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The Mid-Anglian chalk in summer

Essex is a large county, and over here on the eastern seaboard, the chalklands of the west are really a step too far away … unless one has to pass through on the way elsewhere.  Earlier this year was one of those, but as a late spring it wasn’t hugely productive (except for Pasque Flowers), so I decided to drop in for more summery fare on my way to and from Birdfair, near Rutland Water.

At the juxtaposition of Essex, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire, the mid-Anglian Chilterns Chalk is best seen perhaps at Therfield Heath (Herts) and here the chalk grassland flora was just outstanding.

Taller species like Clustered Bellflower, Yellow-wort, Dropwort, Hairy Hawkbit and Hawkweed Ox-tongue…

… mingled with shorter ones like Small Scabious, Common Rock-rose and the simply delightful candy-striped Squinancywort.

Marbled Whites flew away at every footfall, and of those that did settle a good proportion had passengers in the form of hitch-hiking mites. A species called Trombidium breei, this normally attaches to the thorax or legs of the host and seems to be particularly prevalent on Marbled Whites.

A final point of interest was from the Beech trees that abut the grassland. Just a few leaves showed a line of galls running down the midrib. These belong to a gall midge Hartigiola annulipes. Although widely distibuted across the country, it doesn’t seem to have been recorded before from or near to this locality, at least according to the National Biodversity Network Atlas.

Elsewhere, the low rolling landscape, mostly clad in intensive arable and a few hedges, the realm of singing Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings, the only real clue to the underlying geology is the remnant chalk flora in some of the grass verges, with Field Scabious and Greater Knapweed being especially good indicators. The narrow, often single-track roads don’t lend themselves to easy stopping, but with my long history of working in the counties, I have come to know a few good spots with reasonable access. And so yes, I took the opportunity to drop in on a few old friends.

Near Thriplow (Cambs) in a field margin prone to winter-wet is an accessibly colony of a very rare, small but attractive plant, Grass-poly.

As an annual of often ephemeral waters, its population waxes and wanes; seeds are probably moved around on the feet of ducks, as well as remaining dormant in soil for long periods during adverse conditions.

I have seen it here maybe four times in the past two decades and my feeling is that this year will not be particularly successful for it. The surrounding vegetation is so lush from earlier rains that the flowering patches are reduced to little more than a few square centimetres in extent, a far cry from the sheets I have seen before. But it will no doubt be able to bounce back, through natural immigration on ducks and from the germination of buried seed.

Moving into Essex, the final location near Saffron Walden is somewhere I have known for even longer, perhaps 40 years. It is a road verge, and one that is protected as it holds good population of Crested Cow-wheat.

This magnificent plant has a very good claim to be the botanical icon of Essex. Pretty much restricted to the chalk and chalky boulder clays of north-west Essex, south-west Suffolk and eastern Cambridgeshire, it has a very similar national distribution to our other iconic plant, Oxlip.

Although like Grass-poly it is in annual, this population of Crested Cow-wheat seems to fluctuate less markedly. With little or no seed bank and no obvious vectors of long-distance immigration, it should therefore be regarded as vulnerable to environmental change. Gratifying therefore to see this year that plants are distributed pretty much as I have seen them before over the years.

Interestingly, there was also a flurry of butterfly activity, welcome after such a deep June chasm. Ringlets were everywhere with lots of Large Skippers and a Brimstone (my first of the summer brood), along with something that would not have been part of the scene 40 years ago, or even 20 years ago, Silver-washed Fritillaries patrolling the wood edge in abundance and seeking newly opened Bramble flowers. Times change, and sometimes for the better!

Old friends is old places, there is something both reassuring and instructive about returning again and again to see them!

#WildEssexWalks: Wrabness and Stour Wood

A rather damp and dark evening was the backdrop for our annual Wrabness evening walk (leafy lanes to East Grove with its wonderful views over the estuary, then into Stour Wood itself), however we still found plenty of interest to show our group. We have assembled a selection of photos from the night, many taken with flash as the conditions were so dull while the landscapes became more like Impressionist art!.

This summer has so far been worryingly short of insects, but given the lush vegetation along the lanes, woods and wildflower margins alongside the fields where we were walking, we did find lots of what we would have expected including the ubiquitous Hogweed Bonking-beetles, a variety of shieldbugs, Speckled Bush-cricket, Acorn Weevil and a Hairy Beetle with a couple of stowaway mites.

No butterflies unfortunately, which we hope was only due to the weather conditions, but there was a scattering of moths: one lovely 6-spot Burnet moth, together with a bagworm and Cinnabar caterpillars..

The Wildlife ‘For Bees’ area near Wrabness station itself came up trumps with lots of bumblebees on the Lavender, and proves that just leaving areas to go ‘wild’ isn’t the only way to help our waning wildlife  – many ‘garden’ plants can do the trick very nicely.

As well as insects we looked at some of the many flowers including White Bryony, Oxeye daisies and Knapweed, all of which play a part in providing food for insects.

The moist air of the ancient woods was scented with the mushroomy odour of Sweet Chestnut and the sweetness of Honeysuckle, waiting for the arrival of moths, the night-shift pollinators, while ripening Wild Cherries shone like little beacons.

As we walked we were serenaded by Goldfinches, Skylarks and Wrens. Just one or two birds were spotted on the estuary itself – Black-headed Gulls and a Curlew or two, with Oystercatcher flying over: the winter influx of waterbird migrants is just about to begin. And as if to demonstrate we don’t ignore anything, how about our final offering – the aptly named Dog-sick Slime-mould!

Three days by train: Romsey & Southampton

Our July mini-break of our year (or more!) of mini-breaks took us to Hampshire, specifically Romsey. Where? you may ask! We certainly did when during our February break in Reading, while wandering around the ruined (albeit impressive) abbey, we saw a board showing what it would have looked like: ‘our sister abbey in Romsey’…. Before the day was done we had booked a break in a place that had never entered our consciousness before.

