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The Wild Side of Essex with Naturetrek: winter by the Colne Estuary

Well, the weather hadn’t read the forecast, and the drizzle that had been expected late afternoon set in well before lunchtime – but thankfully the proper rain held off until we had completed our 12km circuit. And it followed hard on the heels of a very wet late January, and almost everywhere it was muddy, deep welly-sucking mud which we could escape only in the afternoon when we headed up onto the gravels that cap the Essex Alps.

We  set out first along the Wivenhoe Trail and around Ferry Marsh, to be met with the first in-your -face splash of colour, so welcome on a dull February day, from a magnificent fruiting body of Orange Brain Fungus:

Almost as arresting were the Sunburst Lichens festooning the bare branches along with other lichens, together with leaf-mines on the leaves of Holm Oak, Bramble and Holly, each one a micro-drama of life before our eyes.

Down by the Colne, the tide being well out, there were Teals on the water, a flyover Goosander, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Oystercatchers getting frisky. Three Black-tailed Godwits were feeding close to the sea wall, giving much better views than the birds we would see more numerously in the open estuary later on, while in a definite sign of spring a probable hybrid Prunus (it seemed more robust than Cherry Plum, normally the earliest in the genus to flower) was in full bloom.

The Wivenhoe waterfront produced its two botanical rarities of cracks in the block-paving, Jersey Cudweed and Four-leaved Allseed: although now familiar they have been with us only for about eight and five years respectively – and how they got here from southern enclaves is still unknown.

Past the Shipyard ad tidal surge barrier, into the open estuary, the mudflats widen rapidly, and waterbird numbers increase markedly, albeit at greater distance tan those upstream. Black-tailed Godwits were joined by Lapwings, Dunlins, Redshanks and eventually a tight bunch of Knots:

Avocets too, mingling with Shelducks and Teals …

…  and before too long the burbling of Brent Geese, as a couple of hundred flew off a distant field (perhaps spooked by a noisy military Chinook), over our heads and plonked down on the river in front of us. Cue frantic washing and feather-care, no doubt starting to prepare for their epic 4000 kilometre migration that could be under way in as little as a month. And turning our back reluctantly on the water, there was a Little Egret, a smart male Stonechat and singing Linnets on the grazing marsh.

A Song Thrush was an addition to the springy soundscape along the edge of Grange Wood, where we decided to take refuge from the drizzle for lunch (and half of my cheese sandwich was snaffled by a poorly controlled Cocker Spaniel). With the incessant mud-sploshing, I decided to vary the route, to head up to higher, drier ground, past a wonderful array of old oak pollards and coppice stools marking the boundary of the ancient wood.

Bluebell and Wild Arum leaves were spearing into the light, and the first Lesser Celandine flowers, albeit part-closed in the absence of sun.

On to the ancient trackway of Cutthroat Lane, the banks featured Butcher’s-broom, including a few leaves still bearing open flowers, while closer to habitation Snowdrops have snuck out of the gardens.

Finally into Cockayne’s Reserve, where the Sixpenny Brook was in full spate. It is such a surprise in ‘flat Essex’ to actually hear rushing water!

Hazels were flowering, the male catkins just starting to go over, while Siskins twittered in the Alders and a Mistle Thrush delivered its measured fluty song from the very top of the tallest tree.

A final wander along the Brook through Villa Wood, almost an afterthought, then turned for me into the highlight of the day: more Scarlet Elf-cups than I have ever seen fruiting before, having visited the site over 35 years.

Still the only north-east Essex site for this unmistakeable midwinter joybringer, I first found it here in 1986. On that visit, I was with the boss of the local gravel extraction company who had just won planning permission to excavate from under the ancient wood. He wanted me to advise how it could be done in sympathy with the environment: ‘don’t do it’ was not an option on the table! But he was so impressed by the sight of this locally rare fungus that plans were amended, Sand And Gravel Association restoration awards were received. And the rest is history: it is now an Essex Wildlife Trust reserve, and its flagship fungus is evidently thriving.

