Blog Archives: WildWivenhoe

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

Three #WildSideOfEssex walks on the Colne Estuary with Naturetrek  in the month from the very end of March were expected to span the transition from winter to summer. And so they did, albeit rather in reverse order…

The first post-lockdown walk on the last day of March coincided with the last day of the mini-heatwave, with temperatures rocketing to 22°C – unseasonably, almost unreasonably, hot, even for the Essex Riviera! That very afternoon, skies clouded over, bathing the landscape, by now devoid of birdsong, in cloying yellowish light. Sahara dust was on its way, and when the rain came that evening, the dust blanketed everything as the temperatures plummeted. Thereafter April was a month of no rain, but icy winds from the north-east. Plenty of sunshine, but no real heat, and more night-time frosts than the whole of the preceding winter.

And naturally, this had impacts on the wildlife. Blackthorn was still in tight bud during the first walk, and only just past its best by the third, a good three weeks later than is typical round here.

But nothing if not contrary, Nature had its mixed messages – the first Bluebells were in flower by the end of March, well ahead of schedule, but then spent April in suspended animation, still leading up to a May peak.

Other interesting botanical finds during the month included Greater Stitchwort and Spring Beauty on woodbanks, Stork’s-bill and Early Forget-me-not on the heaths and White Ramping Fumitory closer to the tide:

But not all exciting flowers are showy. Some of the most subtly beautiful are green: Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage, Butcher’s-broom, Red Currant and the simply unique Town-hall-clock in the woods and Mousetail clinging to just one of the thousands of Yellow Meadow-ant-hills on the marsh.

A surprising number of fungi were found (perhaps as it has been a very wet winter) with Maze-gill, a fruiting Reticularia slime mould, and best of all that beacon of winter wet woodland, Scarlet Elf Cups, in profusion by Sixpenny Brook.

In the heatwave, spring insects were out in force with Bee-flies and Hairy-footed Flower-bees investigating the Red Dead-nettle and Ground-ivy…

… while butterfly numbers faded during the month, numerous overwinterers (Peacocks, Commas and Brimstones) giving way to the first emerging Green-veined Whites and Orange- tips.

And that just leaves the birds. All change! On the estuary, the waterbird numbers dropped away rapidly, although the summer-plumaged, glowing copper, tiger-striped Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits were simply stunning. Overhead several Mediterranean Gulls yowled imperiously and drifted over on implausibly white wings on each walk, while Red Kite and Marsh Harrier were both on the move. And by months’ end, the piping of the waders had largely been replaced by the screech of Common Terns.

Other summer birds were slow to arrive. A few hirundines were around at the outset, but numbers barely changed during the month. Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps had made it back before the adverse winds set in, as did an early Sedge Warbler, and then by the second walk, Whitethroats, and the last one, Reed Warblers. Resident Cetti’s Warblers seem more numerous than ever, and it was especially exciting to see a territorial pair of Nuthatches in Grange Wood, as this bird is generally absent on the Tendring Peninsula.

All of the above and more, including good views of both Fox and Muntjac. And what better than on the final walk, to take lunch sitting by Sixpenny Brook, a Treecreeper creeping overhead and singing Nightingales – new in just three days previously – either side?

 

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

 

 

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: Back in Action! The KGV and wildlife garden

Thanks to all who joined in with us for the first B&B sessions for 2021.  We both felt rather rusty, having had so many months off, but hopefully we managed to find enough to show you to make an interesting hour!

Due to the cold weather, particularly on Saturday, insects were very thin on the ground.  The main delight was the bees  – a few prospecting queen bumblebees  looking for a suitable hole to make a nest, plus some entertaining Hairy-footed Flower Bees. These are ‘sexually dimorphic’, ie the males and females are very different to look at, and they were very interested in each other (the males hovering closely behind the females) and the very important nectar sources of Red Dead-nettle and Blue Alkanet. This latter species is not native to the UK, but along with many other garden plants and escapes is such a lifeline to insects on the occasions when there is not much ‘wild’ nectar to be had.

