Nature Notes are written by Neil Pinder and were originally published in Nottingham Local News.
Nature Notes 2020
In 1991, I visited the highlands of Scotland for the first time and I was delighted to see Red Squirrels, Crested Tits, Golden Eagles and Black Grouse among others. These I expected (or at least hoped) to see but I did not anticipate seeing a Red Kite!
At that time I had to drive to Tregaron and Devil's Bridge in the heart of Wales to see the isolated population of that magnificent bird. Or so I thought.
I must have heard of the reintroduction project that began with birds being brought over from Segovia for release into the Chilterns but I was unaware of a similar programme taking place on the Black Isle in the Moray Firth that began in 1989. For a Black Isle Red Kite, a trip to the Cairngorms would be much less arduous than a drive there from Notts.
I saw my first one without leaving Notts in 1995; it was north of Newark during a Great Notts Bike Ride and last year I counted 7 during hay-making at Hickling Pastures. I've even had them over my house in Keyworth at least three times. In the Chilterns there may now be a thousand breeding pairs.
They were once a common bird nationally, perhaps as common as Carrion Crows and they were welcomed for their free refuse removal service in the streets of London and other built-up areas though less so where free-range hens wandered.
When released Pheasants and partridges became valued by organised shoots, birds of prey became the enemy of country landowners and despite the Red Kite being principally a scavenger, their days were numbered as they were sitting ducks, with their languid flight and easy association with people. If it were not for a small band of concerned conservationists in 1903, when the enormous population had been reduced to just 5 pairs, the Red Kite would have become extinct in Britain.
I have yet to see a White-tailed Eagle in Nottinghamshire but one was tracked passing over Gotham earlier this year. It was a wanderer from another reintroduction scheme, this time on the Isle of Wight though the species was first reintroduced to western Scotland (in earnest) in 1975. There are many more birds being returned to the countryside with our help but there are also many that manage it unaided.
The Avocet is the prime example. It was lost to Britain through egg-collection (for the table) shooting (for the "fun" of it), drainage (of the marshes) and the need of its feathers (for fishing flies). In fact it was a man-assisted return, though an unintentional one; it has been suggested that we might thank Hitler, because the flooding of East Anglian coastal marshes as a defence against his aspirations enabled the birds to return naturally and of course the RSPB then took over Havergate Island to assist the species' re-establishment and the Avocet is now widespread in suitable habitat.
Sadly we are also losing birds, not through persecution (though this is still a factor for some) but through habitat change, agricultural intensification and probably, climate change to name a few. Climate change is, in my opinion, certainly a factor in the natural spread of many insect species, but whether birds like Cattle, Little and Great Egrets, that are becoming established is directly related to climate may be open to debate.
In The Wind in the Willows, Mr Badger is a gruff but benevolent soul who prefers his own company most of the time. Kenneth Grahame, who wrote his timeless tale in 1908 when, one imagines, Meles meles was not so well studied, captured the traits of a Badger perfectly.
I like the anthropomorphism of Mole, Toad and Ratty too and it is true (according to the more factual books I've read) that Badgers, despite the fact that they live in small communities, are actually not all that social and get along very nicely alongside their chums but quite independently of them. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the others.
Badgers don't go in for mutual preening for example and when it's time for dinner, they wander off individually in search of their favourite dish of earthworms with earthworm sides.
Good dairy pasture manured by wholesome cattle, within trotting distance of a sett makes for the perfect restaurant and sometimes they will find themselves together, perhaps breaching the rule of six (which of course, doesn't actually apply to Badgers) where they will gobble up the shared repast, seemingly oblivious of each other. They may come across a delicious sweet tray containing wasp grubs and though this will involve a spot of rootling and the risk of a sting on the nose, is worth the effort and they are not averse to a blackberry or a tasty root of pignut or wild parsnip I'm sure. Badgers, although classed alongside the purely carnivorous weasels, stoats, martens, otters and mink, in the family Mustelidae, are very broad-minded in their dietary tastes.
