Access and Conservation, conflict or essential partners?

 

Unsurprisingly,  the impact of Covid has led to lots of research and much media coverage continuing to show what for many is common sense; access to the countryside or at least open space is essential for the physical and mental well being of all us humans.

Yes, I do believe acknowledging and promoting the benefits of the countryside is a good thing but…………it’s just not as simple as that.

We live in a world which seems to feed anger, anxiety, stress, polarisation and this constant and all pervading sense of edginess. It seems we are all expected to have a view on absolutely everything and then defend that view even if we don’t know what we’re talking about and have clearly been shown to be wrong. And under NO circumstances should you apologise or acknowledge a mistake or admit fault.

I just don’t get it!

It is human to make mistakes, to misjudge, to jump to the wrong conclusion but it is essential that these mistakes are acknowledged, even quietly, in order that we can learn from them and move on. There is much truth in the old adage; you only learn from your mistakes. Trouble is we seem to have a decreasingly small communal memory to learn from.

Modern news and social media operates on volume (all meanings of the word!) and turnover and this encourages, almost forces, people to take a view on often incomplete, inaccurate or completely out of context, stuff. Stuff that is often irrelevant to most people or much more important than people realise.

What, you might ask, has all this got to do with Secret Surrey?

Francis and I share many values and may well disagree on a few but central to both our core beliefs are 2 ideas.

Acceptance, and no little joy, that we humans are part of a staggeringly beautiful and awesome world. This world is not there to serve us as some kind of resource larder and will continue to reject us if we continue to treat it as such.

A cohabitee!

Secondly, change for the better is most effective when it starts at a local level and then gains momentum. Recent events have clearly shown the positive power of the individual and local community projects to effect change.

Further discussions on green philosophies can be found elsewhere but will attempt to explain why I am so concerned for the Surrey countryside right now.

As more people had time and were encouraged to get out and exercise more and more people did just that with some clear differences in how they behaved.

Many people chose and continue to choose to use the outside as an outside gym, track and velodrome, no bad thing and clearly good for health but please don’t try and tell me that this is a clear indication that this group necessarily appreciate looking after the countryside and the wildlife that we share it with. I’m sure some do but using the countryside for exercise and leisure can lead to abuse. Don’t get me started about littering or the conflict caused between different “user” groups! Back to the bad old days of cyclists v dog walkers v walkers v joggers and the assertion of one individuals rights over another. Why do we seem to have a minority of blinkered individuals that assert what they see as their rights without accepting any responsibility for their actions or their impact on others, let alone on the countryside?

Why cannot the litter offender grasp the if you arrive in the countryside with “stuff” then take any remaining stuff back home with you? To litter in many places in Europe is simply unacceptable and doesn’t happen. I accept that there also some countries where litter and rubbish is a problem but that doesn’t excuse the supposed enlightened citizens of the UK.If something arrives with you when you enter the countryside either consume it or take it away with you. Its not rocket science, its the same stuff you arrived with just less!

Just at the moment in time that a lot of people are “rediscovering” the countryside where are the Rangers on the County Council Estate? Well, right now there are none!

Let me repeat that, THERE ARE NO RANGERS on the SCC estate. Some of the busiest countryside sites in the county have no site based staff to gently police the public and unsurprisingly a minority of idiots are now taking advantage. More idiots dropping litter, more anti social behaviour, more fly tipping, more wildfires due to idiots lighting barbecues in inappropriate places (will somebody please ban the use of disposable BBQ in the countryside?) and just more unreasonable, inconsiderate and rude behaviour.

Yes I know we are in the mist of a crisis with health and economic but for goodness sake can everybody just behave with a little more respect for the countryside and wildlife. And understand that looking after both costs money, even the basics, and that not having site based staff costs all of us much more, again in every sense, in the long run.

Refuge and playground

 

 

The Nightshift

Buff Tip

I can remember the first time I saw moths in close up and remember being amazed at the variety of sizes, shapes, colours and a whole collection of subtle shades and delicate markings that adorned their bodies. Fascinated that some of their English names are what I can only call funny particularly in my 14-year-old mind.

The Maidens Blush!

I was instantly fascinated by this amazing group of insects and coincidentally returned to work at the site where I had first witnessed them a few years later and my interest grew stronger as I regularly dealt with the contents of a moth trap.

Pale Shouldered Brocade

You’ve all probably heard how moths are described as dull and boring looking and how quite a number of people are actually scared of moths. From what I can make out about human nature this fear is more about the fear of the dark than it is about fear of a small nocturnal flying insect. Yes, moths will bump into your head and face when you light up your mobile but they will not hurt you in the slightest. I’ve seen too many moths get needlessly killed by over nervous humans.

The Mocha

Moths and their relatives butterflies are good indicators of the health of an area and like their more familiar cousins, moth numbers have been falling in the last 50 years due to loss of habitat and the intensification of modern agriculture, an unfortunately familiar story. There have been however some additions to the UK list with the warming of our climate, that has encouraged European species to colonise. A few species have also reached our shores by arriving in food and plant products and managed to colonise and establish themselves which can cause a few issues.

