Botany is one of those passions you can engage in almost anywhere – this could be spotting dandelions brightening in the lawn, ivy-leaved toadflax scrambling up the wall or whitlow grass offering a tiny bunch of flowers beside the pavement. Sometimes however, a flower requires a pilgrimage and oxlip – Primula elatior – is one of those species.
A rare woodland flower, somewhere between a cowslip and a primrose in appearance, it’s distribution is largely restricted to the point in the country where the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Cambridge meet. Hayley Wood has always been in my head as the destination for this pilgrimage – I can’t for the life of me recall which book which introduced me to the name but it has always stuck.
Situated near Cambridge, Hayley Wood is an ancient woodland, mentioned in the Doomesday book and owned, managed and protected by the Wildlife Trust for Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire since 1962. It plays host to a wide range of ancient woodland species – I spotted dog’s mercury, bluebell, yellow archangel, bugle and lesser celandine to name but a few. I hope to return later in the season to seek a few more of it’s treasures but this day was all about the oxlip.
The day I visited was overcast and perpetually interrupted by April showers, but although a little late for the main event, I was not disappointed…
My job is much concerned with the facts and figures of ecology and wildlife. We collate lists of plants on a site, or identify the protected species present, or count the populations of newts or reptiles. This allows abundant opportunities to get out of the office and encounter all kinds of habitats and wildlife, but the focus on the factual can miss a whole facet of what the wild means. The Nest Collective’s ‘Singing with Nightingales’ was a perfect opportunity to transcend the cold biology and experience the deeper essence of one of our most charismatic species. So on Easter Sunday, we drove down to Fingringhoe Wick – an Essex Wildlife Trust site on the south Essex coast – calling on the way to pick up some friends. We parked up and followed the handmade signs taking us off through the trees. It was only 6:30pm – hours before sunset – but we already picked out the song of an impatient nightingale trilling and whistling amongst the gorse and willow.
Reaching the glade within the trees, Sam Lee – our host for the evening – welcomed us along with the other guests, and we settled around the fire for introductions and drinks before the expert ornithologist Tom Stuart led us on a walk around the hills and hollows of the reserve to introduce us to the soundscape of the dusk chorus. Tom conjured the reserve’s journey from an old gravel workings through stages of succession and management to the diverse habitat we were now walking through, and explained how the Essex WT maintained the mid-stage scrub which is essential for the nightingale.
As the sun sank into obscurity, we returned to the fireside for a delicious vegan curry and carrot cheesecake before Sam broke the fireside chatter with the first of his mesmerising songs. He went on to describe the prominence and place of nightingales in lyrics and folklore, interwoven with song and poetry. Whilst Sam evoked the mythology of these elusive birds with romantic flair, Tom described the biology and behaviour of the species with scientific yet equally mesmerising effect. To focus on the ecology alone misses the cultural and creative importance of these birds which have sung by our firesides for centuries and the Nest Collective weave these two strands perfectly.
As we approached 11 o’clock, we walked out across the reserve, following in Sam’s footsteps both literally and mechanically; without torches we were taught to walk like foxes, toes first to feel for uneven ground and move with the undulating terrain safely. We had been to the depths of the Sussex forest with Sam and Ezra last year to hear the nightingales, but they had been reluctant to sing. Tonight however, we walked between serenading males, auditioning them until we paused beside a particularly fluent vocalist. We stood in silence, listening to the surreal exotic song of this African visitor, before Sam’s first accompanying note appeared gently in the air as though it were always there. He sang ‘Down by the Tan Yard Side’, dueting with the nightingale whose notes fell into the pauses between the lines or overlapped and accented them.
The inspiration for these intimate, outdoor gatherings came from the history of musicians playing with nightingales, most notably live on BBC Radio in the early part of the 20th century. Every May from 1924 – when it was the first ever live outside broadcast on the radio – the cellist Beatrice Harrison played with the local nightingales in her back garden in Surrey. This continued until 1942 when the live broadcast picked up the drone of allied bombers flying overhead on their way to the continent. Realising that this would give warning of the impending raid, the BBC pulled the plug and there the tradition died. Until 2014 that is, on the 90th anniversary of this first recording, when Sam and two companions travelled to a secret location to re-enact this event for a live BBC broadcast once more. This sparked the enthusiasm for this tradition, and the Singing with Nightingale events – now at a range of locations around the country – have sprung from this.
