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Nature Notes from Hilltop News

Nature Notes

If you enjoy living or visiting the Chilterns you cannot fail to be impressed with the variety of landscape, wildlife and the particular weather it offers be it over the seasons of the year or just on a single day. What's more on any given day, the countryside in which the hilltop villages nestle is often characterised by having its own micro-climate compared to the neighbouring towns and countryside beneath it. This in turn has influenced the composition of local habitats and the occurrence of wildlife.

No one set of eyes, ears and sense of smell can capture the essence of the natural history of the hilltop villages. The following nature notes first published in the Hilltop News are just a simple attempt to reflect on the flora and fauna we enjoy through the seasons.

These articles were previously published in "Hilltop News".


August 2013 - The Hidden Natural History of an English Churchyard
June 2013 - The Beauty in Nature and The Poetry in Fibonacci’s Mathematics.
April 2013 - A thousand acre sky
February 2013 - Just a word or two for yew: snotty-gog
December 2012 - Ashes to ashes
October 2012 - Some autumnal poetic licence
August 2012 - Water water everywhere...
June 2012 - It’s a jungle out there
April 2012 - Pimping reaches the Hilltop Villages!
February 2012 - Elementary my dear...
December 2011 - Reading the right signs and navigating Nature’s unmapped highways
October 2011 - The view from the other end of the telescope
August 2011 - Here Be Dragons or Excuse Me, Madam But There’s A Newt In Your Fruit Salad!
June 2011 - The Untamed Shrew, the Acrobatic Mouse and the Gardening Vole
April 2011 - Some musings on nature
February 2011 - Most glorious night! Thou wert not sent for slumber!
December 2010 - Four legs bad and two legs good
October 2010 - When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl
August 2010 - A song, a smell, the colour purple, and an ailing conker
June 2010 - After a winter whitewash
April 2010 - The Taste of Spring
February 2010 - Patrolling in a dignified procession of one
December 2009 - Otherwise obscured or easily overlooked
October 2009 - A thousand shades of ochre
August 2009 - September sights and sounds
June 2009 - Socialising
April 2009 - In celebration of the beech!
February 2009 - Darwin’s legacy
December 2008 - Three of a kind
October 2008 - Nature’s own autumnal aerial display
August 2008 - Stingers, Suckers, Biters
June 2008 - Black is the new grey
April 2008 - Gowk, Har and Whin
February 2008 - Spinning a tale or two about the web of life
December 2007 - What's black and white but read all over?
October 2007 - An Autumn Rainbow
August 2007 - Nature's Alphabet Soup
June 2007 - Green glow and cyanide
April 2007 - All simply in the springing of the year
February 2007 - The Hills Are Alive with the Smells of Nature
December 2006 - Ruddoc, Muntjac and Beefsteak; the Christmas Season with all the Trimmings
October 2006 - To Autumn: ”To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees...”
August 2006 - Fruits of the day, creatures of the night
June 2006 - In Celebration Of Old Moldewarp
April 2006 - All Creatures Great and Small
February 2006 - As I Walked Out One Evening...
December 2005 - White Christmas?
November 2005 - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
August 2005 - Sunny Spells, Summer Smells
June 2005 - Bum barrels, bells and whistles
April 2005 - Now Appearing In The Countryside Near You
February 2005 - The Birds and the Bees!
December 2004 - A Seasons Greetings to visitors from near and far
October 2004 - Whose house is it anyway?
August 2004 - Stop, Look and Listen - Nature is evolving all around us
June 2004 - "We have a saying around these parts"
April 2004 - The Chilterns, a good place to visit but a great place to go native
February 2004 - The Weather, Nature's Alarm Clock, provides a wake-up call
December 2003 - The Sound of Silence at this time of year is truly deafening!
October 2003 - An Oktoberfest of activity and colour
August 2003 - Balance is everything
June 2003 - Phew! What a scorcher.
April 2003 - Spring Into Action
March 2003 - A Climate of Change

Chris Brown
January 2004


Nature Notes – August 2013

The Hidden Natural History of an English Churchyard


On a recent visit to St Lawrence’s churchyard I was, once again, reminded that graveyards, typically tucked away from the hurly-burly of daily life, and are places for tranquil repose. However, looking closer they are also important habitats for our local wildlife. As places that are treasured by us, and with so much care lovingly bestowed on them, ensuring continuity over time also provide vital refuges for plants and animals. What’s more this sympathetic approach to the small estates around parish churches is long-standing consequently these habitats have been protected, sometimes over many hundreds of years, from the influences experienced beyond their boundaries as a village community evolved. Bearing in mind that many of the nature reserves around us, quite often reclaimed sites, have not had the benefit over such long periods of care. Church wardens and others who look after these oases of calm have learnt to strike a balance between the levels of tidiness needed to be respectful, and the informality that is inevitable and pragmatic when adjacent to the semi-wilderness ever-encroaching from across its boundaries.

I am reminded at this point of the Old-English folk song “Who Killed Cock Robin”. It’s interesting how several of the characters (including several birds) in this melodrama are imbued with sepulchral overtones. An owl is digging a grave with pick and shovel whilst the thrush offered to sing the psalm. Typecast is the rook depicted as the parson (equipped with his bell and book). It is perhaps no surprise also that many of the early naturalists were also clergymen. We know that Charles Darwin who, after giving up studying medicine at Edinburgh was set to become ‘a man of the cloth’, spent much of his spare time in the 1828-31 at Cambridge in the company of his theological friends, riding and fishing and pursuing one of the fads of the day beetle-hunting. Half a century earlier Gilbert White fits the mold of naturalist-clergyman to perfection. He is revered for his studies of the interaction between animals and with plants, and is considered the first ecologist. His influential commentaries on nature written during his time as curate at Selbourne, took the form of letters to his friends and diaries of events: from chronologies of year on year events to hourly observations at different times of the day. He amassed such observations in minute detail, ranging from the importance and activities of earthworms, to the habits and wanderings of his pet tortoise.

I mention this as we can adopt such a similar approach today. For instance, I made my visit on a humid summer’s day, in the late afternoon. The beginnings and ends of days are when wildlife is often most active. Standing still a while and soon the blackbirds resumed their methodical search across moist lawns for worms interrupted by bouts of synchronous serenading at the top of a beech. A pair of robins attempt to intimidate each other atop some neighbouring headstones, the winner taking the spoils from some recently broken ground lying between their respective ‘lists’. A song thrush seeks a slug, or perhaps a woodlouse, by methodically stirring through the grass heaped on the compost.

Meanwhile, approaching a shaded corner I could hear the beech leaves, rustling around me. Beneath the deep carpet of last year’s leaves I concluded there must be several small rodents, perhaps shrews or field mice, foraging for invertebrates and seeds. I soon discovered that I was not alone in observing this frantic activity. I heard someone comment recently that with the wealth of television documentaries on wildlife from all round the world one can sometimes become more familiar with the lives and habits of a black mamba in the Amazon Basin or a cobra in northern India than say their home grown relatives living almost totally unnoticed in our back yards. Just a matter of a foot or two away from me I saw some dull lime-green interspersed with shades of grey and the unmistakable serpentine shape. Seemingly untroubled by my presence a motionless grass snake, around 18 inches long, was clearly alert to the disturbance beneath it a matter of inches away. A moment later it disappeared beneath the leaves but whether it found its prey soon after I cannot confirm.

So far what has been described is the wildlife engaged in the most frantic of activity. Graveyards are also home to those living in the slow lane. Lichens are a combination of a fungus and one or more species of algae that live in symbiotic harmony with each other. The algae provides much of the food supply through photosynthesis whilst the fungi provides a robust means to keep secured to the substrate and to absorb water and trace elements drawn from the gravestone. They come in different forms. Typically on gravestones we might find the amorphous-shaped dusty patches of leprose lichens, the rough-surfaced crustose lichens typically found embedded in sandstone monuments. Occasionally we might also find the rosettes of foliose lichens usually growing proud of the surface of the headstone. Unlike fast-living flora and fauna, such as the shrews nearby which might live for just six-months, lichens have been dated to over 500 years and can resist periods of extreme cold. They create their own microclimate, within which many minute creatures make their home. Around a millimetre long, living on the surface and within the structures of lichens and mosses, is the group of microscopic creatures known as tardigrades. Splash a lichen with water and capture the run-off on a slide and even under a hand lens you can see these ‘water bears’ as they are also known, because they have the appearance of a cuddly swimming teddy. There resilience enables them to survive prolonged periods of freezing cold and can recover speedily when conditions reverse. They float around in air-currents much like pollen, have been recovered from the outer atmosphere, will survive long periods of drought, and do not need to feed for years on end only becoming active again once re-hydrated. These microscopic beasts feed by grazing on the bacteria and detritus found on the surface of the lichen or moss. In return for benefiting from a moist secure niche their grazing ensures the surface of mosses and lichens remain dust-free, thus aiding the efficient photosynthesis by their hosts.

I hope a few of you will take the opportunity to enjoy our local Anglican churchyards in Hawridge, St Leonards and Cholesbury as well as the small Baptist churchyard in Buckland Common.


