There are very serious problems in the natural world at this time in our history and I am forever reading depressing reports on various different species of how they and their habitats are declining. I have seen this with my own eyes over 40 plus years of observing wildlife in the UK and still cast my mind back to memories of childhood sightings that would be impossible to imagine in today’s world. I live in hope that things can change and we can redress the balance very soon before we lose any more valuable biodiversity.
In amongst all of the depressing news a few species have reversed the trends and actually increased their numbers and a number of species have established themselves in UK from continental Europe. Since 1990 seven new species of dragonfly have been recorded in the UK which is quite a lot in a short space of time.
So why have some species been able to increase in such troubled times? There are many answers to this question and impossible to fully
here but a number of the reasons can be seen and felt on a daily basis right here in Surrey. As in everything I write about nature and the environment, the weather is at the root of many of the changes.
The above mentioned dragonflies species are among a number of species that are regular breeding species in central and southern Europe and with the rising temperatures that we have been experiencing in the UK over the last 30 years it is not that surprising that these insects have colonised the UK. These heat loving insects have been joined by a number of other continental regulars. Butterflies are another good indicator group into how the temperature is warming up with the Clouded Yellow being a good example of this. Once a very erratic migrant species arriving in tiny numbers if at all or on mass over southern England this species never used to be able to survive the UK winters and perished with the cold. In recent years they have now become resident on the south coast and survive the winters and can have 2 broods each year!
Things have moved fast in the last 30 years. There are numerous insects that have benefited from the warmer climate and some species that were on the edge of their range have spread greatly, the impressive Golden-bloomed Grey Long Horn beetle and Jersey Tiger moth are 2 very impressive examples.
Insects are not the only group of animals that have done well because of the changing weather patterns and again I can remember over 30 years ago the afternoon that I saw my first ever Little egret. The first breeding record for the UK occurred in 1996 and there are now nearly 1000 pairs breeding in this country! The other winter a flock of 7 were seen in the water meadows on the edge of Guildford and it is not uncommon to see them around the county.
In general it is quite obvious to see that the warmer climate has encouraged a number of new species to the country and extended the range of others but that is not the whole story. This point really hit me five years ago when one sunny late July afternoon I watched a farmer cut hay on a field on the edge of Cranleigh. In the sky above were 3 Red Kites and 2 Common Buzzard and I recall jokingly recall saying that I felt like I was in Wales not south Surrey. Both of these species have increased populations greatly in the UK particularly over the last 25 years but the reasons for their increases are very different. The story of Red Kites in the UK has been well documented and from the first English reintroductions in 1989 this species has managed to spread out and it now can be frequently seen all over Surrey. The human intervention has undoubtedly helped this species recolonise various parts of its former range. The Common Buzzard spread from south west Britain all along the southern counties then northwards and is now found all over the UK. This species has managed to spread by filling gaps in the food chain and has greatly benefited from fewer gamekeepers and a reduction in the levels of specific insecticides.
Gamekeepering is always a controversial subject and one that will forever be argued but the evidence conclusively proves that the activity of game keepers in the past has had a detrimental effect on birds of prey numbers in the UK. Buzzards have shown that through lack of persecution they can survive and prosper although there are gamekeepers and some farmers that are now calling for licenses to be issued to control Buzzard numbers. I hope this kind of mentality does not become widespread again for the sake of all predatory species that suffered unjustifiably in the past.
We have seen a few examples of how species have and can prosper and the bottom line is that humanity has caused our wildlife to become depleted. Some of the examples discussed have shown how global warming has caused some species to become regular British species. The effects of this warming has encouraged warmth loving species but let’s not forget that it will have the opposite affect on cold loving species such as several fish and seabird species. It’s a complicated issue and time for some serious action to help our struggling wildlife. Nature is adaptable and can survive, it just needs a helping hand with some sensible management. We shall see what happens in the coming years. I’m hopeful that government will finally start taking our wildlife and environment more seriously.
I know that I’m stating the obvious when I say that it has been feeling more autumnal in the last week. With the cooler temperatures, the darkening evenings and the behaviour of the wildlife, all being obviously signs that nature was gearing up to the arrival of the forthcoming winter. With the way our weather patterns have been changing in recent times, we can never be quite sure of what September, or any other month come to that, will bring us and this year seems to be more old fashioned so far which is why I started some serious management work in the last week.
As I have previously stated, nothing had been done to the area for at least ten years and the deep rooted pest species were very well established. To the gardeners amongst you the names of the species will be very familiar to you. Bramble, Creeping Buttercup, Herb Robert and various Dock species are very well known problem species to gardeners and conservationists.
Earlier in the year I had cut the whole of the area down to the ground and there has been a considerable amount of regrowth since then and this was the task I started to try and redress the balance. You can see why Brambles are a successful plant species! Their root systems are deep, extensive and difficult to dig out properly. I decided to dig down at least a couple of feet down into the earth to make sure I would not miss any of the problem species. Several of the Brambles roots took at least 20 minutes to dig out as their root systems were so well established.
This work has got to be carried out to try and ensure that the flower species that I was going to enjoy next spring had a chance of surviving. Knowing that the problem species involved at the site I knew I had a big task ahead of me in a) trying to remove them and b) stopping them re- invading next spring. The deep digging and the sieving carried on to try and lessen this risk. We will only see how well I have done come next spring and I know now that even if I think I have done my best I know there will still be Creeping buttercups and random Bramble shoots appearing. We shall see.
