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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….

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: Lower Lodge

Having cancelled our Saturday outing, Monday dawned very wet and grey, and we wondered if we should have pulled the plug on that too, but in the end we were very glad that we didn’t – the humidity and warmth certainly brought out the insects in Lower Lodge.

This site is one of our favourites – managed very much for wildlife – areas being left for various lengths of time to grow, and then cut to avoid any turning back into woodland. We will let the photos speak for themselves –  though a couple of particularly interesting creatures (Roesel’s Bush-cricket and Emperor Dragonfly) spotted by members of the group didn’t hang around long enough to be snapped, so you will have to take our word for it!!

Skippers in their hundreds – mainly Essex (dark smudge at end of their antennae), but some Small (orange tips). Other butterflies included Meadow Browns, Ringlets, Gatekeepers, Large Whites, and just as we were leaving a pristine Red Admiral and Comma.

Moths including several types of grass moth and plume moth, a Common Carpet, Silver Y and Scabious Longhorns. Unfortunately the Burnet moths were not yet out but we did see a couple of egg cases, so we are confident that there will be some before long.

Beetles including several types of Ladybird  – 7 spot, 22 spot, 24 spot and a number of types of Harlequins, Thick-thighed Beetles, Hogweed Bonkers, a Yellow and Black Longhorn beetle plus a profusion of leaf beetles munching their way through a Hogweed leaf.

Plant bugs including  the reddish grass bugs Leptopterna ferrugata and Deraeocoris ruber, the beautiful planthopper Allygus mixtus  and the only shieldbug of the day, a Hairy Shieldbug.

Flies including ‘Dolly’ flies which wave their wings to signal to each other, a Saltmarsh Horsefly, which we rarely see and Nationally Scarce, plus lots of Marmalade Hoverflies and a few other hoverflies including the Large Pied, a smaller bee mimic Cheilosia illustrata, and Scaeva pyrastri.

And from other orders of insects, there were Speckled Bush-crickets and a particularly fine ichneumon (parasitic) wasp.

Plants were looking good – as high as an elephant’s eye almost, thanks to all the rain we have had. Particularly good-lookers include the Field Scabious, Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Hedge Bedstraw, Lady’s Bedstraw and Goat’s-beard. Also, never forget to look deep into the familiar: at close quarters, even Hogweed is a thing of beauty.

And always good to see, fungal Fairy Fingers erupting from the turf.

Thanks to you all who took a risk with the weather – hope that you enjoyed the experience as much as we did. Hope to see you in August.

A Dream come True – the Wallasea Wild Coast

When I worked in the English Nature Colchester office in the early 1990s, on the wall was the whole county at 1:50,000 scale, a painstakingly collaged set of the relevant Ordnance Survey maps. At eye height was an intriguing prospect – half a hand-span of empty space surrounded by a sea wall, the only mapped features being a dozen parallel north-south ditches some 300m apart from each other: Wallasea Island. Nowhere else on the coast was nearly so empty….

That impression was not dispelled when I first visited. As thoughts turned from protection to enhancement, and what would now be called rewilding, though, it started to look more and more like an opportunity, a blank canvas on which to paint the environment of the future. That was my dream, but it took the dedication of others, especially the RSPB, to breathe life into it.

The first opportunity arose around the turn of the Millennium. The UK Government had just been found guilty under EU law of permitting the destruction of two areas of mud for port expansion. And quite right – it was legalised vandalism. Remember the EU, the ‘unelected bureaucrats’ that half the population voted to secede from, but that almost all conservationists were supportive of for their ability to hold renegade governments to account…?

The ruling of the European Court of Justice meant that our government was required to replace an equivalent area of the destroyed mudflats and salt marsh; fortunately in Essex we had both the experience and understanding how to do that – through managed realignment. The north shore of Wallasea was selected as the place for this to happen – the photos below are from 2008, a couple of years after the sea wall was breached.

But that was only the start, covering about a sixth of the island. The big vision for most of the remainder came from the RSPB who saw an opportunity to go into beneficial partnerships that would help deliver landscape re-creation on a very large scale. In order to raise the land level inside the sea wall to the level at which marsh and mudflat would form quickly, the RSPB was able to take more than 3 million tonnes of spoil (which needed to be disposed of safely and legally) from the Crossrail project tunnelling under London: a ‘win-win’ for conservation and construction, and so the Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project was born. More of the island was opened to the tide, and most of the rest fitted out with shallow pools and brackish wetlands.