This year’s season of Spring seems very ‘odd’ (but when doesn’t it?) – some things seem to be out early and others weeks behind what you might expect. For example some areas of Elm scrub have done flowering already and are producing seeds, whilst others have barely started to flower. This could be due, in part at least, to the vestiges of Dutch Elm Disease which has never quite gone away. This malady is caused by a fungus introduced to Elms by the Elm Bark Beetle.

The beetles are only able to burrow into trunks when they reach a certain size, the ingression introducing the fungus that kills the above-ground parts, whilst the roots survive, and suckers continue to sprout afterwards. Hence you will still see lots of small Elms around, but few large trees. A notable exception is in Brighton where a ‘fire break’ from back in the 1960s meant Elms within a mile or two of the town were felled when the disease was first noted approaching, the potentially damage-causing beetles being unable to fly that far to spread it. Social distancing! As a result the place can boast many fully sized Elms, which nevertheless need constant monitoring (Test, Track and Trace) as the pandemic may reappear at any time.

Back to our walks, we were at times serenaded by avian life including Blackbirds, Dunnocks, Chiffchaffs, Blue Tits and Wrens whilst Golden Plovers, Green Woodpeckers and a Buzzard were seen overhead.

We popped into the Wildlife Garden to see what has been happening.  Lots of hard work has gone into improving the pond which had been suffering from a leaky liner and had become rather overgrown. The overall impression at the moment is that all is rather bare, but lots of plants have been put into the areas surrounding the pond, which will be able to get going once the weather warms up, and a few Kingcups are in the pond itself. Sadly no sign of frogspawn this year, but we are confident that by next spring all will be back to normal as far as the amphibians are concerned and it will once again be a good breeding ground for our croaky friends. It is brilliant that there is a band of concerned individuals locally who are prepared to work hard for this very important site.

Directly over the field from the garden our attention was caught by the beautiful flowering Blackthorn bushes.  In full snowy-flower they were a sight to behold.  However, their usual promise of sloes to make our much-enjoyed sloe gin may not be guaranteed this year due to the distinct lack of any pollinators at this crucial time (having said that, our Monday group were treated to the sight of lots of hoverflies buzzing from flower to flower).

 

Other plants don’t rely on these third-parties for pollination but employ the powers of the wind – letting their male catkins dangle free and hoping pollen will be blown onto female flowers.  Good examples of this are the Hornbeam and White Poplar both found on KGV.

We finished our tour on the ‘Hay Meadow’ a section of the KGV which has been allowed to escape the regular three-weekly mowing regime for the past three years and is now an interesting area comprising all kinds of grasses, chickweeds, knapweeds and dandelions.  Not much sign of flowering at the moment, due to the extended cold, but we are confident once we have some warmth and refreshing rain all will be well.  We found what we think to be a newly recorded species there too – Field Wood-rush.

Short and sweet, and at least with its slow start we still have much of Spring to enjoy now we have been allowed out…

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.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens

Those who read these blogs or have been to some of my talks will know that we have an inordinate fondness for the Beth Chatto Gardens. Just a couple of miles from our flat, it is in effect ‘our garden’, a place where we can go to escape.

And we do. Regularly. Gardens are of course about plants, but they are also a place where wildlife can live. Not just live, but positively thrive if the garden is managed with any degree of sympathy for the natural world. Thankfully, Beth Chatto’s comes out towards the top in any assessment, under any criteria, of wildlife-friendliness in the garden.

Beth’s approach was always to plant ecologically, using plants matched to the soil and climate conditions, so as to minimise the need for unsustainable interventions. Visit any time of year to see those principles in action, and to see what a gardener’s garden that sustains wildlife AND points the way to gardening in the global greenhouse can look, smell and sound like.

So when the garden management team approached me with a view to forging closer links, to become ‘part of the team’ as Wildlife & Conservation Adviser, I didn’t have to think about it for too long! Their ethos matches ours. And so I shall now be helping to advise them on wildlife matters, so that we can continue to develop the garden in line with Beth’s vision. Do our bit for the planet, and (on the principle that many bits makes a lot) encourage lots of others to do likewise.