The abbey did not disappoint. While certainly not stately and soaring (actually rather squat), it is beautifully proportioned, and filled with impressive architecture and art from through the ages. Add to that a warm welcome from the attendants who passed on all sorts of useful hints for our days to come (who needs Tourist Information Centres?!), our break got off to a very good start.

Romsey itself is also delightful, a small market town full of historic buildings …

… including the White Horse Hotel, our excellent base for two nights. We had superb evening meals, both at the White Horse and the Old House at Home, the latter with a side order of a marching band that came from the British Legion next door and marched on through the restaurant, still playing. Almost loud enough to drown out the wonderful large screaming parties of Swifts hurtling down the narrow streets. Us watching them careering around and into nest crevices suggested to one local chap we might be from the ‘Test Valley Swift Group’ and he then launched into a very full description of the Swifts of the town, a source of evident pride!

And then there is the River Test itself, one of the premier chalk-streams in Britain, forming the west flank of the town and sending runnels right through its heart, with clear, fast-flowing water supporting lots of aquatic plant life.

However, in common with so many places this summer, precious little insect life, just one each of caddis-fly and solitary bee along a couple of hundred metres of riverbank. Makes you wonder just what the Swifts are finding to feed upon.

Just north of the town was another reason for our visit, Hiller’s Garden and Arboretum, created by Sir Harold Hillier and left in the care of the local authority.

There are trees and other plants from all over the world, reasonably well labelled, and arranged in variously themed beds:

Of particular interest was the collection of Cotoneaster species, allowing side-by-side comparison of this very large and confusing genus.

And highlights for us were a remarkable (unnamed) curly-wurly form of Miscanthus sinensis and the newly opened, fascinating flower-heads of Dwarf Elder.

Of course, in its 72 hectares there is ample space for nature. Native plants included Common Spotted-orchid, Great Horsetail, Slender St John’s-wort, Self-heal, Enchanter’s-nightshade and Corky-fruited Water-dropwort …

… although once again insects were in short supply. Butterflies were restricted to a few Meadow Browns, a handful of Gatekeepers and Ringlets, and a single Marbled White, hardly the bounty expected of early July.

There were other insects of course, across a range of groups, but the following might give a false impression of abundance: I photographed everything I could and that is all we had to show for our efforts.

Nonetheless, it was a very interesting garden, and one which has given us another short break idea for next year, a visit to Ventnor Botanic Garden on the Isle of Wight, similarly created by Hillier and apparently containing some rooms to let within its grounds. Watch this space!

On our last day, we took the opportunity to visit Southampton for a few hours, a city neither of us knew. Views of the sea are always welcome, albeit not the open sea from the angle we were looking:

And, as always, it had some buildings of interest, from the ultra-modern …

… to the Modernist delights of last century …

… and indeed earlier centuries …

… going right back to the still-impressive city walls.

A more natural flavour came from Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls everywhere, Sandwich Terns around the ferry port, street trees including Indian Bean Trees and Common Limes, both in flower and attracting bumblebees (more here than anywhere else in our trip).

And the grassy slopes below the walls had a good population of Hawkweed Ox-tongue (rather uncommon in Essex, so good to see) alongside Ragwort being demolished by Cinnabar caterpillars. In Hillier’s and elsewhere we were remarking how there were none of these munchers: as so often it was up to the often overlooked nature within urban greenspace to fly the flag and provide a glimmer of hope for the future. Quite appropriately too, it was the day of the General Election!

Tales of the Bonny Clyde: 3 – Glasgow & Cumbernauld

And so to Glasgow, midway in Clyde terms between the turbulent upper reaches at New Lanark and the stately tidal mouth around Dunoon and Gourock. Glasgow is one of our favourite cities, possibly the favourite one of all, the result of wonderful experiences there over the past decade. Some of the best times of course have been based around the pubs, especially the Scotia and the Clutha Bars. Both of which were on our walk from the station to our hotel in the Gorbals, on opposite sides of the street … well, it would have been rude not to have checked them out before checking in! The Clutha Bar was especially inviting, with a pizza and a pint offer to complement earlier gastronomic experiences, and live (loud) music  to fill the sound of silence after living with the rushing Clyde for the last couple of days.

So it was early evening before we unloaded at the hotel, and headed out for a walk through familiar streets, by bridges and along the river. Pity the wind was so strong and out of the north – absolutely not a summertime experience, even for Scotland. But a Goosander on the river, stately stands of Giant Hogweed on the riverbank and singing Willow Warblers from seemingly every patch of railway scrub gave us our daily nature fix.

The Southern Necropolis cemetery has also done this for us in the past, so after breakfast at the wonderful G5 deli (again one of our regulars and favourites, conveniently round the corner from the Premier Inn) we headed there again. Sadly much of the grass had recently been mown, and the air was simply too cold for insect activity, but it remains a tranquil green refuge.

Our long-awaited first visit to the Burrell Collection, set in the Pollok Country Park played a big part in our decision to return. The park itself contains some lovely grassland and woodland (and provided us with a rather battered Lime Hawk-moth) while the collection is housed in a simply wonderful, recently upgraded, modern architectural marvel.

Light from every angle, shadows as important as the art itself, and the luxury of space make this one of the best museum/galleries we have been to, complemented by interesting exhibits (not always the case, we have found) – and it is free!!

A final flourish for our holiday was a jaunt out to Cumbernauld. We like concrete brutalism, we like planned new towns such as Harlow, so a visit was a must. The train from Queen Street started in an interesting fashion, with hordes of glittering Swifties waiting to head out to Murrayfield, such that the concrete of Cumbernauld represented reassuring familiarity.

Planned and built from the 1950s, like Harlow the town features extensive traffic-free walking routes, some forming impressive green corridors.


From the station to the Centre we had to cross not a single road, until arriving at the heart, now given over firmly to the domain of the car. By now the hottest day of our holiday, after a restorative pint among the public sculpture (reminiscent again of Harlow) we strolled around and through the 1950s dream that hasn’t really been served well by history.

Bits have been knocked down, other bits added piecemeal, but its brutalist heart is just still beating – or is that the sound of raindrops dripping into the shopping mall, a leaking canyon of empty units and charity shops?