Last month I had the opportunity to make my first visit there since the realignments were newly in place. The original schemes are progressing well, as expected, now a mosaic of mud and marsh, evidently with plenty of food for estuarine birds.

Looking inland, in contrast to my previous visits, the first impression was even more favourable – sheets of water on the fields, and the noise of the birds. Nesting gulls, terns and waders in raucous cacophony, caressed by the cadence of Skylarks and the jangling of Corn Buntings, pierced by the explosive shrill of Yellow Wagtails: that almost-forgotten summer symphony of the Essex coast. Wonderful!

And it’s not just about the birds – take the swathes of legume-rich grassland, with Clovers, from widespread Red and White, to Hop Trefoil and the masses of the local specialities Sea Clover and Narrow-leaved Bird’s-foot-trefoil.

Salsify brightened up the sea wall along with probably the prettiest Wild Carrot in the universe…

No doubt these flowering marshes would have been visited by the rare bumblebees for which the south Essex coast is so renowned, if the weather hadn’t been so dull!. But some insects were out and about, most notably Empis livida dance-flies, nectaring especially on thistles wherever there was a modicum of shelter from the breeze, and full-sized Lackey moth caterpillars preparing to pupate.

So just why did it take me so long to get down to the new Wallasea? I guess it is the distance and the lie of the land on the Essex coast: it always felt like an affront to natural justice to need to drive for an hour and a half to travel under 30km as the Brent Goose flies.

But it will not be so long until the next visit. The RSPB has given life to a dream I have harboured for thirty years, and it will only keep on improving. And instead of ‘turning the clock back’, the aim of so much conservation, I trust it will turn it forward and provide opportunities for birds such as Black-winged Stilts and Spoonbills, the vanguard of climate change refugees from an increasingly arid Mediterranean zone.

 

Midsummer in Cambridge Botanic Garden

Our first visit to Cambridge Botanic Garden for more than two years: it may be one of our favourite places, but a venture across the border from Essex was a step too far during the worst of the pandemic…and it was such a delight to be back! 

Was it our imagination, or is a much larger area of grass now being left to grow long? Hope this is a positive, permanent decision, and not simply a sign of Covid disruption – #NoMowMay and #JungleJune writ large!

The hay-meadows were looking wonderful,  including swathes of Ox-eye Daisy, attracting all sorts of insects, and Yellow Rattle, helping to suppress the grass dominance.

Elsewhere, the immersive experience of walking through ‘cornfields without herbicides (and indeed corn)’ was also wonderful. Showy annual gardens, with the ‘corn quintet’ – flower, cockle, marigold, chamomile and poppy – were feeding bumblebees in force, especially where supplemented with Phacelia.
Lots of Odonata action in the ponds including egg-laying Empresses and basking Four-spotted Chasers, along with the first emerging Common Darters and numerous damselflies.
Welsh Chafers (note the single tarsal claws, rather than the double claws of the more widespread Garden Chafer) were also emerging in abundance, swarming particularly it seemed around Californian Buckeye flowers: it may be non-native but it was attracting a lot of insect attention.
And throughout the garden, insects and other invertebrates were everywhere in the pleasant sunshine.
And what’s going on here? Is this a parasite of the Mullein Moth, beautiful but hated by some as a result of its habit of chewing holes in leaves? if so, maybe a potential alternative to the use of eco-poisons in a garden…
Add to that the range of plants from near and far, big and small, blowsy and plain, but all fascinating which made for a great day out #BringingNatureToYOU.

The Wild Side of Essex: Hockley Woods in June with Naturetrek

The Wild Side of Essex moved to Hockley Woods for June. The largest contiguous ancient woodlands in the county, they sit astride the ‘southern Essex Alps’, a ridge of London Clay capped with sands and gravels, and as a result riven by spring lines which form the headwaters of the River Crouch.

The Oaks in the wood are both Pedunculate and Sessile (and their hybrids); Hornbeam (in places replanted with Sweet Chestnut) forms the other main woodland type. While the woods are well past their floral best in June, there were still many ancient woodland indicators visible, including Wild Service-tree, Butcher’s-broom and THE most beautiful grass, Wood Melick.

Another botanical star was Slender St John’s Wort, always an orange-flushed beauty, but perhaps even more magical when bedecked in mercurial raindrops.

And in the interlinked rides and recent coppice plots, Common Cow-wheat – which of course was the reason for the main focus of our visits, the Heath Fritillary whose caterpillars feed on only that food-plant, at least in south-eastern England.

