I lived for a few years along the salt marshes of Essex, known there as saltings. The Dengie coast and the Blackwater estuary are some of the most remote places I have known; horizontal landscapes of sea and sky with only the calls of Redshank and Curlew for company.
Saltmarshes are the interface between the sea and the land where the contours change slowly enough for a special vegetation to develop, one that can stand frequent to occasional flooding with salt water.
They are classic sites to study for their biology because of the changes from the most salt-tolerant species at the seaward end of the profile, where Glasswort emerges from the mud and which the green-welly brigade collect for special occasions, through the region of Sea-lavender, Limonium beloved of flower arrangers, to the rarely submerged upper beach, where Shrubby Sea-blite takes hold. Not much of the latter in Essex but anyone who has walked out to Blakeney Point from Cley will have come across it. Birdwatchers give it special attention in autumn because it often hosts sustenance for tired migrant birds - sometimes rare ones.
But my articles are about the wildlife of south Nottinghamshire; why this talk of salt marshes in one of the most land-locked counties of England?
Humans have had far-reaching impacts on our planet, many of them far more significant than this, but the consequences of spreading salty grit from Cheshire over our roads is that narrow, linear salt marshes have developed along our verges.
If you drive slowly, as you inevitably will on occasions, along our main roads in spring, you will see a narrow strip of low-growing white flowers that do not belong there; this is Danish Scurvy-grass, a native of this country but not of this county, which is now as at-home inland as it is around the coast.
Another plant of the coast that is finding things to its liking on our road verges is the succulent and attractive (if you look up close) Lesser Sea-spurrey. Further inspection will often find Grass-leaved Orache. Sea Pink or Thrift has been reported and earlier this year, Nottinghamshire proved to be host to the most inland ever record of Sea Wormwood - along the A52 near Wilford.
Hedgehogs - a footnote
I raised a few prickles by suggesting you could feed underweight hedgehogs with bread and milk or dried mealworms. I didn't intend that you should engorge them with such alien fodder, as such an unnatural diet supplied exclusively would surely be bad for them. If you chance upon a hedgehog in need, give it what you have available but take good advice before befriending them in the long term.
Like many people, I feed the birds in my garden. Mostly, I only get House Sparrows as the more colourful, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and the like have decided to forego my offerings. Goldfinches are the most abundant finch around here so they must be offered so much Niger seed that they don't need mine whilst Greenfinches too are clearly widespread, at least in the spring when I hear their wheezy song all the time but they rarely come to the sunflower seeds I provide for them.
Greenfinches are believed to have declined due to a parasite that they picked up at bird feeding stations and I wonder if the ones that are around today have not inherited the behaviour that disappeared with the dead birds. Chaffinches are still common in the countryside and were never a regular visitor to the garden.
Sunflower seeds hardly ever germinate around the bird table though some years ago I did get a flurry of Niger plants. These only lasted the one summer (it is an annual) and so would be regarded as a casual in botanical terminology though I think transient describes it better.
This year I have had several plants that must have originated from bird seed; two of them are grasses, Yellow Bristle-grass from Europe and Cockspur from tropical Asia. The latter is often found sown in field headlands as part of the agricultural subsidies to help wildlife.
I have also found Ambrosia. Not the ancient Greek food of the gods but Ambrosia artemisiifolia otherwise known by the less glamorous sounding Ragweed. This one is from North America and is a highly invasive plant in parts of Europe. In Germany it is estimated that its naturalisation will cost in excess of 2.5 billion euros mainly through the cost of treating the increase in the incidence of hay fever cases; the plant produces a highly allergenic pollen.
Thankfully, like the Niger it too is a casual in the UK and its widespread distribution across southern Britain is from persistent introductions, though with a warming climate this could change.
The good news is that it produces seeds that persist into the winter and which are rich in oils, so the birds like it but that must be scant consolation to hay fever sufferers.
I have seen only four wild mammals in my Keyworth garden; Fox, Grey Squirrel, Wood Mouse and Hedgehog. One of the two species of Pipistrelle bat hawk over the garden and others may do so, but the only one I can watch up close is Beatrix Potter's 'Mrs Tiggy-winkle'.
Gardens are actually a favoured habitat for hedgehogs and they will forage over many on their nocturnal ramblings which are commonly over a mile long; or at least they will if there are gaps in the boundaries and there are lawns and soil to supply them with beetles, caterpillars and earthworms - their favourite natural foods. Much of their diet, which is almost entirely meaty, are garden pests but they will also eat the eggs (and chicks) of ground-nesting birds.
