Blog Archives: WildEssex

#WildEssexWalks: Cockaynes Reserve at the height of Spring

As is now traditional we headed off to Cockaynes Reserve for one of our main springtime walks, although the cool weather initially made it feel almost wintry. Fortunately as the morning progressed, and contrary to forecasts, the sun did come out, and sheltered from the breeze it even felt quite warm, a rather unusual occurrence in the unsettled early part of this year.

But whatever the temperature  there is no mistaking the fact that the hands of the seasonal clock are turning. Walking up Ballast Quay Lane, the hedges and verges were filled with flower and fragrance, with Cow Parsley and Hawthorn scent combining in Chris’ personal Maytime Proustian madeleine, taking him back to the days of innocence, cycling the byways of the Yorkshire Wolds as a lad…

Add to that the blue of Evergreen Alkanet, the white flowers and garlic aroma arising from both Garlic Mustard and Three-cornered Leek, yellow Greater Celandine, and the purple (occasionally white) flowers of Honesty, the latter attracting the attentions of a lovely male Brimstone for the back-markers at least.

And in a nod to the coming summer, White Bryony just coming into flower while stitching together the hedge with its telephone-cord tendrils:

At the top of the hill, splendid views over the Colne Estuary, Skylarks singing, and a meadow full of Bulbous Buttercups, interspersed with drier patches dominated by rusty-flowering Sheep’s Sorrel …

And then into Villa Wood along the newly refurbished path, to be enveloped by bird song – Chiffchaffs, Wrens, Blackbirds, Robins,  Blackcaps and a tantalisingly distant Nightingale – and the sound of a tinkling Sixpenny Brook, with a little Town-hall-clock and Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage still flowering.

The Redcurrants were in unripe fruit, Wood Anemones all-but-finished, Bluebells of course just reaching their peak on the drier slopes and  sprouting ferns in the damper spots.

Moving out into the open ground left behind after gravel extraction, a backward glance showed the beauty of the infinite spectrum of greens shown by newly emerged leaves, a sight equalled by the sound of a much nearer Nightingale in full rhapsody, and displaying Buzzards overhead:

The bare sandy areas hosted a basking Peacock, with flowering Blinks, Changing Forget-me-not and Thyme-leaved Speedwell, and just a few Bunny Bees moving around their active colony (it had been a very cold, almost frosty night preceding, so the lack of action was not surprising).

In the heathy areas, both Gorse and Broom in flower were attracting bumblebees, along with Small Gorse Mining-bees, and held numerous singing male Whitethroats, while the Crab Apple on the corner of Cockaynes Wood was already well past its best, a sign of the largely frost-free winter.

And finally a few invertebrates, expertly spotted by Jude: a bagworm moth Psyche casta,  redcurrant galls in Oak flowers (the spring generation galls of the same tiny wasp that produces the more familiar spangle galls in autumn), Brown-tail Moth caterpillars sunning themselves on their web with impunity (protected from most bird predation by their irritant hairs), a few hoverflies and tiger-craneflies, and a grass bug Stenodema calcarata.

As usual, all kinds of everything to suit all tastes, and wrapped up very well with a pint in the Greyhound garden, sitting in the sun, with a Red Kite low overhead. What could be better? Thanks to all who came along and helped make it such a good morning, particularly Peter Hill who was able to explain some of the management work of the Cockaynes Wood Trust (and perhaps encourage some more volunteers to the much needed management tasks).

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: among the April showers…

The weather wasn’t looking good for my first ‘Meet the Wandering Naturalist‘ event of the year at the Beth Chatto Gardens today: frequent heavy rain and gusty winds made it touch-and-go (they are always advertised as ‘weather permitting’!). But in the event we were lucky: the torrential rain stopped half an hour before the walks commenced, and largely stayed away for the full two hours (despite some ominous thundercracks), with the sun even coming out for a few precious minutes.

Following the rain, the gardens were relatively quiet, so the 18 wanderers I took out on one or other of the walks were treated to some lovely bird sightings, all enfolded in the spring songs of Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Robins, Wrens and Chaffinches. There was a Mistle Thrush feeding on the lawns with the Blackbirds and the baby Moorhens, and for easy comparison, at least two Song Thrushes, apparently taking food repeatedly into a nest with hungry youngsters. And there was one or two further Song Thrushes singing, a very welcome return to form for this species that has suffered across the country from the overuse and misuse of slug pellets.