The Centre is deemed worthy of listing, but the authorities have decided not to, given that plans for comprehensive redevelopment are apparently well advanced. Necessary perhaps, but replacing utopian individualism with modern retail conformity hardly seems like a great step forward.

All that was left to do was much more uplifting: after a good trek along greenways, again largely traffic free, and over the raging motorway, we found ourselves at the Arria statue, by Andy Scott, he of the Kelpies renown.

Imposing yet invisible until almost upon her, she was remarkable, standing in a lovely meadow with Yellow-rattle, Greater Butterfly- and Northern Marsh-orchids. and with a stillness that seems to subdue even the roar of the motorway, helped by the tinkles of yet more Willow Warblers.

Why here? Well, Cumbernauld stands on the watershed of Scotland (its name may be derived from a translation of ‘meeting of the waters’). So this really complements the rest of our holiday, representing the point at which rainwater drainage runs either east into the Forth or west to the Clyde.

And watershed in a metaphorical context, an east-west political boundary, the furthest reach of the Roman Empire. marked by the nearby Antonine Wall: Arria is named after the mother of  Emperor Antonius. And to draw the watershed imagery together, the statue is inscribed with the words of the poem ‘Watershed’ by Scottish poet Jim Carruth.

It is a pity that time, and the very late sunset, didn’t allow us to see Arria in her internally illuminated glory. But back in Cumbernauld centre, the Beefeater gave us sustenance, and the warmest welcome (which naturally translated into the largest tip) of our entire holiday.

On our final morning I woke to the song of yet another Willow Warbler, this in the hotel car park, a particularly poignant sound for those of us from a part of the country from which they have been stripped as a breeding bird in only the past decade by climate change. A song of our recent past that remains in my brain. Without a memory there can be no mourning, so sing, little bird, of the things we have lost but could be ours again if only we have the will.

For other blogs from this trip, see:

Tales of the Bonny Clyde: 1 – Dunoon & Benmore | Chris Gibson Wildlife

Tales of the Bonny Clyde: 2 – New Lanark | Chris Gibson Wildlife


Tales of the Bonny Clyde: 2 – New Lanark

As we left the station at Lanark, something was clearly afoot. Crowds, flags, bunting, revelry and general merriment, people in various states of undress despite the freezing wind – on a Thursday afternoon! We felt the transition from genteel Dunoon acutely. No hope of getting a drink as the pubs were so crowded, we headed on through towards New Lanark, gradually piecing together the fact that it was Lanimer Day, a very historic annual event (dating back to 1140) linked to beating the bounds of the ancient Royal Burgh (‘Land Marches’) and now serving as a general gala day. Everybody is involved, so as we headed out of town, it all became quiet, then quieter and, as we descended into New Lanark, quietest, apart from the constant reassuring rush of the tumbling Clyde.

First impressions of the World Heritage Site mill town was of amazing architecture, a good number of cars, but no people at all. It all felt vaguely Wicker Man, or like one of those post-apocalyptic movies where you wake up to find you are alone in the world …

The rushing waters give the clue to this place. All that natural hydropower could be put to good use, and was from 1786 to power cotton mills. The settlement includes homes for workers, due to the involvement of utopian philanthropist Robert Owen, one of the originators of the co-operative movement. The hotel is now actually in the main mill building.

Once indoors, we did find civilization, albeit cocooned from the outside world. A lovely room, directly overlooking the river, with Sand Martins swirling around in by now very pleasant sunshine. And lots of opportunity to explore the exterior of the stone buildings (all except the hotel closed because of Lanimer Day), the remarkable architecture bathed in light, throwing shadows as the sun started to set…

The mill and town are set within a lovely wooded landscape, clothing a really quite impressive rocky gorge. In part conifer plantation, in part old Oak and Beech, some with wonderfully gnarled roots and buttresses.

Mosses and ferns clothed the forest floor, that growth extending upward onto the boughs, in places luxuriantly coated with epiphytes.

There were of course other trees too, including flowering Laburnum (in a habitat resembling its native sites in European mountains), Bird Cherry (clad in the silken webs of Bird Cherry Ermine micromoths) and Guelder-rose nibbled to bits by Viburnum Beetle larvae.

The Falls of Clyde provided a whole series of dramatic glimpses of the fledgling river as we walked upstream from the mill, taking a leisurely approach to a walk that should only take an hour or so as the weather was sunny and warm(ish) for most of the day.

A Grey Heron waded in one section of the river, while a few Dippers and Grey Wagtails were feeding in the rapids. Jackdaws and Ravens made their presence known noisily, with Siskins wheezing and a few Spotted Flycatchers spotted flycatching.

The gorge and woodland had many interesting flowers. Closer to the town, there were lots of garden escapes (many of which are really useful for insects): Rock Crane’s-bill, Fox-and-cubs, Monkeyflower, Dame’s-violet and Masterwort.

Deeper into the nature reserve, native woodland plants predominated, including Foxglove, Water Avens, Welsh Poppy, Common Cow-wheat and Red Campion, the deep red flowers of the latter ‘undiluted’ by the genes of lowland White Campions.

And the best of the plants, ones that we are relatively or wholly unfamiliar with in Essex included Marsh Hawk’s-beard, Tuberous Comfrey and Bitter Vetch.

For the first time this summer we found ourselves in the presence of lots of galls. Most of them – those on Lime, Oak and Wych Elm – were common enough, but two were new to us and seemingly less frequent. On Bilberry the swollen reddened leaves are the result of infection by the fungus Exobasidium myrtilli, forming the blaeberry redleaf gall  while the red pimply paint-patches on Silver Birch were caused by the mite Acalitus longisetosus. According to the National Biodiversity Network atlas, this is not previously recorded from that part of Scotland, being concentrated in the Highlands and also very thinly scattered in England and Wales. It was present on only one tree that we found, but is certainly very distinctive.

And we also found the nature reserve to be a a great place for a selection of insects and other invertebrates.

