on her wedding ring.

A rather unusual photo from Wivenhoe (something not witnessed by us before) a Leaf cutter bee with piece of cut-leaf attached…

and a most amazing aphid which appears to be sitting on a disc.  As our friend in Brighton told us ‘It’s an aphid that’s been parasitized by a tiny wasp Discritulus planiceps. It lays its egg inside an aphid then changes into an adult in the disc under the aphid’s body. The aphid is then just a husk’.  Cracking! We would love to see one here, so whoever shows us our first one round Wivenhoe gets a free Bug & Botany walk!

Additional Photos: Belinda Bamber, Ro Inzani, Sue Minta, Val Appleyard

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We feel that, unless things go horribly wrong COVID-wise we will go ahead with socially distanced hour-long walks for the remainder of 2020.

So dates for your diary –

Sat  5th/Mon 7th September  10-11 and 11.30-12.30     Barrier Marsh, including walk along The Chase checking out the curious ant hills plus other stuff (see one our Lockdown Diaries for more details).

Sat 3/Mon 5 October 10-11 and 11.30-12.30           The University, looking at some of the interesting trees and (if last year is anything to go by) an incredible variety of fungi.

At the moment each walk will be limited to a maximum of 6 participants, so do please let us know if you would like to book a place.  Cost £5 per person please.

We are also thinking we may offer a few day-long walks in Wivenhoe or Suffolk Coast or the Naze areas.  I will be sending out a separate email with our thoughts soon…

Before we go, we would like to give a mention to ‘Wildsmiths Wildlife Services’- our friends Greg and Sarah Smith who are off on adventures to Scotland soon.  They hope to be arranging guided walks and talks on a beautiful Scottish island and will be writing regular blogs and reports.  If you would like to find out about what they get up to, please visit their website www.wildsmiths.co.uk.

So, if you have read thus far many thanks, and hope to hear from or see you soon!

The southern Suffolk Sandlings

Heading across the border into Suffolk for the first time since early March, it was good to reacquaint myself with both similarities and differences between the Sutton Heath area and wild Wivenhoe.

Only some 40km apart as the crow flies, on stepping out of the car it was immediately apparent just how different these spots are, at least in great part due to the intensely droughty nature of the aptly-named Sandlings, much more extreme than anything we have around us.

While the butterflies were much as we are seeing at home, with numerous Peacocks, Commas, Ringlets, Gatekeepers and Small Coppers, the sandy patches of the heaths were thronged with Graylings. On the brink of extinction in Essex, Graylings are well camouflaged on lichen-covered heaths, reinforced by their habit of never landing with wings open, and tilting towards the sun on a sunny day to minimize a tell-tale shadow. And it seems, they just love nectar from Bell Heather!

Another exciting find was the parasitic Tachinis grossa,  a magnificent bumble-brute of a fly, of which half-a-dozen were working a line of flowering Brambles by Upper Hollesley Common. Although widely distributed across western Britain, it is always local, and more-or-less absent from East Anglia, apart from parts of the north Norfolk coast, Breckland and the Sandlings. In Essex, it has been found in only four sites since its initial discovery in 2003, so the chance to stand among this lumbering orgy of nectaring was a real privilege.

One other species previously unknown to me was a very distinctive gall on the fronds of Bracken, shaped like a cigar, caused by the gall-midge Dasineura pteridis, its larvae occupying the appropriately named Little Black Pudding Galls. 

Despite the near-ubiquity of its host plant, the midge appears to be rather scarce, scattered across Britain, but in East Anglia seemingly known mainly from the northern Sandlings. Another dot on the map, and some way from previously known sites.

These were the highlights, but of course there was much much more, as evidenced by the photo selection below. Robber-flies everywhere, doing the three things they do best – staring, killing and mating…

… hunch-backed Gargoyle-flies …

… a kaleidoscope of Hymenoptera …

… long-horn beetles …

… Forest Bugs and Parent Bugs alongside nymphal Birch Shield-bugs …

… and grasshoppers bounding and abounding with every footfall: the list goes on.

All-in-all, a very productive venture over the border!