But sharing their restaurant, might be the purely herbivorous cattle, for whom the farmer intended the field. And Brock and his mates sometimes bring unwelcome sickness - or at least the farmers believe they do.
Bovine tuberculosis (BTb) has been around for years and that is why milk has been pasteurised for most of my lifetime but it can be passed on to humans by other much less likely, means: cows' breath smells lovely but is best avoided unless the herd has been recently tested negative. The symptoms are similar in both humans and cows.
In Badgers though the symptoms are often very mild and they may carry the bacterium without being ill and where cows and badgers share a table, there is the potential for cross-infection.
The www.gov.uk website make it quite clear that 'the movement of cattle with undetected infection is the most likely way that disease spreads to new areas' but the effect on pedigree herds of cattle is devastating for farmers where the response to an infection is for the herd to be destroyed.
In south Nottinghamshire and north Leicestershire there has been a government sponsored and supported vaccination programme to keep BTb out of the area whilst in problem regions, there has been a controversial cull of Badgers by shooting.
Now, however, it seems that the Government has abandoned the humane and promising vaccinations and is licensing the shooting of Badgers in Rushcliffe and Melton. I'll leave it for you to decide whether that seems sensible, fair and humane; there is lots of information on the web (see Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust for example) but if you conclude that it is wrong, there is a petition you could sign at https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/333693
It may not be an entirely black and white issue but I for one, think that Badgers are getting a raw deal over this.
I've had one or other field guides to mushrooms on my shelves for at least forty years and occasionally I have come across a toadstool in need of a name. I have often, on such occasions, pored over the illustrations front to back and back to front and ruled out many without getting close to an identification, positive or otherwise.
My aspirations for a name do not stem from culinary desires, though it seems that much interest in these weird and wonderful manifestations do. I just like to know what things are.
When it comes to fungi cuisine, knowing their identity can be a matter of life and death - or something in between that is still best avoided.
Identifying birds, butterflies and moths and to a lesser extent plants and insects by comparing them to pictures is a good first step but I'm realising that identifying mushrooms and toadstools is not that easy. Learning about their characters and deciding whether the one in question is a crust, a bracket or a trumpet, spherical, branched and with or without a stalk are essential first steps.
Most will be the familiar 'toadstool' form with a stalk, a cap and gills on the underside. The next step is to leave the decapitated cap on half black, half white card until the spores have fallen and their colour can be determined. Now we are on our way to an identification though in most cases I'm finding that getting beyond the genus is a bonus so any thought of sharing a platter with friends and family is some way off.
At Bradwell on Sea many years ago I did share a tasty looking 'mushroom-like' mushroom despite it developing a peculiar yellow colour when it was cut. We discovered later that this must have been the Yellow Stainer described as 'rather poisonous although not deadly to most people'. I'm pleased to say that Graham and I fell into the majority and I for one won't be rushing to see if that is still the case.
Most fungi don't look edible so it is those that most closely resemble Field Mushroom that are the most dangerous as two in particular, the Deathcap and Destroying Angel have been mistaken for it.
Eating even small amounts of the former is a bad idea! Mushrooms and Toadstools (No 7 in the New Naturalist series) describes the symptoms; 'After ingestion there is an incubation period of ten to twelve hours during which no discomfort is felt....It is followed by sudden and intense abdominal pains with vomiting, cold sweats, diarrhoea and excessive thirst. The symptoms subside after two days, but this period of a few hours quiescence is most dangerous, for after it they recur in a more intense form. Usually the nervous system is gradually paralysed, the liver degenerates, there is delirium following coma, then collapse and death.'
For me the magic of mushrooms is in their variety and mystery - they seem to come from nowhere and can turn up anywhere but for others, those of the genus Psilocybe have a special (but illegal) attraction. Magic Mushrooms contain hallucinogens which block the action of serotonin in brain tissue. Why anyone would feel the need to do that when a field guide a few collecting pots and a day out in an autumnal wood can make anyone feel great is beyond me.
