Blog Archives: Britain’s Wildlife

The Beth Chatto Gardens as summer starts to fade…

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

Colourscapes

Fruitscapes

Greenscapes

Wildscapes

Leafscapes 

Innerscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Blogs on other sites

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

#BringingNatureToYou : branching out to Furze Hill, Mistley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wrabness Nature Reserve on a summer’s evening

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

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

PLANTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIRDS

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

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

And of course the highlight of the day…

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Landscapes and Lifescapes of South Essex

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

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

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

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

… and still further south at Coalhouse Point…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: High Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Going Wilder in Wivenhoe

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

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

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

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

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

Frances, Grasby and Cracknell Closes

Ernest Road

and De Vere Lane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#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.