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.

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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.

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Shabden Park, Kingswood
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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.

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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
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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?

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

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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.

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“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.

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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.

 

 

Magpies of the beechmast

It wouldn’t be Autumn in our natural history calendar without plenty of gazing at a very striking, unmistakable toadstool. To sweeten the wistful days of Summer’s end, fungi sprout up around rotting wood, piles of bark chip and deep beds of leaf litter. Autumn treats us to colour and intrigue before the long cold nights of winter roll in. We soak these fruitful days of colour and pattern up like hornets nectaring on mid-Autumn ivy.

I first encountered a magpie inkcap several years ago whilst working in a local orchard, and when I showed my amateurish photograph to Paul, he was rather intrigued. It whetted his appetite to find some himself. We have since spent the past few Autumns finding the best specimens of this spectacular fungus that we can, and admiring their intriguing beauty.

What fascinates us about this particular species is its almost ghostly character. It rises from beech litter in the form of a pale bulb, and it grows at such a fast rate that it is grown and then gone within the space of a couple of days, like a spectral statue. Indeed, its transformation is so rapid that with extreme patience, one could watch it morph from fresh toadstool to gloopy mess within a day. I haven’t yet had the patience (or time?) to do this. But I fancy that an hour-by-hour photography session might be worthwhile to showcase the shortness of its fruiting lifespan.

minkcaps coming uop

minkjcaPEARLY

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minkcapalmost done

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The inkcap fungi are the genus Coprinus, and they take their English name from the characteristic messy dissolving of the cap. The cap begins to ‘melt’ from the outer edge inwards, until the stem of the fungus is left with just an inky black goo dripping from it. In times gone by, this substance was indeed used for writing ink.

The fabulous Warburg Nature Reserve, home to around 900 species of fungi, is where you’re almost guaranteed to find magpie inkcaps every year, in varying number. The exquisite chalk downland-hugging beech woodland which makes up a large portion of this reserve, provides the perfect conditions for this curious fungus. Often, several specimens are found in a small area; some burgeoning bulbs nestled in the litter layer, some stood proud of the beech mast with pied umbrellas opening, some with caps flattened, and others just stalks with gloopy ‘ink’ dribbling down.

They are a spectacular species, possibly our favourite. Enjoy them whilst they’re up, and if you have the time and the patience, watch their gooey transformation.

Butterfly on the edge – the precarious and beautiful world of the Glanville fritillary

Several years ago, we accidentally started a tradition.

Since 2012, we’d been gradually working our way around the country spotting all the British species of butterfly. This is by no means something new; there’s even a book written which chronicles one person’s quest across Britain to see each one.

In our case however, it sparked an obsession which would bring us back to the Isle of Wight each May/June, and draw us deep into the intimate world of butterfly behaviour; namely that of the Glanville fritillary. This marmalade, black and white butterfly captivated Paul in particular. Personally I can’t say the Glanville is one of my top three favourite butterflies in terms of beauty alone – small blues, wood whites and purple emperors have that prestige.

However, the story of the Glanville fritillary – and the stories of people intertwined with this little orange insect’s tale – are somewhat compelling. And I fell in love with the dramatic chalk coastal landscape of the Glanville’s last natural stronghold. The Isle of Wight embraced me with its fascinating botany and rockpools brimming with fascinating finds.

And so the Glanville became symbolic to me, even though it’s not my favourite insect. It became so, because such was Paul’s love of the butterfly, that we return each year to study them, photograph them, and indulge my other natural history interests. The Glanville’s flight period coincides with the flowering periods of many rare plants of interest, so the annual pilgrimage has become rather a packed and much looked-forward-to natural history trip crammed into the space of usually two days. In our many hours of watching this beast, we’ve learnt many things, and learnt many wonderful stories over the course of the past few years.

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The Glanville fritillary (Melittea cinxia) is named after the tragic Lady Eleanor Glanville. Eleanor was one of very few female entomologists born in the 17th century, and as such, she was viewed with disdain and suspicion – women with such avid interests in wild creatures must surely have been dark sorceresses, so people thought. Eleanor had a particular fondness for butterflies. But the Scientific Revolution was a man’s world. Men were the gleaners of scientific knowledge, collectors of insects, writers of books. And women were domestic beings. Those who sought intellectual pursuits, particularly those of biology, were not only treated with deep suspicion, but scorn and ridicule. Lady Glanville’s field activities of searching the hedgerows and meadows for insects would have been looked upon as a sort of madness, uncouth and deeply shameful.

In 1690, she was widowed. Being from a wealthy background, she quickly married again, but her new husband was violent and the marriage proved traumatic for Eleanor. When the marriage finally dissolved, her estranged husband sought to rob Eleanor of her estate, and and he even turned Eleanor’s first child – a son named Forest – against her. When Eleanor died in 1709, there was much battling over her will. Forest successfully contested the will, on the wrongful basis that she was not sound of mind. We now look back at Eleanor as a victim of great injustice and, certainly a victim of the times she lived in. She was just a highly intelligent woman with a scientific, enquiring mind who loved the natural world; what could possibly be wrong or mad about that?

Perhaps we now feel somewhat vindicated on Eleanor Glanville’s behalf,  when we hear her story and know that this exquisite marmalade butterfly is named after her. She did after all discover the butterfly, in Lincolnshire. As such, its name was the “Lincolnshire fritillary”  prior to the insect being later renamed in her honour. I fancy that she would feel immensely proud of the butterfly’s new vernacular.