The gardens were looking wonderfully green after all the rain of the past three months …

… but with a sky-blue filigree snaking its way through the beds as we enter the peak time for Forget-me-not flowering. Often dismissed as a ‘weed’, this is genuinely beautiful, helping the weave together the floral themes in the different beds, and good for wildlife too, today being visited by Orange-tip and Green-veined White butterflies.

One other butterfly, and my very welcome first one of the summer, was a Speckled Wood, and also new for the year were the first few Large Red Damselflies, perhaps a week in advance of their usual appearance here.

There were Green Shield-bugs in several places, always hard to see because of their colour against a leaf, but never more so than on this Ligularia in which the reddened leaf-margins match the red highlights on the insect’s feet, antennae and abdomen.

While the spring greens are still the dominant hue, flowers are coming through and attracting insects, some of the most wonderful, extravagant blooms being the yellow Paeonia ‘Molly the Witch’ and electric blue pyramids of Scilla peruviana.

And that just leaves the centrepiece of the day, Judas-tree in the Reservoir Garden. Not only were its flowers at their absolute pink peak, especially dramatic when seen against the looming thundercloud, but also surrounded by insects. There were bumblebees and hoverflies, and swarms  of fearsome-looking but friendly, hairy, black, dangly-legged St Mark’s Flies. Traditionally emerging on St Mark’s Day (April 25th) they are almost a week early this spring. But they will be a very welcome feast for Swallows and martins when they arrive in force after their stressful trans-equatorial migrations over the next couple of weeks.

If anyone wants to join me on a nature walk around the gardens, I will be doing this all again (weather permitting!) on May 17, June 21, July 19, August 2, August 16 and September 20. Once you have paid to come in, the walk is free! Walks commence at 11AM and 12 noon each day, meeting at the Visitor Information Centre.  For garden entrance tickets and more information, visit our website Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens, and do come expecting to want to buy some of the wildlife-attracting plants I will show you, as well as delicious tea and cakes!

 

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: rushing headlong into Summer!

What a wonderful day to wander round Beth Chatto’s Garden! The sun was shining, I was in shorts for the first time this year, and I could almost forgive and forget the vagaries of our spring so far…

Swallows twittering overhead, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps in full song, and there were Orange-tips everywhere (my first of the year) and Green-veined Whites newly emerged, joining the overwintered Peacocks, along with my first Hornet of the summer.

Insects were everywhere, the sheer bioabundance testament to the spring weather and tribute to the fact that we welcome (or at least live with) all-comers – pollinators, predators, chompers and parasites: we don’t kill the planet with pesticides in creating a beautiful garden.

A myriad of insects of all sorts, from beetles  …

… to flies: lots of hoverflies,  a couple of St Mark’s Flies, a wetland snail-killer Tetanocera ferruginea and a host of others ...

… to bees and wasps, including abundant evidence of nesting Tawny Mining Bees …

… to true bugs.

It seemed that every plant in the garden was being used in some way or another, for feeding, basking or mating but the greatest attractor of all on this day was the Perennial Candytuft, in the Scree Garden, next to and sheltered by Beth’s house:

 

All of the above are pretty widespread creatures, but as always, time spent looking and searching revealed some specialities that I have not, or only rarely, recorded in the garden before. First is a micromoth, a metallic glistening morsel with wingspan barely a centimetre, called Dyseriocrania subpurpurella. Its larvae live in blotch mines on Oak leaves, and while it is widespread throughout Essex, it is only the second time I have seen it here, possibly because the adult emerges in spring when so often the weather conditions are not conducive to flight.

The Slender Groundhopper is a very small grasshopper relative; groundhoppers are the only members of the grasshopper and bush-cricket group of insects (Orthoptera) that overwinter as adults. Although again widespread across Essex, especially around the muddy edges of ponds, this is the first time I have seen it in our garden.

