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#WildBrightlingsea Bug & Botany Walks – All Saints’ Churchyard and Moverons Lane

It almost felt like normal – a dozen wildlife fans and us being able to spend time together enjoying the natural world. Our venue this time was the large churchyard of All Saints’, Brightlingsea, followed by a potter along the adjacent lane.

All Saints’ Church itself is impressive – the decorative flint indicating its historic wealth and importance. The churchyard covers a vast area with quite a few trees and features such as log piles and an Insect Hotel, all of which are valuable homes for invertebrates. However, with the exception of some patches of Lesser Calamint (a sweet-smelling and Nationally Scarce plant), most areas seem to be mown (too) regularly to provide much assistance to wildlife. It is commendable to provide homes for things to live in, but these creatures also need places to feed and breed. But on the plus side, the church does welcome the large colony of Soprano Pipistrelles it hosts!

The morning got off to a dull start (and we were grumpy that the No 62 Bus had failed to turn up!), but things were soon brightened by a lovely Speckled Bush-cricket who was sitting on the fence hoping for some sun. Other invertebrates in the churchyard included a large spider (brought to our attention by its long legs poking out of a grave), plus a  Harvestman sheltering away from the wind. We spotted a brilliant green sawfly larvae on a gravestone – and it demonstrated very nicely the arrangement of legs on sawfly (which are types of wasp) larvae as opposed to lepidopteran (butterfly and moth) larvae, which in technical terms have fewer pro-legs.

Lichens are doing well in this holy space. These fascinating organisms are in fact each a composite of an algae living with a fungus, so not really species in their own right, though each are scientifically named, e.g. the Sunburst Lichen is known as Xanthoria parietina. Their ubiquitous presence is an indicator of the general comparatively good air quality as opposed to that of the pre-Clean Air Acts era, when acid rain had a negative effect on them.

It was lovely to see a few areas of pink Ivy-leaved Cyclamens – the phrase ‘small is beautiful’ is so apt, compared to the blowsy horticulturally enhanced varieties that are available. This is the only cyclamen that stakes any claim to native status in the British Isles, but not around here where it is derived from cultivation or deliberately planted. Irrespective, it is a welcome splash of autumn colour.

The weather brightened just as the walk was drawing to an end. The Ivy bushes along Moverons Lane were teeming with all kinds of life in the sunshine – Willow Emerald damselflies (a species which has colonised Britain over the past 20 years), Red Admiral butterflies and many types of bees and hoverflies.  Such a joy to stand and watch, listen and smell the flowers! Ivy gets a bad press, but it is such an important source of food and shelter to all kinds of insects and birds; it does not kill trees and it can provide protection to buildings that it grows up.

Elms are present along the lane – not large Elm trees that had once graced our countryside – but now thanks to Dutch Elm disease only the smaller shrub-like trees, which only grow for a few years before becoming overcome with infection by the fungus-carrying bark beetle  Scolytus scolytus. However, the galleries these creature make under the bark are truly beautiful and artistic. Other recent artistic additions to the nation’s fauna include the Zig-Zag Elm Sawfly which makes rather charming zigzags as it chomps its way along the leaves.  A sharp-eyed member of our group found a well-camouflaged Dark Bush-cricket nestling on a post, whilst Chris noticed this crazy moth caterpillar (a Grey Dagger moth).

Just as we were wandering back to the cars a Devil’s Coach Horse beetle scuttled across the road – rearing its back end up as a warning to us. These are a type of rove beetle, and totally harmless. We managed to shepherd it out of harm’s way before saying our goodbyes to the group.

Many thanks to you all for attending, hope that you enjoyed the morning and that you will be able to join us on another exploration of  nature before too long.

Autumn approaches on the River Crouch

A great couple of days exploring the less known (to us) parts of the Crouch for our book. The weather may not have been too great but it certainly made for moody, moisty landscapes…

Some landscapes bore the hallmarks of autumn, dead Hemlock weaving filigree patterns in the sky, while the year-round winter of Dutch elm disease is still rife in the Dengie.

Saltmarshes in contrast are still blooming away, with Sea Wormwood and Sea Aster only just past their best…

… while Sea-blite dons its autumn coat, fifty shades of green.

Invertebrates included Long-winged Conehead, the egg sac of a Wasp Spider and larvae of the Plum Slug-sawfly.