Nature Notes – June 2013

The Beauty in Nature and The Poetry in Fibonacci’s Mathematics


We have had to wait a good deal longer than usual this year for the Spring’s to burst forth with its signature display of natural beauty. We all have the privilege of deciding what amounts to beauty in nature. What we can share is the experience of Spring bursting forth in the Chilterns countryside. Beauty in nature is, as in love, ‘in the eye of the beholder’. For some it will be the blossoming of bluebells, it might be the nesting of birds or the greening of beech trees. And for others it is the sense of the whole world coming alive once again after the dead of winter; rejuvenation and rebirth, reawakening of the senses. Poetry has oft been used to capture the beauty of nature as in this poem about Spring:

The air is cool, the breeze is light.
The clouds in the sky are fluffy and white.

The flowers open to show their bright faces,
as the garden snail alongside paces.

The trees unfold their bright green leaves.
The spider a silken web she weaves.

The birds sing their notes high and clear.
Cheer up! Cheer up! Spring is here!

  - Teresa Underwood

Don’t get me wrong I’ve not gone all romantic about Spring! It’s just my way of setting things up so I can introduce another way you could start to look at the beauty of the Chilterns or any landscape for that matter. Spring brings to the fore recurring patterns that are commonplace throughout the natural world and are based on a formula which is to be found in the structure of plants or animals, in the activities and constructions of the latter, as well as in natural phenomena. In effect what is at play here is the poetry of mathematics contributing to the beauty of nature. Specifically there is a pattern of numbers known as the Fibonacci Sequence. This is a series of numbers which starts 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34... and so on - where each successive number being the sum of the previous two numbers. This sequence was first discovered by Indian mathematicians in the 6th century; however it was an Italian mathematician, Leonardo de Pisa, aka Fibonacci who, in the 11th century, first applied this sequence to events in the natural world. He predicted that the sequence which, only later became named after him, would be found throughout nature and in natural phenomena such as in the structure of waves.

My cast of characters is drawn from those referred to in the poem above. We are all familiar with the sticky leaf buds of the horse chestnut. The assemblage of buds on the branch is not random but is based on the fibonacci sequence. Subsequently, as the trees unfold their bright green leaves an order becomes apparent in their organisation. The distance between the buds increases the further they are from the tip of the stem and their relative position is also orientated along a spiral drawn according to the fibonacci sequence. As a tree grows from a single stem this simple layout contributes towards the overall configuration of all the branches in the mature tree. Of course no tree remains in such a pristine state but is affected by pest attack and disease but the general symmetry obvious in mature broad-leaved and coniferous trees which have avoided major damage is dictated at the outset by this sequence.

Flowers open to show their bright faces and in plants such as daisies and dandelions these flowers are in reality composite structures called inflorescences, comprising large number of tightly-packed florets which make up one large super-flower. The orientation of these florets follows the line of several spirals arcing out from the centre of the inflorescence which describe a pattern again based on this special numerical sequence. Perhaps the best display of this is in the seed head of a sunflower. Other examples can be found in fruit such as the pineapple, the cones of cycads and cypress firs and when taking a cross-section through a red cabbage.

Moving onto the animal kingdom a most pervasive of examples is the garden snail. Alongside (your prized herbaceous border) paces this rampant mollusc carrying on its back a conspicuous spiral shell with annualised growth rings though varying from season to season, for reasons of climate, has been perfectly formed in accord with the mathematical formula. A slow motion billboard advertising it belongs to the fibonacci brand. Another example in the animal world is the spiral horns of sheep, goats and some deer.

An example where the fibonicci sequence comes into play is the construction when the garden spider a silken web she weaves. The web comprises several spirals built on radiating spokes. The mystery is how the fibonacci spiral based on this mathematical sequence produces, without failure, such a perfectly proportioned web structure. The plan for the web is embedded within the ganglia of the spider. As set out in Darwin’s theory of natural selection which drives the process of evolution there is a continuous drive to refine processes to achieve the most efficient use of scarce materials.

To put another way, there’s simplicity, complexity and, above all, beauty in nature. So when around and about our Chiltern Hills do enjoy its beauty, whatever is your chosen way.


Nature Notes – April 2013

A Thousand Acre Sky


Three species of snake live in the UK; as we know none can be found in Ireland. The rarest of these is the smooth snake which is not native to these parts, preferring the heathlands of Hampshire, in particular the New Forest. About now both Grass snakes and Adders start to become active. Distinguishable from the adder which in contrast has dark zig-zag markings down the back, the grass snake has a lemon yellow patch on the head and olive green body. In Spring and Autumn all snakes need to bask on open ground, ideally sandy to maintain their body heat. At the height of Summer ambient temperatures enable them to be active all-day long. Hunting is achived by a combination of smell and taste achieved by sampling the air with their forked tongues. Grass snakes, in particular, are excellent swimmers and feed on frogs or fish and anything from insects to mice on land. The male grass snake can grow up to about a metre long. Mating takes place in June and the female lays eggs in June and July under rotting compost heaps. Another difference from the adder which lays it young live.

The lives of some members of our resident buglife though ever-present remain secret, mysterious or the subject of much folk history. I could pick out many such examples but I have happened on the story of the woodlouse which will serve as an admirable representative of the under-trodden class of such invertebrates. Woodlice are members of the same family as crabs and lobsters, the crustaceans. Though living on land they are almost as dependant on water so spend most of the time in the damp environment under stones or in soil cavities. This enforced obscurity just adds to the curiosity that has been generated by every tradition that has succeeded the Anglo-Saxons, who coined the term eselchans or ass-coloured. Other regional names assign woodlice to facsimiles of pigs and in Bucks they have the local name cheese-bug. ‘Cheese’ could either be down to the practice or grinding up dried woodlice and adding them to milk to induce the production of rennet or possibly derived from ‘ches’ meaning stones. The medicinal qualities of woodlice might have been originated through the belief that the capacity of some woodlice to curl up in a ball or pill hinted that they had such powers to tackle a whole range of illness from tummy-ache bladder problems or jaundice!

Lying as we do astride the “hilltops” of the Chilterns we are sometimes afforded the opportunity to gaze across ‘a thousand acre sky’. As much a part of the Chiltern Hillscape as all other of the features we take for granted. Birds of course are the main occupants of the sky. One that stands out is the Buzzard. Aside from the Golden Eagle it is our largest native raptor. Today it is not a surprise to see one or, more likely, two buzzards holding station almost motionless above the beechwood canopy. The silhouette of this bird is distinctive. Broad wings with feather-tipped fingers support a hefty body ensure it can hold station effortlessly. However, this is not the only sight you might get of this bird. Recently I have also spied a pair of birds, probably an adolescent at roost on a low-swung bough and with an adult, swooping through woodland and patrolling a much smaller domain. Buzzards inhabit most parts of the British Isles; however this was not always the case. Though today across Britain there are now estimated to be over 50,000 pairs for over 200 years previously it was the subject of much persecution, both in the field and surprisingly by writers who considered it a dull bird, which spends most of the time watching from its favourite tree roost, or lazily surveying the landscape for any carrion. Whilst true that it is an opportunist seeking out road kill, the buzzard is also capable of hunting rabbit or taking down pigeon or larger birds such as duck or even crow on the wing. At other times it will excavate for earthworms on a ploughed field. As important to the character of this bird is its call. A constant cry, a cat-like mew will dominate the usual soundscape.


Nature Notes – February 2013

Just a word or two for yew: snotty-gog


I think it was back in the Autumn Nature Notes article I said something along the lines of “...each season has its own character.” Well, just to disprove the point the first half of winter has been anything but distinctive: damp and dank. However, February and March will no doubt provide the opportunity for the odd icy storm and a snow fall or two to mark the first few months of 2013.

Our winter resident birds have had to cope with two harsh winters in a row and there were signs following the milder winter of 2011-12 that they had begun to recover. However, though not so fierce, the weather conditions over the last twelve months have presented a further test for those birds dependant on a narrow range of food supply, be it fruit or insects. Supplies of both were dealt a severe blow by the cool spring and the prolonged periods of torrential rain. The consequential impact of waterlogged land and of the disrupted growing season has produced a poor wild harvest in 2012. The consequences for our feathered friends will shortly be revealed.

In January each year the RSPB organises its Big Birdwatch survey. Last year, nearly 600,000 people took part in the count. Over 9 million birds were recorded as having visited gardens during just a one hour period. The survey has now been going since 1979 and over this period it has generally marked massive reductions in our resident bird population. The popularity of the survey was greatly enhanced by the then editor of Blue Peter, Biddy Baxter, promoting the survey on television: resulting in many children and schools taking part.

The timing of the survey might be strange but the reason is counter-intuitive. In winter birds are more visible in trees and shrubs and are more frequent visitors to bird feeders. In the first survey it was typical to see, on average, up to 15 starlings simultaneously visiting a garden. In 2012 that figure has fallen to an average of just 3! The causes are put down to changes in the environment and habitat quality. This is a complex picture which includes long-term climate issues and medium term environment changes: for example, a reduction in hedge-cover or the availability of soil dwelling insects.