Among these, there were a few edge-of-range species and and ones not not previously recorded from that part of Scotland, including the lace-bug Tachycixius pilosus and click-beetle Denticollis linearis

… while a couple of dramatic highlights included a mating pair of Giant Craneflies and a Scorpion-fly Panorpa germanica tucking into a dance-fly.

Given that the hotel is the only feeding spot without a considerable uphill walk, the restaurant provided us with very reasonably priced and excellent sustenance. I especially enjoyed the salmon medley, (the smoked component with such a delicate smoky-sweet cure) and chicken supreme with smoked cheese stuffing, while Jude liked the creamed goats’ cheese and figs and the chickpea curry.

On our second morning after a good breakfast we were taken by electric minibus (as befits a World Heritage Site) through Lanark – now approaching normality! – to the station for the third part of our break, in Glasgow. Having lived with the sound of the tumbling Clyde for two days, its absence was almost deafening….


Only when we got home and started working through the photos, entering them onto irecord, and checking their known distributions on the NBN Atlas did we come to appreciate how few of the things we found have ever been recorded at this site before, indeed how few of them have any records on the NBN anywhere near to New Lanark. WE have therefore prepared a complete listing for the record (see here Falls of Clyde), which will be sent to the Scottish Wildlife Trust who own the reserve.

Some of these have been pointed out in the main blog (see Exobasidium myrtilli, Acalitus longisetosus, Tachycixius pilosus and Denticollis linearis above). But others were more surprising, not least because they are so obvious and frankly unmistakeable, such as Meadowsweet Rust, the galls on Lime, Elm and Oak, and the larvae and munchings of Viburnum Leaf-beetle.

And how about the Gold-barred Longhorn moth. Very familiar to we southerners, if the NBN is up to date, our record is some 60km further north than it has ever been recorded before. Distributional data and changes in distribution are one of the main sources of information we have to underpin conservation policy and practice, so my plea is for anyone who visits an unfamiliar area, don’t assume that all you see is commonplace or already known. Record it for posterity: every data point is a step towards a better future.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: is summer finally here?

In response to the question posed in the title, the answer is ‘it blooming well should be!’ as my latest Wandering Naturalist walks in the gardens were on the summer solstice. And what a day to be there! Azure skies, almost windless, hot sunshine almost for the first time this year. The fourteen visitors who joined me were treated to a lush garden, reflecting the spring rains, but sadly few high summer insects: the lack of warm sun thus far has delayed the emergence of many. Hopefully another few days of this will sweep away fears of a Silent Summer.

Butterflies were notable by their near absence, though that is not atypical of the ‘June Gap’: just five species with no more than ten individual of all species put together. Holly Blues amounted to four of those. Day-flying moths were similarly sparse, with just one Gold-barred Longhorn and a couple of Mint Moths. And remarkably just a single dragonfly (a newly-emerged Common Darter), while shield bugs and their relatives were represented only by two Hairy Shield-bugs and a few Dock Bugs, mostly doing what comes naturally!

Honeybee and bumblebee numbers were moderately high, especially visiting Cistus, Knautia/Scabiosa and Veronicastrum, together with Opium Poppies which this year are providing such a spectacle in the Reservoir Garden:

Especially by the ponds, but spreading round the whole garden, damselflies were everywhere: four species, mainly Azure (with my first Common Blue of the summer), plus Large Red and Blue-tailed, including several examples of the very attractive rufescens form.

Although there has not yet been the summer influx of hoverflies from the Continent, numbers are growing, both of the Drone-flies, Batman Hoverflies and others we have been seeing all spring …

… plus a few others  including Chrysotoxum festivum, Xanthogramma pedissequum and Anasimyia contracta, the latter a fly of water margins and very scarce in north Essex.

Another remarkable hoverfly was the Narcissus Bulb-fly Merodon equestris, one that occurs in several colour forms, each of which are mimics of different bumblebee species.

Other flies included a mating pair of Gargoyle Flies, at least that’s what we call them, we think for very good reason!

A final selection of today’s insects includes Thick-thighed Beetle, a click-beetle with a couple of passenger mites, the hairy beetle Lagria hirta, and a few tiny nymphal Speckled Bush-crickets.

There are no doubt lots more to come, and the good news for them is that that there are absolutely masses of nectar and pollen resources awaiting their emergence or arrival.

Having given the gloom and doom messages, I should point out that compared with everywhere else in north Essex I have ventured recently, Beth Chatto Gardens are clearly richer in insect life, a bioabundance driven by the provision of nectar and pollen sources from all round the world and not compromised by the application of pesticides and herbicides.

By way of showing all visitors our ‘live and let live’ organic credentials, there were caterpillars munching unmolested. Our mulliens are covered in holes made by Mullein Moth caterpillars and irises sculpted by Iris Sawfly larvae, while the Martagon Lilies that have had their leaves stripped by Lily Beetles are still flowering happily.

Star turn though among the insects for both walks was a bronzed green, metallic Rose Chafer that remained munching the Corky-fruited Water-dropwort flowers all day. The Colchester area is one of the heartlands nationally for this magnificent beast, and we are so lucky to share our garden with it.

One final highlight was the living roof on the bike-shed, designed and installed by our friend John Little. Never has it looked better, and the solitary bees are making full use of the nesting holes created for them as part of the structure.

If anyone wants to join me on a nature walk around the gardens, I will be doing just that (weather permitting!) on July 19, August 2, August 16 and September 20. Once you have paid to come in, the walk is free! Walks commence at 11AM and 12 noon each day, meeting at the Visitor Information Centre. For garden entrance tickets and more information, visit our website Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens, and do come expecting to want to buy some of the wildlife-attracting plants I will show you, as well as delicious tea and cakes!

Blogs of the previous Meet the Wandering Naturalist event this summer can be found here:

April: The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: among the April showers… | Chris Gibson Wildlife

May: The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the height of Spring | Chris Gibson Wildlife

Marvellous moths morning at Beth Chatto Gardens – late June

Our hopes for the moth event at the solstice were not high given the general dearth of insects hitherto this spring. However the first garden moth event of the year was blessed with perfect weather conditions, a hot but cloudy and humid night with little wind, preceded by a very hot and sunny day or two. The garden really lived up to what I always say about it: as rich in insect species as any nature reserve hereabouts.