Among the many other highlights: the wonderful agri-environment work at Burnham Wick Farm (apparently successful as Corn Buntings and Linnets were everywhere), outstanding food at the Oyster Smack Inn, and the helpful, friendly service of the Burnham Ferryman Mark Phillips, giving us an easy window into the wildlands of Wallasea Island. We will be back!

 

 

To the fringes of the tide in old Essex – Three Mills and the Olympic Park

Out to the fringes of ‘old Essex’, in Stratford, the Olympic Park and Three Mills Island: landscapes old and new…

In the Olympic Park, nearly 10 years on the ecological planting still thrives…

Our last visit to the area was the subject of one of our earliest blogs in July 2017. There have of course been changes over four years, especially in the additions to the high rise landscape.

But from a wildlife perspective, it seems the main change has been the colonisation by Mottled Shield-bugs. New to the area (and Britain) as recently as 2010,  there were dozens of them along the Greenway edges and hedges of Traveller’s-joy and Bramble (and bizarrely Summer Jasmine) in all nymphal stages, along with a few adults.

This bug is still unknown to us in the north of the county. The same is not true of this splendid Rose Chafer, a fairly common sight around Colchester, but with very few records in the south-west, according to the Essex Field Club map

To these can be added much more of interest, from Rose Sawflies, picturewings and hoverflies, and dense patches of Dwarf Elder.

And so to the main reason for our visit, to explore the complex of waterways in the kilometre downstream of Stratford, a fascinating complex of channels, fresh and salt, tidal, flowing and still, embracing an inland archipelago.

Three Mills island is in effect the end point of our mental walk around the Essex coast, right to the far flung corner of the tidal lands of the East Saxons, the ‘walk’ which has been turned during three months’ lockdown into eighty thousand words, and a planned six volumes of Not Just a Field Guide to the Essex Coast. Two tidal limits here, one just upstream from the House Mill, the other at the head of the Channelsea River:

As with the Olympic Park, architecture and artitechture featured, both old and new, with cathedrals to both power and poo….’poo’ being the ornate Byzantine dome of Abbey Mills pumping station, and ‘power’ being the largest tidemills of their era, and the interlocking tracery of now abandoned gasworks, their form seemingly mimicking the The Orbit, just upstream.

Low tide rendered the tidal channels almost empty, but still a Kingfisher flashed through, as Red-eared Terrapins basked in the sunlight. And as everywhere, there were plenty of other delights to find, from leaf mines to jewel beetles…

On the banks, again it was a mixture of natives and recent arrivals, mostly increasing invasive species, apart from the Honeybee using the Himalayan Balsam flowers for food. The delights of Multicultural London, where even plants from half way round the world are doing their bit to support our pollinator army!

The Beth Chatto Gardens as summer starts to fade…

It was a case, as much of the summer has been, of dodging the showers, but the bright but overcast weather at Beth Chatto Gardens presented wonderful opportunities for photography, unhindered by the sharp contrasts so often present when the sun shines, bleeding colour from the scene. This time no commentary, just images of one of our favourite places.

Colourscapes

Fruitscapes

Greenscapes

Wildscapes

Leafscapes 

Innerscapes

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

Two walks this month, one at either end of the period, marked the transition from midsummer to the approach of autumn. Both were in lovely warm, largely sunny, weather and there was plenty to keep the two groups interested. As always a mix of everything featured on the ambles, from birds to insects to geology to social history of this lovely part of north-east Essex.

Bird numbers on the estuary have built during the month, especially the returning waders from northern climes, many still in full breeding plumage at least at the start of the month. Black-tailed Godwits built from 20 to 400, Avocets from 40 to 80, along with growing numbers of Curlew and Redshank, and a few Turnstones, Lapwings and Greenshanks.

On the saltmarshes, Sea-lavender has peaked while Golden Samphire picked up the flowery baton, and will shortly be passing that on to Sea Aster. All are great places to look for nectaring butterflies and other insects.

Other saltmarsh and sea wall specialists flowering well included Greater Sea-spurrey, Crow Garlic, Common Toadflax and Strawberry Clover, the latter localised to those spots that the furthest tendrils of the tide just reach.

Along Wivenhoe Waterfront, the two botanical highlights of Jersey Cudweed and Four-leaved Allseed flowered throughout the month, albeit overshadowed by the ‘Second Spring’ of Tamarisk.