This combination brought problems to the Outer Hebrides when gardeners there, introduced hedgehogs to control their pests but the immigrants also controlled the populations of waders that nest on the machair. The spiny fellows are now being removed to the mainland.
Content to rely on their well-known defences (which are modified hairs) rather than run off and hide, their confiding behaviour and willingness to take food offered to them by benevolent householders has made them popular creatures and their dramatic decline in numbers; from an estimated 30 million in the 1950s to just 1 million today is very worrying.
One feature of hedgehogs that is less endearing than their beady eyes and wet snuffly nose is their well-known hosting of as many as 500 fleas. These though are hedgehog fleas which, like all fleas specialise in their particular host and will soon depart any unintended species.
With our more frequent mild winters, our hedgehogs do not need to hibernate so seeing one on a January night should not be a concern. If you want to check that it is OK, pop it on the scales and if it's less than 450g then you might want to supplement its natural diet with dried mealworms, cat food or bread and milk. The latter does not cause them any harm despite what you may have heard, though it's hardly the best nutrition for a carnivore. A healthy hedgehog in late summer can weigh over a kilogram whilst one that has depleted its winter fat store may be a dangerously slim 350g.
There is lots of information on Nottinghamshire mammals and other wildlife at http://www.rushcliffewildlife.co.uk
In south Nottinghamshire it is possible to see twenty-eight species of butterfly if one knows where and when to look. If Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow, both unpredictable immigrants show up, then thirty would be an achievable target. Visits to the general countryside and round-the-summer observations in an average garden would only turn up about fifteen species as the rest are restricted to localised and sometimes specialised habitats.
Six of these widely distributed species depend on grasses for their larval food-plant and for their overwintering habitat; these all spend the winter as caterpillars though Speckled Wood can also overwinter as a chrysalis.
Small Heath is the scarcest of these 'common' butterflies and may require visits to favoured locations.
It is perhaps not surprising that several of our most familiar butterflies feed on grass and that all but three of the remainder depend on wild and cultivated brassicas and nettles of which there is no shortage.
Those three are Brimstone, most familiar in early spring when the buttery-yellow males dances through our gardens and lanes and which feeds on buckthorn, Common Blue which uses legumes, in particular Bird's-foot Trefoil and which spends ten months of the year as a caterpillar and Holly Blue which needs holly for its spring generation and ivy for the late summer larvae.
One species that I think everyone will know is the aptly named Orange-tip, though it is only the male that is so distinctive. The females lay their bright orange eggs on Jack-by-the-hedge and Cuckoo-flower but may use Honesty in gardens. Unlike many of the other species, Orange-tip has just one generation each year with the adults about from late April to early June. The eggs hatch after a week and a month later, the caterpillar becomes a chrysalis in bushes and scrub nearby.
Early season mowing of verges must destroy vast numbers of caterpillars before they pupate.
It will be interesting to see how the numbers fare for the first generation of the grass-eating butterflies in 2019 given the parched ground and dried-up grasses of July and August this year. Perhaps, being a caterpillar for the winter will give them opportunities to fatten up on early spring growth before their brief stage as a chrysalis.
There is lots of information on where to see butterflies and other wildlife at http://www.rushcliffewildlife.co.uk
Think “worm” and I'm sure you will visualise an earthworm. There are a great many different kinds of worm, but Lumbricus terrestris, is the earthworm most familiar to us, though there are many more.
Gilbert White, the author of the Natural History of Selborne and one of the greatest ever naturalists, observed them on damp nights by candlelight (this was 1777) and wrote of them 'though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of Nature, yet if lost, would make a lamentable chasm'.
He recognised their importance as essential components of a healthy, fertile soil through their activities in breaking down organic materials and depositing concentrated nutrients as well as aerating the soil in the proccess. Spread compost on the surface of your soil and the worms will do the rest; no need to 'fork it in'.
Charles Darwin was also enthusiastic about worms and wrote an entire book about them. He estimated that arable land held 53,000 worms per acre but more recent research has shown that this can actually be as high as 4.7 million in a winter wheat field with an understorey of clover though this can be reduced to virtually nil in a season of intensive cultivation.
It has also been shown that artificially increasing earthworm population in direct-drilled arable fields improves root-growth and produces healthier plants and that the straw debris is quickly incorporated into the soil.
Another worm that will be familiar to anyone with a compost bin is the Brandling which frequently becomes very numerous in my bin and is doing a grand job assisting in breaking down my potato peelings etc. This one will also be familiar to older anglers as it was considered the most enticing worm bait, though I don't think they are used much nowadays.