52 species of macromoths and more than a dozen micros (just the ones we had time to identify) amounted to very respectable 200 or so individual moths to entertain and educate our select group of customers. Any night when you catch four types of hawk moth, everyone’s favourites because of their size and/or colour and as they are generally very docile, very amenable to handling, has got to be a good night. Especially when these include two of the larger Hawk-moths (Poplar and Pine) and the two most beautiful (Elephant and Small Elephant).

At least 20 Buff-tips, living ‘broken birch twigs’ was an impressive total, indicating a recent coordinated emergence, a good idea if you want to find a mate:

Large yellowish species included  Swallow-tailed Moth and Ghost Moth…

… while a little smaller but in the same suite of colours were Buff Ermine, Barred Yellow, Common Footman and Barred Straw (with its characteristic bottom-up posture).

Such fascinating moths, with often entrancing names: how about Nut-tree Tussock and Pebble Hook-tip, both exceptionally well camouflaged against bark and similar backgrounds.

Equally well camouflaged but only against leafy backgrounds were the beautiful Green Silver-lines and Blotched Emerald, three of the latter for me the moths of the morning.

Others camouflage themselves by looking like inedible objects (see Buff-tip above) – one of the more frequent forms is to resemble bird-poo, as here with Garden Carpet and Lime-speck Pug.

And to round of a motley selection, a few grey and brown species, here Pale Oak Beauty, Grey Pug and Riband Wave. A full list of those moth species we recorded is appended here bc moths june 24. And before anyone queries whether ‘moth trapping’ is compatible with our desire to be the home of ecological and sustainable gardening, please rest assured all moths were released unharmed at the end of the two hour morning session, away from the attentions of predators such as Blackbirds.

Another attraction for our customers on these events is that they get access before anyone else is there. First thing, the gardens are truly sublime: the only sound is birdsong and the only feeling pure joy.

And it gives us chance to try and find ‘free-range’ moths and other insects. We found the caterpillars of Iris Sawflies munching the irises and proving to all other visitors we don’t poison the planet in our mission to create a beautiful garden.

Always something to see! Blue-tailed and Azure Damselflies were everywhere, scabious heads had Hairy Shield-bugs, and best of all (a rival to the biggest and brightest of the moths) a solitary bronze-highlighted, metallic green Rose Chafer, a real speciality of the Colchester area, munching contentedly on an umbellifer.

All too soon the event was over, but the clouds were gathering, reasserting the typical weather pattern of this summer!

If anyone would like to join us on the next one of these moth mornings on July 20th, 0900-1100am, please book through this link Marvellous Moths! – Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens. We can never promise moths, and all are weather-dependent but whatever we will find something to start your weekend in style!


#WildEssexWalks: Brightlingsea East End

Another lovely Wild Essex walk with a group of nature fans from across north Essex. Although we didn’t find as many species of insects as we may have liked, there were still some to admire, as well as interesting flora. We (at least some of the group) finished with a very enjoyable pub lunch at The Rosebud The Rosebud seafood restaurant & pub ( It is always nice to complete our walks with a get-together of some sort, and having a lovely backdrop of Brightlingsea Creek with its boats, viewed from the pub conservatory, made the whole experience even better, helped by the quality of food and the speed of service.

The morning weather was warm, varying between overcast and sunshine.  And for this most miserable of summers this in itself was a welcome change. We walked from The Rosebud on Hurst Green, conveniently placed for us that travelled by bus, towards the ‘East End’ of Brightlingsea, via a quiet(ish) road until we got to the Millennium plantation and East End Green where we were treated to the most amazing display of Pyramidal Orchids that we have ever seen here, probably better than anywhere else in the north-east of the count with more than a hundred flowering spikes.  Well worth a visit if you are in the area!

Insects of note include the little Zig-zag Elm Sawfly which does what it says on the tin and creates a rather attractive cut-out on Elm leaves.  We saw some mid-size Dark Bush Cricket nymphs, Thick-thighed Beetles, plus a rather unusual red Beetle on its own in a field 😊

A beautiful picture-winged fly Urophora stylata showed how effective its markings can be in helping it hide in plain sight whilst resting on its food plant of thistle.  Butterflies were surprisingly and rather worryingly in short supply, but when the sun eventually came out we were treated to a few Meadow Browns, Small Heaths plus a Holly Blue or two.  A freshly emerged  Ruddy Darter was a bonus, found just as the walk was coming to an end.

Pollinators in general were few and far-between, with very few bees or flies, again a worrying trend. Spiders could be found sitting around hoping to catch their dinner, including this Cucumber Spider.

Those interested in flowers were treated to a variety of grassland and woodland species…too many to mention them all but they included (Chris’ favourite flower) Grass Vetchling, Pineapple Mayweed ( just sniff those scrunched leaves!), Field Scabious and Ox-eye Daisies (so important for any passing pollinators), White Dead-nettle and Hedge Woundwort. And of course gave Chris (ever the salesman!) the chance to promote his new book, published this very week  British and Irish Wild Flowers and Plants | Princeton University Press.

One of those on the walk, Tony, has kindly provided a provisional list of species we found List of plants and animals seen on Brightlingsea walk of 20 June 2024. Thanks for this.

Tales of the Bonny Clyde: 1 – Dunoon & Benmore

June’s contribution of our ‘year of short breaks by train’ is likely to be the longest one of all, fittingly as it coincided with Jude’s birthday. Late afternoon we were drawing into Gourock in unsettled weather, a mix of sun, showers and cool northerly wind, pretty much par for the whole trip and indeed the whole of this Spring! The half-hour foot-ferry crossing to Dunoon made light of the choppy conditions, as we steamed past Gannets and Arctic Terns.

Quick check-in, and the sun was out, so a leg-stretch along West Bay was very much in order. The tide was out, providing feeding for Oystercatchers and Hooded Crows (really in Scotland now!), together with a few motley Carrion/Hoodie hybrids.