Some other botanical highlights included Duke-of-Argyll’s Tea-tree and Tansy, both a magnet for hoverflies and bees…

…together with the flowering glories of the dry, skeletal soils of the Essex Alps: Lesser Calamint, Blue Fleabane, Trailing St John’s Wort, and our precious patch of Heather.

As far as insects are concerned, Purple Hairstreaks were still on the wing at the start of August, while by the end of the month, new brood emergences of Speckled Wood and Red Admiral were apparent. The latter were especially a feature of the few Buddleias in the Cockaynes Reserve, with sometimes twenty to a bush, along with similarly pristine Small Tortoiseshells, Commas and Painted Ladies, and the last few tattered Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers.

The caterpillars of Cinnabar and Buff-tip, ripe for pupation, were in evidence, along with many other insects, from robber-flies to jewel-wasps.

And as always at this time of year, dragonflies have been abundant. Common and Ruddy Darters and Migrant Hawkers predominated, but they also included Brown, Southern and Southern Migrant Hawkers, especially around Cockaynes.

While Yellowhammers were still singing for our first walk, the second was within silent woods, save for the plaintive autumn cadence of Robins just starting up.

Highlighting the turn of the season, Sweet Chestnuts are fattening, Heather blooms are fading, fungi are sprouting and galls forming on oak leaves and rose bushes….

And it is to galls we turn for the highlight of the month. The large Walnut in St Mary’s Churchyard has long featured the lumpy, brain-like pouches of the common gall mite Aceria erinea, but this year it features alongside the smaller, redder and rarer galls of Aceria tristriata. On consulting WildGuides’ Britain’s Plant Galls, it ‘seems to be of very local occurrence’, and according to the NBN there are only 11 previous UK records, the nearest being in the vicinity of Norwich, Peterborough and Oxford. Always a surprise in store with @Naturetrektours in #WildWivenhoe!

 

Blogs on other sites

A brief round-up of blogs on other platforms that I have written or contributed to in recent months.

First a couple on the Beth Chatto Gardens website The Beth Chatto Gardens Blog:

Ten top plants to bring wildlife into your garden ten of the top plants that can be used to attract wildlife, especially beneficial and attractive insects, to your garden. It includes native and non-native species, plants for average, dry, damp and shady gardens, and explains a few general principle about choosing plants for their wildlife benefit.

What happened when we stopped mowing the grass? describes the exciting developments in the former overflow car park this summer. A significant area has been allowed to grow unchecked by mowing this summer, and it has resulted in a magnificent piece of nature recovery – dry sandy grassland with more than 90 plant species, many of which are local dry ground specialists, mixed with ruderal (‘weedy’) species and escapees from the Garden. A truly eclectic, multicultural mix of plants forming a magnificent mosaic.

And finally, on a different tack, a blog on the ESG  Foundation website ESG Foundation. ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) seeks to ensure those attributes are central to the thinking and operation of businesses large and small. My blog Going green or greenwashing? The trouble with trees…  is a think-piece that explores the folly of unthinking knee-jerk tree planting and challenges the conventional assumptions that planting trees is the best way to save the planet.

 

Also of interest perhaps is and article in the August 2021 edition of British Wildlife, our story of how local communities CAN defeat unscrupulous housebuilders and their bought consultants. Warning: contains demonstration of how Biodiversity Net Gain can be perverted.

HALL, J & GIBSON, C. (2021) Not just bats and reptiles: the importance of species recording in planning decisions. British Wildlife 32: 565-572.

#BringingNatureToYou : branching out to Furze Hill, Mistley

Renowned for its collection of veteran oak pollards, some dating back perhaps 800 years or more, Furze Hill was the venue for our first organised walks in that part of the county. Two, hour-long walks were our small gesture of thanks to the Street Keepers of Lawford, Manningtree and Mistley, who devote so much time to trying to rid their communities of the modern curse of herbicide applications.

We have blogged before about the veteran trees – see Furze Hill, Mistley: home to the Ancients from March 2018 – after a visit in spring when the wonderful naturally sculptural trees are so much easier to appreciate. We will say little more about them now, save to report that Old Knobbley, the most venerable of all, still marches on …

A summer visit of course gave us a window into the plant and especially insect life of the area. In the more open parts of the woods, Enchanter’s-nightshade (unique in having only two petals) and Rose-bay Willowherb were blooming.

