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#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: May – Cockaynes Reserve

So, which of these is a weed? Dandelion or Silver Birch?  The answer seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it, but in reality they both may OR may not be thought of as weeds.  It all depends on where you are and what you want from the land on which they are growing.  A weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place.

This was a topic of discussion on our Botany and Bug Walks this month.  Two groups of hardy souls (given the weather which was thrown at us) enjoyed a visit to one of our least-known beauty spots, namely the Cockaynes Reserve.  This reserve comprises two woods, with a patch of bare sandy soil near lakes which are the happy result of intensive sand and gravel extraction some years ago.  The whole site is a wildlife haven.

The sandy open ground is well managed by the Cockaynes Wood Trust specifically for our ultra-important (considering the state that we have all got ourselves into) invertebrates.  Without insect life, humans would disappear within a short time.  So….the Birch which naturally wants to grow in the sandy soil area is removed to allow room for insects to move in, nest and generally do what comes naturally to them.  A prize example of the insects is officially called the Early Colletes bee, though we would like to make a case for it to be known as the Bunny Bee.  The second half of its Latin name ‘cunicularis’  shares the root with that for Rabbits.  And it does share some rabbit-like characteristics, in that it is furry and burrows in sandy soil ( not sure about the fluffy tail though).   And (at least when the weather is warm) many hundreds of these bees can be seen nesting and buzzing along the sand banks.  This is nationally a very important colony for these useful pollinators.

So what about the Dandelion? Well, this old favourite is ‘Welcome at Cockaynes’ as one of the most important late-spring sources of nectar and pollen for insects.  A curious fact…what we think of as the dandelion flower, is in fact many closely packed in together.  Each little orange blade is an individual flower, which is easier to comprehend when it has turned itself into a beautiful clock seed-head… each seed comes from an individual flower.

Many other woodland plants were to be seen and enjoyed.  Of course, the favourite, the Bluebell, as well as Wavy Bittercress, Opposite leaved Golden-saxifrage which just loves living near the brook, and Red Campion (which grows as either an all-male or all-female plant) plus a myriad of others.

Three types of fern are found in  Villa Wood – Broad-Buckler and Male Ferns thriving in the lush conditions beside Sixpenny Brook, plus Bracken on the higher, drier soils. ‘The degree of pinnation’ Chris used to help identify them sound complex, but all it really means is ‘ferniness’….

Given the cold wind and sharp hail showers insects generally were pretty thin on the ground.  But our eagle-eyed groups did discover some nice examples – a Squash Bug sunning itself, bumblebees, flies plus a few moths.

In fact we found the smallest moth in Britain!  Micropterix calthella enjoys spending time in the cups of buttercups. They may only live for a few hours and so have to do what they have to do as a priority.  We caught a couple doing just this…..   Aren’t they handsome, and only 4mm or so long!

Another rather lovely moth enjoying a brief spell of sunshine was the Clouded Border.  It boldly lies out full view of any passing predator, knowing that it is partially protected by its disguise…it does look rather like a bird poo.  It belongs to the Geometrid group of moths, this term meaning ‘earth measurer’ and their caterpillars are the ‘inchworms’.

Having walked up past the lakes now full of water plants and a few birds, we finished our walk at the top, at Cockaynes Wood.  This is a much drier habitat than the lower, Villa Wood. And near it are a few patches of Heather, a very rare plant to grow in Essex.  Near here is a lovely field, which has been just left and apparently un-herbicided for a while, to allow many pretty annual plants to take root.  Many of these may be considered ‘weeds’ in a garden…they grow readily in disturbed soil.  But here, they were just delightful to see, and much better thought of as less-prejudicially as ‘Arable Plants’: Field Pansy, Groundsel, Fumitory, Poppy and Wild Radish.

Pipers at the Gates of Dawn

At the Gates of Dawn we stood and listened
To the piping song which filled our hearts
And souls with joy.

Why do they sing so?

At the Gates of Dawn we filled our lungs
And shouted out to the whole world
To announce the day.

Why do they listen so?

To survive we need to attract a mate,
Defend our space, alert a danger
Of a stranger.

That’s why we sing so.

In this world of greed we have a need
To feed on good things, calm things,

That’s why we listen so.

By Jude, inspired by our recent Dawn Chorus walk.


Standing up for the Phyllis Currie Reserve

At the end of April, we were invited to visit the Phyllis Currie reserve, a small Essex Wildlife Trust site near Great Leighs, named after its former owner. Just nine hectares in extent, it is a delightful mosaic of grassland, wetland and woodland, a microcosm of ‘Old Essex’.

Except it isn’t. I previously visited some 30 years ago, just after it was bequeathed to the EWT, when it was essentially rather uninteresting, a series of Rye-grass meadows, stark steep-sided ponds, and pine and poplar plantations. But from these uninspiring beginnings, it has been rewilded by the sterling management efforts of the wardens and volunteers, and restored to become a precious part of our countryside fabric.