This picture is not just restricted to starlings. In 1979 the average UK sightings for house sparrows during the one hour period was ten. Last year it averaged four. Robin numbers have fallen by a third. Sometimes, though, a reduction in bird numbers from one year to the next is merely a short-term blip. For example, in 2012 there was a fall in the long-tailed tit garden observations. The RSPB put this down to the improved availability of woodland food supplies in 2011-12 which drew these birds temporarily away from gardens. The number of blackbirds seen has halved. Here it was a case of waterlogged lawns and flowerbeds which affected the supply of worms and soil-dwelling invertebrates, such as centipedes and woodlice.

Meanwhile, over this 34 year period, some birds have bucked the trend and increased their presence in gardens. Most significant have been two relates species, woodpigeon and collared dove. Great tit numbers have doubled, which is an example of a permanent population shift from farmland to gardens: much like the robin did from pastoral woodlands to Victorian gardens. The RSPB stats for the UK are dominated by urban gardens and our rurally-located gardens have a different range of birds.

Locally, two birds which we know are seen more and more frequently are the red kite and green woodpecker. In last year’s survey these were included on my return for the first time. One more unlikely bird I had visit during the survey period was a coot (white face: red face = moorhen). Not a typical visitor but, with the few ponds we have around here, it is a water bird that appears to be thriving locally at least. I would be interested to hear from any other local Big Birdwatch survey observers.

Stumbling through the woods in the valley between Hawridge and Bellingdon, I came across a straggly yew sapling fighting for space and scarce nutrients with the holly and surrounded by rotting beech mast. It suggests there must be some mature trees nearby, though most mature trees are sited adjacent to churches. Swotting up, I find that the oldest yew and, according to Richard Mabey, the oldest wooden artefact in the world, is in a churchyard in Clacton, Essex incredibly estimated at 250,000 years old!

Such ancient yews usually predate the church, indicating a pre-Christian era relationship with people. It has been suggested that some settlements arose because there was already a yew tree there. It is also supposed that where an ancient yew is associated with a congregation of standing stones that there was deliberate intent to locate a ceremonial site close to the tree. A separate theory for those yews away from 'spiritual sites' suggests the tree’s prominence in the landscape acted as a signpost for travellers following an important track way, or to mark crossroads, where they also became associated with travellers’ inns.

Those yews which are younger than their associated church were normally planted in the middle-ages. By this time the slow- growing, evergreen nature of the tree had become an important Christian symbol denoting longevity. Often yews planted in churches were in pairs and marked out the route the coffin would take from lych gate to church entrance. A colloquial name for the yew which seems to complement the weedy example I found is 'snotty-gog' which relates to the fleshy red cones, which are a prominent feature on mature trees at this time of year, and the jelly-like seed coating is a particular delicacy for finches and waxwings, which are the principal dispersers of the indigestible seed.

This provides a convenient link to what else is to be seen in February and March. Before the spring plants take a grip and envelope the woodland floor, colour for the year is provided by early fruiting fungi. At this time of year there is a ready supply of nutrient in the fallen branches from autumn storms. Chief amongst those on show is the easily identified (and poisonous) sulphur-tuft fungus. It appears in small groups with bright yellow caps fringed with white.

Bumble bees make their first brief forays in February: all are female! Badger cubs will emerge for the first time at dusk. The brimstone is the first of our over-wintering butterflies to emerge, if warmth permits, with peacocks and small tortoiseshells staying back until March. We already know about hares and March. March is also when the insect predators appear and spiders abound.

Meanwhile bats emerge from hibernation. For those of you with a passing knowledge of American TV gangster series I particularly want to mention the most appropriately named soprano pipistrelle which, in common with other bats, has an ongoing ‘contract’ out on any unfortunate flying insect its radar senses detect. Its name was coined only in 1999 once it was determined, by the pitch of its sonar, to be a separate species from its near relative the common pipistrelle.


Nature Notes – December 2012

Ashes to ashes


The big news in the forestry world on late has been the confirmed arrival in the UK of Ash Dieback disease. There have been previous reports about disease attacking oak, chestnut and larch but these have been seen as less catastrophic on the whole population. Unlike the reporting in the UK of other outbreaks in trees the suddenness of this one seems to have taken everyone in authority a complete surprise. However, the death of ash trees had been attributed to an unknown fungus pathogen causing dieback in Polish ash trees way back in 1992. Thing is it was not until 2006 that the exact species of fungus was isolated and named as Chalara fraxinea - Fraxinus being the genus name of the ash tree. Unlike most of the flora and fauna we are used to dealing with, fungi are known to sometimes exist in two forms ‘sexual’ and ‘asexual’ and it is not unusual for only the latter of these two alternative forms to have been firmly identified and this frequently presents a problem for microbiologists tasked with isolating the offending pathogen as it is usually from studying the sexual form that any control measure are developed. In this case it took until 2010 before the essential information as to the offending species was found, by which time ash trees were succumbing across northern Europe as far as Germany. By early 2012 it had arrived in Scandinavia and in March it first appeared in the UK, within saplings imported from the Netherlands to a nursery in Bucks. Disease was identified in other nursery-supplied trees across the UK soon after, and the first wild infestation reports were in East Anglia in October. Whilst infection may not have arrived in wild trees around here yet as it is mainly transmitted on the wind it seems likely not to be far off. In the UK ash supports over 100 insect species that in turn support the woodland bird population. So the destruction of ash stands could have a significant wider impact on the local ecology. For information on identifying infected trees there is an excellent video from the Forestry Commission at www.forestry.gov.uk/chalara.

Sadly, in the absence of any way of combating it on the horizon it looks like we are in for a major catastrophe of similar proportions to the havoc that Dutch Elm Disease caused in the 1960s and 70s. Today there next to no mature trees in southern England. Locally, what has survived the scourge of elm bark beetles’ burrowing just below the surface of elm tree trunks, have been small bush elms located in hedgerows and the like. It turns out that however that whereas the English elm succumbed to the disease this is in fact a long ago introduced species of the tree. A whole number of so-called ‘native elms’ including, ones from Cornwall, Cambridgeshire and Essex being more resistant have largely survived the infestation. It is also apparent that there have been several previous elm disease outbreaks throughout both more recent and pre-historic periods which have wiped out much of the national heritage trees for a generation or so before more resistant stock has managed to re-supply our wild places once again. We can only hope this is the case this time!

Most insects are fast disappearing from the scene during late autumn. Except for the few species that are migrants to the UK all the others need to find a way to over-winter, be it as an egg, larva, pupa or adult, and a suitable place to hang out. Each to their own and nature provides these in abundance, however we provide plenty of opportunities too in dry or air conditioned, warm or cool, light or dark. Adult lacewings can be frequently found living out the colder months in our sheds and out houses. They are not social animals but usually they amass in choice locations. Their normal colouration is bright green, an essential camouflage kit to avoid predation. On taking up their winter roost their colour changes over a period of a few days from bright green to pale pink or cream. Opinions vary as to the rationale. Some say it’s the adoption of a more neutral hue to avoid detection Others suggest it’s the consequence of not feeding, whilst a third theory, which seems the most plausible, suggests its the natural process of slowing down the body clock and gradual re-adsorption and better utilisation of valuable proteins.

One consequence the impact of unusual and unseasonal weather has had on the fruit harvest has been the greater than normal quantities of both in situ and windfall fruit that has started to ferment. As these are a favourite foodstuff for both invertebrates and birds there have been reports of wasps caught in a drunk and disorderly state and a number of sightings of song birds such as blackbirds, song thrushes and redwings falling off their perches at dusk or becoming disorientated during flight and colliding with buildings.

If there was life insurance available for squirrels then premiums for January would be sky high. During that month grey squirrels don their best coats and go courting. This involves high-level gymnastic displays and the leaps from bough to bough have such a high degree of difficulty it results in many more miscalculations and accident which accounts for the larger than normal number of observed fatalities. Take care of low flying squirrels when out and about.


Nature Notes – October 2012

Some autumnal poetic licence


Each season has its own unique characteristics and feel. Autumn, though, seems to have provided poets and bards with more inspiration than the others. Shakespeare provides a sense of power being gradually unleashed in one of his Sonnets (No. 73):

That time of year thou may’st in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,-
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Liking a roofless church, perhaps one with those gothic arches, to the boughs of large trees is evocative of the Chilterns. It is not uncommon to hear a rookery full of raucous birds standing firm against the elements.

Meanwhile John Keats recognised in his eponymous poem ‘To Autumn’ that the season is the time for fulfilment of nature’s annual labours, culminating in a bountiful harvest of fruits and nuts:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

Aside from those more obvious desserts which we can enjoy such as blackberries and hazelnuts, there are others which may be fare for blackbirds and thrushes but which sensibly do not receive our attention because they would do us harm. First of these is bittersweet. Unlike its relative the potato it is a hedgerow climber with yellow and purple flowers prefacing the traffic light fruit: turning from green through amber to a full stop at bright red. They might have made a delightful treat if it were not for the alkaloids which, as the name suggests, give the berries an acerbic taste. Though these berries (apparently) initially offer a less than enticing taste, the essence turns sweet as it hits the back of the mouth: a short-lived delight as it soon makes you sick. Another vine-like hedge plant with a reputation is woodbine or honeysuckle with its dark purple fruit favoured by birds, but not humans.