 

 

London Rediscovered

Our first tentative trip to London for half a year. The absolute antithesis of #wildwivenhoe, our lockdown habitat, but thrilling nonetheless. As we have written before: ‘Canyons of glass and steel, capturing but not quite taming the sky‘…. but not set amid the customary hordes. The streets of the City were quiet, apart from construction men, security staff and cleaners, giving us space and time to contemplate the modernity:

.. but as always, it was both gratifying and humbling to see those spots where, by design or default, Nature has blurred the hard edges that we have tried to impose upon the world. By design, whether it is a tree canopy  creeping into the vista, or blooms to lift the spirits at ground level:

By default, take the sub-tropical garden that has developed and been encouraged on the bombed-out shell of St Dunstan-in-the-East…

…or the simple pleasures of an already-colouring fallen leaf on the pavement…

… and on the steps and Embankment in front of Old Billingsgate, the cracks between the block paviors colonised by a goodly range of mostly non-native plants, including Spotted Spurge, a rapidly increasing ‘weed’ of urban areas in the south. Either the absence of herbicide or the reduced footfall has allowed it to thrive this summer.

Plants like this give hope, and speak to me of the impermanence of our arrogant species, redolent of the Mayan cities now enveloped by apparently natural rainforest. Every thing has its time: perhaps the havoc wrought by Covid indicates that our time is past?

Wildlife on the Farm: an organic perspective

One of the many delights of life in Wivenhoe is the presence of a weekly vegetable bag scheme, produce that is both local (with lower carbon footprint than most supermarket veg) and healthy (being organic, and thus lacking in pesticide residues). The vegetables come from Bennison Farm bennisonfarm.co.uk in Thorrington, and we were recently given access to the farm with WildSmiths wildsmiths.co.uk to look at its natural features. Greg and Sarah Smith have been volunteers on the farm, and realised at first hand the wildlife riches it contains, testament to the nature of the horticultural system used.

First and foremost, the cultivated ground of Bennison’s, while evidently productive, is full of ‘arable plants’, the sort of things we used to know as ‘weeds’ but which we have now come to value for their scarcity, following their loss from conventional intensive cultivation systems. An organic system is without artificial inputs: in the absence of toxic herbicides, necessary weed control is done through a combination of tractor-mounted steerage hoe, flame weeders and lots of back-breaking manual labour! But the combination of these can never, thankfully, achieve their wholesale eradication.

And so we were able to enjoy long-forgotten scenes of all sorts of arable plant growing among the intended crops: Greg has already found more than 90 species (click here for list), including several local rarities, such as Sharp-leaved Fluellen, Henbit Dead-nettle, Corn Spurrey, Annual Knawel and Field Pennycress:

The scarcer ones were mixed with the more frequent, but still declining, Sun Spurge, Fumitory, Wall Speedwell and Black Nightshade:

 

Plants such as Fumitory encapsulate neatly why these species matter. They were once so familiar and numerous that a drift of the flowers looked like smoke arising from the earth, the eponymous fumus terrae. What’s more, their 20th Century near-eradication through the over-use of herbicides (poisons) within crops (destined to become our food) also removed its seeds from the landscape: the favoured food of Turtle Doves, the distillation in sound and beauty of our summer…and very likely a national extinction which will be recorded during the next decade.

Some arable plants are genuinely native species, ones which have transitioned from naturally dynamic habitats such as river shingles and mountain screes into the human-disturbed farmlands and gardens. Others have arrived here over the millennia of agriculture and horticulture, often arising in the Middle East or Mediterranean areas, followers in the footsteps of cultivation. And plants are still arriving with us: Hairy Finger-grass has only relatively recently become a feature of horticulture in the UK, probably as a contaminant in crop seed sources, or perhaps as a bird-seed alien:

A good number of the arable plants are in the spinach family, typically with green, unassuming flowers, and consequently often difficult to identify. Half-a-dozen species of these Oraches and Goosefoots were found as we walked, and undoubtedly others will be present. What they lack in floriferousness, make up for in their oil-rich seeds, much loved by seed-eating birds. Examples shown are Fat-hen, Many-seeded Goosefoot and Maple-leaved Goosefoot:

A final suite of interesting plants are (presumably) derived from seeds sown to create green manure crops to maintain soil fertility. Particularly notable among these are clovers – dramatic long-flowered Crimson Clover, pale yellow Sulphur Clover and pink Reversed Clover, the flowers rotated through 180 degrees, so the flowerhead looks as though it has been squashed underfoot:

All these so-called weeds are both interesting in their own right, but also valuable in that they help to support useful invertebrates – ‘useful’ as predators or herbivores of potential pest species, or as pollinators, upon whose activities so many crop plants rely. Ladybirds are a classic example of useful predators, of aphids, and the fields were teeming with them, mostly the common 7-Spots, but also the rather more unusual Adonis Ladybird:

Other at least partially predatory insects included the bugs Deraeocoris flavilinea (a relatively new arrival in Britain) and Heterotoma planicornis (with flattened antennal segments and apple-green legs); Dark Bush-cricket and Oak Bush-cricket. While these are more associated with the surrounding hedges, the presence and maintenance of such good margins undoubtedly helps cast a benign influence on the holding as a whole:

Useful herbivores too – caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth are renowned for feeding with impunity on toxic Ragwort. Here however, they are feeding upon the related Groundsel, a very common plant of disturbed areas which can limit crop productivity if it gets out of hand. What better than yellow-and-black ‘volunteers’ to help weed it out!

In the same category of natural herbicides could also come the Small Copper butterflies which have been seen egg-laying on the docks are appearing as weeds in the crops. As their sole larval food plant, herbivory in such cases must be having a postive impact.

And then of course pollinators – bees, such as the Tree Bumblebee below, are particularly renowned for this but many other insects play their part too, from hoverflies to beetles. Onesuch, the small malachite beetle Axinotarsus marginalis, a known pollinator, was interesting as it is another recent colonist of Britain, and previously unknown to us.

Of course there was also a vast range of other invertebrates, ones that cannot be argued as directly beneficial to the farm, but the sum total of which gives credence to the idea of organic cultivation as ecological farming, treating the land as an ecosystem to be nurtured and treasure:

Whether common or rare, all are important in the web of life. But it is always exciting to find the scarcities. Only a couple of weeks ago, Sarah found a Pied Shield-bug, for which the Essex Field Club distribution map shows only one other location in the Tendring Peninsula. Likewise, exactly the same comment can be made for the Bryony Bee we photographed on the boundary with Hockley Wood, except that as well as its local scarcity (see map here), it is considered to be nationally rare.

All of the above, and we have hardly even mentioned the showiest of them all, the butterflies, a kaleidoscope of biodiversity weaving their confetti magic throughout the farm: browns, whites, Peacocks and Red Admirals, together with neighbouring woodland specialities – Purple Hairstreak and Silver-washed Fritillary:

Just 3.5 hectares provides more than 150 weekly veg shares, and keeps wildlife and the environment happy. At a time when food standards are at huge risk from the pressures of predatory US producers, with considerably lower, barrel-bottom-scraping standards on pesticide residues and suchlike waiting in the wings following Brexit, we must treasure, support and safeguard those like Bennison Farm that maintain our and the planet’s health.

High Summer in the Beth Chatto Gardens: a butterfly bonanza

High summer, and butterflies were everywhere, especially fitting given the annual Big Butterfly Count being launched earlier that day. Peacocks, Red Admirals and Commas spread their confetti on every suitable nectar source, most notably Veronicastrum and Echinacea, while Purple Hairstreak, Holly Blue and a single Silver-washed Fritillary added their scarcer spice.

Other insects too – masses of Marmalade Hoverflies, and troupes of flying ants, emerging and initiating gull feeding frenzies overhead…

… but, in the only low point of the day, the annual, inadvertent pollinator cull by Thalia has commenced (see chrisgibsonwildlife.co.uk/murder-at-the- for more details).

Moving to the plants, of course the garden is not just about the flowers – foliage can be equally, stunningly picturesque…

… and as the season starts to turn, seeds and pods come into their own.

And then of course, last but not least, are the flowers, fiery summer reds and oranges trying hard to catch the eye, but never quite able to put the pastels in the shade:
 
And finally, I must mention the Fibonacci whorls of Echinacea, an inner maze of psychedelic confusion, to boggle the mind as well as the eyes.

 

Jude’s Nature Diary: Botany & Bugs (and more!) on your Doorstep – mid July

Here we are again!  Gradually returning to normal activities, with caution! As always we are indebted to all our Nature Watchers who have contributed musings and photos…it’s good to know that you are out there in this, at times, difficult world.