A Sting in the Tail
When the fresh and strong, sunshiny days of spring and early summer are settling into humid, heavy weather and the evenings are drawing in, there remains a desire to eat alfresco and to make the most of the late summer sunshiny days - but then wasps turn up. These party gatecrashers can be very annoying, and I say that as someone who is not particularly 'phased' by their presence.
An inquisitive wasp, briefly checking out what goodies you have on offer and then clearing off in response to a sweeping rebuff, is one thing, but a persistent investigator of your favourite claret or burger chutney is quite another. As a wildlife enthusiast, I can quite understand your annoyance.
Throughout the summer, wasp numbers have been building up so why is it is only towards the end of the year that they get up our noses - sometimes literally?
And does their potential to give us a painful, and sometimes dangerous sting cause our dislike or fear of them or is it simply their anti-social behaviour that prompts the desire for social distancing?
Although our winters are becoming milder, and for some butterflies there is now barely an intermission in their flight periods, the cold season really does put an end to all but the Queen wasps. By late November all those pesky workers are gone and only the hibernating Queens carry forward the next generation. The Queen reappears around March. She has been mated by a male wasp; a "drone", in the previous autumn and she will now search out a site to build a rudimentary nest in which to lay her first eggs.
She will explore nooks and crannies and perhaps cause some concern, for she is a little bigger than the wasps we are accustomed to but she is merely going about her business and is incapable of stinging.
Wasps are members of the hymenoptera, which includes bees and allies, many of which, though not uniquely among insects, possess an ovipositor. This is a female-only appendage, developed for the positioning of eggs in the desired place. You may be aware of ichneumon wasps, some of which have incredibly long, pointed ovipositors that look tremendously threatening to us, but which are used to lay their eggs in tree bark and sometimes the larvae of other insects.
Not all wasps are fertile. The first wasps that emerge from the queen's care in spring are female and are called 'workers' but they can't reproduce, however their ovipositors serve another purpose, that of defence. It is these worker wasps that can inject venom into anyone or anything, threatening the nest.
All summer long, they mainly go unnoticed as they go about their business, often helping gardeners keep the insect pests low by feeding them to their larvae in return for sugary sustenance. But when the colony is full and the new Queens have been mated, workers have nothing more to do - so with no purpose, but a desire for more sugar, they pester us at our parties.
Wasps do not need to have a purpose to live. Wildlife doesn't have to have a beneficial element on humans to have a right to exist, but even so, for around 11 months of the year wasps go unnoticed whilst controlling some 'pest' species and a few weeks investigating anything sugary that humans have to offer.
Any anglers with an inquiring mind are going to find some gaps in my knowledge here and I hope they will fill them; by email please to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My fishing days began in the 1950s on Fairham Brook at what is now known as Keyworth Meadow - a little nature reserve to the south of Keyworth that has proven to be enormously popular with local people during 'lockdown' when grander sites were off limits.
We fished, as children, with nets on bamboo sticks and our 'keep-nets' were jam-jars. Those little sticklebacks must have suffered. But we fished with enthusiasm and delight in the unknown.
So we progressed to rudimentary rods and bent pins, patiently or perhaps not so patiently, baiting the deepest, most mysterious pools at the sharpest meanders where occasionally someone would be rumoured to have captured a gigantic chub.
Years later, after landing chub, carp and eels in Essex, bass, wrasse and grayling from Dorset, whiting, pouting and mackerel off Sussex and tasty trout, pollack and, almost, a conger eel off Anglesey, I tried my hand again in Nottinghamshire waters.
Carp became the objective; since freshwater fish are considered inedible (to us western Europeans) the bigger the better was my motivation (though I never bettered 12lbs) but along the way I reeled in a range of other species and so formed a rudimentary understanding of the fish in the Trent and its neighbouring gravel pits.