Eiders were swimming and loafing beyond the tideline, while the stony upper beach had flowering Sea Radish and Danish Scurvy-grass.

Around the pier, there were Rock Pipits feeding and singing, and patches of Orange-dot Lichen Protoblastenia rupestris (with its distinctive raised, rounded, orange fruiting bodies) on the pavements and walls.

And the tinkling whisper of ‘Goldcrest song’… but seaward?! It was persistent, but it took some time to realise that it was the courtship song of Black Guillemots, the most un-auk-like sound imaginable. And interestingly, the otherwise wonderful Merlin birdsong app either couldn’t hear it or didn’t recognise it.

In the churchyard, lichens on gravestones are always worth a look, especially in less-polluted westerly areas …

… and indeed older walls throughout the town provided botanical interest from Ivy-leaved Toadflax, to Maidenhair Spleenwort and Wall-rue, to Fairy Foxglove and New Zealand Willowherb.

Most of our one full day in the area was taken up with a visit to the outstanding Benmore Botanic Garden, an outpost of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. In theory it was easily accessed by bus, although Argyll & Bute Council/West Coast Motors had changed the timetable a couple of days earlier – without changing the timetables at the bus-stops or online. We turned up at the bus-stop ‘ahead of time’ only to see the bus departing  into the distance., with the next one due in two hours. Clyde Taxis to the rescue, but a pretty poor show from the providers of public transport we thought.

Situated in the mountains, and indeed running up some pretty steep slopes, Benmore Garden has lots to interest any gardener or naturalist.

First the birdsong: Chaffinches everywhere and several Willow Warblers, respectively ‘going’ and ‘gone’ from our south-eastern haunts. A female Red Deer watched us watching it, and a fleeting Red Squirrel skittered along a trackside trying to avoid unleashed dogs.

From avenues of Giant Redwoods to mature plantings of numerous Rhododendron species and cultivars, together with numerous Southern Hemisphere shrubs and trees, the garden pays testament to the plant hunters of the past and its relatively mild situation encompassed by the Gulf Stream warmed waters of the Firth of Clyde.

Exotic perennial plantings too, the like of which we can only dream of in the (normally)  arid plains of Essex:

All of the cultivated delights are alongside a wonderful array of native mosses and liverworts, ferns, lichens and flowering plants:

As always we focused upon the tiny creatures, which included nymphal Forest Bugs, a range of planthoppers and mirid bugs, barklice and snipe-flies. And while there were some, fortunately not too many midges for comfort…

Benmore really exceeded our expectations, and throughout the day, we managed to avoid the showers wholly either in the garden café or the pubs back in Dunoon! A final word must go to food (always a focus of our trips). We ate outstanding evening meals at both the Lorne and Tryst, the former having perhaps better atmosphere and service. Cullen Skink at the Lorne was actually bettered by smoked haddock chowder at Tryst, but salmon pate, mushroom and leek gnocchi and black-pudding and haggis bonbons (Lorne) and lamb shoulder and vegetable lasagne (Tryst) also scored highly. And the Lorne’s uplifting pairing of mashed turnip and peppercorn sauce was simply inspired.

It was good to return to Dunoon, despite the cool weather, but after a couple of nights it was away, back across the Firth, to uncharted lands for us around the upper reaches of the Clyde …

Plant hunting in south Essex

As a prelude to my walks in Hockley Woods, I took the opportunity while in south Essex to reacquaint myself with some of the sites and botanical sights of my now quite distant past, going back to the 1980s.

Canvey Wick, a remarkable brownfield wildlife site on a former oil refinery has appeared in these blogs before, as one of the greatest success stories of my conservation career. I have described it an an ‘accidental nature reserve’ that has now transformed into a real nature reserve, owned by the Land Trust, and managed by Buglife (the charity of choice of #WildEssex) and RSPB.

A site of such resonance to me, one I have been associated with for more than 25 years since we discovered its remarkable biodiversity, I was thrilled to be asked to lead a wildflower walk around it for Buglife last week. It has always been seen as a reserve especially for invertebrates. When we discovered it it was believed to have almost the greatest concentration of rare and scarce invertebrates of any site in the country, second only to the much larger Dungeness. It helped to put brownfield nature on the conservation map.

The reasons for that diversity are manyfold, mostly relating to its use (and abuse) by humans over the last eighty years. But another factor is the diversity of wild plants it holds. As with all brownfield sites, the plants are a wonderful multicultural mix from across the world, native species including many Essex coastal specialities and non-natives derived from gardens and port activities etc.

So an ideal area to look at wild flowers and in doing so to introduce people to our newly published book, which makes no distinction between natives and aliens. If a plant is found in the wild, irrespective of its status, in more than  third of the 10km squares of the National Grid, it is in the book.

While conservationists may despair about the spread of non-natives, in many cases they are not aggressive, and often they perform useful ecological functions, as any gardener knows. So we looked at Narrow-leaved Ragwort, which has a nearly year-round flowering season, so providing nectar and pollen for insects even at seasons when natives are not up to the job.

Other non-natives included Goat’s-rue, Broad-leaved Everlasting Pea and Hybrid Bladder-senna, all loved by bumblebees, plus Rose Campion and many others.

Then there are the non-native natives! Sea-buckthorn, a natural plant of sand dunes elsewhere but not in Essex, is very useful in autumn for birds that feed on its orange berries. However it is also a very aggressive species that shades out other plants, native and non-native alike, reducing biodiversity. Other less contentious native coastal specialities included Narrow-leaved Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Sea Club-rush, Wild Carrot and Grass Vetchling (a real favourite of mine).

The beauty of brownfields is that they contain plants (and, by extension, insects) from a wide range of natural habitats, including here a mix of drought-tolerant succulents (eg Biting Stonecrop) and chalkland specialities, like Dogwood and Yellow-wort, alongside Tufted Vetch and Perforate St. John’s-wort, characteristic of clayland soils..

