Blog Archives: Beth Chatto Gardens

An October week in #WildEssex with Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays

Honeyguide’s second #WildEssex week (the first being back in May – see here) saw north-east Essex largely cloaked in grey, with occasional heavy rain especially in the first two days. Despite the near absence of sunshine, a good time was had by all, the weather and wildlife both reflecting the turning of the seasons. Thanks as always to Wivenhoe House Hotel for accommodation and food in such glorious parkland surroundings, Beth Chatto Gardens and Essex Wildlife Trust for sites to visit and their visitor centres. And of course the wildlife of the area sends its thanks to participants: the conservation contribution will find its way to them via the good works of the EWT.

Monday afternoon 4 October

After checking-in at Wivenhoe House Hotel, a gentle potter around Wivenhoe Park introduced us to wonderful trees, young and old, some Pedunculate Oaks pre-dating the landscaping of the park in the mid-18th century, and a selection of specimens from almost all corners of the world. All three species of redwood, Turkey and Red Oaks (the latter sadly not yet really starting to light up with the fires of autumn), Deodar, Atlas Cedar and Cedar-of-Lebanon, fruiting Sweet-chestnuts, Strawberry-tree (in flower and last-year’s-fruit simultaneously) and in direct lineage from the Peninsular Wars, the two most venerable, gnarled Cork Oaks you are ever likely to see. As for the Magnolia grandiflora, it kicked off a week of botany using all the senses, its dinnerplate-sized flowers regaling their surroundings with the glorious scent of lemon cheesecake.

A few fungi were starting to appear on the older trees, including several emerging Beefsteaks and Chicken-of-the Woods …

… but insect life in the cool breeze was restricted to a few robber-flies and Rhododendron Leafhoppers.

Of course, the signs of insects were apparent, in the form of galls. The underside of many an oak leaf bore the galls of Common Spangle and Smooth Spangle galls, the larval homes of Neuroterus quercus-baccarum and N. albipes respectively.

Tuesday 5 October

For the only time in the week, it dawned clear and bright after very heavy overnight rain. As we splodged down through Wivenhoe Park, the sunlight shone its magic on the architecture (where Modernist meets Brutalism), several whinnying Dabchicks, and the trees alike.

Two species in particular seem to be fruiting well this year, Dog Rose and Hornbeam, in stark contrast to, for example, the oaks: irruptive Jays, which had just started arriving on our shores, are likely to find lean pickings this winter.

By the upper Colne, it was high tide and the only birds were Black-headed Gulls, Mallards and Teals, with Skylarks in semi-song over the fields. But the intense blue sky made up for avian deficiency, especially when counterpointing Silver Birches (with Birch Bracket fungi), the trunks in the photo having only just been vacated by a Great Spotted Woodpecker.

Between the spiky showers that developed in the afternoon, the woods were full of roving bands of tits and Treecreepers; Wivenhoe Quay had a bumper crop of Jersey Cudweed; a Hawthorn Shield-bug sunned itself on a fence post; and perhaps the most beautiful Hogweed umbel ever offered its resources to the diminishing hordes of pollinators.

The Walnut tree in Wivenhoe Churchyard had, as is usual, the large blister galls of the mite Aceria erinea, but more excitingly the small pimple galls of A. tristriata – when we first found this a few weeks ago and looked at the National Biodiversity Network maps, we found it has been identified and mapped only 11 times previously in the whole of the country.

But most exciting of all was something that was over in second, so fast there was no opportunity to photograph or intervene. A caterpillar was dangling in a silken thread from the tree canopy. As we looked close, we noticed a small parasitic wasp actually walking down the thread, and when it found the caterpillar, quick as a flash it stung it, presumably laying an egg or eggs, leaving the hapless larva to intense wriggling, its ‘not quite dead, yet!’ throes….

Wednesday 6 October

A day at the Naze, the most easterly point of Essex, a windswept headland, but still we persisted in cool, hefty, blustery north westerlies! Not surprisingly. any small birds in the scrub were keeping well out of reach of the blow, but surprisingly perhaps birds were arriving in off the sea, even against adverse winds. Meadow Pipits and Starlings were most numerous; the stars of the show were single Great Spotted Woodpecker and Short-eared Owl. Flocks of Swallows and House Martins, with a few Sand Martins, were drifting southwards all day.

Hog’s-fennel was just coming to the end of its flowering on the clifftop, Annual Sea-blite and samphires smearing the salt marshes with their autumnal tints, and Sea Rocket and Prickly Saltwort bringing life to the embryo dunes.