Worms are hermaphrodite meaning that an individual has both male and female sex organs though they cannot cross fertilise themselves and need to meet up with a partner and this they do at the soil surface on damp nights when they can be observed by dim torchlight – too bright a light will send them scurrying underground.
Only three of the 27 or so species of earthworm create casts - those little piles of soil on the surface of a lawn and these are best brushed out while they are dry as they are concentrated nutrients but if rolled in by the lawn-mower, they become a great spot for lawn weeds to germinate. Better still, unless you play bowls on your lawn, garden for wildlife and welcome their activities.
There is lots of information on wildlife in Notts at www.rushcliffewildlife.co.uk, including a new blog on my wildlife encounters.
On the Verge
Writing this at the beginning of June, I am currently witnessing the early season urge to keep our countryside tidy. We are, it seems, obsessed with the notion that nature does not know how to arrange itself and that we can do it better.
All through the winter, our roadside verges are an acceptable shade of greyish green and just a few inches high. There are some voles in them for the Barn Owls and Kestrels and down among the stems, the overwintering larvae or hibernating adults of insects, waiting for glorious spring sunshine and warmth.
In May the verges leap into summer – an abundance of Cow Parsley (a nicer name is Queen Anne's Lace) and False Oat-grass peppered with buttercups, dandelions and clovers. The reason for the first two species in particular is that most of our verges are rich in nitrogen and these and other coarse grasses thrive where nutrient-rich soils prevail. And they do so at the cost of what are now the rarer flowering herbs. Plants such as Herb-robert, Meadow Vetchling, Lady's Bedstraw and Agrimony as well as hundreds of other scarcer species do survive in places but every time the verges are mown and the mulch left to rot into the ground, the nutrients increase and plants that can't compete with the vigorous tall species are lost.
At one time local farmers would have made use of the hay but not any more.
Obviously, where tall vegetation hinders vision at junctions and a narrow strip along the carriageway edge need mowing for safety reasons (though I've seen significant failings here) but it would benefit all wildlife (not just plant diversity) if they were left until the autumn and cut with the arisings removed or left altogether, because the insects and other 'bugs' that live on these plants would survive and of course go on to feed the next tier of the food chain.
The charity Plantlife is campaigning for better management of our verges and your support for their work can be expressed by signing their petition.
There is lots of information about the wildlife and nature hotspots of south Notts at www.rushcliffewildlife.co.uk
I have been running a light trap to record moths visiting my garden since 2003 and I've so far recorded 435 species. For a considerably longer period I have noted the birds entering the garden or merely flying over and I have only managed 73 so far. There are, of course far more species of moth than bird in Britain – around 2,500 in fact and most of these are small or very small.
The biggest moth I now find in the garden is the Privet Hawkmoth with a wingspan of up to 120mm and the smallest is probably Stigmella aurella (sorry, no English name) with a wingspan of just 6mm. I've never actually seen one though – neither the adult nor the larva, but I know they are here.
Stigmella aurella is a member of the family Nepticulidae which includes Britain's smallest moth at just 3mm. The adult moth lays its egg in the leaf of its preferred plant; in the case of Stigmella aurella, this is bramble and the caterpillar munches away at the interior tissue of the leaf leaving its signature on the surface of the leaf as a scar that enables its positive identification. There is plenty of bramble around and you can pretty much guarantee finding a leaf with the mine and see how the caterpillar grew as the mine gets wider.
Leaf miners are very particular as to which plant they use so being able to identify the plant is a good starting point towards naming the insect responsible for the mine. And it may not be a moth because other insects also mine leaves including flies, wasps and beetles. If you can't find bramble just wait until late summer and look at a conker tree – I guarantee the leaves will be brown through the mining of the Horse-chestnut leafminer.
Running a garden light trap is a really easy way to record the moths – switch it on in the evening and look what's in it next morning but it doesn't tell the full story as there are many species which are not strongly attracted to the light and there are lepidopterists who specialise in leaf miners thus gaining a wider understanding of these often beautiful insects.
There is lots of information about the wildlife and nature hotspots of south Notts at www.rushcliffewildlife.co.uk
Most of the hedges we see in the farmed countryside here in south Notts are less than 250 years-old and were planted, mostly in straight lines set out by surveyors undertaking their duties for the inclosure acts that gradually converted the mediaeval open-field system to the one we see today.
Previously the land was farmed in strips all around the parishes and these “furlongs” are still visible as ridge and furrow in grassland that has not been ploughed since.
But some of our hedges, especially those that form parish boundaries are very ancient. They originated either as relics of the 'wild wood', the pioneering forest that colonised England in the centuries following the last ice retreat, or as relict wood boundaries.