Thought we would start with plants for a change – and thanks to an eagle-eyed friend we have this wonderful picture of a Bee Orchid to show you. Growing in an area in north Wivenhoe, it has in recent years struggled to hang on in its former stronghold. We hope that management in this area can be improved to allow these rather amazing things to continue. Orchids are truly ‘odd’ in my view – their lifestyles, and looks make them unique in the plant world.  We have been helping to get a book about Orchids ready for production, so if anyone would like to know more about these wacky things, we can recommend the WILDGuides field guide which will be published soon. We can provide details of it if you are interested – just let us know.

We saw this other decidedly-odd plant when at Beth Chatto’s garden recently. Why is the plant Linaria triornithophora so named…where are the ‘three birds’? Well, peering through a camera revealed all when the unopened buds magically and mischievously mutated into budgies!

Whilst there we were entranced by this amazing critter, a Hummingbird Hawk-moth.  This little beastie had flown all the way from Europe to join us and she was mighty hungry – enjoying the nectar, sipping it with her long tongue.

Still in Beth Chattos – and why not, now that it is again open – we were also sent this lovely shot of a White Admiral, now fully re-established around us after local extinction in the 1950s. We even saw one flying around the unpromising surrounds of our Shipyard car park.

Birds are all around and we are pleased that it isn’t just us that likes Starlings – a nature lover in Wivenhoe told us about her lovely flock of baby Starlings visiting her garden and that she was kept busy refilling feeders and bird baths. She also had a Mr and Mrs Stag Beetle paying regular visits. Talking of stags, someone we know and love locally, although living near a known Stag Beetle hide-out had not actually ever seen any, but she told us about an exciting encounter recently whilst walking

‘…I saw something astonishing. Right in front of me was a stag beetle suspended in flight. I stood riveted while it flew around me coming within a foot of my face several times backwards and forwards, up and down, round and round for about 5 minutes. I was waiting for it to land but it didn’t and then, eventually, flew up higher and went over the top of the bushes. It was a beautiful specimen and I’m kicking myself for not having my phone with me to take a picture! Really amazing and thrilling.

Follow that…..

A couple of fellow nature addicts in Yorkshire have recently treated themselves to a new camera – with exciting results. Take a look at these close ups of Barn owl and a Spotted Flycatcher feeding her young. How we would love to still see flycatchers in Essex!

A rather unfortunate (headless!) Rose Chafer was discovered In Wivenhoe last week. Not sure what could have decapitated it, but Magpies are renowned for attacking our Stag Beetles.

And a beautiful Fox Moth caterpillar was seen in Dovercourt. These hairy beasties are beautiful, but hairy caterpillars in general aren’t good to handle as they can be irritating to sensitive skins.

Skippers are interesting little things – are they butterflies or moths? A bit of a mix of the two – though classed as butterflies. Here in Essex we have three, very similar looking species – the Essex ( which lives in all manner of counties!), Large and Small Skippers. How can you differentiate? Well, rule of thumb is that the ‘Large’ is bigger than the rest (no surprises there) and somewhat blotchy, but (to quote our Insect book), ‘the Essex Skipper (has a) rather grey underside and the antennal tip is black underneath and obviously clubbed, whereas in the Small Skipper it is more tapered and orange underneath’. Pictured is an Essex one (photoed in Sussex)!

A lovely picture-in-words was sent to us from our friend in Suffolk..

(today I have been) watching our marjoram trembling under an army of honey & bumble bees and hoverflies, plus some newly-minted red admirals and endless tortoiseshells. Before this, they had worked their way through our explosion of red poppies, elegant lavender, and then our purple carpet of thyme. On today’s river walk was a flat-bodied chaser, demoiselles & blue neon damselfly. On the hill, weld, knapweed, mallow & scabious created some colourful patches. Swifts screaming overhead added the final flourish.

Feels as if I was there!

Before we go we must draw your attention to a superb new book that has just been published. The Oak Papers by Dr James Canton (a good friend and fellow nature enthusiast) is a personal journey to discover the wonders of Oak. AND it is to be aired on Radio 4 as Book of the Week during the first week of August. Not to be missed!

As most of you will know we have decided to resume our Botany and Bug Walks (albeit in a minimal format), so it is likely that we will be concentrating from now on sending out an illustrated report from these. However, DO please keep sending us your contributions, and we will still do an occasional ‘Nature Newsletter’, continuing to ‘spread the word’.

As always, happy nature watching.

ADDITIONAL IMAGES by Val Appleyard, Patrick Eady, Andrea Williams, Sue Minta and Debbie Taylor.