As part part of this work I shall be continuing to publish blogs on our own website, as well as helping with the ‘official’ channels. But as a taster, I thought it might be a good time to revisit some of the Wild Side invertebrate highlights we have found over the past couple of years.

There have been rarities: the first records in east Essex for Rhyzobius forestieri (a small, dark, hairy ladybird that flashes an orange body as it flies) and the bug Closterotomus trivialis (in both colour forms) ….

…. the only place we have seen the large, black Tanner Beetle and the rove beetle Tasgius morsitans ….

…. and only the second ever Essex record of the rare migratory Locust Blowfly, with distinctively striped eyes. This may well have come from beyond the shores of Europe – its larvae feed upon the eggs of locusts.

Other migrants too – Hummingbird Hawk-moths and Painted Ladies, much more regular here than the blowfly, but again potentially originating from the Mediterranean basin.

And new colonists – Willow Emerald damselflies are now a common sight in late summer, but they have been in this country for only the last decade or so.

Then there’s the interesting behaviour we’ve witnessed: a Scorpion-fly feasting on the body of a spider (normally, it is suggested, they use their long snout to extract flies from spiders’ webs) and ‘kissing’ Two-spotted Malachite-beetles, apparently sharing bonding pheromones.

And the gory side of life: how about this ‘zombie fly’, devoured by the entomopathogenic fungus now erupting from its abdomen and liberally producing a halo of spores, each potentially a death sentence to another passing fly. But before the end, the fungus takes over the mind of its host, changing its behaviour so that it crawls to the highest point available, all the better to be able to disperse the deadly spores into the wind.

And finally, still on the gore and carnage theme: we discovered the stately waterside plant Thalia dealbata has a dark side. It is attractive to pollinators, but in its native central America, those pollinators are big, strong carpenter-bees. Here it is smaller bees and flies, and they get their tongues trapped in the gripping flower parts…and die, slowly. Fortunately, the gardeners have started to try and make sure the spikes of Thalia are cut off before the flowers open. The ‘beautiful assassin’ has been tamed…

As well as revealing what is going on in the garden ‘beyond the blooms’ following each of our visits, we will also prepare more in depth blog reports on particular topics, such as Butterflies, Moths and Dragonflies in the Garden, and to keep a log of everything that we find moving in to enjoy the garden as we do.

And who knows, I may even still find time to unleash my shutter finger and look for interesting ways to see the garden plants through a lens…

We are looking forward to this becoming more regular, and do look out for the the next blog in a few days’ time, the things we spotted this week.

For more information about the garden, including current opening times, please visit the Beth Chatto Gardens website.

The Beth Chatto Gardens: on the starting blocks of Spring…

Six weeks have passed, the Snowdrops and Aconites are over, and the second wave of Spring is just starting to weave its magic. The birds certainly felt it, with singing Goldcrests, Greenfinches and Chiffchaffs. But its progress is slow – a cold and dull February has certainly slowed the advance of the year, as can be seen from photos of the Crown Imperials taken one year apart…

… last year, in full foxy-scented flower, with each petal with the ‘tears of Mary’ waiting to reward pollinators; this year maybe a week or two behind that stage, although more sunny days like today would surely speed things up.

But fortunately there are plenty of other nectar sources available as Honeybees and queen Buff-tailed Bumble-bees are out in force:

Otherwise, after a cold start to the day, the invertebrate world was apricating – the act of basking in the warmth of the sun: spiders (including a Heliophanus jumping spider with hi-vis green palps), hoverflies, and everywhere ladybirds, mostly Seven-spots with a  few Pine Ladybirds.

Twice we saw ladybirds sprucing themselves up after a winter of inactivity (does that sound familiar after the latest Covid lockdown?) – raising their wing cases, extending and inflating their wings several times as if to iron out the stiffness and creases of four months’ confinement.

Ladybirds and hoverflies are of course special friends to the ecologically-aware gardener, and early emergers will hopefully build large populations to help keep the populations of aphids and other potentially injurious insects in check, without the need to resort to poisoning the world around us. It was pleasing also note one of the borders had signs of another natural pesticide (in this case molluscicide) – the Hedgehog.

