How not to drive like a twat in rural areas; helpful guidance for middle class townies, intended to help and amuse but not offend.

After a long, ambling drive through deepest rural Surrey (well, as rural as Surrey gets) yesterday, I felt compelled to write a slightly cathartic but hopefully helpful thing about rural road etiquette. I’ve seen too many people in flashy vehicles tearing around tiny rural lanes lately. I’m irked.

I find that most local drivers in very rural areas of the UK (think Exmoor, South Shropshire, and the like) are generally sensible, sane people on the road. Most of them are, in all fairness, more in touch with the ways of modern rural life. So perhaps I ought to cut the middle class townies of Southeast England some slack, and advise gently instead of berate.

Surrey is a hotchpotch of a county, being one of those we call the ‘home counties’, nestled feverishly underneath London’s crotch. The most wooded in England, interspersed with arable and livestock farming, spattered with large urban and suburban settlements bustling with all sorts of people, from the nouveau riche to working class yokels(!) like me.

This modern, busy juxtaposition brings with it some hair raising encounters on our rural roads, high numbers of road traffic incidents, and frayed tempers; all in my opinion, totally unnecessary. So without further ado, here is a hopefully helpful, well balanced – mildly sardonic – guide to driving on rural roads, by one exasperated urban fringe rural woman.

(Warning: this guide is written in highly ‘agricultural’ language. Look away now if you’re a wet lettuce of a person.)

Disclaimer: most of this shit just boils down to one thing; SLOW DOWN, KEEP YOUR WITS ABOUT YOU and simply CO-OPERATE with all other roads users.

 