Varied Brocade

The total number of species in the UK is roughly about 2,500. Of these about 1600 are micro and pyralid moths. These are generally very small, often with very well marked patterns on their bodies and wings. Many of them don’t have English names and some are so difficult to identify that the only way to truly identify them is by dissecting their genitalia. Not something I have ever done myself but it shows the intricate nature of this group.

Orange Footman

I personally have only started to look at this group of smaller moths in recent times and am realising, again, just how much more there is to learn.
The larger moths are known as macro moths and there are about 860 here in the UK and these will be the type of moths that people are more familiar with as many have distinctive patterns and colours. These patterns fade as the moth gets older and sometimes they are so abraded they are impossible to identify. Adult moths don’t live much more than a week as after they emerge from the cocoon they dry off and, immediately, there sole aim is to reproduce with maybe some feeding as well!

Small Phoenix

The nocturnal nature of most moths is one their intriguing habits and some species, that fly later in the year, even have what can only described as a fur coat to protect them from cold nights
Not all moths are nocturnal and some day flying moths are very striking like the common Cinnabar and the impressive Hummingbird Hawkmoth which as its name suggests, does resemble a hummingbird feeding and I was truly delighted when one paid a two-minute visit to my reserve a couple of weeks back and fed quickly on the Red Valerian that I had planted to try and attract them to the area. Sometimes plans do come together!

Small Magpie

The people who do not like moths may not be aware of the vital role they play in habitats where they occur. Like many insects that feed on nectar, moths provide a valuable service of pollinating the plants that they feed on. As most species are nocturnal, this service is all carried out in the darkness and not realized by most humans. They are also a vital part of food chains and many moth caterpillars are taken by birds and a good example of this is one of the micro moths called Green Oak Tortrix. The caterpillars of this species are eaten by many small birds in an oak woodland habitat and it has been calculated that many of these bird species rely on these caterpillars to raise their young. If you have ever seen a Blue Tit in spring at a nest box, you may notice the little green caterpillars are often the most numerous food item. This shows the vital role that moths play in the ecosystems around us.
Being nocturnal moths are not easy to observe and apart from disturbing them from vegetation you don’t get to see them often unless of course you happen to have a moth trap.

Moth trap at home

These traps have ultra violet bulbs that attract the moth in and they rest on egg boxes inside the trap, which you can then look the next morning when most moths are less active and then release them later in the day. It is one of the great mysteries of nature why moths are attracted to any light, including ultra violet light. Still to this day there has been no scientific explanation to this behaviour and I think this adds to moths almost mythical status.

Magnificent Privet Hawk Moth

Next time you see a moth it’s probably worth having a closer look as you never know what you may find and you could be pleasantly surprised at what you see. As always nature can surprise you sometimes.

Listen More, Hear More. Look More, See More

Garden Glory Hawthorn

Having already bigged up the year as one of exceptional blossom, showing off my favourite garden tree was irresistible!

The last few days has given many opportunities to walk and enjoy the natural world. Admittedly my work increases my justification to be out and about but fortunately this has only meant travelling a few miles by car on a couple of occasions.

Like many people the increase in time available for a stroll or even just to stop and soak the atmosphere is something I am relishing, the pleasures and joys of discovery just keep coming.

Returning to the military ranges at Ash, with more families than ever before, allows one to appreciate space. Big skies, views , and I mean VIEWS, that I don’t believe can be bettered in Surrey.

Towards London

It’s become a truth that now the overflying of aircraft

Rare sight!

is more unusual than the possibility of seeing special birds like Tree Pipit

Preparing Tree Pipit

Out on the open heath many of the birds are either very discrete or rather unimpressive to look at (like the pipit). Most of the “little brown jobs” make up for their lack of glory plumage with 2 tactics depending on the habitats occupied.

Out on the wide open heath the tactic is to launch up in to the sky and advertise with song. Woodlark, even more than the similar Skylark, take the ascendency to extremes; I have witnessed many disappear out of sight in to a blue sky with the ethereal song drifting on the breeze. A Woodlark song can carry miles, both advertising to a mate and staking claim to a territory to rival males. Not all flying songsters go high, some like the Tree Pipit use a short acrobatic display from a song post to spread the word to a wider audience. Another species that employs this tactic is the Common Whitethroat, a species that looks to be having a good year. Every walk I’ve undertaken over the last 10 days or so has been punctuated with the scratchy song of the Whitethroat. It seems that where there’s a bit of scrub, thorn bush, hedgerow, there’s a plucky bird throwing itself in to the air to deliver, well let’s be kind, the best marketing message to a passing female Whitethroat.