And everything else in the garden was looking just wonderful in the sunlight. From the wider views to the innerscapes …

…  to the spring-green flowers, subtle certainly, but with an undemanding charm all of their own…

… and the ever-expanding palette of the year, brought to life by the low-level sunlight and the residues of overnight rain.

Finally, musings on the Widow Iris, so called for the widows’-weeds it wears, disporting herself with a sombre malevolence that lends itself the the alternative name of Snake’s-head Iris. Having just spent time watching the queen bumbles going about their business, this drew us in: the petals have the colour and texture of an Bee Orchid. Could this be another example of botanical insect mimicry, promising a sexual bounty, but delivering only a load of pollen? Certainly had us fooled at first…

Signs of Spring: Nature Cure at Cockaynes

One of those February days when every little sign of spring brings joy unbridled. When everything feels so wrong it can never get right again, we have the turning of the seasons to reassure us that light and life and will return.

And where better to go to find the promise we though would never come in the depths of the pandemic: arriving before our very eyes, and into our hearts, Spring in the Cockaynes Reserve #NatureCure. A great day to be out, more like May than February, with a blue sky backdrop to Chiffchaffs singing, and Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock a-flutter.

Deep in Villa Wood, by the tinkling, twinkling Sixpenny Brook, Golden-saxifrages have yet to cast their magic on the banksides, but Scarlet Elf Cups are out. This is the species to which survival of this site can be most attributed 35 years ago … it’s a long story but one we hope will be told in the fullness of time in our Field Guide To The Essex Coast.

And Hazel everywhere, tassellating serenely but profusely…

Still there is yesterday’s news, the hangovers from last year: Autumn hues, preparing our eyes for the woodland colours to come, and Autumn fruits – Ivy, helping Blackbirds to reach breeding condition, and Reedmace (please, NOT Bulrush!), maybe a thug in the ponds, but so very important, its cigar-heads stuffed full of tiny seeds, late-winter nuggets of nutrition starting to be dispersed.

At this time of year, the mosses, lichens and fungi which are all too easily overshadowed, literally and figuratively, by the verdancy of summer have a brief chance to take centre stage…

… but every  flower that was open was a joy, especially the Common Field Speedwells on farm fallow, a sea of tiny blue faces tracking the sun across the sky.

 

And each flower at this time of year is a bonus for insects: Gorse buzzing with Honeybees, the first Dandelions waiting for the first queen bumblebees. But insects know where their needs are best met, and for Tree Bumbles especially it was garden Crocuses, with many a flower containing its soporific pollinator, seemingly drunk on the contents.

Away from the flower action, the baskers were out: a Pine Ladybird among the more numerous Seven-spots, and the tiny, hairy springtail Entomobrya nivalis

…  our first shield-bugs of the season, as iconic as the first Chiffchaff. A single Hairy, but lots of Gorse Shield-bugs – note how their antennal colour matches the red of the tips of fresh Gorse spines.

And in one patch, there were several ‘ghost bugs’ – pale, empty adult Gorse Shield-bug skins, the contents seemingly having been devoured by an entomopathogenic fungus. As we have described before (see here), the unfortunate victims were glued to the tips of shoots, the fungus having taken over their behaviour as an aid to the wind dispersal of the fungal spores…

Beth Chatto’s Garden: the rebirth of Spring

Today should have been the ‘Local Friends’ day at Beth Chatto’s, prior to reopening tomorrow. Covid19 (and,  it transpires, the snow from Storm Darcy) had other ideas, but hopefully reopening will be not too far down the line…

But quite by chance, my timeline reminded me this morning that I had been there taking photos on this very date 16 years ago. So here’s a few of the highlights of what to expect when we can once again make Beth Chatto’s garden one of our regular haunts.

It’s all too easy to have your head and heart swayed by the signs of the Spring to come. But do take time to lose yourself in ‘yesterday’s news’, the still decorative remnants of last year’s growth, like the memories in a faded photograph…and a much-needed reminder that in gardens, overtidiness is anathema.