  1. Always give way to other vehicles. Narrow roads are often single track, so make use of two things; passing places and your car horn. Use your horn for what it is actually meant for – letting other vehicle users know you’re in the vicinity. Your car horn is not for getting aggro with other road users when you’re pissed off with them, nor is it for flagging your mate’s attention when you spot them on their way to Tesco. Obviously don’t slam your fist on the beeper and scare the shit out of local farm cats; just a light tap on the horn will let unseen, oncoming cars know you’re nearby, so they can use a passing place if there’s one there. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for other cars coming; don’t have your music too loud. You’re in Bedfordshire, not the Balearics. My parents taught me this stuff when I was six, for goodness’ sake.
  2. Don’t be snitty about tractors and other agricultural machinery/vehicles on the road. Most of them do no more than 25mph; if they went any fucking faster they’d tip over. Any of us who you see driving a tractor on a public road know what we’re doing, so trust us and don’t drive like a prick near us. No cutting us up, no driving too close. Be patient. We are obliged to pull in WHERE POSSIBLE to let a queue of other vehicles past. If there is nowhere for us to pull in to let you pass, get over it, there’s nothing we can do.
  3. Slow the fuck down on minor roads and country lanes. This point covers multiple road users. You should drive carefully anywhere, it goes without saying, but this is especially pertinent on rural roads. More people die on rural roads than on A roads and motorways, in part because people get complacent, thinking rural and agricultural areas are sleepy, quiet places, where there are barely any vehicles around. But there are hazards everywhere, around every bend. I mentioned tractors and suchlike on the previous point, so revisiting that; there is potentially agricultural plant/machinery around every corner, and you do not want your corsa getting into a fight with a John Deere monster. You’ll hurt yourself, and the tractor operator. At the other end of the spectrum, there are hikers on rural lanes, and it goes without saying they are incredibly vulnerable road users, along with cyclists. In fact I will make a separate point dedicated entirely to cyclists….keep reading. On another note, the roads through woodland especially can be very winding with multiple blind spots and you don’t know what other idiot is coming around the corner taking up both sides of the road, high on the fresh air of the country. (Townies suddenly released into open spaces can be like dogs suddenly let off the lead.) People (including children) on horses emerge from bridleways onto the roads, and horses are not vehicles – they are animals, so they can be unpredictable.
  4. On the previous note; horses still use the roads. Get over it. It might seem old fashioned, but horses are part of life in the UK whatever your beliefs about racing, horse riding, hunting or any other horsey things are. They exist in working class cultures, middle class cultures, sports, and traveller cultures alike. Horses are here to stay, probably. So stop fucking whingeing about horse shit on the roads. It is NOT the same as dogshit; it is not the same biohazard and does not have a stomach turning smell, like carnivore cack does. It all crumbles away fairly quickly, besides. So untwist your knickers; you won’t skid in it – not if you drive sensibly anyway.
  5. Another equine note; If you must drive a flashy, sporty car around narrow winding woodland lanes (think of those around Abinger and Leith Hill), stay sensible, keep your bloody wits about you and have your music turned down and slow the fuck down when you see/hear horses anywhere remotely near you. It is the height of arseholery to go haring past horses with drum ‘n’ bass blaring from your audi. GO PAST WIDE, SLOW AND QUIETLY, at the safest opportunity. Most people who put horses on the road do so with a lot of due care and attention; but at some point any horse is new to the road. And again, refer back to that thing about any animal being unpredictable.
  6. Leading on from horses; other ‘domesticated’ animals on the road; be patient! In ‘proper’ rural areas of the UK, sheep are moved between land parcels via stretches of road. That’s just the way it works, over short distances. Don’t be a knob and get impatient. Nothing is so important that you – in your daily driving life – need to act like a prick over a flock of sheep ambling along a quiet rural road on their way to their next pasture.
  7. Other animals on roads; the wild varieties. Because our wild animals in the UK are generally small and benign, our rural roads aren’t fenced for mile upon mile like they are in say, Montana or Wyoming. (In THAT part of the world, they have to be, in order to protect both wild animals themselves, as well as motorists. If an elk hits your car along the freeway… it doesn’t bear thinking about, for both parties.) Driving carefully on rural roads of course extends to respecting wild animals. Us humans are only one species that live on the earth, and we take up so much fucking space with all our stuff as it is. Anyway I digress… the animals which are likely to be an accident risk in the event of a collision are badgers and deer. Badgers vary in size but a large male can be a hefty, stocky beast. Deer, usually roe deer in certain parts of the country where there are high numbers of them, can often leap across roads individually or in groups of two or three very suddenly, and that can be horrific for both animal AND driver. If you hit any animal with your car, please don’t beat yourself up about it if it wasn’t deliberate. Yes it is horrendously sad and upsetting, but it is often unavoidable, even when we are the most sensible drivers on the road. DO NOT attempt to rescue an RTA injured animal, unless you are an actual wildlife rescue specialist. You risk worsening the injury of the animal, causing it more stress, and injuring yourself very badly. It’s always handy to have the phone numbers of local wildlife rescue centres in your car if you drive on rural roads a lot. If you need to phone a rescue centre, only do so once you have found somewhere to safely park your car. Google is your friend. Owls and woodcock are often victims of RTAS, as well as the usual rabbits, pheasants and foxes.
  8. Coming back to cyclists. Cycling in the countryside has risks, but is good for people’s health and good for the planet. Don’t fucking get angry and resentful of cyclists being on the roads, they’re doing a good thing. Yes, they should abide by the highway code and be considerate too. It goes without saying. But as a road user, you can do a lot to keep them safe. Don’t be in a hurry to overtake them. Don’t try and overtake them at bends, blind summits, or anywhere it isn’t toally 100% crystal clear. Don’t be rude to them and swear at them out of your car window, like a coward. When you overtake a cyclist, bear in mind how wide you go past them. Overtaking only narrowly with a couple of feet to spare is not wise because if a bike topples at the same moment you are overtaking, which way does said bike usually go? Sideways. Think about the mathematics of that. And that is also why you should only overtake when the road is totally clear way ahead; so you can allow the cyclist safe space.
  9. Moving radically on from other people and animals; fuelling your car. This I feel is a slightly silly point, but maybe one some take for granted. Keep your tank full of fuel, and don’t play that silly game of “oh, I’ll wait ’til the next petrol station, I’ve still got a quarter of a tank left.” In parts of North Wales and the far Southwest, petrol stations are few and far between. Lots aren’t open all hours like you’re urban Tesco express, and some are shut on random days in very small communities. Keep your car sensibly filled up! Don’t risk your sanity and safety by getting stranded on a rural road. And make sure you’re registered with a roadside assistance service. Keep your RAC/AA/whatever card handy, along with at least one mobile phone. (Said mobile phone should be shut in the glovebox when you’re driving – don’t be a moron and do anything with your phone when driving.)
  10. On the subject of fuel consumpton; try not to idle for no bloody good reason belching out unnecessary Co2 into the environment. The earth is suffering as it is without needless pollution. Most of us have to drive cars, especially if we work, live or play in rural areas. But please minimise your impact by not idling when you don’t need to, and also by driving economically; no arsing about in the wrong gear. You can even have lessons especially in eco-driving now, for fuck’s sake.
  11. Dont drive on certain roads of you’re unsure, especially if it’s winter. listen to road signs advising you not to drive on certain roads in certain conditions. I once drove up the Long Mynd in Shropshire, and it was one of the scariest fucking things I have ever done. I will never do it again, to be honest. I’ll park in Church Stretton and bloody well walk up it, if I want the magnificent views. Don’t try and be brave. If a road looks terrifying, don’t drive it. Many single track roads in mountainous or upland regions of the UK are surprisingly dangerous, with few passing places and they don’t need the unncecessary traffic from inexperienced tourists. You DO NOT want to have to reverse all the way back down a winding, single track lane with no safety barrier at the edge, if you meet another vehicle comign the other way. Trust me.
  12. Leading on from that, don’t drive in adverse conditions unless you really have to. Heavy rain, heavy snow, high winds. Stay home, for your own safety as well as that of others. Remember emergency services are overstretched as it is. As an arrogant 24 year old, I stacked a ford fiesta on the A3 because I didn’t bloody listen to someone who told me not to go out driving in a fucking storm. It was a really shitty day, because of that.
  13. Finally, emergency vehicles – not advice necessarily, more something to be aware of perhaps. Emergency services take a lot longer to reach people in rural areas, for obvious reasons. That is one reason why road traffic collisions in rural areas are more deadly. BE SAFE, DON’T TAKE UNNECESSARY RISKS AND ALWAYS HAVE YOUR MOBILE PHONE CHARGED UP AND IN YOUR CAR.