Different place similar view

Whitethroats followed me to Chobham Common! In fact, not really surprising, similar habitat equals similar birds. The land of Woodlark, Dartford warbler, Stonechat, Tree Pipit and soon to be arriving Nightjar also serves up the right recipe for Whitethroat. Another bird also follows the presence of Whitethroat and some of the other highly visible songsters, The Cuckoo.

Distant searching Cuckoo

I had thought that Whitethroat were the most likely candidates for a Cuckoo to parasitise but that may well be assuming a link with Whitethroats on the basis of “visibility”. Goes to show assumptions can be misleading as the research compiled by the BTO indicates that the 4 most frequently recorded host bird species are in fact; Dunnock, Pied Wagtail, Meadow Pipit and Reed Warbler. Still leaves me with a few questions as, of those 4 only the pipit is really found on the open heath. Hmmm, I love a mystery.

During my wanders it seems that its not just Whitethroats that appear to have arrived in good numbers, Blackcaps, Garden warblers and Chiffchaffs are making lots of noise Not strictly “little brown jobs” but certainly discrete and hard to see these three join the group of birds that use the other, a second technique of attracting a mate and defending a territory; stay hidden but shout loud!

Along the Wey

More Whitethroats along the river near Send and Old Woking. The flood plain is dotted with scrubby thorns and bramble patches perfect to display flight from and been seen and heard.

Here the supporting chorus is different from the heath. Sadly Skylarks and Meadow pipits are increasingly hard to see or hear but closer to the river and the wet bits 2 more “hide and shout” warblers can be heard, Sedge and Reed warblers. Often found fairly close to each other neither has what you would call an attractive song, more scratchy stuff!

Home of Reed and Sedge Warblers

If you’ve never walked across this area please do! But do get a map and try and stick to the paths. It’s steeped in history and much of the area is protected both as common land and protected flood plain. It would be a wonderful idea to join up the management and protection of this beautiful are right through from Woking to Guildford and then on to Godalming.

Remains of Henry VIII’s Palace

The value to local people of the river meadows is also reflected in the number and age of churches, worth a visit on their own.

Across the meadows to Old Woking

Some of the meadows are cattle grazed, would be nice if it was all, and of those that are it was good to find the Surrey Wildlife Trust Galloways are back on the land given to SWT by Crest Nicholson, the national construction company. Yes it is possible for big companies to do good things! But it has been quite a while since a gift of this type has been made, sadly.

Sustainable work force

The more you look the more you find. A Reed bunting was no surprise but a Wheatear at the top of a tree (spotted by my wife whilst I was staring up at a Woking Peregrine) was.

Smart male Reed bunting
Top of the tree Wheatear

The more you look……

Beautiful Demoiselle

More and more damselflies are on the wing or waiting in the sun for their new form to dry and harden.

As you may have gathered I am fascinated by all of it, the natural world, and I love the images that are created where the natural and manmade worlds meet. As we crossed the river I noticed these tenacious couple of plants growing in chinks in the bank piling. Nature adapts.

More than just clinging on.

And nature rarely gives up.

Despite pruning, a tree continues.

Remember

Listen More, Hear More, Look More, See More.

I might be a bit angry about some of the things going on, or not, in Surrey’s countryside but if we don’t all get out and enjoy it at the minute how are we going to understand just how important it’s protection and management really are?

 

 

 

 

 

Ah, You Noticed!

Bee and Beauty, thanks to Vala Collyer

 

During these unprecedented times I have noticed a number of unusual activities in our relationships with the natural world. One of the things I have constantly observed is how many people are actually talking about nature and the natural world. Some of the reasons of why this happening are fairly obvious; the fact that people have not got the options that they usually have has actually made many people walk in countryside, a place that many of them have rarely been and possibly never been before. In news articles there has been many references to fact that UK people are noticing birdsong more which is down to fact of less noise from traffic and airplanes whose use has been greatly reduced in the last few weeks. The other morning at dawn I was awake and as I sat and listened to the birds of the dawn chorus, there was very little of the background noise that normally occurs.

The decrease in general noise has been very noticeable to me and I quickly realised that the majority of people who were making comments about bird song were possibly hearing them for the first time or more probably had only noticed them because of the decrease in noise. This point itself is part of a current world situation and if we look at some of the stories from around the world in the past few weeks there are many examples of how lack of human activity/disturbance has benefitted the natural world and the species that live in the world’s habitats and ecosystems. There are already countless examples of how the wildlife of the world has taken advantage of this current ‘ quiet ‘ time and the examples range from the Welsh Goats leaving their natural hill habitats and coming into the villages to forage to Thailand where because of the lack of tourists , large numbers of sharks have been observed for the first time and many years and there has also been Leatherback Turtles egg laying on beaches for the first time in 6 years. To me one of the most amazing examples that has occurred is that the Himalayas have become visible in parts of Northern India for the first in over 30 years because of the massive drop in air pollution over the last few weeks.