With a gentle hum, in resonant and fluent imitation of a cello, Sam sang along with his chosen accompanist, just as the low drone of a Stanstead-bound aircraft broke on the horizon. With the fireside tale of the history still fresh in our memories, this otherwise unwelcome intrusion of the modern world in fact provided a poignant and fortuitous resonance of that final BBC broadcast.
We left this nightingale and walked back towards the cars at 1am – only to be captured by another who was impossible to walk on by so we gathered beneath its willow podium. In the darkness, images come unbidden and the soundscape surrounding us was like seeing beacons being lit as these birds sang in their individual islands and the songs sparked motifs and patterns which were heard and echoed, repeated and elaborated and embellished by others across the reserve.
The Nest Collective, set up by Sam in 2006, takes music to unusual venues and unique settings, and these events combine history and folklore with ecology and conservation, all bound together through song and poetry and good fireside company. This was our second year experiencing this magical night, and I very much hope it won’t be our last. You can find out more about the series at the Nest Collective’s website here, or get a taste of the evening in this 90th Anniversary broadcast on BBC Radio 4.
The Cumbria Bat Group kindly let me come along on a hibernation survey at Easegill Caves in January 2017. We hiked up to Upper and Lower Kirk Caves to see what we could find, then descended using ropes and caving ladders into Link Pot to explore an underground cave network some 15m down.
We found good numbers of myotis species including Daubenton’s, Natterer’s and whiskered/Brandt’s/Alcathoe – these last three are grouped as it’s very difficult to distinguish these three without disturbing the bats. We also found a small number of brown long-eared bats hibernating too.
It’s important to note that disturbing hibernating bats is illegal without a licence from Natural England – this survey was led and supervised by licenced bat workers who ensured that disturbance was kept to a minimum whilst allowing the bats to be identified and counted. If you find a bat in roosting you should take great care not to disturb it especially during the winter as they may rouse from torpor at an inappropriate time and be unable to then survive the winter. If you do find a roosting bat – let your local Bat Group know! More details at the bottom…
The video below shows a summary of the seven hours we spent out in the hills, in just under three minutes!
The following photographs show a few of the hibernating bats we identified on the surveys.
It’s not only bats we found in the caves – plenty of cave spiders and hibernating moths too including herald and tissue moths.
If you would like to get more involved with your local bat group and help out on hibernation surveys such as these, you can find your nearest here. Many thanks to the South Cumbria Bat Group, and Rich Flight in particular, for a great opportunity to explore the caves and see plenty of roosting bats!
The Oak of Belton Lane – referred to in some places as the Grantham Oak – is perhaps the most surprising and impressive tree in town. The oak stands on the eastern side of Belton Lane, to the north of the town of Grantham, beside a pedestrian crossing and surrounded by a crescent of residential housing. This is not the typical location for a tree which is likely to be over 500 years old!
The Grantham Oak – a pedunculate or English Oak (Quercus robur) – has a girth of 7.02m when measured at 1.5m above the ground. To give a rough visualisation of this – it would take over four adults reaching finger-tip to finger-tip to hug this tree. Using this measurement of girth, we can estimate the age of this tree – although this is not an exact science, and is subject to speculation over the early growing conditions of the tree and the stresses or privileges it might have endured or enjoyed over the years.Using the methodology produced by John White – the tree may be 530 – 560 years old, indicating a possible planting date around the 1450’s. To put this in context – this is around the time of the War of the Roses; the founding on the Inca dynasty; and when Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake.
The tree is a pollard – this means that in the distant past, it was cut above the height at which animals can graze. This was generally done to faciliate sustainable harvest of a tree either to provide fodder for animals or for wood timber. Retaining the base of the tree but continually taking new growth allows it to be harvested regularly without killing the tree. Indeed, one result of pollarding trees is that they often live for much longer than non-pollarded specimens.