Anyway, happy driving. Enjoy all that the British countryside has to offer. It is beautiful, eccentric, colourful and there is nowhere on Earth like it. Co-operate with ALL road users; be it cyclists, walkers, equestrians, working people, or wild animals. The outdoors is good for us, and for many of us the countryside is where we belong. Just don’t be a twat on rural roads. Slow down and use your brain.

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Pretty pink parasites

It was fairly late by the time I got round to seeing common toothwort in flower last year, May in fact. There was plenty of it about, but it was largely starting to look a little wan, and flaccid. It’s very much a Spring flower, at its peak in April. I wanted to check back on that same colony a lot earlier in the season so I could see it looking voluminous and pink-infused. I suspected it would be just getting started by now, and I was rewarded with the sight of lots of stunning specimens along the lane from Sheepleas.

toothwort1
beautiful common toothwort

As plants of the English countryside go, common toothwort is one strange looking beast. It has no clorophyll so can’t photosynthesise, growing parasitically from the roots of hazel, alder and beech. Around Surrey it mainly seems to grow on hazel. More specifically, growing on larger trees, so it’s fairly typical to find stands of it trooping around thick old coppiced hazels. Such trees are numerous along the winding lanes of the North Downs in Surrey. It’s always worth a look in April to May for these weird and wonderful plants.

I think it looks pretty alien, I like it!

 

 

 

 

Back on the North Downs

Having recently moved back to live in my home town full time, I find myself with more time to ramble over the local countryside, exploring and generally nosing around in the field.

I spent many hours combing the fields, woods and verges of the North Downs near home last Summer, discovering the botanical riches on my doorstep. So I wondered what I might find around now in early Spring. I’d not given the area much attention this early in the year, plant-wise.

I drove up onto Epsom Downs, along the road where the bastard toadflax and sainfoin grows. I’ve found all sorts of nice plants up there, but hadn’t initially planned to stop there to have a wander around today. Glimpses of things sprouting from the turf were catching my eye, so I parked up on the golf course to have an amble around.

There were very few golfers around, perhaps on account of the tremendous wind. As soon as I stepped out of my car my hair was billowing in all directions. Goodness knows what I looked like creeping along the verge, crouching to peer at tiny leaves.

The most abundant flowers were red dead nettle, filling the roadsides and roundabouts with splashes of burgundy. By now, white dead nettle was springing up in places too. These plants are key nectar sources for early insects, particularly bumblebees. Less conspicuous were the various little annuals along the verge. Shepherd’s purse, hairy bittercress and common field speedwell dotted the turf. The easily overlooked but underratedly beautiful early scurvy grass formed many little carpets. It’s not an uncommon plant, but I love finding things like this because it’s one of those species that has found a niche away from its traditional haunts due to human activity.