These examples raise a number of points. The first is something obvious to me and something that conservationists have been saying for years, and that is that if you give nature some space and quiet, species will recolonise. It also shows how quickly nature will seize an opportunity and benefit from it. For instance, on a more local level, the Jackdaws in Cranleigh have taken over the church and are building nests in locations that they would normally not be able to nest in.
During this unprecedented time there have been many changes in human and animal behaviour and now as I hear the news each day and I listen to various world leaders talk about getting their countries’ economies moving again I wonder if there will be any fundamental changes in the way humanity lead their everyday lives that will have a positive effect on our troubled planet. The signs from various of the world’s leaders does not look particularly promising and the same old boom and bust capitalist rational will continue to be the driving force in America, Brazil, China and most European counties. This has already been tried for many years and the environment and its wildlife has paid the heaviest price for this, as have the millions of people around the world who are still living in poverty. In amongst the various politicians proposed visions of life after the virus, there has been a number of scientists and conservationists raising the potential that we could start to make changes now particularly in light of the situation that most of the world is currently experiencing that will beneficial to our planet, its wildlife and its people. Could the collapse in oil prices prompt a move towards electric cars or the ending of various aircraft companies? Many of which are now requesting help from governments right now. Billionaires asking for government help is too ironic for me!

There are many unanswered questions at this time but there are some positives as I said and I feel the recent connection that everyday people seem to have made with the natural world is a very good thing and as I worked on my reserve the other day I heard a little girl and her dad walking through the woods nearby and suddenly the little girl exclaimed ” it’s really smelly here ” to which her father, who seemed to know a bit, explained that the smell was Ramsons or Wild Garlic and you could just hear her amazement.

In this moment I realised that there is always hope for the future whatever happens after this current crisis we are all currently experiencing.

Small Wonders

For those of us with gardens there can be little doubt that they are probably one of the few calm spaces available to us. Similar to the exercising walk, more time in the garden has meant greater appreciation of the small things, small changes, new life and, for many, greater appreciation of the variety of life that envelops us. That’s not to say life in the garden can lack drama, whether its the daily high speed appearance of madam Sparrowhawk or the almost constant acrobatic bullying of the local Red Kites by any of the local crows.

Lady killer, but this pigeon did actually live to tell the tale!

Much has been made of the great expansion of the recording of garden birds on the schemes promoted by the RSPB and BTO, and this is clearly a good thing. County based recording via Twitter is revealing all kinds of wonderful surprises for the birders and the expansion of recording overflying birds at night is uncovering simply amazing evidence of migration routes that I find staggering and utterly fascinating. Now we know that there is almost no limit to the number of bird species that could be flying over your house at night! Your imagination now really does have justification for running wild.

Back to earth at Hempstead, spring trundles on, oblivious to the anxiety in the world of humans. The details draw me in; it’s fascinating that fruit trees, even those closely related, follow a consistent sequence of blossoming, stoned fruit (blackthorn, plums, cherries), pears then apples (even they have a variety sequence that remains consistent).

Apple blush

How come? Weather is too variable to be responsible, so I’m guessing it’s day length. I love the fact that it seems many plants have means of detecting changes in their environment of a sensitivity that is hard for even our technology to match. Yes I do get that I could probably find a scientific explanation but often I just love to wonder at the complexity and sheer beauty of natural details.

Yellow is still, just, dominating the wild flowers but bluebells and local wood anemones are poised to take over.

Proper Cowslip

Having planted a couple of Cowslip plants over 20 years ago they have proliferated in to most areas of the garden. As a species they are ready hybridisers with Primroses, of any variety. Difficult to see how you can stop this hybridising occurring in a garden context and I suspect the bluebells, which were here when I moved in, wouldn’t meet the genetic standard for a native species. Hmmmm….. that reads like a future topic for Francis to tackle!

Cowslip hybrid

When the wind drops the buzzing of bees has been getting louder.

Bumbles love Pulmonaria

I know I have several species of Bumbles and a collection of many smaller species. Masonry bees in the brickwork, mining bees in the veg plot (actually in the flower bed in the veg plot, there to be kept safe from marauding deer!). Bee flies chasing their host species of bumble and hoverflies beginning to appear.

Don’t ask me bee!

A few butterflies are braving the cool wind but the lack of moths is becoming a  concern to me, as is the absence of the bats that normally circle my lawn at dusk.

Holly Blue on the Bay Tree

This little piece started with the joy that birds can incite but I’m going to voice my sadness which partners this joy for me in my little patch of garden.

My joy, and puzzlement to be honest, at the appearance of a 40 strong flock of Starlings in the surrounding fields is matched with a sadness that Starlings haven’t bred in the garden or house for a couple of years.

The joy of glimpsing 4 Swallow flying over is tinged with the sadness that this is no longer a daily event, no locally breeding birds any more. Rarely will I see or hear Martins or Swifts yet when I was young our road had tens of House Martins nests tucked under the eaves, my school had dozens of nests and I even did a project on them. Swifts used to barrel down the road screaming, a real joy. I’m so sad that local kids just won’t see these things and experience life to its fullest potential.