And then a trio of true bugs, all also new to me as inhabitants of our garden. The Rhombic Leatherbug is a scarce south-eastern species, in Essex more or less restricted to Thames-side and the valley of the River Colne. The ground bug Trapezonotus desertus is found also across Essex, but with only a thin scattering of records: the Essex Field Club map shows only some ten localities. And finally, best of all, the spurge-bug Dicranocephalus medius: a very strongly southern species, this has only one spot on the Essex map (in the deep south) and we have seen it before only in west London.

Of course you cannot overlook the flowers and other plants. The ferns are rearing their reptilian croziers skyward …

… while the flowers span the turn of the seasons, from tulips to paeonies.

The overwhelming impression I had was of joy in the garden. I have never seen so many smiling happy people wandering around, for the first time in many months not having to keep one eye on the weather as they walk. And although the weather forecast is not so good, if anyone wants to join me on a nature walk around the gardens, I will be doing just that (weather permitting) at 11AM and 12 noon this coming Friday, 19 April, meeting at the Visitor Information Centre. Once you have paid to come in, the walk is free! Further ‘Meet the Wandering Naturalist‘ events are also planned for May 17, June 21, July 19, August 2, August 16 and September 20. 

For tickets and more information, visit our website Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens

The Wild Side of Essex with Naturetrek: a windy Naze

Very strong, and unreasonably (given the direction) cold, southerly winds greeted our arrival at the Naze, an exposed headland and breezy at the best of times but particularly wind-lashed today, with sea-foam tumbling up the cliff. At least the forecast rain largely held off, for most of the morning it was sun and blue skies, and even got quite warm in the shelter of the scrub.

First it was down to the beach to make the most of the spring-tidal window. The cliffs of London Clay, Red Crag and loess are magnificent, actively eroding after the recent (indeed winter-long) rains, telling the story of the past 50 million years.

Pyritized wood and early glacial Crag fossils were scattered across the beach, and ash bands spoke of long-past volcanic episodes further north, with added interest from the modern shells: Portuguese Oysters, White Piddocks, Limpets and Slipper Limpets.

On the landslips Colt’s-foot was in flower, helping to feed the few solitary bees foolish enough to be on the wing.

A couple of Brent Geese fed along the tideline, while a mixed group of waders – Oystercatcher, Grey Plovers, Turnstones, Dunlins, Sanderlings and Ringed Plovers were hunkered down around the corner onto Stone Point, where a few bushes of nationally scarce Shrubby Seablite are still managing to cling on despite the battering from the waves.

Turning landward, the Gorse and Blackthorn scrub was in full flower, the latter especially floriferous this year, as seemingly everywhere. In shelter and sun, a few bumblebees and lots of Dark-edged Beeflies were foraging, along with several frisky Peacocks and a Comma.

Although birds were keeping well out of sight, there were Chiffchaffs singing everywhere, with maybe ten Cetti’ s Warblers (one seen) – their numbers seem to increase every year. A Song Thrush serenaded us, numerous Greenfinches called, sang and bounded around, and a surprisingly early House Martin flew through, riding the wind.

Small clumps of trees, probably remnants of the history of the Naze as an early 20th century golf course, included Sycamores, their beautiful purple-edged bud scales just bursting, with a couple of Hornbeams, oaks (with marble galls) and Silver Birches with Taphrina fungus witches’-broom galls. An active Badger sett under the White Poplars was unearthing the Red Crag below, and at least four male Muntjacs showed themselves, both mammals seemingly indifferent to the modern use for intensive dog-walking.

A final stroll through the scrub, the Gorse scenting the air with coconut, revealed larval webs of Brown-tail moths, a few patches of Stinking Iris (duly sniffed), Sunburst Lichens on the Elder bark and the last few ripe Ivy Berries. Alexanders, earning its keep in our lands, was in full bloom feeding early insects, and the local speciality Sea Hog’s-fennel was sprouting into fresh, green leaf among last summer’s umbel skeletons.

Pity about the wind, but it proved to be another good Naturetrek day-trip, full of all kinds of everything.

#WildEssexWalks: Signs of Spring around Alresford

Spring was certainly in the air for our latest WildEssex walk… but so was quite a lot of rain and drizzle: April showers two weeks early…!  We began at Alresford Old Church, the ruins lit up with transient sunlight and as impressive as ever.