In its original setting, it’s a coastal plant. To be more specific, it’s a salt loving one – a halophyte ie; it grows in salty environments. Over time it has spread further inland, with the advent of winter road gritting, hence its appearance along roadside verges. It’s certain that the roads up to the downs receive a lot of gritting in winter, as they can be icy and receive a fair bit more snow than the lower lying roads in the area. Its profusion and expansion along roadside verges is aided further by the action of passing cars on the seeds. Cars whizzing past at speed disperse the tiny seeds in the wind they create. So it’s not surprising I found so much of the stuff.

scurvy grass
early/Danish scurvygrass

It’s a beautiful, delicate little plant, but it’s also been a very useful one in human history. It is high in vitamin C, so was commonly chewed by sailors who harvested it in readiness for long periods at sea. Foodstuffs with any nutritional value were sparse onboard ship, so scurvy was a common malady in seamen. I plucked a small plant from the verge, to sniff it. It has a sharp earthy but peppery scent typical of crucifers like this one. I don’t expect many people pick it for consumption now, since scurvy is so incredibly rare even in people with very poor diets.

After my fill of crouching along the roadside eyeballing tiny flowers, I picked my way back to the car and headed off in an aimless sort of direction, simply enjoying the winding lanes around Kingswood and Walton on the Hill.

I did eventually stop at Shabden Park, wondering if I might find the beginnings of moschatel in a small patch of woodland near the golf course. Following my nose up the hill I found countless roman snail shells, the skull of a badger, and a well worn animal run scraped away under the stock fencing.

shabdem
Shabden Park, Kingswood
roman snail
one of many vacant Roman snail shells

Early dog violets were a pleasant sight as I entered the woods, and the ground in some spots was cloaked in swathes of dog’s mercury. That stuff can become quite dominant in some woods.

The leaves of assorted plants were creeping over the ground, ready to paint the ground in spots of colour before the canopy closes over later in the year. This little plant in the photo below is ivy-leaved speedwell (yet to flower), I believe.

ivyleavedspeewdll
probably ivy leaved speedwell, yet to flower

The delicate little flower moschatel is at its best around mid April from what I understand, but I was curious to see if I could at least find the rosettes so I would know where to come back to look later on. Alas, I found none. More searching is needed, another day. Apparently the dense carpets of it are quite conspicuous when it’s at its peak, even if the flower itself is very short in stature.

The following day, curiosity was pointing me in the direction of Mickleham Downs. Local botanists had found wild candytuft in flower in the area, so I gleaned instructions on where to look. Apparently it grews at a few locations in the Mickleham area and nowehere else in Surrey, so it was another rare gem I was very keen to see. I was also intrigued by its flowering so very early in the year, since I had only read of  it being a Summer flowering plant. What had brought this about? Is this a habitual occurrence when there has been a mild Winter?

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Dense woodland on Mickleham Downs
juiper
the view over the valley

I had no idea whether I’d actually find the plants in question, since I didn’t even know if I was in the right place, but the views across the valley below were beautiful, and I didn’t encounter another soul up there, so I enjoyed the walk. There was just myself and the occasional ‘sneezing’ of marsh tits.

When I did spot the wild candytuft, I was pleasantly surprised at how conspicuous it was. It was right along the path edge, the tiny petals glowing crisp white against the muddy chalk. Its location seemed quite true to descriptions I’d read about it favouring disrturbed chalk scree. Numerous other plants of wild candytuft dotted the pathside, so it will be worth going back in Summer to see their progress.

 

 

 

 

 

I was also very pleased to find several large specimens of stinking hellebore. This is a late winter flowering plantg which is hard to miss. Tall and bright green, it can certainly stand out amid the grey greens of winter and early Spring. I guess it’s difficult to tell whether these particular plants have a natural origin or that of garden escapees. It’s a native plant but widely cultivated, so who knows?

hellebore

So, there are lots of plants to check back on and sites to revisit in the coming weeks.

Fool’s Spring

Winter is not my favourite season. I grin and bear it. The short daylight hours make me sluggish, the low sun glaring through the windscreen of my car makes me curse, and the cold puts my head in my feathers a bit.