With many trees devoid of leaves, late winter sun penetrates the garden gloom, and casts shadows and creates highlights more arrestingly than at any other time of year.

And then the promise of what’s to come. New shoots…

… new blooms: now it will be Snowdrops, Snowflakes and Aconites that grab the headlines, but gradually Hellebores and Daffodils start to broaden the palette…

… new scents: from the more subtle Laurustinus, Daphne and Witch-hazel, to the stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks olfactory grasp of Sweet Box (Sarcococca hookeriana, pinker flowers with undiluted sugar-sweetness, while Sarcococca confusa has a slight counterpoint of citrus) …

… and new lives: hibernating insects roused by the sun, from natural insecticides such ladybirds and wasps, to plant bugs, including the Bishop’s Mitre.

At any time of year, the garden is a place of calm and beauty, a place to reflect and reconnect with the natural world. And after the past year, that is a nature cure we all could do with, more needed this Spring than in any other.

Giving a Voice to the Wildlife of the Essex Coast

During the three decades I worked for Natural England and its predecessor bodies, much of my time was devoted to Essex, and among the many things I tried to do was put the wildlife of Essex on the map. Partly to counter the negative image of Essex, both in the popular media (Loadsamoney and Essex Girls in the 1980s), latterly in a sequence of Far Right Tory MPs), and even in the more refined sphere of conservation. That negative image is enduring: there is a story that someone, sometime as long ago as the 19th Century said of Essex that it is ‘flat and boring‘, to which the response was ‘no, it is slightly undulating and boring….’

Given the pressures on the coast, and its incredible concentrations of birds, salt marshes and other wildlife interests, not surprisingly my PR efforts focused on our coastline. That proved particularly apposite as we started to invent and embrace the ideas of respecting and using natural coastal dynamism in its protection. ‘Managed realignment‘ was born in Essex: we turned an idea in a back room in Colchester in the late 1980s into reality, and Government policy, in just a few years.

So to try and see the nature reserves and other protected areas of Essex coast taking their rightful place in the pantheon of ‘jewels in the crown’ I wrote a series of four booklets over thirteen years, each growing and (largely) improving on the previous version.

First in 1990 was a small A5, 12-page, black-and-white booklet, modelled on and indeed adopting the house style of existing, rather lo-fi, Nature Conservancy Council National Nature Reserve booklets. Only 3297 words long (thanks, Jude, for counting them!), it did feature specially commissioned line drawings from the renowned local artist Richard Hull. Sadly, through the editions, these were phased out as printing advances made the use colour photographs more feasible: all are reproduced below for posterity.

Rather less successful was my attempt at cartography, all Rotring pens, Letraset labels, and Letratone transfers for the shading, on tracing paper, using my university dissection scalpel. Those were the days! But, pretty soon, the print run of 2000 was exhausted, as it was a free publication, and at that time we still used to attend major events such as the Essex and Tendring Shows, where many disappeared into the voluminous bags of small children. But who knows, some may have hit home!

By 1993 an update and reissue was needed, and it emerged in full colour, thanks to the design input from The Creative Company, who admirably didn’t feel constrained to operate within corporate design guidelines, although their choice of a stippled background tint to the text pages did nothing for legibility. (Note to self: don’t sign anything off until you have seen the hard copy in your hands!). 21x21cm (two-thirds A4, another break from ‘style’), 20 pages and 8185 words long, Richard’s illustrations remained, along with three (professionally drawn) maps and 8 photos, and the run of 3000 lasted for some seven years, at least in part because a (nominal ) charge was levied whenever we could. This edition even got an ISBN: 1-85716-129-7.