And on top of all of these there are the orchids, good colonisers of bare and grassy habitats by virtue of their dust-like seeds. Common Spotted, Pyramidal and Bee Orchids were all in flower, although the latter were going over. Since I first knew Canvey Wick nearly 30 years ago (before we even coined its name) the Pyramidal Orchids have certainly increased, while Southern Marsh-orchids have declined hugely … once the commonest species, last week we saw none.

Of course things always change, especially on developing habitats such as here, so this is not surprising. But changes do need to be managed: while this site has rewilded itself over the past half-century, that wilding now needs to be tempered in the absence of agents of disturbance – Wild Boar, Beavers, Bison or boys on bikes. Thus, aggressive Sea-buckthorn needs removing and indeed the developing Birch woodland needs to be broken up to allow light in again. Fortunately the reserve managers are aware and undertaking these essential tasks.

Aside from the plants, there were Cuckoos calling and Cetti’s Warblers singing, while a Fox trotted along one of the relict roadways; too breezy for many invertebrates but they did include a Vapourer Moth caterpillar,  a bumblebee-mimicking Furry Drone-fly and my first Scarce Emerald damselfly of the year.

While visiting Canvey also took the opportunity to search out and photograph some of the scarce plants of southern Essex that are not in the  new book, for the forthcoming three-volume set covering all wild plants of Britain & Ireland. Some were easy as they are locally frequent: for example on Belton Hills, Leigh-on-Sea, it was Bithynian Vetch. This is a generally uncommon plant of cliff-slope grassland, as here, and although not fully in flower, there was plenty of scope to capture its key features such as the large stipules with jagged lobes.

Alongside there was growing more Grass Vetchling and Common Agrimony, together with a very interesting Tragopogon that I am still not sure of. With purplish flowers it should be Salsify, but the colour is a little too pink for comfort and there is that sunset-yellow suffusion in the centre of the flowerhead. A hybrid between Salsify and Goat’s-beard is therefore one option. But what about those yellow tips to the ‘petals’? That reminds me of the southern European plant I am so familiar with from Mediterranean travels Tragopogon crocifolius, except that has a more chocolate-brown hue overall…. So my mental jury is still out: any ideas anyone?

A little to the west along the London Clay former cliff-line is Hadleigh Castle Country Park, the South Benfleet section of which is also renowned for unusual plants, as well as regular fly-pasts of squawking Mediterranean Gulls. That site provided me with yet more Grass Vetchling (seems to be having a fantastic year – or have I just caught its magical three-weeks of cerise apparency in full flow?)…

… together with Nipplewort, Tree Mallow, Corky-fruited Water-dropwort (a very rare plant when I used to work these parts, now on every nature reserve, probably spread on shared mowing kit) and Hairy Buttercup, another speciality of coastal grassland…

… and a glorious array of flowering grasses, here Crested Dog’s-tail and Italian Rye-grass.

That just leaves the local star that is Hairy Vetchling. Generally considered not to be native in Britain, it does have some claim to that status at least at this site having been known here for at least three centuries. Again this seems much more frequent than when I worked in the area: the park managers are clearly doing something right!

But you cannot win them all. There is another plant with a similar tenuous claim to native status from these slopes, the umbellifer Hartwort. I knew it well in past times, but could find no trace on this occasion.

Then finally it was back onto Canvey Island to try and hunt down a plant that was first found in Essex as recently as June 2023. I had a precise location (above), and found several other unusual species such as Knotted Hedge-parsley and Water Bent, but it took a long while to find the weakly scrambling, mini-Cleavers that is Galium murale, or Yellow Bedstraw or Small Goose-grass….

It is a native of the Mediterranean, first found here a year ago, then subsequently in Rayleigh and probably Bardfield. Indeed it is almost certainly overlooked elsewhere, with its diminutive stature and, even when you have found it, the tiny, unassuming pale yellow flowers. But under a lens those flowers and the long, hairy sausage-shaped fruits are unmistakeable. Honestly!




The Wild Side of Essex: #WildEssex and Naturetrek at Hockley Woods

Mid-June, and you are likely to find me migrating to south Essex, to Hockley Woods in particular. The largest contiguous ancient woodland block in East Anglia, Hockley Woods sit astride the ‘southern Essex Alps’, a ridge of London Clay capped with sands and gravels, and have become a traditional fixture for Naturetrek day walks at this time of year, searching especially for one of our rarest butterflies, the Heath Fritillary. But this year one of the two days failed to attract interest, so I offered a shorter two-hour session on the first day to our #WildEssex contingent.

I am always worried by this trip. Given the butterflies have a short flying season of only three weeks or so, and that they can start as early as mid-May and as late as mid-June, there is no date that can guarantee sightings. Having said that I have never failed, but with this year’s anomalous spring weather I was almost expecting the worst…

No need to worry!. The #WildEssex afternoon stroll was in dull, breezy conditions (not ideal) but after a bit of searching we managed to locate about 40 pristine specimens. And because of the lack of sunlight they were remarkably docile!

So pressure off for the Naturetrek day, one with similarly variable weather, from cloud and wind, to heavy rain (fortunately every time we were in easy reach of a closed, sheltering tree canopy, thanks to the Met Office app!), and in the afternoon one or two decent spells of hot sunshine. The morning produced more than the previous day, all pristine and many having apparently very recently emerged from pupa, but in the sun later on it was clear we were in the middle of a major event…

A conservative estimate was of 600 or more of the wonderful wood-sprites, frantically flittering, feeding and flirting in little swirling clouds around the wide rides. Absolutely amazing! And remarkably, quite by chance we seem to have hit upon peak fritillary twice in the four years we have been offering the walk.

One reason why this site is so important for Heath Fritillary is the abundance of its larval food plant Common Cow-wheat in the coppices and rides. But apart from this, there are relatively few other plants in flower, the spring flush having now faded. Honeysuckle is just emerging…

… while there was a sparse showing of Enchanter’s-nightshade, Wood Avens, Hedge Woundwort, Brooklime and Wood Speedwell …


… along with a few plants of Common Figwort. And where there is figwort, a sharp-eyed member of the group spotted the Figwort Weevil, living up to its name.