A Sea Aster Mining-bee stranded away from its food wasn’t going anywhere in the by now fearsome and cold wind, and another taste/smell opportunity arose with Golden-samphire and its ‘essence of shoe polish’.

On the shoreline, Turnstones, Ringed Plovers and Grey Plovers fed, although keeping low and out of the breeze, while offshore, a steady trickle of small flocks of Brent Geese, Teals and Wigeons flew by, with a few more highlights in the form of noisy Sandwich Terns, a close-in Red-throated Diver and an immature Gannet.

Walking back along the shore, of course the internationally significant geology took centre stage, London Clay and Red Crag cliffs, full of fossils and other clues to the environments of the times they were laid down, with the skeletons of last winter’s erosion a stark reminder of constant change in the natural world.

As we emerged back on to the clifftop, right at the end of the day, we found the wind had indeed dropped as forecast, and the only hint of sunshine for the day brought out a basking Red Admiral.

Thursday 7 October

Our final full day, calm and mild but unremittingly grey, took us further down the Colne Estuary, from Wivenhoe to Alresford Creek, then back along the high route on the ridge of the Essex Alps, taking in the very well-restored (for wildlife) gravel pits at Cockaynes Reserve.

Wivenhoe waterfront, attractive, arty and historic, also harbours plenty of botanical interest, from White Ramping-fumitory to the nationally rare Four-leaved Allseed (like the Jersey Cudweed a couple of days earlier, eking out a living in the cracks of block-paving, in those few spots where it is able to evade the incessant rain of Roundup). Heading out on the sea wall, upper salt marsh specialists included Strawberry Clover and the pungently scented Sea Wormwood.

Bird numbers increased as we headed downstream against a rising tide which concentrated the Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits and especially Avocets into flocks, the latter reaching an impressive 150 or so birds. A Kestrel hunted along the sea wall, while a Buzzard ran the gauntlet of the local corvids, and Meadow Pipits and a Song Thrush migrated overhead.

The saltmarshes, bedecked in autumn tints, included patches of salmon-pink, rather uncommon, Perennial Glasswort, with Common Cord-grass still in full bloom.

Poking from many a Cord-grass flower spike were the fruiting bodies of the parasitic Cord-grass Ergot, itself being hyperparasitized by the orange fungus Gibberella (‘Big Fleas have Little Fleas etc ….’!). The Cord-grass strain of Ergot is much larger and protuberant than the more normal form which infects grain crops and other  grasses, as we had seen earlier in ornamental Lyme-grass around the car park.

Other fungi included the always dramatic Fly Agarics underneath (and intimately associated with) the Silver Birches of Grange Wood.

Returning homeward along the crest of the Essex Alps, one characteristic plant of the gravelly soils was the local speciality Lesser Calamint, its crushed leaves a delightful mix of mint and citrus, with a fleeting medicinal top note. Along the ancient trackway of Cut-throat Lane, Butcher’s-broom was remarkably already in flower. Or should that be ‘still’ ? – the books say it flowers from February to May…

Close scrutiny of the undersides of Oak leaves al last revealed examples of the beautiful Silk-button gall, the third of the common three Oak spangle-galls of the week. Sycamore leaves had the microfungal splotches of Tar-spot, and dead Elms, the tell-tale signs of the bark-beetle that proved their nemesis by introducing Dutch Elm Disease fungus, while larger fungi included some impressive Parasols.

Cockaynes Reserve produced its usual crop of diverse wildlife, a very wide range reflecting the mosaic of post-gravel extraction habitats, including ancient woods, scrub, heathland and wetland: Maze-gill, Reindeer Moss, Blue Fleabane, Chicory, Angle Shades moth, Green Shield-bug, Birch-catkin Bug and several impressive Robin’s Pincushion galls on Dog-roses.

Friday morning 8 October

After checking out, we reassembled on the final morning at the renowned Beth Chatto Gardens, just a couple of miles down the road. Beth was an early advocate of sustainable and ecological planting, the right plant in the right place, and the garden reflects that. Full of interest for the gardener with an eye to the future, it is also full of wildlife, albeit a little suppressed today by the misty, moisty veil of autumn.

Insect life was really focused upon the late nectar/pollen sources, with Red Admirals on the Michaelmas-daisies and Hornets, hoverflies and Honeybees on the Ivy flowers; otherwise it was a few Dock Bugs along with a closely related Box Bug, the latter a relatively new arrival in these parts. A final example of one of the pervasive themes of the holiday, the flux and flows of Nature, both natural and in response to our mismanagement of the planet, that both raise concerns about ‘the now’ while offering hope for the future.