It has been a long, complex story of neglect, extinction, research and reintroduction but we do now have a thriving population of the fritillaries. This year they were late emerging, the first coming out on my recce visit, the peak emergence (200+) on our first day walk, and fewer on the two subsequent trips.

However, the lower numbers were not just due to the season, but also the weather: from 32 degrees and full sun on the first walk, to cool cloud on the second, and almost continual rain for the third. At least those we did see on the later trips we saw well, even if largely with wings closed….

Not many other butterflies though, as most of the summer species were not yet out (indeed Brimstones were still featuring in mid-month), save for a few Meadow Browns and Large Skippers. Certainly no White Admirals or Silver-washed Fritillaries, which this year will be a July feature.

Attractive micromoths included Gold-barred Longhorn and Dasycera olivella, plus the first adult Green Oak-rollers, the larvae of which seem to have ensured a productive breeding season (rather bucking the national trend) of Great and Blue Tits.

A good selection of other insects also entertained us, from Black-tailed Skimmer to Bracken Planthopper, and Closterotomus trivialis to Miris striatus.

The snail-killing fly Coremacera marginata was quite numerous by the end of the month, and another particular highlight was Horned Treehopper, something I have never seen before, but always wanted to. A further highlight was the Tree Snipe-fly Chrysopilus laetus, only the second Essex site for this species,

Another major feature of this wood is the density of Southern Wood Ants’ nests, very unusually for Essex. The ants were everywhere, carrying food back to the nest and ‘milking’ aphids for honeydew…

… and we did manage to come across a very few examples of two of the scarce insect inhabitants of the nests, Four-spotted Leaf-beetle and Scarce Seven-spot Ladybird, the larvae of which act as both predator and garbage cleaner in the nests.

Add to that whole host of other attractions, from  fungi to slime moulds. All kinds of everything: rich biodiversity in the heart of suburban south Essex. More than 30 years since I notified the woods as an SSSI, I am very happy to report they are now in an even better state than when I moved on (even after 18 months’ pandemic pressure), thanks to the ceaseless management work of Rochford District Council.

   

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – midsummer madness, and a few damp squibs…

June was a mixed month. At first hot, sunny and settled, perfect for insect life using the resources of the garden, with nectar and pollen sources galore…

… then as midsummer approached, so the weather closed in, with lots of cloud, occasional heavy rain, and on some days, unseasonable cold. Even in the gloom though, there is  good reason to visit: my last blog (see here) was an exploration of the beauty to be found after a deluge.

Star plants from the insects’ perspective this month included Salvias and their relatives (closed flowers that require a bee or something large and powerful to get to the nectar and pollen), and Knautia macedonica, Eurphorbias and umbellifers, whose resources in contrast are open to all, from bees to hoverflies, tachinid flies to beetles and a whole lot more.

Honey Garlic too seemed to be attracting more than its fair share of bees to its stately flower spikes with drooping heads:

Midsummer frolics also around the pond with dragonflies and especially damselflies emerging and then adorning the foliage with shards of neon.

June is traditionally not the best time for butterflies, the season between the spring emergers and those of high summer. But they did include a few Painted Ladies, although after a promising start, it seems we are not now in for a major invasion this summer.

Moths are less prone to the ‘June gap’, and flurries of flying faeries (longhorn moths, like the Gold-barred Longhorn) were easy to see, along with the mobile garden adornments provided by their caterpillars. What could be more stunning than a Mullein Moth larva, or more intriguing than the silken cascades protecting the nests of Spindle Ermines, or more important than the Green Oak-rollers, the main food of hungry Great and Blue Tit chicks?

The cornucopia of delights for summer continues with Thick-thighed Beetles, Two-spotted Malachite-beetles, soldier-beetles, Gargoyle Flies and Wolf Spiders.

Now is as good a time as any to visit the gardens whatever your interest – flowers, wildlife or simply tranquility, a refuge in troubled times… please visit the Beth Chatto website to book your tickets.

#WildBrightlingsea Bug & Botany Walks – Rope Walk and Brightlingsea Creek

It is amazing how much there is to be discovered on a short walk along the lanes and salt-marsh edge, even on a damp and dark morning.

There was no shortage of plants! Closest to the town, as always, there was the ‘Dog wee plant community’ – Common Mallow, Wall Barley and Hedge Mustard, all of which thrive on the high nutrient-levels.

Other plants we noticed in this area included the Hairy Bindweed, which is not at all common and it is good to know where it has a stronghold. It occurs here in two forms, including the ‘split-trumpet’ type.