Returning to Shakespeare, he recognised how the intoxication of maturing fruit can impact on dreams and emotions, such as in Othello when he pens:

Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep

We know, all too well, what poppies can provide but what of ‘mandragora’ which is the Latin for mandrake, referring to the root of what is known better to us as deadly nightshade, a relative of the aforementioned bittersweet. Not only does it provide no warning to its victim of its dark side but, to the contrary, it creates an initial sense of euphoria followed by a deep sleep from which there is no return, as Romeo and Juliet were tragically to discover:

Within the infant rind of this weak flower,
poison hath residence, and medicine power

Another noxious weed oft referred to by The Bard is hemlock, the fruits of which are used to distil a vicious poison, favoured by Ancient Greeks as well as medieval enchantresses, and as reflected within the witches’ chants in Macbeth:

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
There’s much industry afoot in Autumn.

Whilst some invertebrates have given up the ghost, others such as spiders are busy, snaring prey which is still in abundance. An early morning or evening walk through meadow grass reveals a myriad of glistening threads. A New England poet, Rose Terry Cooke, was an observer of both humanity and nature and frequently drew comparisons between how lives in both spheres were drawn. In her poem ‘Arachne’ Rose takes one right down to ground level:

I know thy peace when all is done.
Each anchored thread, each tiny knot,
Soft shining in the autumn sun;
A sheltered, silent, tranquil lot.

The sounds of Autumn are also characteristic, and returning to Keats in his Ode To Autumn there is recognition of the songs emanating from fauna, with his referring to:

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

With milder winters we are seeing and hearing migrating birds much later into the year and it is not unusual to espy a few such birds in early October. Mind you, Keats may have engaged in some ‘poetic licence’ regarding the crickets: on warm evenings they can still be heard occasionally well beyond their usual sell-by date.

And finally, I just want to catch up on one or two recent feedbacks on observations received. Perhaps the best spot of the year came from a smart-eyed correspondent from Sandpit Hill who in August managed to capture a rare shot of a newly emerged purple emperor butterfly, sunning itself on the warm earth of the vegetable patch. They are none too frequently seen as they spend much of their time high up in the tree canopy. However, I am advised that, on first emerging, they disperse and may be found away from their usual habitat. There was also a flurry of e-mails about birds of prey. It seems sparrowhawks have been making themselves more obvious with a number of sightings in gardens over the late summer. They were seen either taking smaller birds, which were distracted whilst feeding from bird tables, or feasting off a bloated woodpigeon. Probably this greater visibility was due to a shortage in the ready availability of prey.

Comments and questions welcome chrisbrown@rayshill.com (758890).


Nature Notes – August 2012

Water water everywhere...


This year, the unseasonably heavy rainfall over the past three months or so is having some interesting, albeit temporary effects on our local wildlife. There’s just room for three of my thoughts on this...

It has been a bumper season for those pesky biting insects, Horse flies, that often plague us at the height of summer. In Elizabethan times they, and their relatives, were collectively known as Gad-flies and Shakespeare borrowed the name to refer to a satirical gentleman whose words could sting another. The most common of the three species of horse fly that attack mammals, and often described as the most obnoxious of all insects, also goes by the name of a ‘Clegg’!

The explosion in their numbers is a consequence of the large amount of standing water around: not just established ponds but ditches or even waterlogged soil. Horse flies lay their eggs on leaves or stones close to water. On hatching, the larvae fall into the water. Their food are any suitable invertebrates; from water fleas to earthworms, snails and slugs, on which they prey voraciously. The adult flies emerge in the early morning ready to start flying at midday and need to feed immediately.

Whilst male flies seek out pollen and nectar the females need to find a source of fresh blood to get sufficient protein quickly in order to reproduce. One large meal will suffice. The flies rest up in shady places close to where their prey passes. With large eyes they can identify movement of a suitable animal. Often this will be a cow, horse or deer and, though some species only seek out birds or even frogs or toads, the flies are not that selective and as we know to our cost, will seek out the bare skin offered by us humans.

Unlike other insects that sting such as wasps, horse flies are able to pierce the skin and find a blood vessel without inflicting immediate pain for the unfortunate host. They are able to make an incision without drawing attention to themselves by using their serrated scimitar-like and razor sharp mouth parts. Saliva acts as an anticoagulant and they suck up their meal through a straw-like proboscis. Though the bites cause infections and can spread disease in livestock; apart from an irritating itch and a small scar they are, in this country at least, nearly always harmless to humans. On the upside, large numbers of such flies have been a boon for the likes of house martins, swallows and swifts, which can be seen swooping low over meadows where such large slow flying flies are easy prey.

Other benefactors of the increased rainfall have been the animals and plants which inhabit our ponds. The earlier extended period of drought would have had a significant if temporary impact on the ecology and productivity of these ponds. However, by their very nature, ponds go through periods when the species are put under major stresses, so the powers of recovery are all the more impressive. Amphibians such as the common frog and toad and the palmate newt can survive in the muddy borders of ponds or can migrate and return in better times. In dry years few, if any, tadpoles or efts (newtpoles) will make it to adulthood, but with water and food levels recovering this year, populations should also recover. Many pond invertebrates can survive drought buried in the substrate at the bottom of the pond. Meanwhile plants are adapted to survive as seeds or rootstock.

There are all sorts of ponds. At one end of the spectrum is Pallett’s Pond (Cholesbury Road) which is rich in a wide variety of flora and fauna and looks like a pond all year round. Roadside ditch ponds, such as the one almost hidden under trees in Oak Lane, will provide a home to a range of more resilient species that are able to contend with pond levels which wax and wane over the seasons and light and oxygen deficits which would be fatal to some of those in Palletts. At the other end of the spectrum are the dew ponds, such as the one on Cholesbury Common, with its ephemeral invertebrates and plant species that thrive on the margins where other plants dare not go. Such ponds may not look pond-like for much of the time. Rather it appears as just a slight depression in the ground holding a small amount of water for a few winter months. This year everything is topsy- turvy. Having been almost dry for a year, including all last winter, it has almost filled up this summer as the water table rises to engulf its shallow bowl. Perhaps the most important but admittedly not very exciting species growing there is water purslane, which is a rarity across the Chilterns and Bucks. For all ponds, including those in gardens, it is important to keep the area leading away from the pond as natural as possible to provide a habitat suitable for creatures to escape or hide nearby. Water consumption by trees can be awe inspiring. One mature Oak may take up over 15 gallons of water an hour in hot weather and over 300 gallons a day. On cooler days take-up can be less than 60 gallons a day. Meanwhile Beech trees happily operate on a range between 20-60 gallons a day. Whereas hardwood trees take up next to no water during winter months, coniferous trees need a constant supply of water year round and can suffer from winter drought. All trees can survive for a period on half the normal uptake but water deficit will, over time, result in leaf and limb loss, and early seasonal leaf fall. Prolonged periods of drought can be withstood but will shorten the life of trees. Though surface water levels may have improved over recent weeks, providing a welcome respite to our stands of beech trees, unless all this water has a sustained and positive effect on the water levels within the chalk aquifer, the decline in the health of our beech plantations, which has become more noticeable in recent years, will sadly continue.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this ‘Rime of the Ancient Naturalist!’ Comments and questions to: chrisbrown@rayshill.com Phone 758890


Nature Notes – June 2012

It’s a jungle out there


There is much we can thank the Victorians and Edwardians for and much perhaps we rightly choose to forget. A major preoccupation with both Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen and indeed many ladies too, was collecting all forms of our native wildlife.

A visit to Walter Rothschild’s Museum (now part of the National History Museum) will confirm what happens when such an obsession gets out of hand. The museum has more stuffed birds, reptiles and mammals than you can shake a stick at and cabinets full to the brim of pinned and mounted arthropods (insects, arachnids etc). Within this menagerie are species from around the world once common, some now extinct and others at risk of the same fate.

Both the Victorian and Edwardian collectors are responsible for giving names to much of our native animals and plants. At the time, animals from the four corners of the British Empire and even more remote foreign parts were being displayed in museums and zoos, such as the then newly opened London Zoo. So it is no surprise that amateur naturalists and collectors such as lepidopterists (butterflies and moths), coleopterists (beetles), arachnologists (spiders), were tempted to coin a name for newly discovered domestic species which bore some passing resemblance or unusual characteristic feature to one of these exotics.

Far as we might be from the African savannahs, the South American rainforests or Indian jungles, we have a menagerie of animals living within or visiting our gardens and native to the Chilterns. Like the distinctive quadruped which roams the African grasslands, we have an unusual arachnid in our gardens, patios and brick walls called the Zebra Spider: so called because it has distinctive black and white horizontal stripes along its body. It is one of a small group of arachnids in the country that do not produce a web. Instead, it relies on two very large eyes (part of a set of eight). These enlarged ones provide binocular vision to hunt down and capture prey. Food comes in all shapes and sizes from greenfly to small beetles. Catching small insects which can travel at considerable speed requires more than a sharp pair of eyes. To overcome this, the zebra spider has evolved a set of eight powerful legs to leap over 16 times its length and pounce on its unsuspecting meal.