So it is indeed fortunate that Winter in the southeast of England is brief. It doesn’t get what I would consider cold until December, and the coldest weather of January soon gives way to Spring in late February to March. By April it is typically warm again. I think of parts of British Columbia or Alberta and shudder to know they are often very snowy, cold places from October until April.

It is late February and Spring has arrived here. It in fact crept in around two weeks ago, and the temperatures broke records in some parts of the country. It breached 20 degrees somewhere in the UK a couple of days ago. I sort of breathed a sigh of relief. I felt myself emerge from my winter dysphoria like the adder creeps from his hibernaculum.

But relief is not what I should be feeling as I ramble over the common in 17 degree warmth in mid February. The sun is warm and welcoming but perhaps it lulls us into a false sense of optimism. It distracts us from the very catalyst of these increasingly frequent freak weather events. The urgency of climate change.

Climate change has such quickly visible effects on wildlife. Species distributions shift and contract, and often the environment changes too fast for species to adapt in time. A classic example is the mountain hare. The snow in its upland habitat is increasingly melting off quicker than the animal can return to its grey-brown summer pelage, and it sticks out like a sore thumb in white, leaving it inordinately vulnerable to its predators. Its seasonal camouflage is what keeps the natural balance of hunted and escaped.

Sometimes the changes are far more subtle and complex. The white faced  darter, a charismatic dragonfly of peat bogs, is seeing a curious northward shift in its range, in spite of seeingly optimal habitat provision in its former haunts. Last Summer I had to travel as far as North Shropshire to enjoy the company of this exquisite creature, yet 30 years ago I’d have had a choice of sites far nearer home in the south. Something as violently simple as a heathland fire can also wipe out a population, sure. But I think the question has to be asked of where species like the white faced darter go when they are squeezed so far by the delicate and complex changes in environment, that they perhaps become sort of cornered, with few places left to thrive. And therefore they become even more vulnerable to events such as fires, since there are no adjacent populations to recolonise a was-damaged habitat when it recovers. The sensitivities and reactions they have to even the smaller subtleties of climate change may be greater than we yet know. But the distribution maps over the years should not be ignored. Isolation and contraction compound the effects of other pressures and problems in worrying comorbidity.

Climate change can also put things out of kilter on a broader scale across multiple taxa in one place. Nature revolves around timing and co ordination. Early emerging bees wake up to the warm late winter sunshine but may perhaps struggle to find ample nectar sources. Many queens undergo great stress and exhaustion in such events. Some birds may start nesting earlier and therefore the appearance of young mouths does not coincide perfectly with the abundance of caterpillars, and this could lead to higher than usual mortality. And then there is the issue of cold snaps after a period of early warm weather has stirred cold blooded animals from brumation. I wonder what effect and how severe, this has on amphibians and reptiles, even in spite of their adaptability. More so, I wonder of the effect on butterflies. The fact is, simply put, we need a ‘normal’ winter spell of frosts and cold, to regulate the balance of parasites and maybe even tiny microorganisms that may affect butterflies. Parasites are a normal part of many ecosystems, but without a typical winter, do parasites prevail at a rate that certain butterfly species cannot adapt to?

It is still February. Yet on my walk today I felt sweat prick my forehead and I got through my water bottle quickly in heat-thirst. 17.5 degrees, my car dashboard told me. Blackthorn has already started to spatter the hedgerows with its gorgeous white blossom, hawthorn is coming into leaf and I began to lose count of how many brimstones I saw yesterday. Red dead nettle is carpeting patches of roundabouts, grass verges and path sides. Just as well, if there are to be so many insects stirring. Some adders on the common have been out of hibernation since at least the 15th of February. Their emergence marks mine from my winter lethargy. So whilst I cannot deny my vernal optimism and seasonal sense of promise that Spring brings me, this inordinately warm weather also leaves me somewhat disconcerted.

 

Beauty among decay…

In our natural history calendar, we make the most of each period of the year; we eke out every day we can searching for things that fascinate us, intrigue us, or simply that are a joy to look at. This Autumn was a particularly memorable one. We spent countless hours over the weekends scouring our favourite patches of beech woodland and heathland for fascinating fungi, making the most of the mild start to Winter.

