Blog Archives: WildWivenhoe

Lockdown diary: The Bolt-holes of Wivenhoe Shipyard Jetty

One of our last blogs covered the plants of a microhabitat, dry grassland, found as discrete islands amid a sea of marshland on the top of ant-hills. Each one is unique, reflecting the uncertainties of colonisation of any of the species: chance plays a huge role in shaping the world around us.

Exactly the same, possibly even more so, can be said of today’s microhabitats, even closer to home for us, the array of 2cm-diameter bolt-holes on the timbers of the Shipyard jetty.

Lockdown changes perceptions, giving us the luxury of being able  to look closely at that which we have walked over uncomprehendingly for years. Colonised by a range of different mosses and lichens, each and every faerie garden is absolutely unique, a miniature of natural art.

And moreover, a natural experiment, just waiting to be investigated. A whole series of transects, in two dimensions (distance from the shore, and running at a right angle, distance from the edge, the latter probably significant in terms of trampling, salinity and nutrient status given the propensity of Black-headed Gulls to sit on the rails)…

… and if the lockdown continues long into the summer, that might just be one of our sanity projects. Something which could produce valuable scientific evidence related to the the theories of island biogeography and colonisation, of such importance to understanding how we might encourage recolonisation of our nature-depleted landscape.

Lockdown diary: Botany & Bugs (and more!) on your Doorstep

‘Nature can be such a balm for troubled souls’ – wise words indeed from one of our Wildlife Lovers.  There has been much to trouble us in recent days and weeks, and it is now more important than ever to find solace and comfort where we can.  Where better than on our doorsteps,  in the form of a free, alternative ‘NHS’  – Natural Health Service.   We have been delighted with the response to our email, suggesting we all keep in touch in these dark days by sharing sightings of nature from our windows/gardens/ or where we happen to be on our ‘daily exercise sessions’ and thank you everyone who has been in touch.

Now March has come to an end it seemed an appropriate time to do a little blog, sharing some of your highlights and observations.  Some of the recipients of our emails are either temporarily, or permanently not in Wivenhoe, so we are especially pleased to be able to compare sightings from Yorkshire, London, Brighton, France, Suffolk as well as villages nearer to home.

We are glad to report that one of favourite critters, the bee fly, seems to be doing well.  Our respondents from Wivenhoe reported a number of visitations to their gardens, and  Bombylius major has also been seen in London, St Osyth and Brighton.   We have today heard about ‘Bee fly Watch 2020), a national recording scheme for these little wonders.  If you would like to take part, please check out this link.

Another of our group commented that ‘Watching butterflies and listening to Radio 3’ was calming, and these colourful insects are indeed a joy to behold.  Wivenhoe has seen Brimstones, Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks and a remarkably early Painted Lady.   A Red Admiral inspired admiration in France, and our Brighton contributor saw Commas and Small Tortoiseshells.

Other insects that you have told us about include Buff-tailed Bumblebees in Yorkshire, queen bees in Suffolk, and a Hummingbird Hawk-moth and Juniper Shield-bug  in Brighton.  We are unlikely to see that particular bug here in our part of Essex (although it does seem to be spreading our way – check out your Lawson’s Cypresses),  but the moth (a day-flyer) can be seen if you are lucky.  It is a fast-mover and imitates the action of a hummingbird, sipping nectar from flowers with its long ‘tongue’.

Spring flora is springing into action – Bluebells are beginning to bloom in our Old Cemetery: one of our many Reasons to Be Cheerful (see the thread on Wivenhoe Forum here for more of these!).

We, and several of you it seems, have noticed how wonderfully clear the skies are at the moment – the lack of vapour trails caused by aircraft enhances our outlook and sense of wellbeing.  ( As one of our group said, it is ‘strangely comforting’ without them). OUR planet has a chance to breathe again, albeit temporarily.