The churchyard is one of the best in this area for the richness of its flora, with Common Dog-violet and both Red and White Dead-nettle flowering, a swathe of Wild Daffodils (or a close approximation thereof) and the delightful citrussy-mint aroma from Lesser Calamint leaves.

While the rest of us were looking at flowers, Jude was finding insects , including a 10-spot Ladybird and (best of all) a bagworm nestling within a gravestone inscription. Bagworms are very unmothy moths, and always interesting (see here for a previous blog about them), but this one wasn’t one of the usual Virgin Bagworms. For a start its bag was much larger than that species, some 8mm long with a distinct ridge running lengthwise, and probably of one of the three Dahlica species, all of which are pretty uncommon. And what’s more this had a larviform flightless female just emerged from her pupa, and it seems about to start egg-laying back into the bag!

Heading down to the Sixpenny Brook, the first of several Chiffchaffs was singing, signs of a very recent arrival perhaps, rather than over-winterers coming into song. Gorse was in full bloom and, in the sun, starting to scent the air with coconut, and attracting bees and hoverflies. Blackthorn too looked stunning, some bushes in bud while others were fully open.

Onto Cutthroat Lane, we passed a magnificent bush of Butchers’-broom, still showing a few flowers, each a subtle gem, and acid-green patches of Early Meadow-grass, a recent arrival here from more southerly heartlands:

Then down the edge of Grange Wood, with magnificent oak pollards and coppice stools on the woodbank, standing amidst the Lesser Celandines and the first few Greater Stitchwort flowers…

… while the Bluebells that will be so glorious in four weeks were just bursting, along with (outside the bounds of the ancient wood) Three-cornered Leeks.

And so we found ourselves on the shoreline, with many of the estuarine winter birds still here, including hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits, a hundred or so burbling Brent Geese and about 40 Avocets – the three birds for which the Colne is justifiably renowned and specially protected.

Sadly no one was with us to see our final, bizarre sight of the walk as we headed back home. There in a puddle on the top of the sea wall was a Common Lizard, almost covered by water, and doing a passable impression of an overactive newt! Eventually we managed to persuade it from its bath and released it into the long grass safe from feet and dogs.

From pollinator paradise to thriving ecosystem: Gardening with Wildlife in Mind

We all know that one secret of successful wildlife gardening is to provide nectar and pollen for all the insects that choose to visit. For lovers of the glorious diversity of garden plants, the good news is that natives and non-natives alike can perform this function for our native bees and other pollinators.

And in the garden context, where the choice of plants is limited only by soil and climate, then the gardener can actually improve upon nature, ensuring that nectar and pollen supplies are maintained year-round. In midwinter for example, the British countryside is simply not tooled up to provide those floral resources (except in the form of Gorse), but that of course is the very time that with climate change/collapse many insects are now remaining active, when in the past they would be in hibernation. Growing plants like Mahonia, Viburnum tinus and Sarcococca makes all the difference, to the insects and to our noses!

With this in mind, I recently contributed a blog to the Beth Chatto website, entitled  a Year-round pollinator plant menu, showcasing the role of gardens and gardeners in keeping out insects alive: https://www.bethchatto.co.uk/discover/our-blog/guides/year-round-pollinator-plant-menu.htm

But no gardener should rest on their Laurus nobilis and think that flowers for pollinators is all that is needed. There are many insects and other invertebrates that are not pollinators: they and the larval or nymphal stages of almost all insects are dependent on eating other things, whether that be leaves and roots or other insects…

Whereas insect pollinators are not always too fussy whether their nectar or pollen food comes from natives or non-natives, the same is not true generally for the leaf-munchers: here it is clear that native plants are generally preferred.  Any good wildlife garden will have a range of native plants in or around it. While virtually all plants have their specialist herbivores, there are a few types that punch above their weight and will hopefully be within insect flight distance of your garden: 

TREES: Oak, Willow     

SHRUBS: Hawthorn, Bramble  

HERBACEOUS PLANTS: Nettle, Dock, Dandelion, Bird’s-foot-trefoil

and a range of native grasses, especially if they are allowed to flower and not scalped to within an inch of their lives every three weeks!

With all the above in mind we are also embarking on a major project of adding a paragraph to the A-Z listing of plants on the Beth Chatto website to highlight their wildlife value, so now you can choose plants that are most beneficial to wildlife.