It is not only appearance that suggested names to erstwhile enthusiasts. The behavioural characteristics provided suggestions: like the Elephant Hawk-moth, which can be found locally. Moths, like Butterflies, have four distinct stages in their development and it is the larval stage that the elephantine features come to light. One of the common food-plants of this insect is willowherb. This plant flourishes in recently disturbed ground and was a common site on bomb sites during and after the Second World War. In Victorian Britain the rapid construction of the railway network led to an equally rapid spread of the crimson- flowered plant along these causeways and must have also resulted in an explosion in the numbers of this moth species.

As a small caterpillar the elephant hawk-moth is susceptible to predation by birds, so it is unsurprising that in its early stages of development it has a fairly nondescript lime green colouration. However, having reached a size which affords it some protection from attack, the caterpillar’s camouflage is exchanged for more strident hues. The larva also strikes two poses. First, one described as a ‘snakes-head’ shows off false eyes which mimics a small snake when disturbed and a second, by extending the front-end of its body, was seen as similar to an elephant’s trunk. The fast-flying moth, seen on the wing on warm evenings, is a spectacular powdered-pink in colour.

We are familiar with dragonflies and their close relatives the damselflies. However, although not possessing the delicate beauty of either of these, there is a similar but unrelated large flying insect. It is not the flying adult of this species but its larva which is of particular interest and is responsible for the unusual name of Ant- lion. This diminutive animal lives out this stage of its lifecycle typically at the bottom of a sand pit of its own construction. Such is the construction of the pit, with steep sides coming to a point at the base, that the Ant-lion’s unfortunate prey, ants, lose grip and fall over the edge of the pit and into the grip of the predator’s lethal sickle-shaped jaws. The prey is then injected with lethal venom.

We are blessed with some interesting ponds in the Hilltop Villages. Not just the two on Cholesbury Common but notable others are to be found at Braziers End and on the road verges of Oak Lane and Bottom Road. Some of these may be ‘perpetual,’ like the Bury Pond in the Hill Fort, some seasonal and probably suffering to some degree to the current drought conditions. Despite this there are interesting flora and fauna to be found in them.

There are a number of carnivorous beasties, but to keep to the theme of this piece I have opted for the Water Scorpion. Like the Ant-Lion this is a quirky-looking insect. Swimming is not one of its strengths and without gills it needs to surface periodically to take on air through a thin whip-like siphon tube at the base of its abdomen. Although it might crawl out of the water and, like other water-bugs, has wings, it cannot fly: instead it uses them to trap oxygen-rich air. To aid movement, both through water and through the tangle of weeds, it has a much flattened body shape and looks like a dead leaf, which affords some disguise and protection from predator fish or ducks. It spends most of its time crawling along within the muddy zone at the bottom of ponds or ditches. Its front legs have been adapted to catch, with a scissor-like action, other insects and also tadpoles as well as any invertebrates.

Recently, examples of tropical scorpions have also been found in this country. Like other alien species they were first found near dockland. Able to survive very cold temperatures, they arrived onboard vessels carrying fruit and vegetables and escaped into the often wild hinterland around docks and harbours. As far as I am aware there are no zebras, elephants or lions currently roaming wild in the UK!

That’s all for now. Comments and questions to chrisbrown@rayshill.com Phone 758890


Nature Notes – April 2012

Pimping reaches the Hilltop Villages!


Needed something along the lines of a tabloid heading to get your attention this time! Not of course what it sounds like. However, the more frequent occurrence of red kites over us these days is starting to create some competition for territories. As numbers increase each year the younger birds need to move further and further afield to find suitable roosts.

Pimping is the characteristic behaviour of some raptors whereby the two birds do acrobatic tricks in mid air, often interlocking their talons and spinning around or passing on food scraps or roost materials. The gymnastics are normally accompanied by a cacophony of “wee-ooh” sounds. March and April are the two months when this nest refurbishment activity is at its height. Apparently later inspections of nests reveal all sorts of plundered material including flags, toys and clothes including gloves and underpants!

Aside from my father and David Attenborough, who coincidentally bought all his blue shirts and safari slacks from him, my other inspiration for an interest in natural history was a much more obscure one. I can first recall seeing David Bellamy appearing on a programme in 1972 called Bellamy on Botany. For those who remember him, his approach involved much gesticulation, usually whilst bouncing up and down on peat bogs and much, largely unintelligible, grunting and guffawing, interspaced with gems in natural history. It was his expression “the importance of Hacid Eths” of which I was reminded the other day when coming across a report by the Chilterns Conservation Board about how rare acid heathland habitats are in England and that they remain under threat in this part of the Chilterns.

We are lucky enough to have such an example on Hawridge and Cholesbury Commons. With grateful acknowledgement of the Heritage Study I note the key indicator species for such habitats, in this area at least, are: heather, pill sedge and rushes. In times not so long past, commons such as ours would have been grazed by domesticated animals: cattle and in particular sheep. Until even more recent times, periodic burning by Commoners also managed the habitat in a less sustainable way. Gorse, which is another indicator species, is interesting in that it would have been carefully managed by Commoners to avoid it becoming a weed on the heathland.

One of its older and colloquial names is furze, which was harvested by furze-cutters and used for making fires for baking bread. I recall Winnie the Pooh also had a tangle with gorse when looking for honey, but this was not in Cholesbury or Hawridge! However, in the absence of these ruminants (I'm excluding the Commoners from the definition here) heather, in particular, is quickly suffocated out by bracken, which flourishes when not beaten out by animal activity. Mechanical crushing of the bracken fronds achieves this end today. The benefit of protecting the heather and other heathland plants spreads far wider than just protecting a desirable habitat. It also helps conserve other species which depend more exclusively on these landscapes. Go back 75 years and above the heather and gorse by day might be seen hen harriers and at night might be heard nightjars and nightingales. Probably neither seen nor heard but still there amongst the thickets would have been the odd woodcock. Last seen in 1973 and now extinct in the UK, was the red-backed shrike.

Many invertebrates occupy this habitat. Some are partly and some exclusively dependent on it, such as the lesser yellow underwing, which may not have been seen since 1990. Other moths such as the metallic coleophora feed on a wide variety of herbs but rely on the rushes to make neat little cases in which the larvae pupate. The trickle down effect of sensible conservation is the real value and bonus rewarding hard work. Whether or not the Commons are your usual stalking grounds, it is worth taking a closer look next time you go for a stride or two.

Are foxes bigger these days? This was the gist of the news report on the BBC website the other day. Turns out it related to a 38lb male fox killed for attacking sheep in Aberdeenshire. Typical male rural foxes might weigh up to a max 16lbs whilst those living in the smart sophisticated urban areas come in at a svelte 13lbs. But then there are also plenty of bijoux animals around too: in all habitats at 9lbs it seems.

The helping hand of man leaving out scraps, or hobby farmers laying on ready-made chicken dinners in the foxes’ territory has an effect. But the main reason for the weight difference is the abundance or otherwise of earthworms from year to year in July when the young are out foraging. A wet summer brings out a plentiful supply of the fox’s favourite meal, which come to the surface in these conditions. By October foxes have put on their maximum weight for the season. So a dry summer followed by a harsh winter produces slightly smaller foxes which may fail to survive to the next year. Meanwhile, a wet summer and mild winter provides the conditions for heavier foxes to make it through to the following year with an advantage over other males with which they ferociously compete for territories.

That’s all this time. Comments and questions welcome chrisbrown@rayshill.com (758890).


Nature Notes – February 2012

Elementary my dear...


Mercurial is a word not oft used these days so I decided it needed dusting off and given an outing here. It is one of those words which has enticing meanings derived from a variety of sources: be it the Shakespearian character Mercutio, the Roman God, the planet and of course the element Mercury, both named after the deity. For this reason it has a wide variety of meanings; including eloquence, shrewdness, swiftness, and thievishness.

These words describe a few of our local wildlife active at this time of the year. The Stoat, known for its swiftness in pursuing its prey, might be seen prancing as it hunts for voles or rabbits. The Jackdaw, with its predilection for coveting brightly-coloured objects, can be identified by its distinctive Prussian blue wing flashes in the still bare tree branches. In early spring the tawny owl hangs out during the day in the crook of a tree waiting for dusk when the shrewdness of its hunting prowess comes to the fore. As I write this I can hear our resident cock Pheasant delineate its territory as it struts around showing off the elegance of its courting colours.

Before moving on from mercury to some other elements, I relate to two local woodland plants appearing in the Spring: Good King Henry, an edible herb also known as Good Mercury on account of the similarity of its leaves to Dogs (or bad) Mercury which is highly poisonous. Like many such plants it conveniently provides a health warning in the form of a fetid smell which ensures animals avoid it.

Continuing the theme revolving around the periodic table, my next element is Silver. Top of the list of local trees is the Silver Birch. Not a feature tree in our neck of the woods but rather an opportunist. Whilst it was one of the first species to re- colonise the Chilterns after the last Ice Age, having laid down a carpet of rich soil from leaf litter, it was disrespectfully forced out by the much more successful oak woodland. Although nowhere as productive as beech during the last two centuries it could still be commercial, turned into household products, notably the besom, earning a few pence for the bodgers and Chesham-based workshops.