Along the wood edge, several Caper Spurges have popped up from unknown, presumably garden, sources, while Common Mallow was flowering profusely . A feature of the ‘dog-wee’ plant community, Mallow is found particularly where exercising dogs have their first tiddles, but despite its less-than-salubrious habits, it is a vital source of nectar and pollen for insects.

Of the former heathy nature of Furze Hill very little botanical evidence remains, just a few remnant patches of Climbing Corydalis…

… although as we walked across the field, it was clear that great things could be achieved for wildlife, people AND carbon storage if larger parts of the fields were managed under an autumn cut haymaking regime. Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Sheep’s Sorrel and Common Cudweed were all visible in the turf, in spite of the mowing intensity, and no doubt others plants would rear their heads if allowed to do so. Every little would help!

As far as the insects were concerned, rough grass, Brambles and overhanging branches are a potent combination. Forest Bug and Green Shield-bug were on show, with a clutch of recently vacated eggs of one species or another on an Oak leaf; searching other leaves also produced developing Spangle Galls and the distinctively marked weevil Orchestes signifer.

The acorns of the same Oak were starting to show the disfiguring Knopper Galls.

A good range of grasshoppers and bush-crickets showed themselves, including Roesel’s and Speckled Bush-crickets and Meadow and Field Grasshoppers.

All that, and much more made for a very entertaining couple of hours and we will certainly look to bring the area into our programme of events next summer.

 

Wrabness Nature Reserve on a summer’s evening

Our first Botany and Bug foray into the wild spaces of Wrabness proved as enjoyable as we had hoped, with lots of wildlife waiting to be discovered, in perfect summer evening weather. The Essex Wildlife Trust’s Wrabness Nature Reserve was our venue, a mosaic of scrub and grassland, with views over the twinkling Stour Estuary, all easily accessible thanks to the road network from is former incarnation as a wartime mine depot.

Below is a list of some of the best bits, together with a few photos …

PLANTS

Some from the Pea family included Meadow Vetchling, Black Medick and Broad-leaved Everlasting Pea.

Also important resources to visiting insects, among the umbellifers were Wild Parsnip, Upright Hedge Parsley and Wild Carrot (with shaggy ruff, and purple middle to attract insects).

Other plants, radiant in the sinking sunlight, included Blackthorn with fruiting Sloes  (surprisingly heavy cropping after the cold weather we had in April when the flowers were out), Common Knapweed and Hoary Ragwort, complete with Cinnabar caterpillars…

… the semi-parasitic Red Bartsia, Dittander (tasting of Horseradish), and Woody Nightshade…

…and a final selection of Teasel, Rose-bay Willowherb and a patch of Wild Marjoram, an unusual site away from chalk soils.

Moving on to GALLS, those interesting structures caused by various wasps/flies/midges/fungi etc, three mini-wasp galls on Dog Rose were the Robin’s Pincushion, Smooth Pea Gall and the remarkable spiky Sputnik Gall.

BIRDS

No photos of these, but Blackcap, Whitethroats and Chiffchaffs were moving through the scrub patches, and a Yellowhammer flew over along with lots of southerly-heading Swallows.

Last but not least, some of the INVERTEBRATES that accompanied us on our journey. Butterflies included a confiding Comma, making the most of the last rays of sunlight, the cocoon of a burnet moth, several harvestmen (Arachnids (like spiders), all with 8 legs but they don’t make webs, just hang around on leaves) and the plant bug Phytocoris rufipes.

And of course the highlight of the day…

Great Green Bush Cricket – wasn’t she magnificent! And really rather scarce in Essex.

Thanks to those who joined our walk, and for the donation which we have sent to the Essex Wildlife Trust. We hope to include this site in our expanded programme of walks next summer.

 

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

The Wild Side of Essex returned to the north of the county in July, with one walk each on the Colne Estuary and at the Naze. As has been customary this ‘summer’, the weather was a mixed bag, but the wildlife still performed admirably…

Our day on the Colne early in the month, ostensibly midsummer, was unseasonably windy, sometimes cool, sometimes humid, and often rainy…all in all, quite challenging conditions for wildlife-watching. Even the birds seemed to think it was autumn, with a hundred or so Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits (most in good russet plumage, and presumably failed breeders), and smaller numbers of Curlews and Redshanks.