Curious Jay by Steve Duffy

Watching a pair of surprisingly gentle and caring Jays has been fascinating but where are the missing smaller less obtrusive birds? Linnets nested in this garden and the adjacent hedgerows for much of the nineties, now gone. Skylarks could be heard whilst enjoying a cup of tea, not any more. No pipits and only rarely a Pied Wagtail. I will look back over what’s been seen in and from our garden, it is frankly amazing but what matters is where we are now and what we can do to help and to celebrate the everyday.

 

Every Cloud…..

Spring and the weather can bring great peace and not a little joy if you have the opportunity to get outside in a garden or into local countryside for an exercise walk.

My problem, according to my wife, is that I get distracted by nearly everything that we encounter on our daily walks. Admittedly I am fascinated at changes, small and significant, that get noticed when you walk a route more regularly than usual. A quick stroll gets longer and longer……

Oaks beginning to blush green

It might be the effect that a change in light or the colour of a cloud has or it might be watching the Magpies riding sheep.

Where’s the reins!

This year spring flowers and bloom on trees look more abundant almost as if whilst we are catching our breath, nature is slowly exhaling. Frosts have done some damage to the local magnolia blooms but even they have continued to produce more.

Celandines are still producing yellow carpets on verges and in woods and the next wave, wood anemones and bluebells, are beginning to burst forth.

Celandine strewn stream

Textures and shapes can draw you in and might inspire wether the bark of an alien tree

Or the magic of unfurling leaves.

I hadn’t really considered just how fantastic the process of leaf growth actually is. From small buds, then swelling ones of all shapes and sizes there comes forth these miracles of natural engineering. Each vein a sign of a fold that had formed whist still tightly contained in a protective case. Each species evolved to produce a specific folding pattern, magic!

Hidden views discovered

Great pleasure in realising that local can just be stunning and surprise you with bits of history and culture that you kinda assumed you should have known.

Who’s he?

On our “patch” is a beautifully sited very old church, more on that another time, and whilst walking through we are beginning to find what to us are fascinating little mysteries. For example, a small sign pointed the way to the above grave marker. That means you just have to find out why he is of note, doesn’t it? Much to our surprise, and a little embarrassment to be honest, Sidney was an artist of some repute and has a gallery celebrating his work in a local building. The upstairs of the very building where my daughter went to play school! Who knew? Definitely a place to visit when the restrictions are lifted.

Little dramas play out, some of them not to script. After leaving the churchyard via a beautiful old gate in need of some repair,

 

we first encountered what looked like a very lonely Egyptian Goose, not what you expect in a Worplesdon field,

All alone?

but a couple of days later

happy days, there was 2! Probably a bit late for babies as the first clutch Ive seen this year was in January near Chobham.

More sun, more flowers, more butterflies.Last Sunday first Holly Blue

and yesterday, with the first Garlic Mustard flowers, appeared my favourite Orange Tip

Orange tip, not on Garlic Mustard!

Remember, look for the small and easy to walk past, use all your senses, it really is, still, a beautiful world.

Good from Bad

Well here we are all then, in an unprecedented situation for humanity. And like Steve said I’m not going to enter this hotbed of controversy here other than hoping that all who read this are safe and well, take good care of yourselves and each other. So, we all have had restrictions put on us that have restricted our movements and as you have probably gathered from some of my previous articles; I am a man who likes to get out and about.

Violets.

With this situation in place and living in crowded Surrey I have found myself in my reserve a lot of the time in the last 3 weeks. In all honesty, I have needed a lot of time out there in order to regain some kind of control, as helped by the incredibly mild winter, certain familiar species had run rampant through many of the planted-up areas. To the gardeners amongst you will know about the ‘ familiar ‘ species I am referring to and over the winter I had noticed how many plant species had not died off or wilted due to the mild conditions and when I finally got there to deal with it I instantly realised that this was going to be a big task and regretted for not starting to deal with issue a bit earlier. After 3 weeks of doing a minimum of half an hour daily weeding I have just about ‘ cleaned ‘ the flower beds and there are two very large piles of Creeping Buttercups, Broad Leaved Dock and Pendulous Sedge that I have dug, pulled and scraped out of the ground in order to try and redress the balance. I have already previously mentioned that I was aware that this kind of situation could occur in my new reserve and, given the habitats surrounding the area and the tenacity of the problem species I have been dealing with, is never to be underestimated.

Before
After a bit of effort!
After a bit more!