#WildEssexWalks – Wivenhoe Woods in Winter

The first WildEssex walk of the year, to our lovely Wivenhoe Woods, was in just the perfect weather – sunshine and little wind, but the legacy of the previous wet days and weeks was evident with the squelchy woodland floor (though we avoided the quagmire areas so as not to lose any of our boots!). Our revised route was not quite what we had envisaged, but we still managed to discover some stories about the ecology and history of the place.

First we criss-crossed the King George’s Field, to look at some of the specimen species, relics of when that area was the park of Wivenhoe Hall. The Cedar of Lebanon, such a statuesque tree, was providing shelter for some tinkling Goldcrests which we were able to admire as they flitted in and out. Other woodland birds heard throughout the two hours included vociferous Robins and Dunnocks, Great Tits (teacher, teacher!) as well as Carrion Crows and the ubiquitous Woodpigeons.

We looked at some of the more usual tree species including Elms: those found in this area always only small, as when they achieve a certain size the beetle which spreads the pathogen which causes Dutch Elm disease can move in. The trees die off, but new ones begin to grow from the roots in their place, thus full-size trees never get the chance to grow.  A shame, but something we have got used to in the English countryside now.

Other trees of note on the KGV include Holm Oaks, and we especially noticed their leaves, where evidence of leaf miners was very apparent. The minute caterpillar of a particular tiny moth lives in between the layers of the leaf, each creature creating a squiggle that represents almost the whole life of these tiny creatures  – the adults fly only for a few hours. The chambers so created fill up with ‘frass’ (poo to you and me) – guess it has to go somewhere!

Then on the leaves of Holly, a similar phenomenon, but in this case the blotch mines of a Holly Leaf-miner Fly:

Once in the wood itself we could see among the leaf litter plants beginning to sprout through, including the spring greens of  Cow Parsley; unfurling Wild Arum (a plant with many vernacular names, most referring to male/female ‘parts’,  for example Cuckoo Pint, Lords-and-ladies, Jack-in-the-Pulpit); dangly catkins of Alder; and the new shoots of Honeysuckle, always a harbinger of Spring.

Butchers’ Broom is quite a special plant – not only for how it looks  (the flowers grow out of middle of the leaves) but also for the mystery of how it manages to get pollinated and to spread: it seems to have lost its pollinators and dispersers in the mists of time since it first evolved…

In a damp woodland you would hope to find fungi and we were not disappointed with a couple of types of Jelly Fungus including a wonderful Yellow Brain Fungus.

In a similar way to leaf mines, ‘galls’  show evidence often of insect activity. These are ‘damage limitation’ structures, when a part of a tree (be it leaf, twig, fruit, bud etc) have a small creature (could be a small wasp, fly or mite) lay their eggs in it. The tree creates a unique-looking growth which is how the insects are identified (they are much too small to notice with the naked eye!). Oak trees are particularly good places to look for galls (over 50 types can be found), and we were impressed by these Marble Galls, clearly showing the exit hole of the wasp when fully mature.

As to actual insects, we found none of note, but on the recce yesterday Chris did find this 7-spot Ladybird and a Green Shieldbug in its winter coloration. Presumably this colour-way would be good camouflage against brown leaf-litter but it showed up rather well against a green leaf.  As the season progresses it will change colour to a much brighter green and become much harder to spot!

We wandered down towards the estuary for a bit of bird-watching and were rewarded with Black-tailed Godwits, Oystercatchers and Teals. Some of these birds will be resident and others visiting from much colder climes.

Plants on the salt-marsh included the Cord Grass and that too had a growth on it – the Ergot Fungus. Harmless growing here ( we don’t eat Cord Grass), it can be devastating when it grows unchecked on food crops, causing madness or death.

Another new word for the day was ‘marcescence’, the phenomenon whereby leaves are retained on a tree after they have died and are no longer functional. No known reason for it, but very distinct in a few of the Oaks and Sweet Chestnuts along this part of the Wivenhoe Trail.