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So, all in all a very good week, and let’s hope that it will not be the last. One week, with 25 kilometres of walking and only 50 driving – a feast of wildlife on my doorstep and it was a pleasure to share it with Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays. A listing of most the interesting wildlife we saw or heard during the week is available as a pdf, OCTOBER REPORT LIST.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: September – autumn approaches

A mixed month, demonstrating the turmoil of seasonal change, September produced several days of  glorious summer sunlight, interspersed with cooler days and sometimes cold nights, and for the first three weeks at least, a near absence of rain. All very typical, and as one would expect, the garden is now burgeoning with seeds and fruits, as increasingly the foliage bronzes…

While fruits are of considerable value to visiting wildlife, the late-flowering nectar and pollen sources are of equal importance, especially to insects putting on a last breeding push or laying down resources for a winter of inactivity. In our ‘Twelve-month menu for wildlife’ some of the star players are shown here, from  Red-hot Pokers, Colchicums and Persicarias, to the pincushion heads of Succisella, the latter especially  heaving with bees and butterflies.

Commas and Red Admirals have been everywhere, with in mid-month at least several Painted Ladies and a Brown Argus, the latter seemingly not too common in north-east Essex this summer:

Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers have been very numerous around the ponds on warmer days,  and at last (they are late emerging this year), lots of Willow Emeralds, a newish species to these shores, but now one which has become a fixture of the warm autumnal scene.

This month has seen a huge emergence of crane-flies (much to the delight of family parties of Starlings), with hoverflies and robber-flies showing well too.

And our very best insect of the month, a Juniper Shield-bug: once rare in Britain on native Junipers, this is now spreading on garden relatives. But this individual may be only the second ever record from north east Essex, following one we found in May in the nearby Wivenhoe Park. There are always surprises to be found!

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

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.

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

 

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.

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.

A week in #WildEssex with Honeyguide

Almost a return to normality – a group to lead for more than a day! Five days for the six to get to know each other and me, to gel into a group of friends, not merely fellow travellers and clients. And based at the by-all-accounts excellent Wivenhoe House Hotel – sadly because of the ‘rule of six indoors’, I was unable to join them for meals, but next time perhaps – and I think everyone had a comfortable and wildlife-filled week. And that is, to some extent, despite the weather: the first few days continued the May theme – cool, breezy and damp – but the sun came out properly for that last two days, and what felt like April was tumbled headlong into Summer.

Monday afternoon 24 May

A gentle potter around Wivenhoe Park introduced us to wonderful trees, young and old, some Pedunculate Oaks pre-dating the landscaping of the park in the mid 18th century, and a selection of specimens from almost all corners of the world. All three species of redwood, Red Oak, Atlas Cedar, Horse-chestnuts, Monkey-puzzle, eucalypts, and in direct lineage from the Peninsular Wars, the two most venerable, gnarled Cork Oaks you are ever likely to see.

Green Woodpeckers mingled with the multitude of Jackdaws, and family party of Long-tailed Tits huddled together brought the significance of the cold weather into sharp focus.

The catkins of oaks were liberally adorned with currant galls, caused by the same wasp that produces spangle galls in its second, late-summer generation.

A few Red Admirals and Orange-tips introduced  flashes of colour to a dull day, but otherwise insect life was almost restricted to a few ant-like Miris striatus nymphs. And, the very first thing we found proved to be one of the rarest insects of the week, a Juniper Shield-bug on Lawson’s Cypress: the available records suggested that in Essex this has previously been recorded only in the south-west of the county.

Tuesday 25 May

The second day dawned dull, breezy and showery, although as it progressed a few spells of warm sunshine encouraged bird song and brought out the insects, especially where sheltered from the wind. Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps predominated, with a couple of Nightingales, one is very full song, only 10 metres from us – but sadly not in view. Swifts and Swallows seemed still to be arriving, some continuing to push north, and Sparrowhawk, Yellowhammer, Buzzards and Red-legged Partridges added to the bird interest as we walked down the tidal River Colne from the University to Wivenhoe.

Rounding Ferry Marsh Local Nature Reserve, the newly-expanded reedbeds held dozens of singing Reed Warblers, along with a few Cetti’s Warblers and Reed Buntings, and whinnying Dabchicks. Salsify and Dittander were two of the special plants of the sea wall…

 

…then as we walked along Wivenhoe waterfront, attention shifted to the block-paving of the former port and shipyard, and its surprising flora of Buck’s-horn Plantain, Chives, White Ramping Fumitory, Jersey Cudweed and (Two-leaved) Four-leaved Allseed.