After I had removed as much as I could I started to think of ways to try and slow down this invasion and stop it happening every year. I realised my best chance to abate the weeds was to plant another strong growing species to try establish themselves before the problem species take over again
I had a little look into the woods just behind the reserve area to see which plants were growing on the woodland floor with the thought of finding a suitable species to plant on the edge of my area to try and stop the deluge of Ranuculus. Before you start thinking that I was stealing plants and going against all the things we are taught about picking wildflowers, I will say that the 20 plants I did end up digging out were A) very common. B) in an area where they were often trodden on by the many members of the public who use the woods and C) planting them 50 metres from where I dug them up was actually helping to extend their range in the area. The plants were Ramsons, wild garlic, and there are several large patches in the woods and when they are in flower they give that pleasant garlic odour and beautiful white flowers that will attract a few insects. Ramsons can form quite dense carpets on woodland floors which is I’m hoping is what my transplants will be doing on the edge on my reserve. As I’m becoming more aware of the power of the invasive weeds I felt that the Ramsons would need some time to get established and as we enter the start of the growing season, I knew all the invasive species would start growing all over again, particularly in the newly weeded areas where I had planted the Ramsons. I had a good think about other plant species that could compete with the problem species and one potential species was found accidentally whilst I looked through my collection of seeds (which was itself quite strange as the they were only wildflower seeds I had) Red Campion which seemed a good species to join in the battle. Their reddish pink flowers are in flower from April to July and are also quite shade tolerant which is good as where I was planting was going to be partially shaded. A common species in hedgerows and woodland and, like Ramsons, can form quite dense areas. I sowed some of the seeds directly into the ground in between the Ramson transplants and I also sowed some into pot that I took indoor to try and give them a bit of a head start.

Ramson transplants.

After 2 weeks there are already signs of life in the potted seeds.
I also added one more species to help stop the invasion, Wild Strawberry, which again is a species that can grow rapidly and form dense covering. I was given a single plant last year which I planted in midsummer and by the end of the summer had already flowered and fruited and spread. I have only planted a couple of plants and will see how they get on in the battle. Some of you may be well aware that the species that I have planted in order to try and dissuade invasive species can themselves be quite invasive and I have cleared them in several gardens I have worked in the past. I was well aware of this myself before I planted them and knew that I could be pulling them out in a few years if they got established over the course of this year. In their defence they all produce flowers that are vital nectar sources for potential visiting insects and will offer a visually beautiful show of colours hopefully.

Perfumed Ramsons!

We can only wait and see what happens in the forthcoming weeks as spring progresses. And as I’ve quite a bit more to do!

As I have spent a lot of time out in the area I had cleared and planted up over the last couple of years I started to look at the gardens next to my plot which were all totally overgrown and in a state of poor condition. With a lot more time on my hands I took the decision to try and clear and dig over the ground to prepare the ground ready to replant and further extend the area of the ‘reserve ‘. On one side I began to dig over the earth removing the sods of earth as I went along. This area had once been garden but had not been touched for at least 6 years and most of the area was covered with grass and various other weeds. So far I have managed to dig over about a third of the area and still have a fair amount of digging and weeding to do before I plant up the new space. On the other side of the garden, the other overgrown area was a bit more of a challenge as there were a few major issues. Bramble invasion I could deal with and happily hacked back the sections where they had invaded. I then began to cut the rank grass down and soon discovered that the grass had grown through matting that had been laid years ago in order to prevent weeds growing! This was going to be a massive job and one that I have yet to start, ah well, I’ve got some time.

New Extension.

With all this activity was there actually any wildlife using the area?
It is massively reassuring when I see the local life in the area I have created and with a bit more time on my hands I have felt very rewarded to observe some things that have been seen. I began to put out some monkey nuts in the evening and the locals Badgers soon made an appearance and have seen them a few nights. I can hear, when my window is open, the cracking of the nutshells and know that they are about or so I thought for the other night I heard the shell cracking and took a look out the window and saw a big dog Fox waltzing around and occasionally cracking a nutshell. Due to a change in lighting at the flats where I live the reserve area is now much darker than it used to be and observations are a little bit harder to make.

Signs of Badger Banquet.

During the day time there has been a lot of Bumblebee activity with at least 3 different species observed, Buff Tailed, White Tailed and Early. I’ve seen a White-Tailed Queen investigating the walls at the bottom of garden looking for potential nest sites. Often in the mornings I’m seeing many bird species feeding around the area where the night shift has fed including Wood Pigeon, Magpie, Blackbird, Robin, Dunnock and for the last week a Song Thrush has been regularly seen. Bullfinches have been fairly regular and the male’s mournful song has been heard on a few days. Summer migrants have started to arrive and there was a Blackcap up in the woods along with a Chiffchaff.

As nature bursts into life , we shall see what this strange years brings.

Back to basics

Its no longer possible for me to excuse lack of posting  by claiming too busy, but I promise that Francis and I will try and avoid constant reference to what seems to fill most media space at present.

We are both fortunate to have access to gardens and exercise through walking locally. So back to some simple truths and the basics of our joy in the countryside.

Spring has been rushing forward with only short pause for some pretty hard frosts, with the first wave of white and yellow wild flowers.

Stitchwort

Early blooms are at least a food source for the early mergers of the insect world, bees and overwintering butterflies in particular. In some ways these early flowers are often ignored, unless they are part of a mass display of primroses or cowslips, because they don’t really contrast in colour against the grass.