Then a final flourish of colour in the Station car park ( thankfully unsprayed as yet, though guess it won’t be long….):  a beautiful Dandelion and a vital source of sustenance for a passing early bee.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: Spring straining at the sinews…

 

A quick spin around the garden this morning. It would have been remiss not to, with the sunshine and the Snowdrops coming towards their peak. It was one of those special days, the ground almost creaking underfoot as if life cannot wait to race out of the starting gates. And that was reflected in everyone we met, staff and visitors alike, all beaming with the privilege of being immersed in a garden of delights.

Of course the Snowdrops are the main event for now, several species, numerous varieties, their identification beyond me but my deficiencies not affecting my enjoyment. [Incidentally, anyone with an urge to know more about this iconic group of spring flowers could do no better than booking onto Steve and Marc’s annual event exploring these beauties Splendid Snowdrops – Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens on 24 February.]

But there is already so much more: Winter Aconites, squills, crocuses, irises…all springing up from their underground storage organs, whether bulbs or corms:

And the flowering shrubs, often extravagantly flirting with the nostrils from a distance of several metres, especially the Sarcococca creating a pool of stop-in-your-tracks perfume:

And all this floriferousness and fragrance has a purpose, to attract the few insects on the wing at the moment to pollinate the flowers. And a reciprocal purpose, to feed the insects in the event that cold weather envelops us again. There were queen bees, bumbling around, basking and searching for nest sites; a couple of Honeybees; one elusive micromoth (probably Tortricoides alternella); and several hoverflies of at least two species. This is the beauty of gardens, able to provide for our native wildlife at a time of year when the countryside is simply not up to the job.

 

BOOK REVIEW Modern medicines from plants: Botanical histories of some of modern medicine’s most important drugs

BOOK REVIEW Modern medicines from plants: Botanical histories of some of modern medicine’s most important drugs Editor Henry Oakeley, Royal College of Physicians. CRC Press 2024. pp. 393

Since the dawn of history, and probably for much longer that, human beings have sought remedies for ailments and frailties of the body from the natural world. And much has been written over the millennia about the curative properties of plants, from ancient Greek and Roman times of Dioscorides and Pliny, through the English medieval herbalists such as Culpeper and Gerard, to Richard Mabey’s Plants with a Purpose in the 20th century and the magisterial two-volume Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe, by de Cleene & Lejeune of Ghent University at the start of the 21st. And of course nowadays in the hedgewitchery corners of the internet and social media…

What is surprising is how many of these claimed uses of plants do in fact have some basis in real life, especially when the claims are based on physical appearance, the Doctrine of Signatures that held that God gave plants signs that would guide their use. Thus we had folk squatting over burning dried Lesser Celandine (‘Pilewort’) leaves just because the knobbly roots looked like haemorrhoids. In some respects, though it is not so surprising that some ‘folk cures’ work, firstly through the placebo effect, and secondly because if you ascribe sufficient medicinal properties to sufficient plants, at least some will hit the jackpot.

But now we have this book, covering some of the same ground but very different. Based on medical science and evidence, written by a team of respected physicians, Garden Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians no less, this takes a look at the botanical origins of, or inspirations for, some of our most important medicines, specifically prescription-only drugs.

Written by experts, this is not just for experts. Even I, a mere ecologist, a doctor of the philosophical kind rather than a real doctor, found it understandable and fascinating throughout, even remarkably shot through with flashes of dry humour! Each short chapter covers one plant, or small group of plants, some fifty in all, that have played a part in the development of modern medicine. Some are well-known (eg Yew and its anti-cancer agents) but many are much less so. There is information for each about its botanical features and natural distribution, garden history and requirements, and copious historical references to its uses (if any). Then details about the isolation and use of the drugs found in the plant, and as often as not the application of scientific ingenuity to ‘tame’ the drugs such that they are more likely to effect a sustainable treatment rather than a terminal ‘cure’.

The level of detail is impressive and evidently well-researched. Although I read it in linear fashion from cover to cover (yes, I was really that taken with it!), many may prefer to dip in and out of it. And taking it in small doses, like many of the best medicines, is certainly the best way to appreciate the depth of this work.