To mark the Millennium, in 2000 a new edition was in order (ISBN 1-85716-486-5), and this for me is the apogee in design and utility terms. A5, 40 pages, 12366 words, 67 photos, and still four line drawings, this lovely package fully met my ‘is it readable in the bath?‘ test, my ideas, words and photos expertly and coherently put together by Jacquie South (Jax Design), who also produced the maps. However, having mutated into English Nature, and with a greater focus on corporate identity, this edition never really found favour within the upper echelons of EN hierarchy as we had gone right away from their standards. I remain unapologetic, and its wider reception I think justified it: nominally priced at £2, it sold well (including a bulk order from Essex University Biology Department and hawked by me around the lecture and media circuit), with almost 3000 units shifted in just three years.

So we come to the final (for now) print iteration in 2003 (ISBN 1-85716-762-7): 32 pages, 12364 words, 49 photos but no line drawings, this time grown into the increasingly prescribed corporate style of A4 – and so forgoing ‘read-in-the-bathability’, much to my concern. The print run was 2000, and when English Nature became Natural England in 2006, a partial rebranding exercise with sticky labels was sanctioned as a stop-gap. But by the time the  Colchester office was closed in 2012, we still had about a third left. ‘Destroy them‘, the bosses said, because of the out-of-date branding. But I just couldn’t bear to. I took most of the boxes, and have been progressively handing them out (free) at talks, walks and other events ever since, both before and after my early retirement. Now, at the end of 2020, the well has run dry, and thanks to Jude’s hard work inputting my words (including finding errors – I have to admit to a proofread failure) we have converted the bulk of the 2003 edition into a PDF, updated where necessary with the hindsight of the last 18 years. And while photos for editions 2 and 3 were all created from 35mm transparencies, almost all have now been replaced with more up-to-date digital images. The benefits of time during Covid lockdown!

At the same time, we recognised the need for a smaller, less technical publication, so Jude expertly abridged the words and we produced the slimmer, more photo-heavy PDF, ‘Celebrating the Essex Coast‘. We are happy to send out copies of either PDF free of charge if you email us, provided that you accept the fact that your details will be held on a mailing list to shamelessly promote our wares at the time we have something to sell you…

Which, if Covid continues to exert its malign grip on our mobility, may not be too far away. We are now working on not one, but two books. The first, provisionally entitled ‘A Field Guide to the Essex Coast‘ is not a conventional guidebook. It won’t give step-by-step guides of where to go and what to see: there are plenty of other publications that do that already and all share the same problem – the coast is more-or-less dynamic, ever-changing under the influence of weather, currents and tides, so that anything prescriptive is immediately out of date.

Its subtitle is perhaps more accurate – this is a journey not from A to B, but ‘from A to see…’. It provides the information needed, from access points to must-see features to background information, to enhance enjoyment and give readers all they need to explore the Essex coast for themselves. That is explore and engage, involving the excitement of the unknown, rather than being spoon-fed, being told where to go and what to expect to see (and suffer righteous angers if, God forbid, you don’t…)

In three sections, firstly there is the ‘Why?’ Why explore the Essex coast, an introductory, largely pictorial celebration of that which makes to Essex coast so valuable. That moves into the ‘Where and when?’, taking each stretch of the coastline in turn in more detail. And finally, the ‘How?’ – the things you need to know in order to explore safely, for yourself and for the wildlife you may be looking at.

The planned second volume ‘A Field Guide to the Wildlife of the Essex Coast’ will address the ‘What?’. What are the habitats you can find on the Essex coast, how do they work, and how are we humans trying to protect them? What is the wildlife you can find along the Essex coast, both common and rare, large and small? Again not a conventional guide, but full of information about how things survive and thrive on the cusp between land and sea. Watch this space!

Times have changed. The Nature Conservancy Council  became English Nature became Natural England. I moved on from Essex to a national role and then took early retirement. And NE became largely a toothless mouthpiece of a Government at best unenthusiastic about environmental protection, especially insofar as it restricts opportunities for already rich people to make money out of our green and pleasant land…. Not its fault of course: one of the first acts of the coalition in 2010 was to tell us we were no longer an independent watchdog  for the natural world (as enshrined in law), but there to deliver government policy. Which of course was growth. Otherwise known as Rape of our Common Wealth…

Now as much as at any time in the past is the time for nature to be given a voice.