Look after the day-to day needs of insects, with food for both adults and early stages; water to drink, and sometimes to live in; shelter from inclement weather; and freedom from the bane of pesticides. These insects will then underpin the whole food chain, providing food for birds, and in many cases help to break down dead organic matter, recycling nutrients for the next round of plant growth: the cycle of life. Embrace the facts of predation and parasitism, death and decay, and you can then be happy your garden is truly an ecosystem and helping to save the planet.

The Wild Side of Essex with Naturetrek: winter by the Colne Estuary

Well, the weather hadn’t read the forecast, and the drizzle that had been expected late afternoon set in well before lunchtime – but thankfully the proper rain held off until we had completed our 12km circuit. And it followed hard on the heels of a very wet late January, and almost everywhere it was muddy, deep welly-sucking mud which we could escape only in the afternoon when we headed up onto the gravels that cap the Essex Alps.

We  set out first along the Wivenhoe Trail and around Ferry Marsh, to be met with the first in-your -face splash of colour, so welcome on a dull February day, from a magnificent fruiting body of Orange Brain Fungus:

Almost as arresting were the Sunburst Lichens festooning the bare branches along with other lichens, together with leaf-mines on the leaves of Holm Oak, Bramble and Holly, each one a micro-drama of life before our eyes.

Down by the Colne, the tide being well out, there were Teals on the water, a flyover Goosander, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Oystercatchers getting frisky. Three Black-tailed Godwits were feeding close to the sea wall, giving much better views than the birds we would see more numerously in the open estuary later on, while in a definite sign of spring a probable hybrid Prunus (it seemed more robust than Cherry Plum, normally the earliest in the genus to flower) was in full bloom.

The Wivenhoe waterfront produced its two botanical rarities of cracks in the block-paving, Jersey Cudweed and Four-leaved Allseed: although now familiar they have been with us only for about eight and five years respectively – and how they got here from southern enclaves is still unknown.

Past the Shipyard ad tidal surge barrier, into the open estuary, the mudflats widen rapidly, and waterbird numbers increase markedly, albeit at greater distance tan those upstream. Black-tailed Godwits were joined by Lapwings, Dunlins, Redshanks and eventually a tight bunch of Knots:

Avocets too, mingling with Shelducks and Teals …

…  and before too long the burbling of Brent Geese, as a couple of hundred flew off a distant field (perhaps spooked by a noisy military Chinook), over our heads and plonked down on the river in front of us. Cue frantic washing and feather-care, no doubt starting to prepare for their epic 4000 kilometre migration that could be under way in as little as a month. And turning our back reluctantly on the water, there was a Little Egret, a smart male Stonechat and singing Linnets on the grazing marsh.

A Song Thrush was an addition to the springy soundscape along the edge of Grange Wood, where we decided to take refuge from the drizzle for lunch (and half of my cheese sandwich was snaffled by a poorly controlled Cocker Spaniel). With the incessant mud-sploshing, I decided to vary the route, to head up to higher, drier ground, past a wonderful array of old oak pollards and coppice stools marking the boundary of the ancient wood.

Bluebell and Wild Arum leaves were spearing into the light, and the first Lesser Celandine flowers, albeit part-closed in the absence of sun.

On to the ancient trackway of Cutthroat Lane, the banks featured Butcher’s-broom, including a few leaves still bearing open flowers, while closer to habitation Snowdrops have snuck out of the gardens.

Finally into Cockayne’s Reserve, where the Sixpenny Brook was in full spate. It is such a surprise in ‘flat Essex’ to actually hear rushing water!

Hazels were flowering, the male catkins just starting to go over, while Siskins twittered in the Alders and a Mistle Thrush delivered its measured fluty song from the very top of the tallest tree.

A final wander along the Brook through Villa Wood, almost an afterthought, then turned for me into the highlight of the day: more Scarlet Elf-cups than I have ever seen fruiting before, having visited the site over 35 years.

Still the only north-east Essex site for this unmistakeable midwinter joybringer, I first found it here in 1986. On that visit, I was with the boss of the local gravel extraction company who had just won planning permission to excavate from under the ancient wood. He wanted me to advise how it could be done in sympathy with the environment: ‘don’t do it’ was not an option on the table! But he was so impressed by the sight of this locally rare fungus that plans were amended, Sand And Gravel Association restoration awards were received. And the rest is history: it is now an Essex Wildlife Trust reserve, and its flagship fungus is evidently thriving.