A ‘wolf tree‘ is one which is older and larger than those around it – it often has a shape and structure which seems unaffected by external influences such as shading or competition, whilst it’s establishment means the younger trees grow and develop in response to it. I often see this in woodlands – especially where an old oak is situated towards the edge of a more recent forestry plantation – but the Grantham Oak is an example of a ‘wolf tree’ in a residential setting – the houses which line Belton Road were built to arch in a crescent surrounding this magnificent tree at its centre. This tree is still valued by many who live close or drive past it – it was nominated in the hunt for the UK’s 2014 Tree of the Year competition.
The map below illustrates the current location of the tree – set at the edge of residential development, a little way offset from the green corridor along the River Witham which passes through the town to the west.
The housing around this tree was only established in the 20th century and inspection of older maps before this date indicate that in 1905, the land around Belton Lane was agricultural countryside.
The Harrowby Mill, still present but converted to residential use, lies opposite this tree on the west of Belton Lane and this can be seen as the only marked development in close proximity to the tree back in 1835. Although this was almost 200 years ago, even then the Grantham Oak would have been an impressive specimen of some 300 years old and would have stood dominantly across the road as workers left the mill.
This is registered as Tree 2560 on the Woodland Trust Ancient Tree Register – a link to the tree’s individual page can be found here. The tree is included in the ‘40 Special Trees of Lincolnshire40 Special Trees of Lincolnshire‘ book produced by the Lincolnshire Tree Awareness Group (TAG) under the title ‘The Grantham Oak’. The text describing this tree states that it was originally enclosed by Belton Hall Park although a contact at Belton said that the land at Belton Lane was never within parkland indicating it may never have been a ‘parkland’ tree.
I have done my best to piece together a little history and information on this tree, but I would love for this to be just the beginning. If you have any information, photographs or stories relating to this tree, please get in touch with me or leave a comment below and I can update the post to grow the story around this magnificent resident of Grantham.
For a similar post on one of Grantham’s impressive trees, take a look at this post on the copper beech on the high street!
This is not really to do with ecology, and certainly not based in Grantham, so you’ll have to forgive me straying off message!
We went down to stay on a campsite at the base of the South Downs in the campervan just before New Years. We set off in dense fog which, but for a few breaks, persisted all the way down the country. We arrived an hour before sunset, pulled on coats and boots and headed off up the hillside near Ditchling Beacon in the optimistic hope that we could climb up above the pea-souper which had enveloped us all day. Optimistic but not expectant, we were rewarded for our efforts!
Walking up the track was like ascending in an aeroplane on an overcast day, when you break through to find that it’s a sunny day above the clouds. This is effectively the same thing – the clouds in this case are lying over the land due to a temperature difference known as an ‘inversion’ – when there is colder air below and warmer air above meaning that the cloud becomes trapped close to the land. As well as the temperature inversion, you need other conditions such as lack of precipitation and little or no wind to maintain this. This is an excellent blog post to explain more about cloud inversions, and how, when and where to catch them!
What inspired this optimism was another recent experience – just before Christmas we were staying in Freiburg and left the city on a murky foggy day to catch a cablecar to 1000m up. We found an incredible sight awaiting us – not only were we above a thick layer of cloud but there was a further layer of cloud above us meaning that the setting sun lit both layers in one of the most magical experiences I have ever witnessed – a few photographs below to give you an idea!
We had a wonderful hard frost just after Christmas so I took the opportunity to get out in the morning sunshine to take a few photos!
The frost serves to outline these seed heads, making them stand out against the background but also helping to highlight the structure which is best appreciated at this time of year when the leaves and flowers have fallen.
Looking back through the photographs I’ve taken in 2016, it’s striking how many trees there are! As with the small things such as wildflower ‘weeds’, it’s easy to take for granted these enormous beings which grow amongst us. The sheer scale of a mature oak or beech is far beyond our magnitude of experience, as is the timescale they can span which numbers many of our lifetimes combined.
Here are just a few of my favourite encounters from 2016.
The first few days of New Year can be a little underwhelming – Christmas is over and it’s a long old drag until springtime. But there’s still colour and life out there and the BSBI‘s annual New Year Plant Hunt is a great way to experience this, as well as contribute your data to a national recording scheme. Everybody is welcome to get involved – even if this is just spotting a daisy on the lawn or gorse flowering by the roadside on your way to work!