So Tench, Bream, Pike, Carp, Roach and Perch inhabit the still waters whilst Chub and Barbel prefer the flowing water. I used to catch many Gudgeon from the Trent but I've heard that they are hard to find nowadays. Salmon and Sea Trout now travel the Trent to make it to the Dove and Derwent after a long absence.
The smaller ones I only know from my recent visits to Keyworth Meadow and I've found Stone Loach whilst having a paddle and Three-spined Sticklebacks are still there whilst just recently I watched a little shoal of Minnows jostling for position in a shallow riffle. I hadn't seen Minnows there since I was a child. Chub seem to be occasional visitors - present some years but not others. I haven't seen an Eel for years and years.
Greg Chapman informed me that he has found Spined Loach in the canal at Lady Bay and Radcliffe Lily Ponds. This fish is only found in the Trent and some other eastward flowing river systems of East Anglia as it is a relic from a pre-ice age river system that connected with the Rhine. It can survive in very low oxygen conditions though whether it has lasted in the canal recently is doubtful.
Bleak are caught by match anglers but what is the natural status of Crucian Carp, Dace, Rudd, Grayling, Nine-spined Stickleback, Bullhead and Ruffe? Greg has found some of these but I'd love to know the full story.
Many purists consider a 'forest' to be a landscape like that of the New Forest; a mixture of wooded and open areas preserved for hunting of deer and wolves by kings and noblemen. The rest of us understand it to be an area of trees that is bigger than a wood, though where the distinction lies is anyone's guess.
So whether the biggest area of trees in Rushcliffe, just to the south of Clipston on the Wolds, is Cotgrave Forest or Cotgrave Wood is up to you - I call it forest because it is quite big and it was originally planted by the Forestry Commission. Originally it was entirely coniferous but there is more broad-leaved woodland now.
For the naturalist it is an interesting area and has in recent years become quite famous among butterfly fans from far and wide, and for the botanist, there are some locally scarce plants. Surprisingly though perhaps, these are not woodland plants at all and in fact, apart from violets, which do grow in woods but are not particularly tied to them, there are no woodland plants at all - no bluebells, no primroses, no dog's mercury even.
The plants that are of interest are relics of the original scrubby farmland that was there before the trees were planted. Common Gromwell and Woolly Thistle are two notables and they have survived because they have not been sprayed out of existence as they almost certainly would have been if the land had continued as farmland. If you fancy seeing them, the thistle is pretty obvious but the gromwell will take some finding without a pointer but they are along the public bridleways.
In the 1970s, a butterfly that has been lost from the county since was still present there; the Pearl-bordered Fritillary is unlikely to return but strange things have happened before and may happen again. The first was around eight years ago when a Dark-green Fritillary turned up. There is some conjecture as to how it arrived but, given that it only survived a few years, I favour the view that it was introduced by a certain individual.
It was followed by Silver-washed Fritillary and then Purple Emperor. It is the latter that has brought Cotgrave Forest to the attention of lepidopterists, for this species is held in awe by some and referred to as His Imperial Majesty!
It is indeed a beautiful, big and very scarce butterfly and worth a patient wait near some horse or dog poo for a visit.
You see, for such a pretty creature, it has a fondness for the salts and minerals in some rather unpleasant materials and the best chance of a good view is to watch one lapping these up with its yellow proboscis.
There are other butterflies to be seen too. Not quite so rare but rarely seen, are the hairstreaks which spend so much of their time in the canopy of trees but they do come down to find nectar at thistles and knapweed at times and both White-letter Hairstreak (the caterpillar needs elms) and Purple Hairstreak (oaks) can be seen in Cotgrave Forest in July and early August.
See you there?
My immersion into wildlife began in 1971 on the marshes of Essex and followed a ten-year gestation of Chaffinches and Long-tailed Tits around Keyworth.
Discovering Purple Sandpipers and Turnstones around the shores of Mersea Island, doing Birds of Estuaries Enquiry walks and then riding a Honda 50 in a snow-saturated, frostbite-inducing Parka, 10 miles back to my B&B inspired me to three years as a full-time warden at Rye Harbour.