We know some of you have swift boxes/bug hotels and other special features in your gardens – let us know if you get any visitors. We are especially interested in your first sightings of Swallows and Swifts this year.  As yet we have no UK Swallow spots, but our couple in France have them there. And then there’s the first Nightingale and Cuckoo to arrive over the next month: the Cuckoo needs no introduction, but if you don’t know the beautiful  song of the Nightingale, here’s an example. Regularly heard around Grange Wood and near Boundary Road, Nightingales are also often heard closer to town when they first arrive, and maybe this year with fewer folk around and about, they will stay closer to us.

Please keep in touch and let us know what is going on, on your doorstep, by email or WhatsApp. And keep safe and well.

Photo credits: Sue Minta (Peacock, Bluebell), Val Appleyard (Juniper Shield-bug), Chris – the rest

Lockdown diary: The Ant-hills of Barrier Marsh

Just downstream of Wivenhoe lies Barrier Marsh, an area of typical Essex grazing marsh. Formerly tidal saltings, the influence of the tide was removed several centuries ago by the creation of the sea-wall, a coastal defence aimed at facilitating agricultural grazing of the land behind. Now it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, notified especially for the nationally scarce plants it supports and for the diversity of ditch plant communities found there. But one of its most significant features is overlooked by the designation: stand on the sea wall and look across the marsh, and the overwhelming impression is of an undulating sea of grassy mounds – the nests (ant-hills) of the Yellow Meadow Ant Lasius flavus.

The marsh is bisected by The Chase, a track running on a bund from higher ground. This is actually in a sliver of the otherwise landlocked historic parish of Elmstead, giving access to tidal waters between its neighbours, Wivenhoe and Alresford. Most of the larger ant-hills (up to 50cm high) are east of the The Chase, suggesting this is ‘virgin’ grazing marsh, while to the west, the surface is more level, the hills are fewer and smaller, possibly indicating that this side was ploughed in the past, perhaps during World War 2. Taken together, a back of an envelope calculation suggests that there are between ten and twenty thousand large hills on this marsh, and as each nest may support up to 5,000 ants, that’s an awful lot of ants…

So why were we out looking at ant-hills as our permitted lockdown exercise? Simply, they are endlessly fascinating – each hill is different, an island of aerated, sandier soil in a sea of waterlogged marshland. Each microcosm has a different range of plants that have colonised it, probably related the to the size (age) of the ant-hill and the distance of the hill from the ‘mainland’ (The Chase), but also influenced by random colonisation events.

So, as the photos here indicate, each ant-hill is unique, and together they support a range of species one would not expect to find in a marshland context: Sticky Mouse-ear, Sheep’s Sorrel, Small Forget-me-not, Groundsel, Early Whitlow-grass and Hairy Bittercress, and the cup lichen Cladonia fimbriata. In other words, and archipelago of mini-heathlands.

Two plants deserve special mention. One is the nationally scarce Divided Sedge, one of the features for which this site is designated SSSI. This is widespread right across the site, but on the anthills, it was already in flower, incredibly early in the season for that which I normally associate with May. Conversely, something flowering when it should but not where I would expect it was the Early Meadow-grass on just a couple of ant-hills, a plant I have never seen before around Wivenhoe, nor indeed in Essex away from Thames-side.

The hills in general looked very healthy, with only a few crumbling away after a colony has died. When the sea wall overtopped in the tidal surge of December 2013, much of the marsh was under a metre of water for a couple of weeks, and I was worried for the future of the ants. Presumably they are able to tolerate some degree of inundation: in winter they retreat into the heart of the hill, when there may well be air-filled chambers, enough for some of the colony to remain alive.

Even now, at the end of March, it is likely the ants are deep down, albeit not down as far as the waterlogged marsh soils. We certainly saw none. Although, unless you deliberately dig into a Yellow Meadow Ant-hill, there are not often seen. They have little need to come to the surface and run the gauntlet of insectivorous birds, as for the most part they feed on honeydew excreted by aphids which live on the roots of the plants of the ant-hill!