We pored over the beech litter for the most beautiful fungi we could find; the tallest, most perfectly conical magpie inkcaps, the pristine domed fly agarics, formidable ceps… We even found our first blue stropharias, blue and speckled white as if from a story book. Hundreds of photos were taken, new species added to the pan-species list, and we marvelled again and again at the weird sticky, gloopy, gelatinous beauty of fungi and regaled other enthusiasts with tales of our favourite specimens. Mazegills, clubs, spindles, deceivers, bonnets, inkcaps, jellydiscs. What an enormous raft of new knowledge we amassed over the season.

As the cold eventually took its grip in December, our forays drew to a close for the year and we conceded that the best of the fungi was over once again. I pondered on all the wonderful things we’d managed to see and find, feeling satisfied that we’d had a productive Autumn. But I was already thinking what my next quarry would surely be. I remembered the conversation we’d had with a couple of enthusiasts we met out in one of Surrey’s finest beech woodlands at Sheepleas, a few weeks prior…

On one’s natural history travels, one tends to encounter other folk seeking similar things. You can tell who they are, and it’s fairly normal to strike up conversation without the usual strange awkwardness people feel in talking to strangers. You can tell by their demeanour, how they creep along and peer closely at things, leaning down to take photographs. So we knew that the two nice ladies were also in search of the best fungi, and before long we were sharing photos and tales of our favourite finds.

“Do you know what this is? It’s the wrinkled peach”, said lady number one, spooling through her smartphone. In the photo was the most beautifully coloured, weird looking toadstool I’d ever seen. Vivid pinky-orange in colour, with a texture resembling a road map; deep grooves and veins, with blood red droplets guttating from the stem.

“Wow, that’s beautiful, is that around here somewhere now?” I enquired.

“No, they grow mainly on elm”, she replied.

“It so happens I have an elm hedge!” I said, and I knew straight away that this would be my next most sought after jewel. I realised that my remark may have inadvertently conjured up an inaccurate picture of my owning a large sprawling garden at the edge of a woodland or somesuch. Of course, what I referred to was the fabulous stretches of elm (much of it, dead and rotting) lining some of the footpaths at one of the reserves at my then workplace. But as the weeks passed into December, thoughts of fungi dwindled, as the vibrant display of Autumn beauties so did.

That was, until one Tuesday afternoon as I drove along on my rounds. Rumbling over the track, I spotted something colourful out the corner of my eye, so of course I stopped to have a look. Several bright peach coloured domes stood out among the greens and browns of the elm hedge.

peach2

peach 4

“Well I never… it’s that wrinkled peach thing”, I thought. Unmistakable. I felt somewhat smug, seeing it so effortlessly. I’d imagined it might be something I’d have to scour huge stretches of elm hedge for hours on end to find, with many fruitless forays under my belt and twigs in my hair.

But here it was in textbook fashion, sprouting from fallen trunks of elm, which had possibly long since succumbed to the disastrous Dutch elm disease.

Dutch elm disease first reached the UK in the early 20th century, but it was the second wave in the 60s which devastated the majority of our elm. Tall, proud elm trees in the English landscape became a thing of the past, and much of our elm now survives in hedgerows and similar features, as young growth. This is because the disease does not kill the roots, so the tree still has time to be able to produce suckers, sending up new growth from below.

For this reason, our elm hedges on the reserve have a very textbook elm hedge look.. lots of standing and fallen deadwood, naked standards, scant crowns, and scattered live stems, likely only surviving from suckering before they themselves perhaps succumb to the disease. As long as the roots produce suckers, the elm survives in its graveyard of rotten wood, I suppose.

This rotten wood however is a classic home of this beautiful fungus. Although the wrinkled peach does grow on other host species like maple and horse chestnut, it has been suggested that the decline of elm is a catalyst for the increased scarcity of wrinkled peach. I read somewhere that during the first flush of decay brought about by huge swathes of elm wood falling victim to Dutch elm disease, the wrinkled peach proliferated in its melancholy niche. But now, enough time with Dutch elm disease has passed that even the dead elm itself is of course, become much sparser. It stands to reason that as the elm trees die, they decompose. But after those first flushes of death, there are less elm trees to…well, die. So there became less dead elm and therefore, the wrinkled peach became that bit scarcer without its favourite host.