In every chapter I found untold delights. For example, Chapter 5, on the plants that provide caffeine (tea, coffee and chocolate) has, almost as an afterthought, fascinating details of the health benefits these drinks, unrelated to their caffeine content (well, described as ’potential’ health benefits, but they sound pretty convincing to me!). Then there is Chapter 23, about lidocaine (the dental anaesthetic) derived from just two, only distantly related, grasses, one of which is a chlorophyll-deficient mutant, the other having been discovered only because camels refused to eat it. And as a final example, Chapter 33 about the Calabar Bean with its seriously toxic seeds, from which comes a drug that can reverse the toxicity of atropine and the paralytic effects of curare. The historical section of this chapter details the use of the seeds, also called ‘ordeal beans’, as a test of witchcraft in Nigeria. The accused was forced to ingest the beans: if they vomited and survived, they were deemed innocent, but if they died, they were guilty. Quite a reversal from the English approach to witchfinding, where survivors of the ducking ‘ordeal’ were pronounced guilty and executed!

The physical feel of the book is of quality. At 393 pages and approximately B5 in size, it comes in at a substantial 920g, as a result of the weight of the paper. Illustrated throughout with photos and linocuts, it is attractive as well. If I have any criticism, it is that to me the typeface seems a little small or insubstantial and the space between the lines a touch too much for really comfortable reading. Given the level of detail, one much expect a few errors… but I noticed no typos, and only one tiny factual error, and a nitpicky one at that: Hordeum jubatum is described as a ‘hybrid grass’. It is not: it is a full species that is derived through chromosome doubling from a hybrid between two species, one now extinct.

One final remarkable thing about the book is the stories of useful pharmacologically active chemicals being found in plants where there are no prior indicators from the history of folk medicine. In an extinction crisis, one argument we use is the utilitarian mantra that any plant may have hitherto unrecognised qualities for human health. All too many commentators, especially those with an ideological or financial stake in not reining-in our destruction of the biosphere, argue that nobody is looking for those hidden nuggets. Well, this book shows they have been looking (with success), they are still looking, and that it would be folly to eradicate the wonders of evolution that future screening, or bio-prospecting, needs as its feedstock.

So, I recommend this book wholeheartedly to any botanist, gardener or indeed anyone with than interest in the plants around us. Talking of which, it also informed me of the existence of the Garden of Medicinal Plants at the Royal College of Physicians, in which many of the featured plants are grown. It is open to the public, free (see https://garden.rcplondon.ac.uk) and I understand there are also guided walks around it once a month (booking required). Sounds fascinating, and we will certainly be visiting this coming summer. It should be interesting to compare and contrast with the Chelsea Physic Garden which represents the more herbalist angle of the magnificent diversity of plants.

Dr Chris Gibson, Wildlife Advocate, Beth Chatto Gardens

 

Available from the Royal College of Physicians, £22.49 at https://shop.rcp.ac.uk/collections/garden-books/products/modern-medicines-from-plants?variant=40238963785806

London: Reused and Recycled!

For our first trip of the year we headed back to one of our favourite stamping grounds, Chiswick (see here for previous blog). Not only is the Premier Inn right next to the Chiswick Flyover (!) it is also just about the cheapest room we have found. And it is next to the Fullers brewery!! And a friendly pub, the George & Devonshire!!!

On top of all of that, Chiswick is a great hopping off point to sites in West London we wanted to visit. And as we realised this time, a couple of places sharing a common theme of Reuse and Recycle, part of the palimpsest of history, each new chapter overwritten on the previous.

So on the way there it was Battersea Power Station: an incredible, hulking edifice, its shape so iconic, and now converted to somewhere you can actually visit and touch some of its six million bricks.

Inside as well as out, simply vast, but tastefully done, the shop signs in concordance with each other and lacking gaudy advertising, just like we found so pleasing in an equally imposing edifice last year, the Halifax Piece Hall.