Amongst invertebrates there are several that have a moniker incorporating ‘silver’. The Silver-Y moth, for example, is named after the shape and colour of its marking. The moth is a common visitor to our gardens and one that is attracted to light, so can be found resting around the house during the day. Despite being ubiquitous and producing two broods during the year, this moth cannot survive our harsh winters and each year there are large numbers of migrants from both Scandinavia and, later in the year, from central Europe.

The Silverfish, I guess, is not amongst the favourite creatures which share your house! When the light goes on in the kitchen and bathroom there is usually just enough time to see these most primitive of insects, more correctly called bristletails. Whilst a creature of the dark regions under the leaf litter, they have been associated with humans for as long as we have been domesticated. There’s no surprise then they are at home with us given the warm conditions and supply of ample food. In the kitchen anything with starch is well-received although they also enjoy processed fat. In the bathroom, their alternative residence, where food morsels are at a premium they are just as happy with soap or shampoo.

Thoughts turn to Copper. Two insects come to mind: first the Small Copper. In the 18th century, when originally catalogued, it was known as ‘the copper butterfly’. However, soon after a much larger copper butterfly was identified: hence the qualifying of the species by size. Sadly, no sooner had the Large Copper butterfly been found it was hunted into extinction, and despite attempts to reintroduce, it has not been native in this country for 150 years. The surviving copper makes up for its size with its most distinctive dark orange upper wings. Never prolific, you are likely to see them in June and July in just ones or twos flitting low down on open grassland and sunny woodland clearings.

The other burnished insect is the Copper Underwing. Relatively large as moths go, it is one of those varieties that are not for the squeamish. It can startle you when the curtains are drawn in the morning as it darts out and presents a flash of orange accompanied by a distinctly unnerving rustle of wings.

Setting out on this endeavour I at first stumbled when it came to the element Gold. Then I managed to see through the fug and thankfully came up with some examples. The first was staring me in the face as I espied a pair of Goldfinches on our birdfeeder. It is one of our more colourful garden birds with yellow, red and black plumage. If I were to assign it an anthropomorphic character I would suggest it is assertive, somewhat aloof which chooses not to associate with the other garden birds, who in turn keep their distance. Its name does not, as one might expect, derive from their colouration but can be traced back to the Greeks who considered the bird a fertility symbol and a sign of good fortune and was duly assigned the most precious of all metals to its name.

The other bird that came to mind was the Goldcrest. Weighing no more than a 5p piece it is Britain’s smallest bird but one we can delight in, as it is common in these parts. Its distinctive feature, if one were required, is its bright orange (gold) stripe on its head. Despite the size, tens of thousands make it across from Scandinavia to winter in this country.

I conclude this little journey across the periodic table with a brief stop of one further element, Lead. Sadly I could not find an indigenous species associated with lead but recall a garden plant: Plumbago Europaea, known in this country as Common Leadwort. The association with lead takes us back again to the time of the Greeks when it was believed by botanists that the lead blue colour of the flowers and the lead coloured staining of the sap on the skin indicated that preparations of the plant were a cure for lead poisoning.

I am sure there are other elements to draw on but my grey matter has admitted defeat and I will sign off by encouraging as always your comments and observations. chrisbrown@rayshill.com (758890)


Nature Notes – December 2011

Reading the right signs and navigating Nature’s unmapped highways


In this age of GPS or SatNav, as well as digital maps, and internet-based gadgets be it Streetview or social networking we perhaps take for granted our ancient, inherent but lost or hidden abilities to determine how to find our way from ‘a to b’ or decide when it might be unwise to travel at all.

You may have seen this same theme taken up by a recent TV programme with Alison Steadman and others - All Roads Lead Home - trying to navigate only using nature’s signs. Sadly, TV has a habit of trivializing an otherwise interesting subject. Technology can rule our lives. We all know stories about following a SatNav route and ending down a blind alley when simple observation of the signs around us would have avoided the error of landing up stuck in the mud along Hawridge Lane. In April this year having briefed a team of census collectors on their tasks I was out the next day in Old Hemel High Street with one of the younger crew. Half way through our task I noticed the sky suddenly darken with the arrival of a threatening grey cloud. Pointing at it I ask my colleague if he thought a heavy shower was imminent and should we look for a suitable hostelry to dash for shelter if necessary. He missed my gesticulation towards the sky and instead groped for his iPhone and was checking on the local weather forecast. Having done this he then checked out the pubs in Hemel for a recommendation for one near to us despite there being at least half a dozen within eyeshot. By the time he had finished the heavens had opened.

I’m no Luddite probably a bit of a techno nerd but I’m also struck by the thought that we humans might be suffering a dulling of our natural senses with the inclination to first and always rush to technology to solve our questions rather than also look for the signs around us.

Autumn and Spring are the most significant times of change occurring in the tree-canopy around us. In October and November there is much variation each year in the timing of leaves turning from green to yellow or orange and then brown or red before falling. This is dictated by a combination of max and min temperatures, and day-length or more correctly night-length which changes most rapidly around the equinox and the least amount at the solstice. The tipping-point determining leaf-fall is when there is insufficient light at a given temperature to sustain the production of sugars. The speed of change is always determined by temperature and its change. Thus a longer warmer September and October inevitably followed by a rapid temperature fall in November provided the golden-russet vistas this year. We have all see coastal trees that have been grotesquely sculptured into a distorted shape due to the harsh prevailing winds. However, most trees facing much more modest winds will display more minor distortions to their trunk and branches which are only become visible when the tree is cut down. Observe the tree rings in cross-section and you will sometimes see that one side of the tree will have wider gaps between the rings than the other which can be due to prevailing winds and climatic conditions. Ash seed pods are one of the few fruits of summer’s bounty to remain in situ during the winter. I read that due to prevailing winds these single-winged seeds can oft be seen clearly orientated, pointing towards the south-west, the result of the prevailing north-easterly winds. Following on, mosses and lichens are said to only grow on particular sides of walls. North for mosses and south for lichens. However this is not demonstrating any preference for a particular compass orientation rather the natural consequence of prevailing weather conditions. In the southern hemisphere mosses are found on the south side and mosses on the north side. Furthermore in coastal areas lichens are found in all orientations and ditto for mosses growing in damp woodland and wooded ravines. So be aware they are not always the most reliable of signs.

Unlike less developed societies such as the Inuit, we no longer need to read the signs of migrations in order to survive. With the possible exception of the fishing fleets we no longer depend for our livelihoods on knowledge of the impact of the sun, the moon, the stars and earth’s magnetic field on the influx and outflow across the seasons of animals and birds. Changes to the landscape over much shorter periods, including many examples of more frequent or even daily navigations pass us by unnoticed and as a consequence unquestioned.

Much debate and speculation persists in the scientific world as to the methods by which migration and homing is achieved. Some birds such as Starlings that migrate at night surprisingly utilize the sun to navigate. It is suggested that as the sun sets they orientate themselves and can store a series of readings enabling them to set their course before darkness falls. An alternative method used by other birds travelling by day such as Swallows, utilize the polarization of light coming from the sun. Other birds travelling at night including the Mallard duck and varieties of the Bunting have been found to use star constellations or even individual stars, such as the star Betelgeuse in the constellation of Orion.

Many of our larger butterflies are migrants from the Continent or North Africa. As they are day-flying they use their orientation to the sun and use of polarized light. Moths on the other hand use moon and, remarkably, starlight.

Animals, such as bats use magnetic fields to make longer distance journeys. It is thought that within their brains are small particles of a magnetic mineral called magnetite which react to the magnetic field of the Earth and activate nerves which impact on movements of the limbs. The Common eel which is capable of travelling short distance across land from one river to another will use what we would call scent to identify other sources of water. Fish which live in sea and fresh water e.g. Trout or in estuarine conditions e.g. Eels are driven by changes in salinity when migrating to spawning grounds.

Plants can migrate too, and not only Triffids! Some populations may take hundreds or thousands of years to relocate as climate change impacts. Meanwhile much of pond life is made up of plant life and the vast majority of it is microscopic. On a daily basis these single celled plants migrate towards the top from well-below the surface. As the early day’s light and heat penetrates the deeper areas this kicks off photosynthesis and the oxygen so generated buoys up the organism and it rises towards the surface. Reflecting the daily ritual involved this is known as ‘Diel vertical migration’. Small animals which feed off the plant life will follow the movement of the plant microorganisms and are part of this Diel migration system. Towards dusk as light and temperature falls photosynthesis stalls the organisms return migrating to their lower night-time level. If temperatures or UV light increases to dangerous levels a safety mechanism is triggered and the algae can sink to safer levels. Water plants, such as the insectivorous bladderwort, can move to the surface during the day by inflating their bladders which also are used to capture microscopic animals that live at the surface levels.