The first fledgling Black-headed Gulls were out and about, and we got great views of Reed Bunting, Stock Dove and Song Thrush in sheltered spots. Common Terns were actively commuting overhead, taking fish they had caught on the estuary inland to their gravel pit breeding sites, and there were lots of Swifts hawking over both Shipyard and Church, as the sound of a barking Muntjac drifted over from the far side of the estuary on the stiff southerly wind.

The saltmarshes bloomed with Sea-lavender, Sea-purslane and Sea Beet, along with Cord Grass, Sea Plantain, Dittander and Golden Samphire.

Other exciting plants included Jersey Cudweed and Four-leaved Allseed on Wivenhoe Quay alongside beautiful patches of Mexican Fleabane, and Nodding Thistle, Wood Sage and Hoary Cinquefoil on the top of the Essex Alps, where Sweet Chestnut flowers were just emerging, filling the air with their mushroomy scent.

And even though insect activity was suppressed (Essex Skipper, Painted Lady, Emperor Dragonfly, Silver Y and Black-tailed Skimmer being the best), there were plenty of other things to see such as galls, leaf mines and fungi, albeit speaking more of autumn than summer!

The late-month Naze walk was altogether more summery (albeit grey at first), becoming but hot and sunny and eventually very humid. Always predictable of course is the fascinating geology, whatever the season, whatever the weather…

Many of the birds were distinctly sandy – summer-plumaged Sanderlings by the water’s edge (with a few Dunlins, Turnstones and Ringed Plovers); Sand Martins breeding in the cliffs; and Sandwich Terns roosting on the beach.
A wide range of flowers attracted our attention, from the common (but beautiful in full bloom) Spear Thistle and Common Fleabane to the scarcer specialities Golden Samphire, Corky-fruited Water-dropwort and Hog’s Fennel.
Stone Point was beginning to look especially flowery, the low dunes with Sea Rocket, Sea Mayweed, Prickly Saltwort and Sea Spurge, while a small proportion of the flowering Marram clumps was infected with Ergot.
Common insects were in abundance …
…while insect stars included the beautiful pink form of Meadow Grasshopper, a large (and fortunately quiescent) Saltmarsh Horsefly, and a tenacious Bee-wolf humping around its unfortunate prey, trying to locate its nest.
Something for everyone with @naturetrektours!

Landscapes and Lifescapes of South Essex

So where were we? Gazing at a vast area of gently undulating grassland, the backlit, silvery grass heads picked out by the sun. No sound, save for Skylarks and Corn Buntings singing in the searing heat. The Spanish steppes? The causses plateaux in the Cevennes? Maybe the puszta of Hungary? The stuff of dreams in these pandemic times. No, we were atop a vast heap of domestic refuse, capped off with clay, and given a decade of rewilding: the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Thameside Nature Discovery Park.

Sadly, although I spent much of the first phase of my working career in south Essex, I cannot claim any of the credit for this (take a bow, John Hall, former EWT Chief Exec!). By the time my work took me elsewhere, the tip was still not yet full, and indeed restoration (and extension of the Nature Park) is still ongoing. But I did notify the adjacent Stanford Warren reedbed and the Mucking mudflats as an SSSI, commencing the discussions with the landfill operators which eventually led to the Nature Park. And I did spend several years of my life working on the project which converted the Shellhaven oil refinery into the London Gateway container port: those long hours in public inquiry left a legacy of replacement bird-rich mudflats (now Stanford Wharf RSPB reserve) on what had been standard coastal arable land.

That was one of the reasons for our holiday down there: to revisit some of the sites of my past by way of research for our (hopefully) forthcoming book. Another of course was ‘getting back on our horse’ after the heavy fall of Covid. And as it transpired, a jolly good part of the world to find interesting wildscapes, both natural and post-industrial, a model perhaps for the post-human lifescapes which will follow us…

That process of picturesque decay is underway in so many places, including (just down from the TNDP) at the iconic Modernist Bata building at East Tilbury…

… and still further south at Coalhouse Point…

..although Coalhouse Fort, designed to defend against attack, seems to be withstanding the ravages of time more effectively.

Tilbury Fort likewise, albeit more unassumingly, nested as it is into West Tilbury Marshes:

And ports can always be relied upon to produce interesting landscapes, both physical and metaphysical, those ports being at the ends of the golden threads which (should) tie us all together….