But as well as its sheer bulk, there are artistic touches everywhere, intentional and otherwise, some absolutely remarkable for such an utilitarian building:

The only slight disappointment was the way the edifice is now hemmed in by new high-rise flats (no doubt needed to fund the conservation of the main building)…

But from the riverbank the iconic outline is still visible, along with views  along the Thames:

Out on the water there was a flock of Gadwalls, and then on the supports of the coal jetty, the most wonderful lichenscapes and mossy microcosms:

Then after a restorative drink, courtesy of the Battersea Brewery Tap Room, underneath the arches of the railway. we headed through Battersea Park to the station. The Power Station loomed from every angle, and the park had sculpture and palm trees:

Winter Honeysuckles were blooming, each flower extravagantly fragranced, and attracting lots of bumblebee interest, while on the lake Shovelers were getting into the swing, or spin, of Spring, one particular pair spinning round and round, heads down, beak to beak, for minutes on end. Feeding frenzy, or pair bonding…or both?

Next morning dawned crisp and blue, perfect light for a stroll through the grounds of Chiswick House to the station:

Our destination, more reused and recycled infrastructure, the London Wetland Centre at Barnes, a visionary rescaping of the former Barn Elms Reservoirs from water supply to wetland biodiversity and education.

Something for all here, from the captive but entertaining (again including many Spring frolics, especially among the head-tossing Goldeneyes and skittering Smews) …

… to the wild birds, often remarkably tame as well …

… although not always: the Moorhens were going at it with all the ferocity of fighting cocks.

Aside from birds, it was good to find a Cream-streaked Ladybird, Winter Aconites and our first Cherry-plum flower of the season, and Butcher’s-broom, simultaneously flowering and fruiting a year apart.

And natural art, from the depths of winter to the cheering new shoots of the year.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: New Year, new life!

This week, Beth Chatto Gardens reopened after their midwinter slumber. And what a day to choose! Crystalline blue skies from dawn to dusk…

… although that did of course mean temperatures barely rose above freezing after a penetrating frost the night before. Even in early afternoon, frost bedecked any leaf out of the sun and the ground was still crunchy underfoot.

Last year’s berries are still ripening in places, great food for Redwings and Fieldfares ever-present in the treetops. Who knows, given events elsewhere this winter, could they be joined by Waxwings in the weeks to come?

The tinkling Goldfinches and wheezy Siskins are catered for as well, all manner of seedheads left standing and not ‘tidied’ away: a supply of seeds, a statement of our commitment to the planet, and things of sculptural beauty in their own right.

And not just seedheads, but whole plants left standing, a vital refuge among the winter-burnt foliage and blasted tussocks for ladybirds and other beneficial predators that will soon be out and about keeping our garden in ecological balance.

Too cold for any insect life to be showing, but as and when warmth returns, the flowers are waiting: midwinter blooms such as Mahonia, Lonicera, Sarcococca and Viburnum are the vital sources of sustenance in our gardens for any bee emerging at this time – which of course with climate collapse is increasingly frequent.

Then there are the first of the spring blooms, ready to take the baton as the shrubs start to fade…

… and a whole lot more waiting in the wings for the life-giving warmth to send out their blooms, from hellebores to Euphorbia and Skimmia ‘Kew Green’.

Come and enjoy the unfurling of the year – Beth Chatto Gardens are open Thursday – Saturday until 17 February, thereafter Tuesday – Saturday.  Let us #RewildYourMind!

BOOK REVIEW Local: a search for nearby nature and wildness by Alastair Humphreys

BOOK REVIEW Local: a search for nearby nature and wildness by Alastair Humphreys (2024) Eye Books. pp. 366, £12.99 paperback.

A confession. When I review a book, I don’t always read every word! I open it, feel it, look at the cover, read the intro and selected excerpts about things I am familiar with and things not so familiar, and make my assessment accordingly. Not so this time. I was immediately intrigued by the rationale behind it (finding joy and adventure on one’s metaphorical doorstep), and once I started reading I soon realised I was hooked.

Alastair Humphreys (again a confession, his name was previously unknown to me) has made a career of adventuring, but rather than raping the world in his quest for experiences, has focussed primarily on exploring on foot, cycle or boat, and then sharing his insights through writing, speaking and social media. For him it was a natural progression following the enforced restrictions of Covid19 and increasingly the screams of a beleaguered planet.