Tristan Gooley, who was the mastermind behind the natural science, but not the facile drama, of the television programme mentioned above, has published a book; ‘The Natural Navigator Pocket Guide’. Having just scratched the surface here, I have ordered a copy and hope to return to the subject in the future! Anyhow in the meantime I hope to have stimulated a few readers to take a second look at their surroundings when out and about over the next few months. That’s all this time. Keep your comments coming. chrisbrown@rayshill.com tel:-758890


Nature Notes – October 2011

The View from the other end of the telescope


By the time you are reading this Supernova PTF11kly will be no more. At the time of writing these Notes I had just returned inside, telescope and binoculars in hand, having convinced myself that I had seen the last throws in the life of a star on the edge of the Pinwheel Galaxy some 21 million light years away. In other words I had been focussing in to view an event which had occurred a little over 21 million years ago. Although akin to using the BBC iPlayer to view a never before seen version of a black and white Test Card it nevertheless brings home to one how immense the universe is in both space and time, maybe or maybe not how unique amongst all the galaxies, stars and the planets which interact with them is the Earth The View from the other end of the telescope is the vista of our villages set cheek by jowl with fields and woodland and set within the more diverse but distinctive landscape of the Chilterns which, in turn forms but one of so many and very variable landscapes in the British Isles.

Another way of reflecting on the richness of our local landscape and the wildlife we are lucky enough to be close to is to view it from afar. This summer this opportunity arose when I spent a bit of time in Barcelona. Not only was the climate a complete contrast (34°C) but walking around a cityscape, with its own distinctive sounds and pace of life, was as far away as you could get from the tranquillity of the Hilltop Villages. Despite this, I was rewarded with some interesting examples of what has recently been coined as synurbia. This is where animals adapt to living with humans. At an unusually late-night football match the resident bats were disturbed from their roots high in the stands and spent the whole game flying from end to end. I realised after a while they were gorging themselves on the moths and other flying insects attracted into the stadium by the floodlights and that these bats had identified this as an ideal location to ensure a regular food supply. Locally, barn owls exemplify this adaptation choosing to live near human habitation and benefiting from the small mammal prey that is also attracted to this habitat. Another example that has adapted to city life was the Monk Parakeet. They congregate in large numbers, producing a cacophony of high- pitched sound in morning and evening in the trees of the many parks. Although they appear oblivious to the people in the street below, much like our garden birds they are opportunists, all too well aware of the benefit a close association with humans brings can bring. I saw them frequently swoop down to secure morsels of fruit or the like left by the careless picnicker. Similarly, in the countryside around here their nearest equivalent could be the thrushes and starlings bolstered by the seasonal arrival of redwings and fieldfares that gorge themselves from this month on orchard apples ripening soft fruit and the man-managed hedgerow hawthorn.

One feature that does bring these two distinctly different places together is the trees. Barcelona was laid out at the start of the 20th Century in a grid system of roads with wide straight boulevards. It was planted with large numbers of trees, much like fifty years later when, the ‘Barcelona of the North’- Milton Keynes - was first laid out. It was surprising to see in Catalunya’s capital city, throughout the criss-cross of byways, some familiar trees. Both oak and chestnut are familiar friends, though in both cases they were Mediterranean varieties with distinctive waxy leaves. Along most avenues though, the most predominant tree is a relation of the sycamore, the Oriental plane tree. It is closely related to the London plane which is a cross between the Oriental plane and the American sycamore. Despite the abundance of trees both, in Barcelona and in the surrounding countryside, by August the predominant colours are not the magnificent greens of the Chilterns, but dull oranges and dark yellows. The million shades of green we are so familiar with in the Chilterns are not to be seen in southern Europe, something I found you can appreciate from afar. Spend just a few days in the dry heat of northern Spain and as soon as the aeroplane starts its descent over middle England its like switching from black and white to colour television. Walking around each day one of the most unexpected sights was to see an army of street sweepers in orange jumpsuits (possibly a Spanish version of community service) all over the main streets in the city with brooms gathering up the leaves. No sooner had a section been swept clean was it smothered in more leaves. I would judge by mid September all the foliage would be gone. What a contrast with the glorious autumn kaleidoscope of colour emanating from our beechwoods just about now. Perhaps one of the most unusual experience I had was on a visit to the zoo. If you are ever there it’s well-worth seeing. Much like London Zoo collected animals from the British Empire it was built up on species obtained from the Spanish- speaking world and includes many interesting exhibits we do not see in this country. I came all of a sudden to one well-appointed enclosure of animals from what was one the Spanish East Indies and there, just a few feet in front of me, was as described on the label: - ‘Muntíaco de Reeves - Filipinas’. It took a few moments to realise I was staring at a very tame deer which was calmly staring right back at me before lowering its head to browse unconcerned about my presence. We may see muntjac most days of the year, but try to approach one and after a few steps their white tail goes up like a flag and they skip into the distance. Seeing a well-fed domesticated one who was not concerned about my presence was quite an experience.

This autumn has all the signs of being one of the very damp ones and no doubt although this will be well suited for the fungal flora to ‘fruit’ they also need some of those sparkling days with a light breeze to spread their spores. The wet ground also brings to the surface this year’s crop of earthworms, woodlice and beetles. Already, there seems to be more than the normal crop of ground beetles. In particular, the bloody-nosed beetle also known as the blood spewing beetle. This is a very black shiny beetle about the size of a five penny coin. Totally harmless, but if you disturb or pick one up it is likely to disgorge a gob of nasty red liquid. I’ve never tested it out but gather it is foul-tasting which is sufficient for any sensible bird to spit it out. I’m not sure if it is hedgehog proof, though. A call awhile back from one of my regular ‘field-correspondents’ was to report seeing a 'furze-pig' as they were called until the 15th century. Now hedgehogs are not encountered frequenting our gardens as much as they are in the back yards of towns. In discussion we thought in part this is because, unlike an urban environment, they do not need to rely on garden habitats for food. Also I think there has been a slow decline in numbers over many years due to shifts in agricultural use from pasture to arable which reduces the opportunity for foraging for invertebrates. I would be interested to hear of any sightings. They should be very active at this time of year building up the fat reserves before they head for the log pile to hibernate as the temperatures fall in November.

As always look forward to any interesting sightings or questions. chrisbrown@rayshill.com tell 758890. Chris Brown


Nature Notes – August 2011

Here Be Dragons or Excuse Me, Madam But There’s A Newt In Your Fruit Salad!


‘Here be dragons’ was a warning illustrated on the corners of old maps indicating you were leaving the known world for lands where frightening monsters lurked.

Hedgerows are at their most bountiful at this time of year. Trees, shrubs and herb plants are flowering and fruiting and in turn provide a rich source of food for caterpillars, beetles and fellow insects. For the next three months there are more birds on the wing than any other time of the year and those partial to invertebrates will be doing their best to hunt them down. Over the millennia those insects with marginally better camouflage have outwitted those birds marginally better at spotting their insect prey. The net result is some very hard to spot insects have evolved.

I spent a fair amount of time as a youngster collecting and breeding moths. - Sad I know! – Well, because of this evolution thing, finding mainly green moth caterpillars that feed on mainly green leaves or twig-like caterpillars that rest on twigs was particularly tricky. Then I came across a helping hand. There are a whole lot of small predatory insects that go by the name of Ichneumon wasps. Ichneumon means ‘a tracker’ in Greek, and in medieval times an ichneumon was the name of a mystical creature that hunted and destroyed dragons. These wasps spend their time hunting down much smaller ‘dragons’, caterpillars. These wasps do not eat them but lay an egg in each which hatches and lives parasitically off the caterpillar but not killing it or destroying any vital organs so the host continues to eat and grow. Once the wasp larvae is full grown it burrows a whole in the body of the caterpillar crawls out and pupates next to the caterpillar which spins a web around the pupae to protect it. Sometimes an even smaller ichneumon wasp tries to parasitize the other wasp larvae however, the now zombie-like caterpillar protects its incumbent by swiping away this, would be intruder. Eventually, a new wasp emerges and flies off to continue the cycle. Now what I found is if you follow them along the hedgerow they will find the caterpillars for you.

I had an email in June about a grass snake that had been sighted in the churchyard in Cholesbury. It’s just the places to hang out if you are after mice and the like and with a pond nearby, plenty of frogs and newts. It made me think that though there must be hundreds of such reptiles around us for most of the year its just summer time that we stand a good chance to see them when they come out. Not that they hang out in some kind of ecological closet for the rest of the time, it just that they appear more brazen between June and August when the ambient temperature is warm enough for them to move around in search of food. Earlier and later in the year they may struggle in the weaker sun to push their internal temperatures up to 27°C and then they only move around sluggishly. So the few reptiles that we have in this country are more likely to be out basking on open ground like sandy banks, stones and baked earth paths etc. Although elsewhere in the world, reptiles maybe ubiquitous in the not so sunny Britain we have just six, three snakes and three lizards. So apart from the aforementioned grass snake which tends to get the good press there is the adder or viper which undeservedly gets all the bad press because they have evil looking zigzag markings down the back and are venomous. As a youngster I learned, erroneously as it turned out from seeing all those ‘Westerns’ at Saturday morning pictures, that the best way to deal with a snake bite is to make an incisions with a knife and suck out the poison. Seriously if you ever got bitten keep the limb stationary and send for help, nasty still but you should survive. Mind you if you’re a mouse or vole having been bitten you will have about two minutes to live! The third snake is the smooth snake which does not get any press being neither venomous nor common being restricted to a few south coast counties from Dorset to Sussex.