Then there is Chafford Hundred, a place of meaning and memory to me, as when I started working here it simply didn’t exist. A series of chalk pits, long disused, were earmarked for the largest new housing scheme in the country, and so became one of my very first big cases, into which I hoped to introduce at least an element of sustainability.

Thirty five years on, I do feel my efforts were worthwhile. Yes, there is presumably less biodiversity than before the building, but of course if the pits had been left undeveloped and unmanaged, they would do doubt by now be suffocating under the choking grip of Buddleia and invading trees, stealing the light from life on chalk.

Large swathes of some old pits and relict fragments of original Ancient Woodland have been retained, and are managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust…

… but just as important is the comprehensive network of green infrastructure which ramifies through Chafford Hundred, allowing movement of wildlife and human beings alike, and bringing important habitat patches into everybody’s reach.

The wildlife is special in the Essex context, as for us Chalk is such a rare base rock. Here, we have a small outlier of the North Downs, on the ‘wrong’ side of the Thames; capped with sands and gravels, and in the favoured warm microclimatic zone of the river, this provides conditions for a wide range of plants and animals, many of which are rare or absent elsewhere in the county.

Even in the heart of the estates, the ‘standard’ grass road verges have interesting plants such as Strawberry Clover…

… while the c2c railway embankments are simply festooned with chalky vegetation, brimming with life, in a way which would not be tolerated in our Greater Anglia part of the world, aka glyphosate central.

And our stay even allowed us to get across the water on the Tilbury Ferry, to take in the delights and charm of Gravesend.

The Thames Estuary,  place of history and wildlife, big skies and panoramas, everywhere the imprint of a millennium of civilisation. However you see it, whether fingerprint or skidmark,  it never fails to impress, and for me it was good to be back.

This section of the Essex Coast is due to feature in Volume 6 of our newly-renamed Not Just a Field Guide to the Essex Coast. Watch this space!

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: High Summer

At times, July has given us a real summer, albeit with quite some fluctuation, a mix of cooler days and very hot spells averaging towards the norm. The rain of the previous months ensured that the garden remained verdantly lush at a time when in previous drought years parts would have been getting frazzled at the edges.

Star plants for insects in the garden were many and varied, but particular note must be made of Euphorbia, Pimpinella, Veronicastrum, Thymus and Eryngium, all of which were punching well above their weight at some times of the month.

It was especially reassuring to see the emergence (or maybe arrival, following immigration) of hoverflies from mid-month. Part of the army of gardeners’ helpers, feeding for example on aphids, they are a sign of good ecological health, even if Marmalade Hoverflies predominated.

Of the other showy insect groups, butterflies were relatively few and far between, especially early in July, although it was good to see some apparent recovery (from parasite attack) of Small Tortoiseshell numbers, and by the month’s end, a good emergence of Purple Hairstreaks.

In contrast, damselflies were everywhere and abundant, with dragonflies likewise on the warmer days.

But at this time of year, the showy creatures are only the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a selection from throughout the month, ranging from egg-sac-carrying Wolf Spiders to the tiny, beautiful and scarce micro-moth Esperia oliviella.

 

Among the insects it is always good to see those that might traditionally be considered garden foes, especially those that eat and disfigure the plants we value. Ok, some are more attractive than others (Mullein Moth being much more charismatic than Solomon’s Seal Sawfly for instance), but every one is somebody else’s food, and their presence in the garden is as good a sign as any of the ecologically-centred ethos by which it is managed. I’ll have holes in my Verbascums, just give me the birds and the bees (and moths and sawflies) please…as Joni Mitchell might have sung.

One aspect of garden biodiversity that is often overlooked is moths, the night-fliers in particular. In mid-month however, we were able to run a moth-trap before a course we were running on Get to know your Garden Invertebrates. The vibrant night-life was very apparent the next morning, with Buff-tips, Rosy Footman and Privet Hawk-moths among the favourites.

And finally a peek at our new acid-grassland hay-meadow on the former overflow car park. Again helped by the rainy spring, this has turned into a wonderful mosaic of grasses and herbs, all of which have been just waiting for the management to be relaxed. I will return to this in a blog later in the year, but do take the opportunity now to see its first flowering.