POSTSCRIPT!

I now have received details of the colour-ringed Avocet I photographed in front of Grange Wood from Dr Simon Cox. He writes ‘the Avocet you photographed was ringed in The Netherlands and has a transmitter (though battery now flat). This shows its route to Essex—Ed Keeble has seen it on the Stour several times at Mistley‘ and here are maps map of its movements (kindly supplied by the ringer, Petra Manche):

#WildEssexWalks – Wivenhoe Woods in Winter

The first WildEssex walk of the year, to our lovely Wivenhoe Woods, was in just the perfect weather – sunshine and little wind, but the legacy of the previous wet days and weeks was evident with the squelchy woodland floor (though we avoided the quagmire areas so as not to lose any of our boots!). Our revised route was not quite what we had envisaged, but we still managed to discover some stories about the ecology and history of the place.

First we criss-crossed the King George’s Field, to look at some of the specimen species, relics of when that area was the park of Wivenhoe Hall. The Cedar of Lebanon, such a statuesque tree, was providing shelter for some tinkling Goldcrests which we were able to admire as they flitted in and out. Other woodland birds heard throughout the two hours included vociferous Robins and Dunnocks, Great Tits (teacher, teacher!) as well as Carrion Crows and the ubiquitous Woodpigeons.

We looked at some of the more usual tree species including Elms: those found in this area always only small, as when they achieve a certain size the beetle which spreads the pathogen which causes Dutch Elm disease can move in. The trees die off, but new ones begin to grow from the roots in their place, thus full-size trees never get the chance to grow.  A shame, but something we have got used to in the English countryside now.

Other trees of note on the KGV include Holm Oaks, and we especially noticed their leaves, where evidence of leaf miners was very apparent. The minute caterpillar of a particular tiny moth lives in between the layers of the leaf, each creature creating a squiggle that represents almost the whole life of these tiny creatures  – the adults fly only for a few hours. The chambers so created fill up with ‘frass’ (poo to you and me) – guess it has to go somewhere!

Then on the leaves of Holly, a similar phenomenon, but in this case the blotch mines of a Holly Leaf-miner Fly:

Once in the wood itself we could see among the leaf litter plants beginning to sprout through, including the spring greens of  Cow Parsley; unfurling Wild Arum (a plant with many vernacular names, most referring to male/female ‘parts’,  for example Cuckoo Pint, Lords-and-ladies, Jack-in-the-Pulpit); dangly catkins of Alder; and the new shoots of Honeysuckle, always a harbinger of Spring.

Butchers’ Broom is quite a special plant – not only for how it looks  (the flowers grow out of middle of the leaves) but also for the mystery of how it manages to get pollinated and to spread: it seems to have lost its pollinators and dispersers in the mists of time since it first evolved…

In a damp woodland you would hope to find fungi and we were not disappointed with a couple of types of Jelly Fungus including a wonderful Yellow Brain Fungus.

In a similar way to leaf mines, ‘galls’  show evidence often of insect activity. These are ‘damage limitation’ structures, when a part of a tree (be it leaf, twig, fruit, bud etc) have a small creature (could be a small wasp, fly or mite) lay their eggs in it. The tree creates a unique-looking growth which is how the insects are identified (they are much too small to notice with the naked eye!). Oak trees are particularly good places to look for galls (over 50 types can be found), and we were impressed by these Marble Galls, clearly showing the exit hole of the wasp when fully mature.

As to actual insects, we found none of note, but on the recce yesterday Chris did find this 7-spot Ladybird and a Green Shieldbug in its winter coloration. Presumably this colour-way would be good camouflage against brown leaf-litter but it showed up rather well against a green leaf.  As the season progresses it will change colour to a much brighter green and become much harder to spot!

We wandered down towards the estuary for a bit of bird-watching and were rewarded with Black-tailed Godwits, Oystercatchers and Teals. Some of these birds will be resident and others visiting from much colder climes.