In between the digging and weeding the wildlife was busy all around me with the obligatory Robin often flitting down to pick up various invertebrates I was uncovering and ‘ the shy and wary ‘ as once described in old bird books, Wood Pigeons flying down to within a couple of metres of me to feed on similar food items as well as various grass shoots. Today’s Wood Pigeons are cheeky and almost fearless and I soon understood its’ voracious feeding when I watched it fly from the reserve up into an Ash tree where the high pitched calls of the squabs could easily be heard. From years of watching wildlife I know that unexpected things can happen and whilst digging out a heavy duty bramble root I heard a distinctive ‘ pronk ” call of a Raven. I looked up and there about 200 feet above me was a Raven heading in a south- westerly direction. Its’ massive size was emphasised when one of the local Carrion Crows decided to see off the Raven when it tried to sneak up behind and peck the Ravens tail or back. It didn’t get close enough to try as the Raven became aware of the crows presence and quickly swung/flew round to launch its massive bill in the crows direction. The Crow flew back to the safety of the woods behind the flats!
The flowers in the first planted area were continuing to attract Honey Bees and Common Carder Bees every day and one day I observed a Common Carder Bee feeding in the area and noted it taking nectar from six different flowering species. Many of the Bees seen are smaller male bees and they are busy collecting for their Queens before they hibernate. Many of these individuals are looking very worn and bald and are slowly falling to pieces and dying before the winter comes.
The attraction of flowers has brought in a number of Hoverflies and several species have been noted feeding on variety of flowers. They have given me some homework to do in trying to learn how to identify them. You are never bored when I it comes to learning about nature.
The work that needed to be carried out in the next few months was a continuation of trying to clear the last quarter of the site from the problem plant species and this was going to take quite a long time and a lot of hard work. I will not be bored for the next few weeks that’s for sure.
Idly staring out of our bedroom window and glancing down my reaction was “oh no, not again” for there were so many bees flying round an ivy “tree” that I thought a swarm had settled in the plant growth.
On closer inspection it was clear no swarm of honey bees but a swarm of lots of species; bees, flies, wasps and even the occasional hornet. Why the feeding frenzy? One plant, Ivy, with a plethora of tiny nectar rich flowers. Standing close and attempting to take some photographs wasn’t even scary as all visitors only had one obsession, to find the flower with the fresh nectar. Or if you are a Hornet a meaty snack to carry off.
Despite the frequent bad press Ivy is seldom a villain (endangering trees by weighing them down), far from it as it provides a rich food source for many insects throughout the year. A bit like Common Gorse there always seems to be an Ivy plant in flower somewhere, even in the depths of winter. Not just a food source either, a refuge for hibernating/dormant butterflies and a preferred nest site for several species of birds, Ivy has many roles.
Everything was moving so quickly and I am not that good a photographer so I resorted to taking pictures of the slower guests!
And even slower….
On a sunny day you really can spend hours in the company of a flowering Ivy just make sure you take plenty of patience if you intend to take pictures!
On the news the other day, there was a report stating 2018 was looking like it was going to be the hottest year on record. I’ve heard this kind of report a lot over the past 20 years and whilst listening to facts and figures in the report I looked over the mini reserve and pondered the effects of the weather on its progress.
I went outside to have a closer look and not having any engagements for a couple of hours gave me the chance to clear another small area and remove most of the weed species root by root.
In the last week the temperature has dropped considerably and there had been a notable drop in butterfly numbers visiting the area, the occasional Large White visiting the cabbage being the only regular species observed. I found a dying individual under the cabbage the other day which probably indicates the ending of the season. There was still quite a lot of colour on show with several species still in flower providing food for the regular bees that are daily visitors. Still the most numerous flowering species is Borage and although I previously mentioned they were already up/downgraded to a weed species their importance was obvious when you watch the Bees feeding. Next year I intend to manage this species carefully. One species that had been confusing me was the Hysop that I had grown from seed indoors and planted out as soon as space was available. The plants had grown well and seemed to look like they were about to flower but failed to do so until last week when their deep purple coloured flowers added to the food for now bees and hoverflies.
More colours came from the continuous Cornflowers spectacle! The hardiness and adaptability of this species has amazed me. As previously mentioned, the whole site is on a quite steep slope and many of the flowers that have emerged this year have grown up vertically and then fallen over with the weight of flowering heads, or rain or even strong winds and then grown horizontally over the grounds for a short distance and grown another vertical shoot that has often ended up with new flowers on them. Nature is adaptable. The Cornflower flowers seem to be experts at doing this. They are also a very long time flowering with my very first plant to flower in the garden being a Cornflower and now, still 8 weeks later, producing new flowers.
This species adaptability is further shown by the fact it can grow from seed to flower in 3 – 4 weeks. A few Groundsel flowers bloomed with their small yellow flowering heads giving a different colour to the mix.
My mind is already drifting to the possibilities for next year’s show of colour and insects.
Having been fortunate to have worked on the majority of wild habitats that are to be found in the UK from mountains to moorland and Bogs to beaches I know that all areas that are managed for wildlife need a management plan no matter how large or small the area is. It’s in my blood really and my views have immediately been challenged when I realised that several of the flowering species I have grown are not native species to the UK but are introduced garden plants. Much of my time doing practical conservation work was spent removing or killing invasive plant species like Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan Balsam and Daffodils to name a few, and all these started out as “harmless” garden plants!
Was I creating or contributing to a new problem?
The seed mixes I had planted were all carefully selected species good for bees and butterflies and were advertised as such. I felt OK with this and realised that the non native species included had already provided vital food for a whole variety of bees and other insects.
It was also increasing my knowledge as I noticed species in flower that I’m not familiar with. Feel free to help!
Management is vital to create the optimum balance of flowering species. Lots of work to do over the winter but so far so good and there’s still time to plant a few more seeds………