When we think of the fact the butterfly’s range extended as far as Lincolnshire,  it tells us of how far its UK range has receded. Original populations of Eleanor’s butterfly were found across England as far north as Lincolnshire, on suitable areas of habitat; open grassland with ample bare disturbed ground with an abundance of ribwort plantain (the butterfly’s main larval foodplant). Ribwort plantain is a common, ubiquitous plant, so  the reasons for the decline of the species isn’t a simple case of disappearance of foodplant; it is far more complex and the reasons behind the steep and worrying decline are the subject of much study. Butterflies are highly sensitive to climate conditions, so the reasons are likely linked to climate change in conjunction with increasing habitat fragmentation and shrinkage; particularly that of warm, south facing chalk downland with disturbed ground where ribwort plantain also grows. This combination of factors is perhaps the catalyst.

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Whatever the specifics of the reasons for the vanishing of the Glanville, what we do know is that it is on the edge of its geographical range, in the UK. Restricted to the south coast of Isle of Wight, this is the last place where it can be found naturally. Deliberate, unauthorised reintroductions have had mixed success in scattered locations in Southern England. And colonies appear and disappear on the Hampshire mainland from time to time. It is one of the UK’s rarest and most threatened species of butterfly.

The habitat conditions on its last remaining stronghold appear to be maintained largely by the processes of coastal erosion and disturbance on the soft maritime cliffs and chines. These environmental processes are classic of this part of the UK. The warm, south facing soft-stoned chines, undercliffs and downs of the Isle of Wight are battered by the elements and undergo repeated disturbance, exposing bare ground that warms in the sun and sprouts young ribwort plantain by the bucket load – just what the Glanville needs. By the same token however, the butterfly is vulnerable. Violent storms and landslips can wipe out larval webs, and areas of ribwort plantain laiden with eggs can be washed away into the sea. Sudden spells of prolonged, cold, rainy weather can greatly hamper the Glanville’s opportunity to mate and lay eggs – after all, the adult butterfly only has a week or two (it’s adult lifespan) to make hay while the sun – literally – shines.

So you could say that the Glanville lives on somewhat of a precipice. I have to say, however, that in our years of watching the butterflies, and in talking to enthusiasts about them, we’ve learnt some absolutely fascinating things about the resilience of this butterfly on the edge, and how they have adapted to this precarious existence.

A local lepidopterist we spoke to, discovered that caterpillars of the Glanville take refuge in the safety of tiny crevices and holes in stones and pebbles; what an amazingly fine detail of nature to witness. Furthermore, the eggs of the Glanville fritillary are surprisingly tolerant of saline conditions, meaning they can withstand a degree of spray from waves, in stormy times (provided they aren’t washed away completely into the sea, I suppose..)

And so, the Glanville fritillary has its boom years, and its bust years. In their years of plenty on the Isle of Wight, they can be counted in the hundreds. In other years, their low numbers have lepidopterists worrying about localised extinctions. Butterfly enthusiasts and naturalists flock to the Isle of Wight each May/June in the hope of spotting and photographing this rare gem. In the warm sunshine of the middle of the day, they can be frustrating butterflies to photograph, though. They are busy and pugnacious insects, quick to battle with so much as a fly that dares to buzz too close. On hatching, they set about their business of nectaring, mating and (in the female’s case) egg laying, as soon as their intricately patterned wings are inflated. If you live for no more than a couple of weeks, you’d better get cracking with business, so there’s little time to sit still in the daytime.

This can prove frustrating for the observer or photographer. This frenetic existence is busy and tiring to watch! But we soon realised that we could enter into a more sedate and relaxing side of the life of this fast living creature, by venturing out into its world in the evening – something we hadn’t thought of before, and something we’re not sure many other butterfly enthusiasts do.

Watching grassland butterflies by evening is a world away from the busy, bright buzz of the day. It’s an ethereal, magical and intimate natural history experience. When we head down into the chines of a late May evening, the beaches are quiet, the tourists have headed back to their pubs and hotels, and we feel as though there’s just ourselves with our lepidopteran subjects and the sounds of the waves lapping at the shore. The pugnacious, bright-orange winged fritillaries of the earlier sunshine are now in what we believe is their most beautiful state – at peaceful roost. Dotted on every other grass head, is a ‘sleeping’ Glanville or two, wings closed, perfectly showcasing the most beautiful underwing of any British butterfly. It’s a crazy-paving style, dotted affair of magnolia, orange, white and black; each individual’s exact pattern is unique, like our fingerprints. Sometimes the black lines are broken, and sometimes the whites more stained with yellow. When you happen upon a patch of ‘sleeping’ Glanvilles in abundance, it’s a glorious spectacle.

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Picture the dramatic chine spattered with soft pink thrift, the sun setting over the turquoise sea, and dozens of postage-stamp sized butterflies folded up to roost on the grass stems. This year one evening, I sat down to relax beside the footpath and I began to lose count of them. When they’re at rest like this, you can get up close and personal. You can see every scale and hair, the fluffy fringes on the wings, the banded antennae. The flighty, restless creature of the daytime sun is now face to face with you, unflinching, though it seemed so wary of you earlier. You are surrounded by these pugnacious, tenacious butterflies on the edge, in their peaceful state.

Just be careful not to go off-piste and tread on the young plants of ribwort plantain on which the eggs have just been laid – the Glanville may be tough, but respect for wildlife is paramount and habitat disturbance is an easily avoided problem.

So what does the future hold for this butterfly on the edge, with its precarious existence and concerning conservation status in the UK? No one can really know, though there is much speculation. It seems that the butterfly can be relatively resilient in its final stronghold on the Isle of Wight, often bouncing back from its poorer years, withstanding occasional seemingly disastrous weather events, and colonising new patches of disturbed coast on the island from time to time. But climate change and other pressures could change all this in the future, as is the case with so many species. There is however one thing I can be sure of. In my lifetime I will see this Isle of Wight icon every May for as long as both it – and I – exist.

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