Each (short) chapter describes a day exploring a randomly selected 1km square from the OS map that encompasses his home. He doesn’t say where it is, although I have my own inklings, and anyway it doesn’t matter as similar things could be written about any map of the lowlands. The sense of place forms an evocative matrix for the book, underlain by the layers of history, from ancient tracks to 21st Century ‘Keep Out’ signs and fly-tipped detritus, but each square has its triggers for philosophical digressions into some of the huge issues of our time as well as points of overlooked interest that anyone can, and should, find around their daily lives. Sometimes these are gently woven in, like the thoughts on the true place of the oldest parts of many a natural landscape, the ancient Yews that adorn but pre-date a churchyard. Others are more strident and polemic, but fit precisely with my own world view, albeit offering me new perspectives and facts on the way.

Criticisms? Very few – and only issues of personal preference. I don’t get along with footnotes, of which in some parts of the book there are many. Yes, they are useful for detail, but I do find myself losing the narrative as my eyes scan for the asterisks. I prefer boxed text. And while the whole book is commendably low-footprint given its message, this doesn’t lend itself well to photographs: some of those included here are a bit of a black-and-white mush. It would be a shame if for some the message from the book was interpreted as ‘local every-day adventures are the sign of a spartan existence’.

While born of the Covid era, this is much more than one of those books of that new genre of pandemic publications (‘it was always in me, but only then did I have the time to write it’), although of course the break from ‘normality’ helped trigger the author’s behavioural change. I wholeheartedly recommend the book: it’s one I wish I had written myself. Anything that establishes the view that exploration is an attitude, not an activity, has to be a good thing. Regrettably, for all sorts of reasons – political, environmental, medical – the physical bounds of our children will be smaller than ours. It is up to us to show that by rewilding the mind and finding adventure in the commonplace, a life constrained by necessity is  still a life worth living.

#WildEssex New Year Plant Hunt 2024

Each year, the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland organises a New Year plant hunt, encouraging botanists and other interested folk out of their midwinter slumber to see what plants are flowering. As has become tradition, we contributed to the national picture by arranging a walk around Wivenhoe Waterfront on New Year’s Day. And we would like to thank the keen, sharp-eyed group who helped us spot things! All data collected in this citizen science project have been fed into the national record of what is flowering at this time: for more information see New Year Plant Hunt – Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (bsbi.org). It is good to be part of a bigger project to aid learning about how British and Irish wildflowers are responding to climate change. 

On our recce a few days ago it soon became apparent that there were more species flowering than last year when December frosts curtailed the show. The ‘usual suspects’ included Gorse, Hazel, White Dead-nettle, Groundsel, Annual Mercury, Shepherd’s-purse and Common Chickweed, with Daisy and Dandelion lighting up many a patch of grass.

Some of the older walls and brickwork had patches of Mexican Fleabane, Trailing Bellflower and Ivy-leaved Toadflax, while other showy plants included Green Alkanet and Herb-Robert, and more surprisingly both Cow Parsley and Wild Carrot.

Along the waterfront itself, in the cracks of the block paving, Four-leaved Allseed is more abundant than it has ever been since its arrival here some five years ago. Careful searching was needed to find evidence of actual flowers  – they are rather subtle even at the best of times! Similarly, Guernsey Fleabane and Pellitory-of-the-wall only got added to our flowering list after close scrutiny.

Finally on the salt-marshes, Common Cord-grass dangled its naughty bits wantonly to the wind, but the best botanical find of the day we couldn’t count: a single non-flowering sprig of Shrubby Sea-blite, a good couple of kilometres further up the estuary than we have ever found before.

All in all, 34 species in flower (for a full list, see here NYD plant hunt 2024) in the wild was a good haul, certainly well above the 23 in 2023 and almost up to our highest-ever count of 35 in 2022, although ‘good’ is a bit of a loaded term – many of these plants should not be flowering now, and are doing so only because of the harm we have inflicted upon our climate…

Naturally, although a botanical trip, we didn’t overlook other wildlife. The song of Robins was a feast for the ears, a party of Long-tailed Tits trilled around a garden, a Red Kite drifted low and slow overhead,  the fruiting bodies of Cord-grass Ergot were erupting from their host-plant, and we were pleased to find several 7-spot Ladybirds and Rosemary Beetles, those mobile jewels, on a Rosemary bush, mostly paired and in the process of making more beetles. All a very hopeful sign for a wildlife-filled 2024!