King cup

Overwintering butterflies like Peacock, Tortoiseshell, Cooma and Red Admiral are all on the wing when the wind drops.

Comma

Survivors like these show their age with worn or faded colours but have can have the advantage breeding early. Just as likely that the weather can catch them out and if they don’t find a sheltered spot will perish.

Bees are a lot harder to photograph but we will try, as the variety is amazing and in my garden the mimics, fly species, are also active often following true bees around presumably waiting for an opportunity to parasitise their host species.

Stay safe and get back to basics, find a little joy in the small local things wherever you are.

 

 

The Mighty Miniature

There are some species of wildlife that totally fascinate me and whenever I do see them I generally get a feeling of elation about the wonders of the natural world. All very flowery I know but the fact of the matter is that it’s just true! Some species are not that easy to observe due to their habits and sometimes there habitats as well. A couple of weeks ago I was reminded of this situation when, by chance, I turned my head in the right direction to observe a Weasel run across the footpath a few yards in front of me. I stood there for a few moments and made a squeaking noise and a moment later there for a few seconds, was the head of a Weasel checking me out. It seemed to realise that I wasn’t something she could eat and was gone. This was quite a typical sighting in my experience and when I say she, I wasn’t trying to over romanticise or personify the individual as it was only about 6 or 7 inches long and I know male Weasels are a little larger so I presumed my sighting to be a female.

As with many species today, Weasels are a species that has a large worldwide range and within this range there are differences in body size, colour and habitats. A few people in the scientific community are claiming that there are actually up to four different species across the world. I’m no expert in animal genetics but there does seem to be some good evidence for these claims that may lead to a new species being created in the future. We shall see what happens in the future on this subject.

No matter what genetic decisions are made, the Weasel remains the smallest predatory mammal across much of its range and when you find out about the diet of Weasels it is amazing to see that the size of some prey items is much bigger and heavier than the relentless hunter. Weasels generally eat small mammal such as voles and mice and are small enough to pursue them in their runs and burrows. I once observed a Weasel enter a log pile and emerge 30 seconds later with a lifeless Wood Mouse in its mouth. The usual killing method is a bite to the neck or throat and a friend of mine and I once observed a Weasel run across a bank by a woodland path into a small patch of brambles where a high-pitched scream was emitted from the bramble patch where upon investigation we found a half-grown rabbit with what can only be described as a hole on top of its head. It looked brutal and certainly was for the rabbit. A couple of years ago a photo emerged of a Weasel on the back of a Green Woodpecker that was in flight. Weasels don’t like to give up easily when they are hunting often putting themselves in danger in the process.

Weasels are the smallest members of the Mustelid family which includes Badgers, Otters, Pine Martin, Pole cats and the similarly coloured Stoat. Stoats are differentiated by their larger size and longer tail with a distinctive black tail tip. In colouration terms Weasels are a reddish/ brown on the upper half of their body with a whiteish colouration on the underparts. Their bodies are long and quite sleek in appearance as is typical of a number of species in this family of animals This body is supported by 4 short legs with the back pair being quite muscular. Their bodies are designed to hunt and although small mammal form the basis of their diet they will climb trees and raid birds’ nests of eggs and young. I used to work at a Fields study centre where we had 30 or so nest boxes in a part of the woods and monitored their numbers each year and I recall one year 4 nest boxes in a row had been predated by Weasels and we knew that they were the only predators small enough to get into the nest boxed without damaging the entrance holes. The insides of the nest boxes were trashed and there was occasional piece of egg shell left l. All youngsters were moved from the boxes and I’m guessing that the Weasel would have had to climb the tree serval times in order to retrieve all , 13 in one nest box, youngsters within. As you will becoming aware by now Weasels are very driven little predators. Their family life shows that as well.

My use of the term ‘ family life ‘ is not really a suitable phrase to use for Weasels as with many predatory mammals, much of their lives are spent in solitude. Male Weasels hold a territorial of a varying size but can be over a hectare. Territory size will be defined by prey availability which is also a key factor in breeding success of females. Within in the boundaries of a male’s territory there will be the territories of a female or possibly two. Both sexes will defend their territories all year round and even when the females are ready to mate there will be a fight between the male and female until the larger male overpowers the female. After mating the males has nothing to do with raising the youngsters. A few years ago, one May day, I witnessed two weasels fighting and was so close to them for a minute that I could see it was a pair and I was witnessing the violet courtship before mating. The breeding season is normally between April and June and normally consists of four to six kits.

The female will raise the kits in a burrow that has been built by other small mammals, possibly something she has eaten. She will move the youngsters to another site if she feels they are threatened. We have to remember that although Weasels are fierce predators themselves, they are very small and can get eaten by larger predatory mammals and birds. Young are born naked and blind and only open their eyes after 2 weeks. The
young are normally hunting for themselves after about 4 – 5 weeks or so. Family groups can be seen together when the young are strong and big enough to accompany their mother. These family group will break up fairly soon and the mother will push the youngsters out to find their own territories.