Close to the tidal barrage,  the saltmarshes produced flowering Scurvy-grass, and Common Cord-grass with its attendant (and seemingly increasing) Ergot fungus, perhaps pointing to one reason why the invasion of Spartina is not such a problem in Essex.

Although the Bluebells in Wivenhoe Wood were almost finished, Red Campion, Greater Stitchwort, Bugle and Yellow Archangel coloured the woodland scene, and the shelter of a hedge on the walk back to the hotel provided the warmth needed for St Mark’s Flies, Noon-flies, dance-flies and soldier-beetles to be taking advantage of the feeding opportunities at Alexanders flowers.

Nearby, Bugloss in the field margin pointed to an insect-rich area, with Hairy and Forget-me-not Shield-bugs and a mating pair of Rhombic Leatherbugs.

And on similarly sandy soils atop the ‘Essex Alps’, we found both Subterranean and Knotted Clovers in their by now well-known location in the King George V playing field, and then again in much larger quantities across Wivenhoe Park, a previously unknown site to me.

Wednesday 26 May

An early morning, pre-breakfast but not quite first light, potter around the Park produced Rabbits and Jackdaws en masse, together with singing Goldcrest, Coal Tit and Mistle Thrush.

The wind had gained a touch of the northerly: it started cold, and remained at best cool, all day, especially on the windswept clifftop and beaches of the Naze. But, as ever, in the lee of scrub patches, when the sun came out so did the insects, from picture-winged flies to hoverflies, and Green Longhorn moths to a Wasp Beetle.

Our first Speckled Wood and a Slow-worm were also in the warmer enclaves of the John Weston Reserve, along with a near-pupation Oak Eggar caterpillar and a still-unfurling Angle Shades.

Botanical interest on the clifftop was mostly the red smudge of Sheep’s Sorrel (bespangled in places with Bird’s-foot Fenugreek), swathes of Alexanders, and dead Gorse, pruned by the ferocious cold of April. But the scrub still hosted singing birds, with maybe 20 Whitethroats and half-a-dozen Lesser Whitethroats, at one point showing side-by-side for comparison.

Out at sea it was generally quite (for example, no terns at all), although single Eider and Brent Goose lingered offshore, and several Harbour Seals showed their snouts between dives.

On the sandy beaches, Sea Rocket was in flower already, and it was good to see a couple of pairs of Ringed Plovers still gamely battling on with breeding in the face of unprecedented disturbance pressures. Very appropriately, the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Save our Shores project, aiming to combat the growing problem of ignorance and selfishness, is to be the beneficiary of the conservation contribution from this Honeyguide tour. We saw at first hand the problem of out-of-control dogs and vacant/arrogant owners when pairs of Lapwings and Oystercatchers were disturbed off their nests on an adjacent fallow field, although fortunately the birds returned to brood within a few minutes.

And then it was the cliffs and geology. Internationally significant, spanning the multitudinous stories of the past 50 million years, with fossils from Eocene palms to immediately pre-Ice Age Left-handed Whelks. All that, and contemplative beachcombing to round off another very full day…

Thursday 27 May

Our final full day, by now in lovely warm sunshine, took us further down the Colne Estuary, from Wivenhoe to Alresford Creek, then back along the high route on the ridge of the Essex Alps, taking in the very well-restored (for wildlife) gravel pits at Cockaynes Reserve.

Bird-wise, the estuary was quiet save for Shelducks, Redshanks and Oystercatchers, a small fly-past flock of Knots, and Turnstones roosting on an old pontoon.

The grazing marshes were dominated by Divided Sedge, with Brown-tail Moth caterpillars in many a bush, and although only singing sporadically, a Nightingale in Grange Wood did give us chance to watch it as it fed on the ground.

Moving inland, it was flowers and insects all the way, from Purple Gromwell, Star-of-Bethlehem and Butcher’s-broom to Flower Crab-spider and Red-and-black Froghopper….

 

…and for the lovers of the obscure, a couple of bagworms, including the Virgin Bagworm.

Cockayne’s Reserve really launched the sights of summer (six species of Odonata, including an unfurling Four-Spotted Chaser) interspersed with spring lingerers such as Brimstones, Speckled Yellows and Bunny Bees.