 

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: 2024 here we come!

What a way to round off another year filled with the pleasure and privilege of working at the Beth Chatto Gardens! Today may have been unremittingly dull and, after three hour-long walks, pretty chilly – but at least the air was still and the drizzle largely held off.

Around fifty Friends of the garden joined for one or other of the exclusive walks and, while there was little actual wildlife to see, that left all the more time to talk about things we do in the garden to encourage its use by wildlife and to try and encourage similar things in their own gardens. Spreading the Word about Rewilding the Mind!

There were of course a few birds around, with Mallards and Moorhens on the lakes, Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Siskins in the trees, and Redwings flying over. But most activity was heard rather than seen: roving bands of tits, including a party of Long-tailed Tits; Robins singing everywhere; the shrill piping of a Kingfisher all added to the winterscape. And in a promise of the spring to come, a lone Mistle Thrush delivering is languid, fluty warble – pure joy dripping from the treetops.

The fires of autumn have been tamed, toned down into subdued earthy pastels, as the garden reclines into its midwinter slumber:

The only real shards of vibrant colour come from the berries of Holly and Stinking Iris…

… although berries come in muted and sombre shades as well, those of Sorbus being especially numerous, probably because the birds simply don’t recognise pale pink as ‘ripe’.

As befits the home of Ecological and Sustainable Gardening other welcome features are the seed-heads and grassy tussocks, welcome to seed-feeding finches and overwintering natural predators like ladybirds and lacewings respectively.

Otherwise, it was a scatter of winter-flowing shrubs like Mahonia, so crucial to our bees and other pollinators in midwinter, especially at these times of climate breakdown when many are barely going into hibernation at all: if everyone could do only one thing in their gardens to increase the resilience of our landscape to climate change, planting winter shrubs would be high up there in the order of priority.

And so the year draws to a close. But already the signs of renewal are appearing, new shoots emerging, a sign that light and life will soon be returning. If you want to see the garden in its muted winter glory, then hurry – the last opening is this coming Saturday. But never fear, by the scheduled reopening on January 18th 2024 we should be seeing the first signs of spring, and our wildlife will be following suit. Do come and enjoy it – better still, become a Friend and come and see it any time the garden is open!

The Wild Side of Essex with Naturetrek: late autumn at the Naze

The day dawned still and with a glimmer of hope in the eastern skies, although actually for most of the time it remained stubbornly grey and for a while a keen cool breeze sprang up, making us thankful for additional layers! But generally it was mild for the time of the year, and even warm enough for the newly blooming gorse to be giving out its alluring coconut scent.

A few more plants still in flower, and attracting the interest of flies at least, included Yarrow, Sea Mayweed, Hemlock and our local rarity, Hog’s Fennel.

Otherwise it was left to the lichens to add colour and form to the barkscapes and rewilding concrete tracks….

….along with Field Maple in autumn colour and Birch tops adorned with the knots of Taphrina fungal witches’-brooms.

Small birds were relatively few and far between , just a few Long-tailed Tits, Pied Wagtails, Meadow Pipits and Goldfinches, with singing Robins, migrating Skylarks and Starlings, and a remarkable number – at least ten – Cetti’s Warblers, of course heard not seen. But then evidence that there were more birds around than at first apparent: we chanced upon the two local ringers, Simon and Pat Cox, who were happy gives us an impromptu demonstration with a Robin and a Wren, and regale us with tales of their riches from earlier in the day.

Down at the shore, there were plenty of waders, including Grey Plovers and Curlews, and everywhere, in the air, grazing on the clay and upending in the lagoons, burbling bands of Brent Geese.