There I found Kentish Plovers, Tawny Pipits, Gull-billed Terns, Red-necked Phalaropes and more.
The prospect of new birds dominated my dreams. They were convoluted, mind-boggling birds with elusive names, though they had one, buried, inaccessible in my head by night but completely lost by dawn.
Sometimes dreams come true. If they came true often they would not be worth much. So true dreams are few and far between.
Dreams are ethereal and transitory. Finding a very rare bird is an eternal experience.
Soon after dawn on the 18th December 1982 I walked across a soaking, seafront street, saturated with sea-mist, drizzle and drabness and saw a large, bright-orange bill gliding left to right.
It was the centre-piece of a bird; a big white bird, made shabby with the drizzle and dreariness of a dull winter’s dawn in south Wales.
It belonged elsewhere. To the tropics. To the hot regions. But here it was, this vagrant bird briefly acquainting itself with the Mumbles. Eking out a living here, in a temperate December, among the shingle and sand, the dying dabs and stranded cuttlefish; they too astray on the dirty vista of the promenade where my car was parked.
This bird glided by just ten yards away. It held its wings flat and motionless and although the day was dull, it passed magnificently by without effort, giving vibrancy; both colour and action, to the lifeless scene.
There it stood out as it chilled out, among the Black-headed Gulls and the common winter birds of a wintry, south Wales seafront though they thought nothing of it, and the few promenading humans noticed nothing out of place as they flung sticks for their dogs or jogged along the sand.
The drizzle eased, but there was no sun and no camera, though I had binoculars to hand. This was a real-life dream come true, and I observed for an hour and returned for two more; I took notes: I described it from top to toe and sketched it as best I could.
No internet back then; no videos of all the world's birds to view but this mesmerising and memorable bird became Britain's fifth ever Royal Tern.
Wildife here in Notts in much depleted though in summer at least there is a lot to contemplate and enjoy. I regularly find species of plant and insect that are new to me and I feel rewarded but I don't think any wildlife experience will ever match that first astonishing fly-past of a Royal Tern.
I’m among the fortunate in this time of Covid-19 isolation, in that I have a garden. So, given that the pandemic has arrived in the spring, when a naturalist’s attention is strictly on the outdoors, I am able to indulge myself to some extent in the wonders of wildlife without the need to travel.
Normally I would wander beyond the confines of my boundary hedges but as many commentators have said, there is boundless variety on our doorstep if we only look.
I have looked at moths in my garden for over fifteen years and identified 452 species at the latest count and for over forty years, I’ve watched the birds that have used the garden (49 species) and those that have merely flown over it and been observed from its confines (another 25).
I haven’t carefully recorded other groups but it is easy for me to tot up that there have been 17 butterflies and just 6 species of (wild) mammal. If mine were a more rural garden I might have added several more, such as Badger, Weasel, Roe Deer and Mole to that list though keen gardeners would probably be happy to forego some of these.
I’ve only recorded wild flowers (or weeds as you might call them) over the past few years but I’m already up to 121. I could be more tidy but it’s interesting to see what blows in and much of my wildlife depends on them. Pandemic lockdown has given me time to weed out many wild flowers this year so I won’t be having any Elephant Hawk-moths – they need willow-herbs and I’ve pulled them all up!
I’m told that with some effort, I could easily find a dozen or so mosses and liverworts and I’ve barely mentioned the insects; Britain has 1,830 species of bug, 4,075 beetles, 7,064 flies and 7,500 ants, bees and wasps (hymenoptera).
Given that my whopping 467 butterflies and moths is around 20% of the British total and assuming that other insect groups are similarly represented in our gardens then I could easily have missed another 4,000 insect species, though many of these are so difficult to identify, it would have been a lifetime’s full-time work.