Plants on the salt-marsh included the Cord Grass and that too had a growth on it – the Ergot Fungus. Harmless growing here ( we don’t eat Cord Grass), it can be devastating when it grows unchecked on food crops, causing madness or death.

Another new word for the day was ‘marcescence’, the phenomenon whereby leaves are retained on a tree after they have died and are no longer functional. No known reason for it, but very distinct in a few of the Oaks and Sweet Chestnuts along this part of the Wivenhoe Trail.

Then a final flourish of colour in the Station car park ( thankfully unsprayed as yet, though guess it won’t be long….):  a beautiful Dandelion and a vital source of sustenance for a passing early bee.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: Spring straining at the sinews…

 

A quick spin around the garden this morning. It would have been remiss not to, with the sunshine and the Snowdrops coming towards their peak. It was one of those special days, the ground almost creaking underfoot as if life cannot wait to race out of the starting gates. And that was reflected in everyone we met, staff and visitors alike, all beaming with the privilege of being immersed in a garden of delights.

Of course the Snowdrops are the main event for now, several species, numerous varieties, their identification beyond me but my deficiencies not affecting my enjoyment. [Incidentally, anyone with an urge to know more about this iconic group of spring flowers could do no better than booking onto Steve and Marc’s annual event exploring these beauties Splendid Snowdrops – Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens on 24 February.]

But there is already so much more: Winter Aconites, squills, crocuses, irises…all springing up from their underground storage organs, whether bulbs or corms:

And the flowering shrubs, often extravagantly flirting with the nostrils from a distance of several metres, especially the Sarcococca creating a pool of stop-in-your-tracks perfume:

And all this floriferousness and fragrance has a purpose, to attract the few insects on the wing at the moment to pollinate the flowers. And a reciprocal purpose, to feed the insects in the event that cold weather envelops us again. There were queen bees, bumbling around, basking and searching for nest sites; a couple of Honeybees; one elusive micromoth (probably Tortricoides alternella); and several hoverflies of at least two species. This is the beauty of gardens, able to provide for our native wildlife at a time of year when the countryside is simply not up to the job.

 

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: New Year, new life!

This week, Beth Chatto Gardens reopened after their midwinter slumber. And what a day to choose! Crystalline blue skies from dawn to dusk…

… although that did of course mean temperatures barely rose above freezing after a penetrating frost the night before. Even in early afternoon, frost bedecked any leaf out of the sun and the ground was still crunchy underfoot.

Last year’s berries are still ripening in places, great food for Redwings and Fieldfares ever-present in the treetops. Who knows, given events elsewhere this winter, could they be joined by Waxwings in the weeks to come?

The tinkling Goldfinches and wheezy Siskins are catered for as well, all manner of seedheads left standing and not ‘tidied’ away: a supply of seeds, a statement of our commitment to the planet, and things of sculptural beauty in their own right.

And not just seedheads, but whole plants left standing, a vital refuge among the winter-burnt foliage and blasted tussocks for ladybirds and other beneficial predators that will soon be out and about keeping our garden in ecological balance.

Too cold for any insect life to be showing, but as and when warmth returns, the flowers are waiting: midwinter blooms such as Mahonia, Lonicera, Sarcococca and Viburnum are the vital sources of sustenance in our gardens for any bee emerging at this time – which of course with climate collapse is increasingly frequent.

Then there are the first of the spring blooms, ready to take the baton as the shrubs start to fade…

… and a whole lot more waiting in the wings for the life-giving warmth to send out their blooms, from hellebores to Euphorbia and Skimmia ‘Kew Green’.

Come and enjoy the unfurling of the year – Beth Chatto Gardens are open Thursday – Saturday until 17 February, thereafter Tuesday – Saturday.  Let us #RewildYourMind!

#WildEssex New Year Plant Hunt 2024

Each year, the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland organises a New Year plant hunt, encouraging botanists and other interested folk out of their midwinter slumber to see what plants are flowering. As has become tradition, we contributed to the national picture by arranging a walk around Wivenhoe Waterfront on New Year’s Day. And we would like to thank the keen, sharp-eyed group who helped us spot things! All data collected in this citizen science project have been fed into the national record of what is flowering at this time: for more information see New Year Plant Hunt – Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (bsbi.org). It is good to be part of a bigger project to aid learning about how British and Irish wildflowers are responding to climate change. 