The salt marshes have largely descended into their winter brown, save for a few Golden-samphires still lighting up the scene, and exciting the nostrils with their shoe-polish aroma.  Also on the marshes, we spotted several spreading plants of the very scarce Perennial Glasswort, and stands of Cord-grass, their flower-heads almost wholly infested with the fruiting bodies of Cord-grass Ergot. Seemingly increasing every year, will this parasite prove to be the nemesis of its rather aggressively spreading host?

A stroll back along the beach then gave plenty of opportunity for beachcombing, from Piddocks and their borings, Slipper-limpets and Portuguese Oyster shells among many other New Kids on the Block, intermixed with Dog-cockles and Left-handed Whelks from the 3 million year-old Red Crag, and pyritized wood and copperas nodules from the 50 million year-old London Clay.

As the light started to fade, after a recent spate of erosion, the cliffs from below revealed vivid tales of our cataclysmic past: inundation by sea water and passage of a prehistoric Thames; upheaval of the land from continents colliding, buckling and faulting; ash-clouds from Scottish volcanoes; and dust-clouds from the icy plains of glacial East Anglia.

And finally, a sunset, by some trick of the cloudscape in exactly the same place on the horizon as the sunrise eight hours’ previously. A fine end to another great day out with Naturetrek.

#WildEssexWalks – beside the seaside at the Naze

Our last WildEssex walk of 2023 was a most enjoyable event. Against a backdrop of variable cloudscapes, a few spots of rain and some warm sunshine, our group of enthusiastic ladies were treated to birds, trees, lichens and mosses, fungi, rare plants plus fossils, shells and dramatic cliffs along the beach, in fact all kinds of everything!

Autumn colours abounded – red fruits, lichens giving some of the established trees atop the cliffs an eerie green or yellow glow, and the fresh green patches of moss on concrete hardstandings, a reminder of the chequered 20th century history of the site.

As befits this damp season, fungi were to be found everywhere, including Mosaic Puffballs in the grass, Birch Bracket gently killing and rotting its host Silver Birch tree, plus several species of mini – and most charming – fungi on tree branches.

Gorse of course was in flower, as more surprisingly was Sea Hog’s-fennel, along with a beautiful pink form of Yarrow.

When the sun shone a few invertebrates presented themselves, including this harvestman and Marmalade Hoverfly.

Our afternoon session was down on the beach, enjoying that whatever-age-you-are-it’s-fun activity of beachcombing.  Pyritized wood and fossilised shells were everywhere, the rusty hue of the latter indicative of many their millions of years stuck in the sandy cliff.

Erosion is a continual event along the cliffs, and there had been several recent landslides leaving dramatic profiles against the by-now-blue sky.

Being a Beside the Sea day, we were also on the lookout for birdlife.  One of the magical moments was the discovery of a Kestrel having an early lunch of a smaller feathered friend, using one of the ex-wartime gun batteries as a dining table. He was completely unfazed as we stood by watching and taking photos.

Along the shore were the usual suspects of Brent Geese, Grey Plovers,  Bar-tailed Godwits and various gulls, all going about their daily business of eating and shooing each other out of the way.

We are very fortunate to have this wonderful area on our doorstep –  a veritable time-machine enabling us to witness life over the past fifty million years!

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: a perfect autumn day…

In the depths of autumn, there are few places better to be than in somewhere like Beth Chatto Gardens, with the russets and gold of the season set off beautifully against a clear blue sky. Earlier this week, the air was chilled in the shade, but the sun still powerful enough to shed a layer or two and to stir the insect life into action:

Flowers are diminishing, but there are still enough to provide the insects with their basic needs before hibernation (or worse) beckons:

And the blooms seem extra-special when the leaves are also sprinkled with stardust:

As the flowers have faded so fruits and seeds take centre-stage…

… along with the foliage, its beauty magnified by the subtle low winter sunlight picking out textures that are unimaginable in the fierce light of summer.

And of course, especially dramatic when the greens are tinged with autumnal flame…

Beauty at every turn, and hope: the transition of the seasons bring promise of renewal and return next year.

This fleeting season can so easily be swept away by storm or frost, so do visit and enjoy it if you can. The gardens are open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday until the midwinter closure on December 16th Entrance – Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens. Rewild your mind!