 

The Wild Side of Essex: Day tours with Naturetrek – December

It was good to be back! After a month of Lockdown v2.0, during which the wet weather of early autumn which plagued several of the September and October tours had faded into distant memory, a brighter prospect seemed in order for the first of the December walks.  Nature of course had the final say….

Our first walk, down the Colne started in a peasouper, visibility little more than 50 metres as we set out. Of course that did mean that any birds we did see were close to, like this Black-tailed Godwit, uncharacteristically probing a saltmarsh just 10m from us:

Moving up the Essex Alps to Cockaynes, fog became freezing fog, encrusting every surface in rime. Not a bird stirred; indeed the only sound was ice fall as the temperature lifted a touch at lunchtime.

Heading back down to the estuary, a welcome spurt of sun illuminated Butcher’s-broom (in bloom well in advance of its usual February-April flowering season), Cordgrass Ergot and its own parasite Gibberella gordonii (continuing the remarkable showing of these two fungi locally this year), and a host of birds – a thousand babbling Brents, two hundred Avocets, and numerous Knots and Wigeons in the glasslike waters of the rising tide …

… until all too soon, the mist rolled in from Mersea, a chill breeze sprang, the temperature plummeted, the views and birds were enveloped, and twilight stole the day, well before sundown.

Four days later, the temperature had risen by almost 10°, although it remained still and the estuary sat in a pool of grey, only a distant glimmer reminding us the sun was still out there. 

A showy pair of Stonechats graced the grazing marshes as we followed the ebb of the tide, and most of the expected estuarine birds appeared in very good numbers. Several hundred each of Golden Plover, Avocet, Teal and Lapwing were noteworthy, making quite a spectacle. Only Godwits seemed fewer than expected, but in Alresford Creek, midway between the inner estuarine muds and the outer estuarine sands, both Black-tails and Bar-tails were feeding together for instructive comparison between this sometimes tricky species pair.

Despite a couple of (relatively) hard frosts in the past two weeks,  there were still plenty of fungi to see, including Coral Fungus, Jelly Ear, Cramp Balls, Maze-gill and Orange Cup, and the last knockings of an exciting lockdown find, the only example we know of Coral Tooth in north Essex. Elsewhere in the county it is known only from Epping and Writtle Forests.

Dense Blackthorn thickets on the shore, the summer haunt of Nightingales, now devoid of leaves and sloes, revealed their value for an intricate array of lichens, filigree frosting the trunks and branches with seasonal grey and sunburst -yellow.

And finally, a sign of hope in these very dark times – literally, metaphorically, medically and politically – the glowing fruits of Stinking Iris, and the first bloomings of spring flowers including Butcher’s-broom and Cow-parsley.

Mid-month it was out to The Naze, the only one of three walks planned there this month that we were able to run.

Lovely winter sunlight turned lichens on the salt-blasted clifftop trees into radiant artworks, while new Gorse flowers attracted a few bumblebees and announced to start of ‘the kissing season’.

As the tide receded, the beach provided rich pickings for us, from Mermaid’s Purses and Piddocks, to mass strandings of Common Whelks…

..and for the sandy foreshore birds: Turnstones, Redshanks, Sanderlings and Bar-tailed Godwits.

And so to the cliffs: recent wet weather had mobilised them into active slumping, mass movement of visceral power, bringing new crops of Red Crag fossils into view for the first time in 2 million years. ‘The Wild Side’ of our coast at its best!

A last scan, as dusk fell, over what had been a very quiet seascape for wildlife throughout the day revealed two or three Harbour Seals, presumably on a fishing foray from the Backwaters. A fitting end to a fine day out!

With new Covid restrictions coming into force around Christmas, it may be some time before these walks can recommence. Keep an eye on the Naturetrek web pages for further news:

The Wild Side of Essex: The Colne Estuary (Day Trip) – Naturetrek

The Wild Side of Essex: Exploring The Naze and Walton Backwaters (Day Trip) – Naturetrek

Essex Field Club and the Essex Naturalist

In the county of the Essex Wildlife Trust, with more than 37,000 members one of the very largest county wildlife trusts in the country, the importance (indeed the very presence) of the Essex Field Club (fewer than 300 members) is all too easily overlooked.