As long as we are in lockdown, I suspect we shall continue to visit our ant-hills regularly. As the nests awaken from their winter torpor, perhaps we will even manage to find  something I have looked for for years but without success: the tiny, while, blind woodlouse Platyarthrus hoffmannseggii, which lives its life in these ant-hills. But to damage a hill in this quest would be a travesty of natural justice: I guess we will simply have to wait until we see a Green Woodpecker digging into a nest in search for food…



Lockdown diary: In praise of flowery lawns…

As our country is (thankfully, but belatedly) locked down in an attempt to tackle COVID-19, we must start taking simple pleasures from the brief spells we are permitted to stretch our legs. Gardens and parks are the main bits of ‘the wild’ most of us are likely to encounter for a few weeks, at least. But they can provide much to lift the spirits, even those seemingly sterile grassy patches in the middle, the lawns.

In almost every lawn today, Nature’s service stations – Dandelions and Daisies – are at their best. You might want to be out in your garden, and time may well be hanging heavy on your shoulders, but please don’t spend that time mowing the flowers off. Instead, perhaps spend time sitting and enjoying the insects which use them?

And on any warm(ish) day, those insects will be both manifold and manifest. Butterflies, perhaps best thought of as mobile garden flowers, are likely to include Peacocks and Brimstones nectaring at the Dandelions, while the earlier-emerging flowers that have precociously gone to seed are already being investigated by seed-eating birds, especially Goldfinches.

Then the Daisies, the humblest of flowers, but a great nectar and pollen source for smaller insects – flies and solitary bees and wasps in particular. Too many see the sight of a green lawn bestrewn with the sparkling faces of flowers, feeding an array of beneficial insects, as a challenge to their mastery of their patch – but surely the one thing this viral escapade can teach us is that we are but a part of Nature, not its master, and we should value and protect it accordingly.

Beth Chatto Gardens – on this day in history…..

Today sadly, but very sensibly, the Beth Chatto Gardens announced they are to be closed for the foreseeable future, part of the collective effort to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

But the blogs can go on. OneCloud has just introduced an ‘On this day’ function, whereby it shows you all the digital photos taken on this day, in our case going back some 16 years. And so it was today, when I was informed we visited the Beth Chatto Garden on 22 March 2012, 8 years ago. And it was seemingly a lovely sunny day, just like today…

Here is a selection of photos from that occasion, the usual mix of plants and other wildlife, and all photos which would otherwise have remained unlooked-at on our computer. This provides a great chance to dust some of them off. And it is wonderful to see, comparing these with my last blog, how the seasons keep on turning, life is renewed, irrespective of the evident problems we cause to the planet.

No words, just photos of one of my favourite places:  we’ll be back as soon as we can!

Beth Chatto Gardens – springtime antidote

With the horrors of coronavirus looming and everyone being instructed to implement social distancing to try and contain its spread, getting out into parks, gardens and the countryside has a huge part to play. It’s easy to keep others at safe distances; it can and will lift the spirits.

Maybe this enforced circumscription of our lebensraum will have its positive outcomes. Hopefully we will start to appreciate the natural world immediately around us for what it is and for what it does for us, and when the virus has been conquered leave us with more respect for it.

So this is little more than a collection of photos from one of the first springlike days of the year, the Beth Chatto Gardens looking at their very best. First up the insects and other invertebrates which make their home in the garden:

Big or small, bright or subdued, all were welcome, but none more so than the male Brimstone fluttering around the Woodland Garden – one of four butterfly species, the others being Comma, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell – treating us to a fantastic display of nectaring and basking, and ‘disappearing’ as it landed on the perfectly colour-matched Primrose petals:

And so to the plants. First the flower portraits:

… then those plant portraits which rely as much on foliage, stems or fruit as the flowers themselves:

… and finally the innerscapes, those close-up and alternative views in which may help us to see the world in a different way, a renewed joy in our surroundings.

So as long as we allowed to, please keep visiting places like Beth Chatto’s Garden. Treat yourself to the restorative value of nature, keep safe and keep healthy.