Thank goodness for the Bramble! Lining every ride-side and filling every gap in the leaf canopy, Bramble flowers were bursting forth and feeding all manner of insects, with bumblebees and Honeybees, and especially numerous hoverfly mimics of these two groups:

Deeper in the shade of the trees, birds were singing, especially Stock Doves, Blackcaps, Wrens, Chiffchaffs and Robins, calling Treecreepers and Nuthatches, and bands of fledgling Great, Blue and Long-tailed Tits. A few fungi were evident, most noticeably nasally the Stinkhorn whose spore-mass had slipped down its shaft, but was still an enticing prospect for a range of scavenger/disperser flies…

… and the fungus-like (albeit not closely related) Dog-sick Slim-mould.

At the other end of the light/shade spectrum, a walk along the woodland edge produced arable plants like Scarlet Pimpernel, Brown-tail moth caterpillars, at least five singing Skylarks (even in the strong winds) and foraging Buzzards.

But these were walks filled mostly with the wonderful variety of invertebrate life. Starting with the lepidoptera, we found Vapourer caterpillar, bagworms Psyche casta, and adult Gold-barred Longhorn, Green Oak-roller and White Ermine. But apart from the fantastic fritillaries, only half-a-dozen Holly Blues and a couple of Speckled Woods.

Large Wood Ants’ nests are a real feature of the wood: it is unwise to stand too still for too long! The ants are everywhere, heaving, hauling and searching, as well as tending and milking the blackfly colonies on many a dock shoot.

And on both days we found a single example of one of the specialities of this wood, Four-spotted Leaf-beetle. This is a myrmicophilous species, inhabiting the ants’ nests, and known in Essex only from one other wood apart from the Hockley complex.

Cucumber Spider was a diversion from the insects, while a wild Honeybee nest in a hole high up a dead tree raised our sights temporarily away from the ride-sides in front of us!

Hoverflies were among the most readily encountered insects, some of the more recognizable being Batman and Large Pied Hoverfly …

It was especially good to find several Orange-belted Hoverflies Volucella inflata: nationally scarce and very scattered in Essex, this is associated with the best ancient woods, but seems not to have been recorded here before.

A Stripe-legged Robber-fly enjoyed its lunch as we watched…

Moving onto the true bugs, Box-bugs and Closterotomus trivialis have both colonised Essex on the past two decades …

… and in response to the leader’s challenge to the Naturetrek group, the sharpest of sharp eyes evetually came across something I have always wanted to see, Cow-wheat Shield-bug. Sorry for the awful photo (put it down to the deep gloom, stair-rod rain at the time, and my disbelief and excitement), but its white border and central wing-spot can clearly be seen. Again nationally scarce, this has been recorded in Essex only from this woodland complex, since 2009, and only rather sporadically. A great find!

And finally to beetles, including a typical motley selection …


… but what for me was possibly the sighting of the day, better than 600 wood-sprites or a long-awaited shield-bug first, a Hazel Leaf-roller Weevil. Not only is this rare in Essex (the Essex Field Club map shows only a couple of spots, both in the extreme south, neither at Hockley – although it seems to omit a record we made in Wivenhoe a few years ago, so that might be out of date) it was also doing what it says on the tin – she was perforating the Hazel leaf in order to roll it up as protection for her eggs. Sometimes I feel we spend too much time looking at the bigger picture, chasing after bigger and better, that we overlook the wonderful intricacies of the natural world right in front of a our very noses.

The future of field guides?

After a series of false starts, our new WILDGuide is winging its way to those who pre-ordered and into the shops! What makes this different to other botanical field guides on the market? Why should anyone buy it?

Firstly, it deals only with the 600+ most widespread plants you are likely to see, wherever you are, using distribution data from the new, magisterial Plant Atlas 2020 from the BSBI (also published by Princeton University Press). Every plant found wild in more than a third of the 10km-squares of Britain & Ireland is covered.

We deal with everything from ferns and conifers to flowering plants, including grasses, sedges and rushes – some groups that often fall off the radar, but which are interesting, ecologically important and eminently identifiable if you have a way in. This is that way in.

But no distinction is made between natives and non-natives. If you are likely to see a plant in the wild, it will be included, irrespective of its provenance. Recording the arrival and establishment of non-native species is a vital role of the army of citizen scientists in Britain & Ireland.

We begin with a roadmap that allows identification by a range of methods, from flower, to twigs to habitat forms. We take you through the process of identification, learning as you go: an antidote to the ‘flick and pick‘ of so many guides and to the apps that give the ‘what’ (usually – but certainly not always – correct!) but not the ‘why’.

The roadmap leads to the Galleries, a process from which jargon has been stripped out wherever possible. Necessary botanical detail is explained with annotated photos (and serving also as a compendium of terms that will be found in other books).

The Galleries help you arrive at a family. Here are two Galleries of flowery families, those with superior ovary, radially symmetrical flowers, free (non-fused) petals, and with either superior ovary or inferior ovary, for example:

Visual matching with the Gallery images then points you to the species accounts, arranged by family. Big families are broken down into bite-sized chunks, and comparison tables deployed where it seems useful.

The entry for each of the species covered includes, with photos of detailed botanical close-ups and often plants in their natural habitat, all annotated to highlight their distinctive identifying features, with distribution maps, and icons to show phenology etc.

Hopefully that process will get you to the right answer: identification achieved, and job done. Unless of course it is a rarer plant that we don’t cover. Your appetite for plant identification might just be whetted!

Will it become the indispensable guide for beginners and improvers alike, and to those undertaking botanical surveys, in a readily portable format? We hope so – it is your springboard into the exciting world of botany! And with 320 pages and more than 4,000 images,  good value as well as useful…

Then in a couple of years, there will be a three-volume companion set to cover ALL of the plants wild in Britain & Ireland. Chris Packham referred to an earlier WILDGuide on Britain’s Orchids as ‘the future of field guides.’ Hopefully you will agree the future has now arrived!

The book should be available in all good bookshops, in the real world as well as online, and direct from Princeton University Press at British and Irish Wild Flowers and Plants | Princeton University Press. Happy botanizing!