At this time of year, the meadows have woken from their winter slumber, and were liberally studded, in patches at least, with Cowslips and Green-winged Orchids, the latter a spectrum of colours from pale pink to deep purple.

Where there is a little more moisture in the soil, Cuckoo-flower was flowering well, and an examination of the flower-heads soon revealed the eggs of Orange-tip butterflies.

Around the ponds, patches of ragged Goldilocks Buttercups, their flowers rarely conforming to the regular radial symmetry of their congeners, mingled with the primitive, thrusting fertile spikes of Great Horsetail, and Lesser Pond-sedge bursting into flower from the shallows.


Forming the eastern boundary of the reserve is an historic greenway, Dumney Lane, its antiquity demonstrated not only by the girth of the trees along it, but also some of the ground flora, including Pendulous Sedge and especially the rather local Spurge-laurel. This roadway serves to link the reserve geographically to its environs, but also temporally, to a time before the plantations when the whole area probably looked a lot more like it does now than it did thirty years ago.

But sadly all is not well. The storm clouds of the 21st century are gathering, in the form of a plan to build 700 houses just across the lane from the reserve. Lacking formal protection, except for part of it listed as a Local Wildlife Site, this small site is very vulnerable. The thousands of occupants of the new homes, their dogs and their cats will all have a detrimental  effect, through trampling, disturbance, pollution and all manner of anti-social activities, thus potentially negating the strides forward of the past three decades.

Hence the visit. We were asked to record the wildlife, as invertebrates in particular have not been well recorded on the site. Although too cool, damp and breezy for much activity on the day, the few insects included the soldier beetle Cantharis decipiens and the rather lovely micromoth Esperia sulphurella. Otherwise known as the Sulphur Tubic, the adults fly in the spring, having spent their larval life feeding on underneath the bark of rotting wood, perhaps eating mainly the fungi which can abound in those places.

Notwithstanding the lack of insect life this time, we are sure it will be a site well worth exploring, so as and when we can over the summer. we will be back! And hopefully we will be able to demonstrate some of its wildlife value, and if not help to stop the development – it’s probably too late in the process for that – then at least to influence the mitigation measures which must be applied to the planning permission to minimise harm.

Places like Phyllis Currie are precious. Off the beaten tracks of Essex, fragments of nature still survive if you know where to look. The loss of and damage to such places through development (along with pollution, the profligate use of pesticides, and climate change) is one major contributory factor in the apocalyptic reduction in both biodiversity and bioabundance, that which underpins the healthy functioning of the world in so many ways. We hope to do whatever we can to stand up for the Phyllis Currie reserve.


Extinction Rebellion: #WeAreWinning

Extinction Rebellion? You must have been living on another planet not to have heard of this environmental movement, and the impact it has been making not only on our capital, but all over the UK and the world in the past few days.  And depending on which press you choose to read, you will probably already have a pre-conceived idea of what the Rebels are all about…. litter-dropping, destructive and disruptive louts? or peace-loving people, caring about all of our futures?

We decided to find out for ourselves and went up to the old smoke on Tuesday.  On the approach to Parliament Square the rhythmic drumming of samba drums could be heard, beckoning us, but our first attempt at reaching the large crowd was foiled by a chain of police in hi-viz jackets blocking the route from Westminster station.  Frustration!  But we were spurred on by the many gently swaying flags held aloft by protestors in the square itself, particularly by a most beautiful one of a Garden Tiger Moth.  A very special creature to me, a fond reminder of my childhood when they were plentiful, but now sadly  now very rare, and possibly heading for extinction along with so many other species.

Undaunted, we found an alternative way in and discovered the Square to be full of many hundreds of gentle ‘rebellers’ –  individuals, couples, families and groups.  The drumming had temporarily ceased, and all were listening to the MC outlining the plan for the day (namely the writing of letters to our individual MPs and using our democratic right to request an audience with them, or at least to get the chance to deliver a letter).  Guest speakers provided inspiration and hope – Rupert Read, Green activist; Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South,  and Lloyd Russell-Moyle, MP for Brighton Kemptown; we sang and listened to poetry.

The ‘sharing attitude’ of this movement was very apparent – total strangers offering suntan lotion, pens and paper to write letters, or just stopping to chat.  Free vegan food was available to all – served on paper plates with non-plastic cutlery.  Even with the lunch-time eating and drinking, no scrap of litter could be seen anywhere. Yes!!  A David Attenborough life-size cut-out figure looked down benignly on us all, and at least three protesters had set up camp high in the trees, complete with hammocks and ropes. Chris remarkably found himself sitting next to the son of a former colleague, whose website banner detailed the plight of the arctic ice. See


Having written our letters, with polite demands to support Caroline Lucas’ Early Day Motion 2177 signalling a UK-wide climate emergency, for radical rethinking of carbon policies, the formation of a People’s Assembly and most importantly for ‘them’ to tell the truth, we were shepherded over to Parliament House to (hopefully) get the chance to lobby our MP.  Fortunately being near the front of the queue meant only (!) an hour and a half’s wait but our fellow queuers were great company and the police and liaison officers are to be commended on their humour and efficiency – certainly no sign of heavy-handedness, but of course there was no need as everyone was perfectly calm and peaceful.