And then the sounds: those icons of summer – Cuckoo and Turtle Dove, both at a premium nowadays – and the surprise of the week, a singing male Golden Oriole, heard for half an hour before it flashed its way through the foliage. A poignant reminder of Honeyguide holidays from pre-Covid days.

But nothing of the hoped-for highlights of Green Hairstreaks, no doubt related to to the frost scorch of the Gorse.

And finally, although it was starting to cool down rapidly, a dusk wander around Wivenhoe Park with the bat-detector produced good numbers of Soprano Pipistrelles.

Friday morning 28 May

After checking out, we reassembled on the final morning at the renowned Beth Chatto Gardens, just a couple of miles down the road. Beth was an early advocate of sustainable and ecological planting, right plant in the right place, and the garden reflects that. Full of interest for the gardener with an eye to the future, it is also full of wildlife.

Joined by Jude as ‘super-spotter’, we found more than enough insects to keep us happy until lunchtime, including moths, small and large, from Nettle-tap to Lime Hawk…

… Cinnamon Bug to Crucifer Shield-bug …

… Two-spotted Malachite Beetle to Acorn Weevil…

… and Alder-fly, Scorpion-fly and Painted Lady.

Then in a fitting finale, as we had been searching for them fruitlessly all week, six Green Hairstreaks, lighting up the garden with metallic green fairy flashes, A perfect ending.

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So, all in all a very good week, and let’s hope that it is the first of many. One week, with 25 kilometres of walking and only 50 driving – a feast of wildlife on my doorstep. Thanks to everyone for helping me rediscover the delights of working with a group for a week. A full listing of all the interesting things we saw or heard during the week is available as a pdf, MAY CHECKLIST.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – tumbling towards summer…

For much of May, the poor spring weather continued, still on the cool side, but in a complete reversal from April, it was one of the wettest on record. Spring came late and, running fast to catch up with itself, the last few days of the month saw a headlong tumble into summer…

For a variety of reasons (one of which of course was the seemingly interminable rain), we were not in the garden until the very end of May, by which time the moisture had turned it into an oasis of lush green, in total contrast to last year when by now we were already in the grip of the first extended drought. The wonderful, unpredictable vagaries of British weather!

Pollen and nectar providers (otherwise known as flowers!) are now coming to the fore, from the large, open blooms and spikes with exposed stamens whose resources are available to all …

… to the more closed flowers of Lamium orvala which requires something of the bulk of a bumblebee to expose its riches.

As always, there are some botanical superstars attracting more than their fair share of passing insects: at the end of May, these included Ceanothus and Thymus.

Aside from the rather tattered Peacocks (they have been around since last autumn, and withstood the rigours of hibernation, a freezing April and May gales and rain), other butterflies and moths are now emerging. Fresh Speckled Woods for a new season, and a not-so-fresh Painted Lady, quite likely because as a migratory species, it hatched somewhere around the Mediterranean.

It was particularly exciting to see half a dozen flying jewels in the form of Green Hairstreaks. Normally emerging from late April, we have scoured likely habitats in north-east Essex all month, but to no avail. But at the end of May, here they were, performing on cue to my group from Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays, sparkling emerald highlights for our very last walk of the week. That’s timing!

Moths too are appearing, from tiny Green Longhorns and Nettle Taps to the relatively huge Lime Hawk-moth which had just emerged from its pupa, pumping up its wings in the Reservoir Garden:

As the pond water has gradually warmed up, aquatic insects are appearing, including Large Red and Azure Damselflies…

… along with Alderflies and their non-aquatic relatives Scorpion-flies.

Add to that a bewildering variety of true bugs and beetles…

… of course also with predators such as spiders, thus completing the ecosystem cycle.

With the headlong tumble into summer, now is the time to come and visit more frequently to avoid the season slipping away! To book a ticket, please visit the website Entrance – Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens: whether you interest is plants or wildlife, you will not be disappointed.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – the chills of April

Since the mini-heatwave in March that fired the starting gun for Spring, April has gone downhill, or at best been treading water. Persistent, piercing, chilly north-easterly winds have kept temperatures well down, despite some lovely sunny days, and the nights have brought more frosts than the whole of the rest of the winter put together. And to cap it all, barely a drop of rain.

The plants have told the story of those weather stresses. Out in the surrounding countryside, Blackthorn peaked three or four weeks after its normal time, although confusingly, Bluebells started to flower a month early, although the cold has put them into suspended animation ever since. In the garden, the results have been equally mixed, winter colliding with spring while edging towards summer…

And the same is true of the insects in the garden. Until mid-month all butterflies were hibernators, especially Peacocks and Brimstones. But at last the new season’s adults have started to emerge, with Green-veined Whites and Orange Tips mixing with the first of the Speckled Woods in the dappled shade:

In sheltered spots out of the wind, and when the sun is out, bees are starting to emerge along with hoverflies, and bugs and other creatures are there to be found basking.