On our recce a few days ago it soon became apparent that there were more species flowering than last year when December frosts curtailed the show. The ‘usual suspects’ included Gorse, Hazel, White Dead-nettle, Groundsel, Annual Mercury, Shepherd’s-purse and Common Chickweed, with Daisy and Dandelion lighting up many a patch of grass.

Some of the older walls and brickwork had patches of Mexican Fleabane, Trailing Bellflower and Ivy-leaved Toadflax, while other showy plants included Green Alkanet and Herb-Robert, and more surprisingly both Cow Parsley and Wild Carrot.

Along the waterfront itself, in the cracks of the block paving, Four-leaved Allseed is more abundant than it has ever been since its arrival here some five years ago. Careful searching was needed to find evidence of actual flowers  – they are rather subtle even at the best of times! Similarly, Guernsey Fleabane and Pellitory-of-the-wall only got added to our flowering list after close scrutiny.

Finally on the salt-marshes, Common Cord-grass dangled its naughty bits wantonly to the wind, but the best botanical find of the day we couldn’t count: a single non-flowering sprig of Shrubby Sea-blite, a good couple of kilometres further up the estuary than we have ever found before.

All in all, 34 species in flower (for a full list, see here NYD plant hunt 2024) in the wild was a good haul, certainly well above the 23 in 2023 and almost up to our highest-ever count of 35 in 2022, although ‘good’ is a bit of a loaded term – many of these plants should not be flowering now, and are doing so only because of the harm we have inflicted upon our climate…

Naturally, although a botanical trip, we didn’t overlook other wildlife. The song of Robins was a feast for the ears, a party of Long-tailed Tits trilled around a garden, a Red Kite drifted low and slow overhead,  the fruiting bodies of Cord-grass Ergot were erupting from their host-plant, and we were pleased to find several 7-spot Ladybirds and Rosemary Beetles, those mobile jewels, on a Rosemary bush, mostly paired and in the process of making more beetles. All a very hopeful sign for a wildlife-filled 2024!

 

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: 2024 here we come!

What a way to round off another year filled with the pleasure and privilege of working at the Beth Chatto Gardens! Today may have been unremittingly dull and, after three hour-long walks, pretty chilly – but at least the air was still and the drizzle largely held off.

Around fifty Friends of the garden joined for one or other of the exclusive walks and, while there was little actual wildlife to see, that left all the more time to talk about things we do in the garden to encourage its use by wildlife and to try and encourage similar things in their own gardens. Spreading the Word about Rewilding the Mind!

There were of course a few birds around, with Mallards and Moorhens on the lakes, Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Siskins in the trees, and Redwings flying over. But most activity was heard rather than seen: roving bands of tits, including a party of Long-tailed Tits; Robins singing everywhere; the shrill piping of a Kingfisher all added to the winterscape. And in a promise of the spring to come, a lone Mistle Thrush delivering is languid, fluty warble – pure joy dripping from the treetops.

The fires of autumn have been tamed, toned down into subdued earthy pastels, as the garden reclines into its midwinter slumber:

The only real shards of vibrant colour come from the berries of Holly and Stinking Iris…

… although berries come in muted and sombre shades as well, those of Sorbus being especially numerous, probably because the birds simply don’t recognise pale pink as ‘ripe’.

As befits the home of Ecological and Sustainable Gardening other welcome features are the seed-heads and grassy tussocks, welcome to seed-feeding finches and overwintering natural predators like ladybirds and lacewings respectively.

Otherwise, it was a scatter of winter-flowing shrubs like Mahonia, so crucial to our bees and other pollinators in midwinter, especially at these times of climate breakdown when many are barely going into hibernation at all: if everyone could do only one thing in their gardens to increase the resilience of our landscape to climate change, planting winter shrubs would be high up there in the order of priority.

And so the year draws to a close. But already the signs of renewal are appearing, new shoots emerging, a sign that light and life will soon be returning. If you want to see the garden in its muted winter glory, then hurry – the last opening is this coming Saturday. But never fear, by the scheduled reopening on January 18th 2024 we should be seeing the first signs of spring, and our wildlife will be following suit. Do come and enjoy it – better still, become a Friend and come and see it any time the garden is open!