Do visit the website and book a visit: gardener or naturalist, you will not be disappointed. And keep an eye on the events calendar as we will aim to run the Garden Invertebrates course again as soon as there is the demand. Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens

 

Going Wilder in Wivenhoe

#WildWivenhoe just got a lot wilder. This spring saw the start of an exciting experiment in urban rewilding, to allow the grasslands of some of our recreation areas and estate road verges to grow and flower under an autumn-cut hay regime. Spearheaded by Wivenhoe Town Council, with Mark Halladay, Cllr Glyn Evans and a band of enthusiastic volunteers. this excellent initiative importantly encompasses grassland that is managed by other bodies, notably Colchester Borough Council.

Four months down the line since the first non-cut, we visited many of the areas in high summer to see how they are coming along. This is not a scientific survey by any means – the volunteers are doing that – but more of an ecological overview to see how they are developing as a resource for wildlife, and a visual feature hopefully enhancing the day-to-day life of the whole community.

Of course some are more successful than others. Take the smallest, the Co-op Triangle: this is heavily trampled, used as an outdoor sales area, and subject to frequent ‘inputs’ – the abundance of Wall Barley and Common Mallow is very typical of the ‘dog-wee grass community’.

But it is still important. Wildlife is there, a mini-wilderness ekeing out a living surrounded by concrete; green is coming up and flowering in peoples’ lives; and importantly, people are using it – the other aspects of the junction have show gardens, admittedly beautiful and wildlife-friendly, but most definitely ‘look, don’t touch’.

All the estate verges in this scheme similarly have wildlife bursting through the previously over-manicured grassland, nature improvement areas which challenge the British obsession with sterile green grass, scalped to within a sliver of its life, and unsullied by ‘weeds’ (aka beautiful wild flowers that support all sorts of insect life), for example:

Frances, Grasby and Cracknell Closes

Ernest Road

and De Vere Lane.

All have colour and wildlife; all could be seem by some to be ‘untidy: these spots will be the test of public acceptability. Or perhaps seen as Natures’s  advertisement for the rewards of letting life into our lives, and create the demand for more and more each year…

In the the larger, off-road areas, those rewards are even more apparent, teeming with butterflies, damselflies, hoverflies and all manner of insects. Off Bobbits Way, the steeply sloping grassy enclave has shown us why it escaped the houses when the estate was developed…it has sprung a spring, presumably where the gravel cap meets the London Clay, and formed a perfect rush-filled mini-marsh. Last year with so much less rain, this was not at all obvious.

Nearby, Millfield Common is large enough to be divided into two, one to be hay mown, the other periodically mown through the summer but not as tightly as in the past. And that diversity of management is paying off – the mown area with numerous flowering yellow composites, the hay area white with Yarrow, and all attracting insects.

On the very top of the Essex Alps, sandy grassland predominates, and nowhere better than at the Henrietta Close Recreation Ground. Last year, with Covid disruption to the mowing, we got a hint of its potential; this year it is simply stunning, a mosaic of grass and flowers, adorned with insects, and with access paths mown through it for those who don’t wish to explore the delights of the wild between their toes.

Finally we come to the King George V field. The fringes of the field have now largely been adopted into a hay regime, and they are all looking good…

… although not (yet) perhaps as good as our previous rewilding experiment further down the field.  That has had three more years to develop, and is now entrenched as a key part of Wivenhoe’s biodiversity, a place for plants, insects and people, where the key message is ‘Please do NOT keep off the grass’.

And in the fullness of time, surely each of these has the potential to match the insect haven the other side of Wivenhoe Wood: Lower Lodge. This has had a 15 year head start on the rest, but is a fantastic example of how, if management constraints are lifted, the wildlife will respond, and we all will benefit.

This is not about rarities. Note that I haven’t even mentioned most of the species in and around these grassy patches. Yes, some scarce plants have indeed responded to the new management regime, with some areas hosting for example Knotted Clover and Dittander.

No, it is not about rarity, it is about bioabundance. Each of the flowers in the photos above, indeed each of the flowers that has graced these areas over the summer has the power to bring joy into the heart. Every single one attracts insects, the tiny things that run the planet. Quite apart from what they do for pollination, all are also food for something else. Such bioabundance builds up food webs and resilient ecosystems: bit by bit, step by step, what we do in Wivenhoe and elsewhere will help change the world for the better.

Thanks to Mark and everyone else involved for pointing and persuading us in the right direction….