Unfortunately our MP, Bernard Jenkin, was ‘unavailable’ (as, shamefully, Theresa May was earlier in the day when Greta Thunberg dropped into the Houses of Parliament) but a group of us was addressed (and listened to) by Gillian Keegan, MP for Chichester.  And she did take on board some of our thoughts and proposals – eg why can’t all new properties be required to be built with solar roofs.  It seems so obvious, doesn’t it?

Whilst we were all in the waiting room as MPs were contacted but few materialised, a live screening of the climate change debate was being aired, in which Ed Miliband had asked searching questions of the Minister. It was disappointing to see how few MPs (particularly Tories it must be said) were actually in attendance at this most important of issues (surely?). However we must all rise above party politics in this emergency situation. We found the red-tape involved in trying to contact our elected representatives tiresome; unfortunately were ultimately unable even to leave a letter due to possible contamination and so instead we will be emailing and tweeting and posting our letter, so Mr Jenkin will be able to see how we are feeling.  If anyone reading this is minded to do similar then please do!

Despite these niggles, it was a fabulous, heart-warming day, well organised, calm, friendly with everyone on the same side.  Long may the movement continue; we shall support it as much as we can.

Such an important message held aloft for all to see here……and as another banner proclaimed ‘ Respect Existence, or Expect Resistance’.  Couldn’t have put it better myself…

The Beth Chatto Garden throughout the seasons: April

Three weeks since our last visit. Three weeks which would normally see one of the greatest transformations in a garden, from winter to high spring: not this year though, when unseasonably warm spells in both mid-February and early March lit the flames of spring very early, and the cool northerlies of early April then held its advance at bay.

But the daffodils were largely over, their place being taken by fritillaries and Erythroniums…

…  Epimediums, Archangel and Uvularia.

Time for interesting angles and close-ups…

… and celebration of the spring greens, punctuated and highlighted by splashes of  colour.

From beds and borders, unfurling ferns rearing up like cobras…

… and Alchemilla leaves bedecked with dewdrop pearls, some magnifying the russet tooth tips, others reflecting the sky, before coalescing into the mercurial pools which give rise to the name of the ‘little alchemist’:

As always keeping our eyes open for the animal inhabitants, the more sheltered areas produced an array of basking bugs – Squash Bug and Green, Hairy and Gorse Shieldbugs:


… and beetles, including an almost spotless Harlequin Ladybird, and Rosemary Beetles, here transferring their allegiance to sages:

As befits the season, love was in the air for pairs of Green Shieldbugs and the large, wing-marked crane-fly Tipula vittata:

A few butterflies were on the wing, including our first Green-veined White of the year:

And of course, with insects showing, their predators were out and about, with Zebra Spiders well camouflaged on lichen-covered walls, and a Heliophanus jumping-spider waiting with hi-viz palps raised, ready to leap upon a suitable morsel.

Fifty shades of green…

A Paean to Green, inspired by Cockaynes Wood

Sea green, pea green, spring green, olive green

mint green, lime green, jade green, forest green

Green is the colour of nature, of life itself.

Or rather greens are the colours of nature and life, a whole spectrum of hues revealed in breathtaking splendour when fresh foliage is drenched in the new light of spring:

And not just the leaves. While many spring woodland  flowers scream for attention, others show  the art of the subtle.  Acid green April Acers bursting forth in the canopy, copper-tinged catkins of Oak and Birch draping down:

At the ground, cushions of Golden-Saxifrage, and dangles of Redcurrants:

And Moschatel. Stories of green giving glory to green. How to describe Moschatel?   A musky smell? Not really, at least to my nose. Unique? Certainly, at least until recently treated as the sole species in its family, in the world.

In part that uniqueness is down to the disportment if its five flowers, four (five-petalled) like the faces of a clock tower, one (four-petalled) on the top pointing upwards, as I was told recently ‘so the Spitfire pilots could tell the time’. Hence its alter ego Town-Hall Clock: now that’s a name which does as it says on the tin. But its scientific name Adoxa (Greek for ‘without glory’): a travesty for one of the most delightful, unassuming spring woodland blooms.

Sea green, pea green, spring green, olive green

mint green, lime green, jade green, forest green

      the colours of life … of spring … of now

Vote Green : the colour with a future…