The thing which probably fascinated us most about the subject of our new fascination however, was what a slow-burner the wrinkled peach was. In contrast to the spectre-like rapid appearance and disappearance of the inkcaps and agarics, the wrinkled peach put on a long show. After initially finding the fungi, I returned with Paul in tow, also keen to see it. It was several days later, so I made no promises that it would even still be there, with no prior knowledge of its lifespan in fruiting form. Each specimen had in fact changed very little in over nearly a week. My favourite, a small but perfect looking thing resembling a brain, had changed only by way of its thick raised veins morphing slightly to flatter red lines.

Further observations from Paul over the next couple of weeks showed various development, much of it still quite subtle. Most impressive was this troop of guttating, deeply grooved caps.

peach3.jpgpeach1.jpg

And so began a new fascination in fungi. The wrinkled peach staked its rightful place in our affections among the fly agaric, magpie inkcap and stropharias. I expect this will become a new annual must-find. We’ll just need to find some more nice elm hedges…

Miniature life in the quiet margins

When I’m under the weather, I find comfort in doodling colourful pictures. A few weeks ago as I sat in bed unwell, I drew this little scene and the anthropomorphic part of my imagination fired.

mice.jpg“I suppose we’d better start leaving the reedstems behind and build our ground nests”, pondered Harriet. “The temperature is fast dropping and the wardens will soon be starting their noisy work in here. I find their orange and white monsters make quite a racket”.
“Indeed!” Harvey squeaked in reply. “What is all that noisy calamatous din they make every October, though?”
Harriet paused, mid-munch on a seed. “I don’t rightly know. But it seems to keep our reedbed growing how we all like it, with lots of seed bearing new reed growth. And the bearded tits love the new edges they make. Come on now, let’s retreat to the ground for winter. Post haste!”

I remembered this whimsical little story a few days ago as it’s now that time of year in my working calendar. Bashing around in reedbeds, scything the dense swathes of stems aside and raking and piling up. Habitat management time. And as I stood to have a break from my brush cutter, I met a little harvest mouse. Harriet or Harvey perhaps, making his or her way to build an earthly winter nest. A tiny chestnut rodent of just a few centimetres long, streaked through the thatchy grass, and disappeared deep within – it must have been disturbed from the vegetation as we worked. A bolt of pure joy shook me and I squeaked, as I so often do when I meet a special wild creature.

Everyone loves harvest mice, but I have to profess to being a little crazy about them; almost as much as water voles. I suppose this might be in part because like many other creatures, they strike a sad chord in my heart. They’re a bit of a flagship species of wildlife decline. They’ve been another victim of agricultural intensification over much of the country. The image of harvest mice with prehensile tails entwined in the swaying wheat, is a classic picture. They were common on agricultural land during that sweet time of pre industrial revolution natural abundance I often dream of.

In modern times however, this diminutive animal often finds much more of a refuge in quite a different landscape. Wetlands. Reedbeds are an especially excellent habitat. Harvest mice build their cricket ball sized summer breeding nests high up in the reedstems, out of living grass. On entering this perfect little creation of a nest, the mouse ‘sews’ the entrance hole closed with grass, and is cosily contained within. On exiting and abandoning an old nest, the hole is left open and the little woven cricket ball turns brown. These are the old nests we happen upon when working in the reedbeds.

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When I came to work in Essex, I had no idea that I’d end up finding this little animal in abundance in my ‘office’. But one chilly January morning as I was climbing out of a ditch, I happened upon a tiny sperical nest, about half the size of the cricket ball sized breeding nests I knew about. I recognised this perfect little structure straight away, and from its much tinier size I could tell it was the winter nest of the harvest mouse. Elated with my found treasure, I carefully picked the empty old nest from the rushes, and proudly took it back to my office. It had been built right down at ground level. This is where the harvest mouse makes its home in the colder times when not busy with the business of family rearing. In contrast, the cricket ball sized structures built up in the stems of rushes, grasses, reeds and hedges are built to accommodate litters of tiny baby harvest mice.

As that year went on, I began to find more and more old nests, all over the reserves. In the grassy margins of hedgerows, in dense reedbeds, and along ditches lined with scirpus. Our little collection of natural artefacts in the office was growing full of the little grassy spheres.