All hedges have the potential to be highly valuable for nature, though they need to be managed with wildlife in mind.
Sadly most are flailed annually, apparantly due to an obsession with tidiness, with the result that the berries that used to feed the winter-visiting thrushes; Fieldfares and Redwings, as well as our resident birds are denied these valuable fruits. Nowadays I see these flocks that have flown here from Scandinavia and northern Europe for the winter go directly to the fields where previously they used to rely on the hedges until the year-end. Some flock to unmanaged, mature, berry-laden boundaries or thickets.
Tall hedges are preferred by Yellowhammers, and Chaffinches need a tall tree (standard) to sing from. Such trees were originally planted in the inclosure hedges but nearly all of the tall elms are now gone and it seems that the ashes are soon to follow. Some trees would have grown up naturally in the days when hedges were managed by men with slashers and billhooks but the tractor-mounted flail sees to it that they remain hedge-high.
The very old hedges can be identified, with caution, by the multiple species present which can include the woodland hawthorn known as Midland Hawthorn but when any hedge is allowed to become 'leggy' through lack of management they eventually lose their wildlife value and all hedges benefit from at least occasional laying (or brashing) which perpetuates the life of the hedge and makes for a dense, strong boundary with lots of nesting sites for birds and foraging areas for Wood Mice.
In old grassland it is usually the strip closest to the hedge that has the best relic wild flowers that have escaped the herbicides and fertilisers.
You may have realised by now that I am not a fan of hedge flailing and if you cycle in late summer you may have your own reasons for siding with me!
Many years ago, I was tucking in to my all-time favourite of spaghetti bolognese when a particularly resistant piece of gristle proved entirely resistant to my molars and I had to give in. Upon examination, the 5mm cubed morsel was coated on one face with very dense, short, black hairs so that I could only conclude it was a piece of mole.
Quite what it was doing in my dinner is not really relevant except that for a long time I thought that the toughness and density of the fur explained the connection with moleskin 'breeks' as desirable workwear, though it turns out that most moleskin clothing has never been anywhere near a mole; the distribution of our 'little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat' does not overlap the tropical cotton plantations where modern moleskins originate.
Moles – a contraction of 'moldiwarp' meaning literally 'earth-thrower' are very rarely seen – I can vouch for that, but they do spend some of their time above ground especially when the young of the year are leaving their mothers and setting out to find a home of their own. I found the remains of one in a Barn Owl pellet.
They may take over an existing network of mole tunnels (which may need some tidying up and be up to 1.5 metres deep) or they may decide on an entirely new site and excavate from scratch.
Whether reconditioned or new-build, both involve shoving up the soil into the familiar domed piles of soil which in some places are known as 'tumps'.
However once the job is done and the tunnels are satisfactory, no more excavation is needed and the moles spend their waking time pottering, enthusiastically through their labyrinth, gobbling up worms that have dropped in.
Moles have long been thought of as a pest of agricultural and amenity land and were intensively persecuted for this reason and for their valuable pelts, when moleskin clothing really was made from moles. The Victorian molecatcher was highly regarded and well-rewarded - four-hundred moles and a great deal of man-power used to go in to the making of a moleskin coat.
But if you find your lawn to be peppered with molehills, don't make a mountain out of them but perhaps make good use of the loam and value the industrious little fellows for the aeration and drainage services they provide.
The scarlet-red agglomeration that is often found on wild roses has the charming name of Robin’s pincushion. It is an example of a gall and there are a great many different types, from the little red pimples on cherry leaves caused by a gall mite to the distinctive 'oak apples' on oak leaves caused by a gall wasp and the often massive, knobbly outgrowths on the trunks of birch trees caused by a bacteria and known as crown galls.
There are lots of different organisms that cause galls including fungi and bacteria but insects of the order hymenoptera – the wasps and their allies, are responsible for a great many.
Galls are created by the plant as a reaction to the organism being in or on the plant, causing the plant's cells to grow and proliferate in weird and wonderful ways. The gall provides shelter and food for the gall causer.
The Robin’s pincushion (also called the bedeguar gall) is caused by one of many gall wasps, this one known as Diplolepis rosae. The Robin in the name refers not to the nation's favourite bird, but to Robin Goodfellow, the forest sprite of English folklore.
The adult wasps of this species are almost all female because many are infected by a bacteria that affects the gametes and results in only female progeny. They lay their eggs in the leaf bud of a variety of wild roses and the hatched larva feeds in the bud tissue which somehow instigates the plants reaction that provides food for the larva.