Essex Field Club has a venerable history, founded in 1880 when it was a learned Victorian gentleman’s (largely) society, for the study of the natural history, geology and in those days the older archaeology of the county, although it has to be said that, in common with the times, much of their interaction with nature was at the end of a shotgun…’what’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery‘ was the attitude of a time before high quality, portable optics and cameras, and when identification literature was scarce or absent.

To this day it remains misunderstood, the ‘F word’ being indelibly (and now wrongly) associated not with ‘field trips’ but ‘field “sports” ‘. (Note the use of ironic quotation marks – there is nothing sporting about chasing a Fox on horseback with slavering hounds, nor shooting unarmed birds.) In reality, it is the leading county organisation for the study of our wildlife and geology, by amateurs and professionals alike: knowing what we have and where, and how those have changed over time is of crucial significance to those seeking to conserve wild Essex.

As with all such clubs, it has a range of activities, both indoor and outdoor, throughout the year. But for me there are three things about EFC that stand out. Firstly it maintains a panel of county recorders for particular taxonomic groups and subject areas, experts who give their time freely to help curate the public record so that it can be relied upon as an evidence base.

Second, there is the website. In addition to the usual newsy functions, the site contains information and distribution maps for most species. Of almost everything! A few keystrokes and you can find details of previous records of a species from the county, an incredible free resource, as used for example in our blog from earlier in the year Lockdown Localism – finding rare and special invertebrates close to home.

Third and not least, there are the publications, especially the flagship transactions Essex Naturalist. And here again the website excels, with all publications going back to 1880 scanned, indexed and searchable. So this includes four volumes each of annual Journal and Transactions (1881-1884); these evolved into the Essex Naturalist, which comprises 31 volumes between 1887 and 1976, covering up to five years in each volume. From 1977 to 1992, the Essex Naturalist (New Series) vols. 1-11 were published irregularly, each being a ‘special publication’, essentially a standalone book. Essex Naturalist (New Series) reappeared in annual transactions format, edited by Colin Plant, from 1995-1998 (vols. 12to 15), before emerging into its current, larger, annual format in 1999 (vol 16), with an editorial panel, masterminded by Peter Harvey from the outset. Together, a digital treasure trove going back into the heart of the Victorian era (although the volumes since 2005 have not yet been archived), an window into the past to provide inspiration for the future – what was once, can be again, and better…

Now, the largest ever annual edition (Vol. 37, 316 pp) has just arrived with a thump on the doormat. We are very pleased to have five papers this year – this is a real lockdown bonus, giving us time to contribute to this important written record of natural world, the first time for several years. 

First one is the longest, with John Hall, a twenty page account of the ultimately successful campaign to save Lawford Tye field, home to Lunar Yellow Underwing and more, from the clutches of housing developers after Public Inquiry. Hopefully this will have useful lessons for others in a similar, sadly all-too-frequent situation.

Then an account of new botanical finds around #wildWivenhoe, including rarities hiding in plain sight as close as 20 metres from our door! As covered in a previous blog.

Next, the story (again blogged previously) of our successful campaign to encourage Beth Chatto Gardens to tackle the pollinator-murdering habits of the pond plant Thalia dealbata.

And the discovery of two new big red-and-black bugs (see past blogs here, here and here). The Firebug also features in two other papers by different authors – clearly it has arrived in a big way since 2019, especially around Harwich, but also elsewhere in Essex and adjacent counties. Coming soon  to Mallow and Lime near you!

Finally, the identification of a first for Essex, the rare sawfly Pamphilius sylvarum, after an identification gestation of 8 years, jointly with Yvonne Couch, who found the second, although first to be identified. Confused? Then read this blog.

All of this and much, much more (see Contents page above) could be yours for just £15, from the Essex Field Club. That’s 15 to buy…or why not spend the same sum, join the Club, and get Essex Naturalist along with all other member benefits for free?