But enjoying garden wildlife is not about numbers, it is about the pleasure they bring in their behaviour, buzzing, colours, song, flight, behaviour and unpredictability.
I lie down on the ‘lawn’ after a digging session and watch a Tawny Mining-bee explore the vicinity before deciding on a site to excavate its tunnel, leaving a tell-tale miniature volcano of dry, crumby soil. The vertical shaft will be 2-300mm deep and have cells branching off in which she will lay her eggs and provide nectar and pollen for the larvae.
Over in the pond, where the Greater Spearwort is getting out of hand, Smooth Newts are swimming to the surface for a gulp of air before submerging again and briefly exposing their spotty orange bellies. They will lay their eggs on the surface leaves.
The baritone ‘cronk’ of a Raven prompts me to look up and there it is – very high but its distinctive silhouette is unmistakeable and near it is a soaring Buzzard. They are clearly enjoying the sunshine and the breeze as they stoop and tumble at each other.
No need to travel when the spring warmth brings our nature back to life.
The Barn Owl was voted Britain’s second most popular bird in a national survey made a few years ago. It came close behind the Robin and I suppose it is the latter’s confiding nature and association with gardeners and Christmas that helped it to win.
Unless we live near a nesting site, or wander the countryside after dark or in the early morning, casual sightings of Barn Owls are rather few and far between at least here in inland Nottinghamshire; along the east coast and especially, I’ve found, in north Norfolk, Barn Owls are regularly seen on winter afternoons.
I’m lucky to be involved with the Rushcliffe Barn Owl Project (RuBOP) so I get to handle Barn Owls and see them up close. As anyone who has done the same knows, their plumage in incredibly soft and light. This helps to mute their flight as they hunt over grassland, silently and ghost-like, ready to drop onto a vole or mouse.
The other thing that anyone who has handled Barn Owls will know, especially if they weren’t cautious, is that their talons are fierce weapons; even as large babies their instinct is to close their claws onto anything they meet and to keep them locked on! It requires careful manipulation to extricate one’s fingers from such a grasp to avoid injuring the owl and a dose of hand sanitiser to reduce the risk of infection; for owl nesting sites are not clean places!
In good seasons, when vole numbers are high, there will be a stash of surplus corpses for the chicks to help themselves to, when hunger pangs develop, and unlike many birds that carry away their babies’ faecal sacs to keep the nest clean, Barn Owls squirt their ‘whitewash’ willy nilly – and often on their human handlers.
RuBOP has nesting boxes all around the borough and these are maintained and visited annually - at least in non-pandemic years, and the numbers of eggs, chicks and fledged young are recorded. Both the adults and fledglings are ringed and their movements monitored. RuBOP has ringed well over a thousand chicks, having achieved that milestone in 2016.
Owls swallow their prey whole rather than tear morsels off their prey as hawks and falcons do and the non-digestible bits – mostly fur and bones are regurgitated as a neat pellet – once again, with no regard for where and when. By dismantling these pellets we can see what the owls have been eating, from the skulls and jaws that remain, and also gain an insight into what mammals are present in their hunting grounds.
A few years ago, I dissected hundreds of pellets collected from boxes all over Rushcliffe and identified the remains of 908 mammals of 10 species. Some of those mammals are not well known in the area and finding Water Shrew and Harvest Mice in several parishes was a nice surprise. The pie chart shows what was on the menu for Rushcliffe Barn Owls in 2016 and shows how important Field Voles are in ensuring these beautiful birds continue to enrich our countryside.
As anyone who drove a car in the 1970s knows, insects could be a damned nuisance; on summer days, their splattered remains stuck to the radiator, bonnet, wing-mirrors and worst of all, the windscreen in their thousands. On long journeys, the windscreen became so smeared that it became necessary to stop somewhere along the route and give it a good scrub with a sponge and a bottle of water as windscreen wipers and the primitive washers just made thing worse.