Along the field margin we saw Hairy Buttercup and False Fox-sedge …

… and here we were also treated to a few insect delights: a Striped Slender Robberfly enjoying his (substantial) lunch, a Small Heath butterfly and the unmistakeable red-and-black Cinnabar moth. The combination of red-and-black (as well as yellow-and-black) in nature acts as a warning, and a deterrent to would-be predators – in the case of Cinnabars their larvae (yellow-and-black) feed on Ragwort which is known to contain toxins.

Along the sea wall more insects were waiting to be noticed (and not trodden on…some insisted on sitting in the middle of the path!).  These included the Nationally Scarce weevil Liparus coronatus (wonder if it is ‘coronatus’ due to the gold ring around its neck?) plus a rather splendid Ground Lackey caterpillar – again Nationally Scarce and a specialist of coastal and salt-marsh areas – and a magnificent Cream-spot Tiger moth, again largely a coastal species.

Two plants stood out as particularly interesting – Crow Garlic and the Duke of Argyll’s Tea-tree.

Important salt-marsh plants which we discovered at the furthest point of our expedition included Golden Samphire, Sea Wormwood, Shrubby Sea-blite, Sea Purslane and Sea-lavender. Each has different mechanisms for coping with living in salty conditions – some are more succulent-like and preserve fresh water in their stems, whilst others excrete salt onto their leaves – desalination plants in the true sense!

Birdsong accompanied us throughout the morning – amongst other avian life we heard Whitethroats and Skylarks, and saw Swallows, a Little Egret and an Oystercatcher chasing Crows away from its nest.

We so enjoyed the tranquility of the walk, thank you all, and hope that your efforts (and hopefully also our joint discoveries) will help to prevent the area being spoiled by yet more unsustainable and intrusive human activity.

Intensive farming doesn’t have to erase wildlife: Fairfields Farming Company

When a farming company got in touch earlier this year to ask if I could undertake a species survey on their farms, my immediate inclination was to say no…why on earth would I want to spend days of my life tramping over arable wastelands staring biodiversity deficit in the face….?

But then I looked again: ‘Fairfields Farming Company’, and had a vague recollection that our local Co-op seems to rate their locally-sourced crisps and spuds, and that maybe they were not the faceless agri-barons I had feared. A look at their website confirmed that memory, with a focus for example in using renewable energy throughout their operations.

So, I said yes, and was not disappointed, especially when it became clear the purpose of the survey was to help inform environmental and sustainability assurance schemes, which in the absence of conversion to organic production is as good as can reasonably be expected.

And so in mid-May I turned up at Fairfields Farm, Wormingford, two weeks later than originally intended following the bitter north-easterlies of April which held back the natural world. Even then the plants and insects were not really performing so most time was spent recording breeding birds. And almost the first thing heard was the ‘jangling keys’ song of a Corn Bunting, something which has largely been erased from the county (if not my memory) over the past couple of decades.

As the survey progressed, so the bird song chorus swelled. See here for a full listing, but especially notable was the total of 12 Corn Buntings and 56 Skylarks all singing away: it was like stepping back into an Essex from another era (or maybe the steppe-lands of Spain of Eastern Europe)…

This farm is on a plateau, the site of the former Wormingford Airfield, and at its core is the permanent grassland of the Glider club runway. The combination of permanent grass, farmed fields and scattered long grass and scrub must be what these birds need – certainly hedgerows – which are generally cited as important features for birds in an agricultural landscape – do not feature, except on the very periphery.

A couple of Brown Hares provided mammal interest, and insects were restricted largely to newly emerged swarms of St Mark’s Flies, legs dangling menacingly but harmlessly, and a few Painted Ladies, recent arrivals from the deep south of Europe.

Only a kilometre away, Kings & Lofthouses, the other farm owned by the company, has its northern sector on the edge of the same plateau; this has similar birds, although the comprising more grain crops than potatoes. But the rest of this second holding is very different, much more enclosed with hedges, and occupying a valley-side location sloping  right down to the River Colne.

Topographically more varied, it had fewer Corn Buntings, but many more Yellowhammers, and still lots of Skylarks. The hedges added many more breeding species, with 57 singing Whitethroats especially noteworthy. A full listing of breeding birds can be found here.

On this farm a few Grey and Red-legged Partridges and a Little Owl hinted at agricultural riches of the past, although sadly, and worryingly, there wasn’t a purr from a single Turtle Dove. One to work on perhaps…?