They seem to have found a wonderful niche on the wetland landscape I look after. The reasons for this are lack of disturbance and availability of seed-rich reed, dense rushy margins and food rich hedgerows. Although I occasionally bump into one scuttling away whilst carrying out habitat management in the reedbeds or scrape edges, they are able to live very peaceful, uninterrupted lives in these features. Whereas entire arable fields repeatedly undergo harvesting and ploughing – and wide margins and buffer strips are not always available in the agricultural landscape – the huge networks of ditches, reedy margins and grassy hedgerows found across many wetland sites are a striking contrast to this.

The hedgerows of these havens are not flailed to pieces by overzealous machinery, leaving mere skeletons of trees. They instead undergo a tailored and sensitive management regime of trimming and coppicing on long rotations, with only smaller sections managed at any one time, so that they grow thick, dense and food-bearing. The sides of the hedges are therefore allowed to grow long grasses and sedges, and this in turn provides nest-building habitat. Kilometre upon Kilometre of rushy ditchbank is left undisturbed for long periods of time, and when ditches do have to undergo slubbing out or vegetation clearance to restore better water flow, the work is again done in small sections at any one time, so not to adversely impact wildlife. Similar applies to reedbed management. Reedbeds are cut on rotation; smaller plots out of the wider habitat are selected and done yearly, in turn. The reedbed is cut and the litter layer raked off, to keep it growing in good condition and not succeeding into scrub which would displace this rare and vital habitat. This benefits a host of creatures from bearded tits to wainscot moths. Cutting on rotation in this way creates a rich mosaic of habitat structures, whilst not causing wildlife undue harm in the process by taking out too large a chunk at a time.

This kind of senstive land management ensures that all sorts of wildlife – such as vulnerable harvest mice – consistently have large havens to thrive in, whilst their habitat undergoes the maintenance it needs for a huge assemblage of species.

So the diminutive little harvest mouse has in my mind become more of a wetland character, than the archetypal animal of the crop fields seen in natural history books and illstrations of old. As I go about my daily business on the reserves, I often wonder how many tiny little stem-dwelling mice are going about theirs. I wish that they may find a safe haven in the margins and reedbeds of our wildlife rich wetlands for many generations to come.

 

The merveillous moment

Have you ever opened something to look inside, and not quite believed what you saw? Perhaps a long awaited gift? A piece of bright news? Well this was how I felt this morning when I looked inside the Robinson trap I set up last night, to find something we’d wanted to see for such a long time.

Merveille du jour. Literally translated from French, “Wonder of the day”. This is the perfect vernacular for this beautiful, charismatic little moth. Dressed in an intricately chevroned, arched cloak of mint and mossy greens and black, with banded legs resembling stripy socks, the Merveille is perfectly dressed for camouflage against the similarly coloured foliose lichens growing on deciduous trees. The larval foodplants of the merveille du jour are pedunculate and sessile oaks. In their earlier stages, the caterpillars feed on the buds and flowers, before later moving onto the leaves. The adult moths feeds upon overripe berries and the flowers of ivy, hence the flight period of September to October.

Seeing this fine moth in books, we’d fallen under its spell but had no idea how easy or difficult it would be to find one. Fortunately they readily come to the light of powerful moth traps, so I set the trap up in ernest last mild October night. I’d expected a handful of the usual suspects – various tortrixes and rustics. When I opened the trap up, I did indeed find a selection of those. But on checking one egg box, I gasped as I saw the most perfect crisp scalloped mint green and black moth nestled there. I couldn’t quite believe it.

Perhaps we’d built this creature up in our minds to be a little more elusive. But it would seem that this moth is a lot more catholic in its choices of location than we’d thought.  Presumably so long as there is ample food plant and forage, with suitable mature trees for egg laying and larvae sheltering in bark, it can find a niche. They are thinly but widely distributed around the UK. Not a rare species, they can find a home in any parkland, mature hedges and mixed woodland where their needs are catered for. So perhaps I ought not be too surprised that one of these showed up to light in the suburban garden in North Surrey.

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merveille dujour

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Rarity or – indeed elusiveness – doesn’t always have to be the draw. Sometimes, what captivates us is the wonder of how something can be so perfectly made for its settings. In the case of the Merveille du jour, how it can so perfectly blend into a lichen clad branch – the scallops and chevrons on the wings perfectly resembling the wavy edges of parmelias and oakmosses. And the thousands of tiny scales meshing together to produce this intricate camouflage pattern on the paper thin wings. For the umpteenth time, nature amazed us today.