Driving in the darkness of a sultry evening was just as bad as you could see the nocturnal insects heading towards you (or more accurately, you to them). Some would escape in the draught and live another day, but many would be killed and record their fate as a grey splodge. On many occasions the sheer numbers of moths illuminated in the car's headlights would make it appear as though one were driving through a snowstorm.
The analogy is a good one. If you never drove when insects were abundant, the next time you drive in a snow shower, imagine each flake is a moth. That is how numerous moths were.
As a boy in September, in Keyworth, the telegraph wires outside my house were, on many occasions, adorned with Swallows and House Martins. They were in their thousands for a few days and every now and then, a few hundred set off together for a flurry of flight, as though they were testing the waters to see if the time was right to set off for their ten-thousand mile journey to South Africa. Then, one day there would be none. Gone until April next year.
Swallows still return in April but in numbers that are a tiny fraction of what they were then.
These personal recollections are not fanciful, distorted memories; they are evidenced by scientific research and they don't apply only to Nottinghamshire or even Britain. Research in Denmark shows that between 1997 and 2017 there was an 80% decline in the abundance of insects and the birds that prey upon them. In Kent, a 'splatometer' study of car registration plates found 50% fewer insect splats in 2019 than in 2004.
The science showed that this has nothing to do with the aerodynamics of modern cars. The decline in insect numbers is a fact. And the declines are massive and they should worry all of us because like them or not, our existence depends on them pollinating our crops.
I like them regardless of the services they provide. From the bumbling of the humblebees at the early-flowering Coltsfoot on a sunny, chilly day in March to the humming of the hoverflies at the Ivy blossom in October, with all the delights of the butterflies, damselflies, dragonflies, moths, grasshoppers, crickets, mayflies, caddisflies, beetles, bugs and ticks all the summer long, they epitomise summer.
Lots of things are very wrong with the way in which we humans are abusing the environment that we depend upon. Overly-intensive agriculture, an obsession with tidiness, profligate applications of herbicides and insecticides, intensive burning of moorland, pollution of watercourses … the list goes on.
I was saddened and depressed by what was happening to the natural world when I was a teenager. I console myself now, in the knowledge that the Earth will be around long after humans become extinct, and like the mass extinctions that have gone before, evolution will create a planet anew, teeming with unimaginable species living in perfect ecological harmony.
I just hope to God (although I don't have one) that an 'intelligent' species doesn't develop in that new dawn.
When we think of fungi, our thoughts immediately turn to mushrooms and toadstools but if we think a little harder we might recall that the yeast that ferments our beer and causes our bread to rise is also a fungus. They are a fascinating group that has only become well understood quite recently through research by bio-chemists rather than field naturalists.
Previously they had been thought of as being allied to plants but they are neither plant nor animal, rather, they are now considered to be in a class of their own.
A field mushroom with its stalk (more correctly a stipe) and cap vaguely resembles a simple flower, with the cap of the mushroom somehow analogous to a flower but there the similarity ends for the plant is largely composed of cellulose and the mushroom of chitin – the substance that forms the exoskeleton of insects.
And mushrooms do not have roots like a flower. In fact the mushroom we see coming up from the woodland floor is just the tip of an iceberg of underground threads called mycelia, that weave their way through the soil absorbing the juices from rotting wood and living tissue. In a mature woodland the fungi come second, only to the trees in terms of the biomass, for a wood produces five tonnes of debris per hectare each year which is all recycled by fungi (with some help from bacteria and invertebrates). The mushrooms, that pop up briefly in the autumn are just the fruiting bodies that release the spores of the fungus which then drift in the breeze to populate new sites.
Although the mushrooms are short-lived, the fungi themselves are the longest-lived organisms on earth with evidence from fairy rings suggesting they grow for many centuries and DNA studies pointing to them being thousands of years old.
Not all woodland fungi weave their way over such large areas; the small brown toadstools that can come up from the detritus of twigs and leaves on the woodland floor are rotting the leaves down and their hyphae (the threads that do the 'digestion') can be found if a handful of debris is investigated as the leaves bleach to white where the cell structure has been broken down.