In the fields around Hillhouse Wood, Roe Deers were seen, including a group of five. In all probability they are not especially dependent on the wood, given the number of human and canine visitors, especially at Bluebell time. But the thicker, interlinked hedges, especially away from the public footpaths are likely to provide suitable safe feeding and breeding refuges.

The hedges are also the focus of botanical and insect interest on this farm. Some of them are rich in woody species, indicating considerable age; those which also incorporate watercourses also have a ghost of ancient woodland flora, with Wild Garlic in particular, plus Bluebell and Yellow Archangel.

Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells and Orange-tips brightened up the butterfly scene, along with Small Coppers, the first sparkling emergees of the year, and also my first Large Red Damselflies and Scorpion-flies of the summer.

And part of this holding also had the richest remnant arable plant (formerly called ‘weeds’) field margins, especially on the lighter soils which were growing onions. The more interesting species included Parsley-piert, Changing Forget-me-not, Field Madder and Common Cudweed.

All in all a very positive experience, finding wildlife where the agricultural revolution might have been expected to have eradicated it. And that also goes for the taste test: since working there we have actively sought to buy Fairfields potatoes and crisps, and found them delicious!

Layer Breton Heath: Nature Returns …

One of the good things about the pandemic has been the changes it has driven in our view of the world. From here in the Wivenhoe, the lands to the south of the river Colne have seemed like foreign territory:  every trip there has seen us on the alert for the new, the exciting and the interesting. And so it was last week at Layer Breton Heath, a visit to help inform our book project (see here).

The 20th century was not kind to Layer Breton Heath. After centuries of grazing, and varied management by the holders of common rights, it was ploughed for agriculture during WW2. This was swiftly abandoned as the dry, sandy soils were so unproductive. But with fewer commoners exercising rights, it soon recolonised, and when the grazing pressure by Rabbits was eliminated in the 1950s by myxomatosis, the regrowth continued unchecked. Until 1976, when a wildfire during that long, hot summer swept everything (including a recovering Rabbit population) away again. Then unchecked growth once more, fertilised by fire-ash, and much of the ‘heath’ rapidly turned into a dense Silver Birch wood (not surprisingly given that the neighbouring village is called Birch), with a Bracken understorey. The photo below, taken in 2004, shows the open heath gone (along with much of its biodiversity), the only fragments left being along the most heavily trampled routes.

More recently though, with woody vegetation clearance and ongoing management, the heathy nature has started to return. There is still, and will always be, woodland, both Birch and Oak, but there are now bits in-between where light floods in and open-ground wildlife thrives.

The grass-heath seems to vary according (probably) to the soil. Where the soil is most shallow and sandy, plants such as Heath Bedstraw and Slender St John’s-wort (neither of which is especially common in the county) help to brighten up the Brown Bent grassland, while on slightly more fertile patches, Common Cat’s-ear and Lesser Stitchwort were most apparent during our visit.

Grass-heath, Gorse scrub and woodland are a potent combination in summer for invertebrates, and many were there to be found, including Red-banded Sand-wasps, Bracken Planthoppers and Violet Black-legged Robberflies, together with the distinctive flask-shaped egg-sacs of an Agroeca spider.

This habitat is very localised in Essex, so these and many other species  are similarly uncommon. But perhaps the most impressive feature of the site was the volume of invertebrates generally, from common to rare, shade-loving to light-demanding, indicating the benefits of structural diversity, shelter and warm, sandy soils.

From agriculture to myxomatosis-woodland to conflagration, Layer Breton Heath has survived them all, and is looking better now than I have ever known it over the past 35 years. If given the chance to breathe, in a world of small-minded tidiness, control-freakery, lashings of glyphosate and the choking embrace of trees everywhere, Nature can and will recover.

After the storm – Beth Chatto Gardens

Recent days have seen rising temperatures, and harsh, uncompromising sunlight. But last night, a thundery breakdown, torrential rain, and by dawn a humid, overcast world brought out the colours, the scents and the textures of the garden in a way that sun can never do. A green world, a watery world, and a vibrant, living world, even if most of the garden’s insects were still hiding away…

Leaves and flowers were  sprinkled with quicksilver magic…

Lady’s-mantle always moulds water into mercurial droplets – indeed, this is recognised in its scientific name Alchemilla. The alchemists’ ultimate goal was to find riches by converting base metal into gold, and the drops on the leaves, ‘the purest form of water’, were a means to that end…

But back in the real world, the lack of shadows brings out colours strongly, whether adorned with raindrops…

… or not…

… and creates patterns in nature that are otherwise lost beneath a baking sun, at all levels from landscape to detail.