Last year I found 44 species flowering in Grantham so I thought I’d cover a similar patch this year and see what I could find!
I started just before sunrise on a Bank Holiday Monday – thinking this would be a good time to explore the roads and walls around the centre without too many funny looks! It was just below zero and as slippery as an ice-rink when I started but the road down from the Railway Station was a very fruitful location with yarrow and daisy visible before I even got out of the car! A total of nine species were flowering here against the wall including two non-natives – Oxford ragwort and Guernsey fleabane. The sun strikes this wall first thing in the morning which might explain why this spot was good for flowers persisting through the winter.
Around Grantham town itself, I found a few more species including feverfew, smooth sow-thistle and common chickweed. A wander around the Sainsbury’s carpark also provided me with a flowering grass – annual meadowgrass.
Down by the River Witham, the earliest blackthorn I know was in flower – just a couple of individual flowers amongst the bare branches – along with frosted white deadnettle and the winter heliotrope.
Onwards through St Wulfrum’s churchyard, I picked up shepherd’s purse flowering in the sunshine against the stone archway of the South Entrance. Sun spurge was another species growing next to a pedestrian crossing – this is a species whose flowers look so much like leaves that you really do need to know to lean close and check in order to realise they’re in bloom!
A few naturalised species were added to the list as I continued around Grantham. These were not growing in gardens but were self-set, often finding little niches in walls or at the edges of pavements. Such species flourish in urban settings, where there are plenty of gardens to escape from and little niches of soil and warmth in which seeds can germinate and bloom. This collection includes yellow corydalis, greater periwinkle and Michaelmas daisy.
One advantage of carrying out a Plant Hunt on your home-turf is visiting locations where you have seen species flowering in the lead-up to Christmas. In this case, a carpark towards the north of the town had a colony of gallant soldier – a member of the daisy family with large yellow centres and white petals. Red deadnettle and ox-eye daisy were also flowering on the walls here, along with a stalwart of the NY Plant Hunt – the beautiful ivy-leaved toadflax.
I walked up to the Hills and Hollows above Grantham to finish – picking up a few individual dogwood flowers amongst the unopened buds, along with red campion and, of course, gorse to finish. The saying goes ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion‘ and this held as true as always with several bunches of yellow flowers brightening the spiky shrubs.
Nine kilometers and three hours later, my total count this year was 30 species – not too bad but lower than any of my counts from last year. The beginning of 2016 was preceded by unusually mild weather and many late-season species were still hanging on. This year by contrast, we have had a few good frosts which I know have finished off a few plants which were in flower up until that point including yellow toadflax and common mallow. This trend for lower numbers seems to be mirrored by others who have completed counts across the midlands and east, but we will need to await the full results to fully understand the picture for this year.
A new feature of the hunt this year is the excellent New Year Plant Hunt App which you can download here – this is so easy to use on a smartphone when you’re out hunting, or equally easy to enter the data into when you get back home. I uploaded all of my data onto the app and even popped back on to edit a record the next morning, when I realised I had made an error in the ID of one species. It works off the back of the iRecord system and is a good introduction to an excellent tool for keeping and submitting biological records when you’re out and about.
Linked in with the app, is a brilliant Results website which updates the records on the fly, showing the locations where hunts have been completed and tallying up the most commonly recorded species to date. So far, daisy is in the lead with groundsel running a close second, but with a day to go yet, there’s all to play for! Get out and see what you can find – Happy Hunting!
Ecological consultancy work gives lots of opportunities to get up close and personal with reptiles and amphibians. One of our roles is to help our clients develop receptor sites, containing ponds, refuges, hibernacula and terrestrial habitat prior to site clearance. We then capture the reptiles or amphibians from the development site and move them to their new habitat to ensure that the populations can survive and grow into the future.
These are a few photographs of amphibians taken during 2016.
Every week this year, with just one or two exceptions, I’ve taken part in the excellent #wildflowerhour on twitter where people across the UK share their sightings for the week between 8-9pm each Sunday – an excellent way to draw a weekend to a close.
Many of these photos made an appearance at some point but this is a run-through a few of my favourite wildflower finds or photos from 2016. The absence of orchids can be explained by a whole post all of their own from earlier this week – take a look here!