Others do their work above ground on dead wood; indeed a third of woodland species live this way, which is why it is good to leave dead timber in the woods as the fungi go on to support a big range of invertebrates and higher organisms that depend on them.
Others feed on leaves and some specialise in the leaves of a single species such as Beech or Common Reed or Bracken.
Fungi can digest cellulose far better than any animal and indeed anything that contains carbon is up for grabs. One species, unpopular in Texas and the Middle East, digests oil and another eats diesel and jet-fuel. The bracket fungi that we see on tree trunks can break down lignin – the very hard substance that enables trees to stand upright.
Dead animals are consumed first by scavengers and then by bacteria but when only the bones are left the fungi move in. The Horn Stalkball sees to it that antlers and sheep's horns are recycled while the Feather Stalkball prefers the keratin from the rotting feathers in old birds' nests. Another feather feeder has taken to tidying up stray tennis balls!
Yellow Birdsnest is a peculiar wild flower, totally lacking green-pigmented chlorophyll, related to heathers but with no resemblance to my eye, that is nationally scarce and very rare in Nottinghamshire. It has recently been shown to extract the nutrients from living trees by parasitising a fungus that associates with Beech and Hazel. Many orchids also tap into the nutrients obtainable from fungi but the similarly scarce Bird's-nest Orchid gets all it needs from the association and since it doesn't need to photosynthesise, it totally lacks leaves.
The wonders and variety of British wildlife are so extensive that it is quite impossible to even be knowledgeable about it all, let alone an expert and regrettably I know very little about the fungi I see while out and about. The information here has come mainly from the book Mushrooms by a great nature writer, Peter Marren and I highly recommend it.
I believe it was the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) that started what has come to be known as citizen science.
The BTO is essentially a team of professionally trained scientists who use the data amassed by its membership; thousands of amateur ornithologists who are, by virtue of their numbers, enthusiasm, knowledge and geographical spread, able to provide data that would otherwise be impossible to amass.
That data has been used in many, many ways to improve our knowledge of bird populations and behaviour; our understanding of bird migration and longevities for example, is substantially based on the licensed ringing of birds by keen amateurs and the declines in their numbers, though apparent to those of us who have been around long enough to witness it, are indisputable because of the rigorously assembled data from structured surveys.
One of the early manifestations of this effort was the first national atlas of breeding birds in Britain and Ireland published in 1976 which gave a snapshot in time when Willow Tits, Cuckoos, Turtle Doves and Corn Buntings were common and widespread and Red-backed Shrikes were still hanging on in the village greens of East Anglia and the south-east of England, as I can attest through personal experience.
The most recent atlas, published in 2013 and based on field work carried out over the years 2007-2011 is already out of date for these species; Red-backed Shrike is extinct as a British breeder and the populations and distributions of the others have declined significantly.
Many other organisations have utilised the enthusiasm of learned amateurs since that first atlas: The charity Butterfly Conservation has just published an Atlas of Britain and Ireland's Larger Moths. It is the culmination of more than 25 million records through 275 years of moth trapping and searching by amateur lepidopterists around the country. It documents the current status of 893 species of larger moth.
December 2019 saw the last of the fieldwork for the forthcoming atlas of the plants of Britain and Ireland. There have been two before but the status and distribution of our flora is changing at such a pace in these times of plant introductions, climate change and habitat changes, that keeping pace with the non-native plants in our countryside and, more particularly, our urban environments is an ongoing challenge.
Every county has a knowledgeable specialist for each group of species, be it grasshopper, bird, plant or lichen, with the responsibility for ensuring that identifications are accurate and reliable. These County Recorders are volunteers with the responsibility of maintaining a database that will continue Britain's thorough documentation of our wildlife.
Every record is important whether it is of a common species or a rare one. The contact details of the county recorders are on the website or if you prefer you can send your sightings in via the app iRecord.
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