Although many galls do provide protection for the causer, it seems that the bedeguar gall is not very effective in this as another wasp species often sets up home there and lives commensally with the causer and both are often parasitised by other wasps. Bizarrely, these parasitoids (parasites that ultimately kill their host) are often themselves parasitised, by hyper-parasitoids!
Robin's pincushions develop during the summer and are at their brightest in autumn but linger on for some time becoming browner as the winter passes.
In 1981 on a trip to France, my wife and I found some alpine plants that we thought would be fun to grow and we thought nothing of bringing some samples back into Britain for that purpose until we neared customs when it occurred to us that we could be breaking the law. I declared our misdeed but the customs officer wasn't too bothered about a few seeds and a cutting of some unremembered plant which in any case never survived our inattention and soggy, mild climate.
There are though many plants and animals that find our mild weather perfectly acceptable even though they originate from far-flung corners of the earth where they are restricted to specific niches. For centuries, plants have been imported to embellish gardens and although most have stayed where they were put, others have strayed and a few are now well established. The majority of these are taken for granted as British but others are less welcome; the well-known Japanese Knotweed for example which is invasive and very difficult and costly to eradicate.
Himalayan Balsam, which grows along the Trent and many other waterways forms dense monocultures and after it dies back in the winter, the bare soil is prone to erosion. Giant Hogweed which originated in Azerbaijan is a monstrously big plant and thankfully not very common in Notts but don't touch it or brush up against it as the rash that develops in sunlight is painful and persistent. New Zealand Pigmyweed is relatively tiny but forms dense mats around the shorelines of freshwater which prevents native species from growing.
It's not just plants though, Red-eared Terrapins are in many of our gravel pits and other water bodies and the Harlequin Ladybird is now the commonest species here. There are dozens more that I could mention and the latest threat, though it hasn't got beyond Gloucestershire and Devon yet is the Asian Yellow-legged Hornet which eats honeybees – as if beekeepers don't have enough to cope with already!
Mid-winter is a good time of year, during a refreshing country walk, to find a few of the ferns that grow in south Notts because one of the commoner ones, Bracken, is now brown and dead whilst many of the more unusual ones are still fresh and green. The most common of these is Male-fern which will have died back to some extent making it still easier to pick out the other “shuttlecock-like” ferns that adorn our shadier woodlands. After considerable practice it becomes possible to identify all but the most obscure at a glance but to begin with you will need to look carefully at the structure of the plant and especially the number of times the fronds are divided – Male-fern twice and the superficially similar Broad-buckler Fern, three times. The freshest, most verdant may prove to be a Scaly Male-fern - bonus points for that one.
If you pass some old walls on the way, they are well worth a close look as they host species that specialise in that habitat and there are only a few in Notts making it easy to become quite a specialist. Hart's-tongue Fern is well-known but Maidenhair Spleenwort, Black Spleenwort, Wall Rue and the rare Rustyback can all be found locally.
Ferns are popular garden plants for their structure and hues of green and they reproduce in a way that is quite different to the seed plants; the fern familiar to us does not have a sex but the spores they produce grow into small rarely seen plants which have both male and female parts - these cross-fertilize to produce a new fern plant.
There is an introduction to the ferns of Nottinghamshire at http://www.rushcliffewildlife.co.uk/ferns.html
Few people associate mid-winter with moths because for most insects it is a case of the warmer and sunnier, the better. But for some moths it is the only time of the year that they are on the wing. Well, I say 'on the wing' but in many cases winter-active moths have flightless females and it is only the males that fly. This is because the colder conditions mean energy is at a premium and a female carrying a ballast of eggs is at a great disadvantage, so the males have to seek their brides out by tracking their pheromones. The Pale Brindled Beauty is a common example in which the female, looking like a moth with no wings (which is exactly what it is!) can be found by torchlight in woodland near the bottom of the tree trunks from January to March.
The male is readily attracted to light even in urban gardens. Few would describe it as truly beautiful unless they appreciate shades of brown and grey mixed to a subtle camouflage but they belong to a large family that has many with the epithet 'beauty' and which fully deserve it.
Another common group of winter-active moths belong to the genus Epirrita. These include the November Moth which is as dull as they get and is the one you will have seen in the car headlights in that month on the edge of woodland and which, by flying in the colder months evades the attentions of the hibernating bats. The real star of the winter for me is the December Moth which flies from November to January, laying its eggs on a range of broadleaved trees. Because I now use a lower wattage light trap that emits a less intense visible (to humans) light, I run the moth trap through much of the winter and I get a few of these delightful insects.
It's been said that seeing what surprises are in the moth trap each morning is like Christmas every day, so what a great gift for the budding moth-er (as we are known).