Weasels can be seen in a variety of different habits that offer enough food and cover to ensure survival and over my years of observations I have seen Weasels in agricultural land, farmyards, woodlands, meadows and grasslands, flood marshes, chalk downland, hedgerows and stone walls. This eclectic range of habitats means the Weasel is widespread in the UK and is only absent from some the offshore islands and Ireland.
These charismatic and energetic predators are one of the many joys of our native wildlife, so if you get lucky and manage to see one you may well see some of the things I have discussed here and understand the character of this tenacious little predator. I hope you get lucky and manage to see one.

The All Over Bird

The other day as I walked through town, I got stuck for a few moments in a large group of people and as I waited for the people jam to start moving a Pied Wagtail landed on the edge of the crowd and busily started feeding in amongst the crowded pavement.

Under your feet!

I have seen this many time over the years and always been in full admiration of this smart, fearless and distinctive little birds. And if you take a look at the life and significance of this species we find another interesting story of our native wildlife. Pied Wagtails can be found in virtually any open habitat in the UK and I have personally seen them in many different habitats from town centres to mountains along with farmland, reedbeds, airports, rivers, beaches, sewage farms, gardens and once on a ferry off Scotland to name a few. They are birds of open country and avoid wooded and heavily vegetated areas but can be found readily in what I call human habitats.
It’s probably worth pointing out that Pied Wagtails are a sub species of White Wagtail, which is a species commonly found across Europe and occur from Greenland to North Africa. They are also found across Asia and have recently been found breeding in Alaska. There adaptability to varied habitats has probably helped them spread across most of the northern hemisphere The White Wagtail appears to be very similar in appearance to our Pied Wagtail but has a distinctive paler grey back and greyer wings. Behaviourally they are identical and I recall from a childhood visit to Venice, seeing White Wagtails on St Mark’s square. The pied sub species that we in the UK know, is only found in UK, Ireland and on the coasts of northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands and nowhere else in the world. which shows the global importance of the birds we see here in Surrey.

One of the reasons I’m writing this article is purely because I find watching Pied Wagtails a very entertaining experience! When they are feeding they are very active and I have witnessed them flycatching insects in many locations from riverbanks to agricultural fields and seen them running as fast as possible trying to steal cake crumbs from feral pigeons. They are mainly insectivorous feeders and will gather in areas where there is a good supply of invertebrate to feed on. They will also eat human scraps which attracts them to our towns particularly during the winter when insects are far less numerous.

Risk taking companion

Nesting birds also show a great variety in choice of nest sites. Nests can be found in a number of interesting locations including cracks in walls, straw bales, under loose tiles, in stone walls and in a tractor cab that the adults successfully raised young from even after the tractor had been used and my friend who was using the tractor, saw the adults flying into the cab whilst the tractor was moving. They are very committed parents. They normally have two broods of 4 – 6 eggs each breeding season and post breeding flocks can often be seen feeding on playing fields in late summer and early autumn.
Birds that breed in northerly areas of the UK will migrate south during cold weather and during the winter some birds can be seen on the Atlantic coasts of France, Spain and Portugal and a few make it as far south as Morocco and Tunisia.

Like a good number of small passerine birds; Pied Wagtails roost communally and can gather in large numbers to use chosen roost sights. Up to 4000 have been seen in a single roost and as I have witnessed just before they go to roost they will gather in flocks in the surrounding area and be very vocal before flying to the roost site.

The choice of roost sites is another sign of this species adaptability for many of the roost sites are located in urban areas and I know of 3 roosts locally which are all in town centres. The one in Guildford is truly amazing as it is located in a few trees next to Friary Shopping Centre and one of the busiest roads in town and I have found it a quite surreal experience when visiting the site in the winter months, witnessing these small birds just sit quietly as people talk and walk by and rush hour traffic roars past. I also find it quite amazing how few of the passing pedestrians actually notice the 100s of Pied Wagtails a few feet above their heads.

 

Evening light, reflected on wagtails

In more rural areas they often roost in reedbeds which offer good protection from land predators and water can actually keep a constant temperature and, in common with the urban sites, roost sites are chosen for warmth and security. Many urban sites are warmer because of the heat of electric lights, machinery and people in the area.

By Steve Duffy

 

Pied Wagtails are a fascinating species and a familiar species to most people but like many bird species, they are declining in the UK and the reasons for the decline are all to familiar a story. The agricultural changes and mis management of riparian and wetland habitats has reduced insect numbers which in turn has seen numbers of breeding birds decline. There is hope that they will be able to use their adaptability in order to survive and although I feel troubled by all the birds that are in decline, I feel that Pied Wagtails will get through. Whenever you next see one and have some spare time I thoroughly recommend you watch and see what they are up to, you may get quite a show.