But the real insect action has been around those plants which best provide what insects want: nectar and pollen. In March it was Scilla bifolia, while in mid-April Skimmia ‘Kew Green’ took over the baton. Among the bees and hoverflies, there were a couple of scarce flies, the Spring Bee-grabber (just a couple of previous north Essex records) and the bristly moth parasite Tachina lurida, with only four previous Essex records.

 

The Skimmia is starting to fade now, so what will take over? Certainly Euphorbia wulfenii is attracting flies, and both Cherry-laurel and Thermopsis are attracting the bumblebees.

By the end of the month, having been held back for so long, the dam-burst of Summer is hanging in the air. All it will take is the wind direction to reverse, night-time temperatures to rise and we will be cascaded through the riot of Spring, probably faster than any of us would like. If anyone is thinking of visiting for a welcome taste of the early season, best do it soon!

A couple of further highlights are perhaps more by accident than design. Where mowing is restricted by trees and obstructions, Daisies and Dandelions are showing through, a natural complement to the insects’ garden restaurant. Wouldn’t it be good if  ‘No Mow May’ could find a place in the garden regime? Not perhaps on the main lawns , but maybe in the car park or on the verges of the driveway: every little helps our beleaguered pollinator force.

And then there’s the borders that are becoming infiltrated with one of our most charismatic little ancient woodland plants, Town-hall-clock. Some might say ‘infested’, but I would say ‘skeined with a graceful filigree of unassuming, green-flowered delight’. Who cannot love a plant whose scientific name ‘Adoxa‘ translates from Greek as ‘without glory’; whose clock-face flowers have five petals each, whereas the one pointing skyward has (usually) just four; a plant whose relationships seem so obscure it was until recently considered unique, the only member of its family in the whole world? And which bizarrely, following genetic sequencing has been shown to share a family with Elders and Viburnums!

So spring may not yet have fully spring but the garden is already full of wild interest, And even on the coldest days, there are always the multi-species lichenscapes on the trees, ever-present whatever the weather!

As always, the Beth Chatto Gardens are brimming with life. While the weather, and over the longer term climate, are going awry, the importance of gardens like this in maintaining our countryside’s wildlife cannot be overstated.

To visit, unless you are a Friend of the garden, online prebooking is essential. Please visit https://www.bethchatto.co.uk/garden-nursery/planning-a-visit.htm

 

 

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – late March heatwave

The mini-heatwave at the end of March was welcome respite from what felt like a long, cold, grey, damp Covid winter. The  sun at the start of last week was so restorative, even though dizzy heights of 22°C were short-lived: as March closed, so arrived the Sahara dust-laden clouds, a blanket of uneasy silence, bird song quelled, and ultimately a rapid drop in temperature as the wind turned to the north.

We made two visits. One was just before the peak of the heat under perfect, powder-blue Persian skies, all the better to see Fritillaria persica as it is meant to be. Three days later and 12 degrees cooler was just after the break in the weather. Only three days, but a world of difference, the Trilliums and Flowering Currants having been pushed into flower. Conversely, the second visit was almost insect free, in total contrast to the bustle, buzzing and basking of the first.

It was the Scilla bed which first grabbed us: bees everywhere, from Honeybees and mini-miners to swarms of tiny grass-flies. The Honeybees looked very fetching, munching the bright blue pollen and stuffing it into their panniers.

 

Then the much-awaited first Dark-edged Beeflies of the year, one of the real harbingers of spring. The first ones had emerged just over a week previously along the south coast, and our entry into the ‘bee-fly club’ was most welcome. Much of their time was spent foraging on Lungwort.

As usual, a motley assortment of baskers was sunning itself, especially in the sunflecks of the woodland gardens, from Yellow Dung-flies, to Cereal Leaf-beetles, Peacocks and the tortoise-beetle Cassida rubiginosa.

And also a good range of true bugs: Green Shield-bug (just coming out of its brown winter plumage), the piebald Crucifer Shield-bug, Dock Bug and a Birch Catkin-bug, small, reddish and when on a catkin looks lust like a seed (with legs…).

A good start to the insect season and also a great opportunity to indulge in the artistic opportunities afforded by low-angled light on the floral riches of the season.