The distant relative of our lizards is the Komodo dragon. Our three ‘dragons’ of which only two can be found in these parts, are the common lizard and the slow worm. Meanwhile the third, the sand lizard hangs out only in the same places as the smooth snake which is a bit of a problem as the lizard is one of the favourite preys of the snake! Lizards are insectivores (contrarily referring to eating any invertebrates, not just insects), using their tongue to catch their live food. Slow worms though limbless are no more related to snakes than other lizards its just parallel evolution at work allowing for more rapid movement through dense undergrowth than four legs would afford. Unlike snakes they have eye-lids and like other lizards can shed their tail if caught. They are excellent harvesters of slugs and snails. Actually, it is not strictly true that there are only four reptiles in the area. To these we should add the odd family tortoise which occasionally makes a ‘run’ for it from local gardens. I know of one from Bellingdon which has headed our way in the past!

I was about eight and my father and I were returning home on the London Underground late afternoon one summer Sunday. We had been visiting some large ponds in Rickmansworth purpose being to stock up our brand new small pond in our garden. My father had procured a couple of large sweet jars, the kind with black screw-top lids that used to adorn the shelves of newsagents. One of the jars contained a variety of water beetles, water boatmen, dragonfly and caddis fly larvae, the latter secreted in their cases of sticks or minute snail shells, sticklebacks and minnows and probably a few of the more exotic beasties such as a water scorpions. Inside the other jar were our two prize finds of the day. The jars were each carefully housed in their own duffel bag. As the train trundled on towards London it became quite full of passengers and our jars ended up on the overhead luggage racks opposite. It turned out our return trip coincided with revellers travelling to the Proms at the Albert Hall. Not long before we were due to get off my Father drew attention to the lady opposite who was wearing a most colourful hat after the style of Carmen Miranda. However, my Father was not so much interested in the colourful fruit and exotic looking flowers as he was the intruder that was to be seen exploring the cherries and grapes. It was a dark olive green above with a black spotted orange underbelly. Unmistakably, it was a male great-crested newts and future partner of a female that had been our most prized catches of the afternoon. These newts are part of the Salamander family and were in ancient times thought to be the young of dragons. The screw lid, loosened to ensure there was an ample supply of oxygen, had come adrift and one brave amphibian had gone exploring. Our station where we were getting off was approaching fast and I it looked as though we were going to abandon the newt to enjoy itself at an evening of serious music. Fear not as we got up and my Father grabbed our duffel bags and I heard him exclaim “Excuse me, Madam but there is a newt in your fruit Salad!” With this he leant over and extricated the beast from the hat and all three of us alighted from the train leaving one very bemused Promenader. From those two Great Created Newts a whole dynasty spread out from our back garden and then spread out to populate all the local garden ponds.

Hope you have enjoyed reading this article. Comments and questions to chrisbrown@rayshill.com Tel 758890


Nature Notes – June 2011

The Untamed Shrew, the Acrobatic Mouse and the Gardening Vole


All around us an almost hidden community of small mammals live out their brief lives at a frenetic pace. Despite their diminutive size shrews, harvest mice and voles are as much a part of the natural history of the Chilterns today as their larger and more obvious cousins. They were also among the first mammals to occupy this ancient landscape.

Although abundant, shrews remain almost invisible even though they are often but a few yards away from us in our gardens, in hedgerows, fields and woodland. Meanwhile, harvest mice may have a high-rise lifestyle but remain largely unseen camouflaged within the hedgerow or arable field. Voles engineer their concealment travelling through meadows and hedgerows within well-trodden high-speed grass tunnels. The high energy lifestyle of all three demands round the clock foraging and, though hard to hear, it is the sounds of their high-pitched calls which might betray them. By remaining silent and still, we have the best opportunity to locate and observe them.

We have three species of shrew in our midst: common, pigmy and water. All are identified by their long pointed nose, small ears, pinhead eyes, red teeth and dense velvety fur with distinctive dark and light brown patches and whitish underneath. Shrews are the most short-lived of the small mammals, living maybe only for three months. Common and pigmy shrews live amongst leaf litter in hedgerows or woodland. Water shrews enjoy a semi-aquatic lifestyle near clean water streams and ponds.

It is estimated there are over 41 million common shrews in England but, unlike the Victorian ideal of small children, their piercing cry ensures they are rarely seen but more likely heard. Occupying small burrows deserted by larger mammals, they scurry beneath the leaf litter, along well-trodden paths. Diet comprises insects, earthworms, slugs and snails. Water shrews favour shrimps, frogs, newts and even small fish. Shrews mate in April and, being promiscuous, females give birth in September to a brood sired by several males. If very lucky the young may be seen keeping line astern to their mother forming a ‘caravan’, each youngster grasping in their teeth the tail of their predecessor.

The shrew is an important source of food for kestrels, tawny and barn owls, weasels, foxes and stoats. Water shrews also have to contend with pike. Domestic cats will catch but not eat shrews: instead they present their prize to their owners, not as a gift but because of the unpleasant taste.

In contrast to the shrew’s athletic speed, the harvest mouse is the acrobat of the small mammal community. Weighing in at just four grams, it is the smallest rodent in Britain. The prehensile tail – the only one outside ‘New World’ mammals - provides anchorage and balance and is essential given its aerial lifestyle. Harvest mice may live up to three feet off the ground in a nest of hay suspended precariously across a cleft stem or stout reed stalk.

Uniquely, outside the primates, they have opposable toes on their broadened hind feet which allow them to climb up narrow stalks and forage upside down using their forelegs to gather food. They are adorned in yellow and russet coats to match their surroundings, with blunt faces and largely hairless ears and tips to their tails. These mice are slightly longer-lived than shrews: spanning two seasons. With up to three litters of around six young a year between late Spring and Autumn, harvest mice don’t have time to offer much parental care. The young are born blind and hairless and grow very quickly, exploring outside the nest within two weeks, and are abandoned to fend for themselves by the end of the third week. As with shrews, their pace of life comes at a cost, demanding total commitment to foraging for high energy food: from nectar to berries, as well as grain, moss, fungi, roots and even insects.

Bank, field and water voles have made something of a comeback in the Chilterns. Voles are prolific breeders with four or five broods a year and their population fluctuates across the seasons, rising tenfold over short periods. However, they remain sensitive to the extremes of weather, the seasonal scarcity of food and, in the longer term, pollution and landscape change. In contrast to shrews and harvest mice, voles have rounded faces and spiky fur. In an identity parade the ones with furry ears are voles.

Voles use their large eyes to forage for food but deploy their smart scent detection to identify friend from foe. Though mainly consuming berries and seeds, soft fleshy fruits and the leaves of herbs, shrubs and trees, they are opportunists and will not refuse snails or insects. If we see a vole in our garden it will most likely be a bank vole. The field vole likes meadow grasses, specialising on the bents and fescues. The water vole prefers the chalk streams to our hilltops.

Some events in nature remain unchanged it seems. Like the Swiss clock with its eponymous name the first cuckoo started calling here again this year on 17 April. Meanwhile, for the first time in several years, the rabbit population seems to be on the rise again. Returning late at night I’ve started to see them, frozen in the headlights. They are also appearing brazenly in some gardens during daylight.

Another unwanted invasion which might be steadily gaining hold at the moment is from Japanese knotweed, which has established itself in a few places around the villages, possibly where there has been recent ground clearance or perhaps where garden waste has been dumped on the roadside. The crossroads at Heath End and behind the Hill Fort close to the site of the old brickfields are two such examples. Once it takes hold it will quickly advance, suffocating any other plants in its reach and eradication can become complex and expensive. It’s as well to strike back sooner rather than later while one has a chance to conquer it.

I would be interested to hear if you come across any other outbreaks and if you have any other comments do get in touch via chrisbrown@rayshill.com or phone 758890.


Nature Notes – April 2011

Some musings on nature


This being a sort of landmark for my Nature Notes articles, (number 50) I have chosen four of my favourite naturalists who I have enjoyed reading over the years and have provided some of the inspiration for my contributions in Hilltop News over the past eight years.

The Reverend Gilbert White (1720-93), who happened also to be the subject of a biography by Richard Mabey (see later), was arguably one of the first natural historians to commit his thoughts to writing, and these writings had the capacity to reflect with refreshing simplicity and honesty the sights and sounds he came across on his daily walks from the Wakes in Selbourne. He recorded these ‘religiously’ in his exchanges with other men of the clergy who, as was the vogue, were also like-minded naturalists. I find it fascinating that, at a time when relatively little was understood about the life histories of animals and plants, he made almost daily insights. His conversational style of prose is a delight, such as in this observation on swallows...

‘When I used to rise in the morning last autumn, and see the swallows and martins clustering on the chimnies (sic) and thatch of neighbouring cottages, I could not help being touched with a secret delight, mixed with some degree of mortification: with delight, to observe with how much ardour and punctuality those poor little birds observed the strong impulse towards migration or hiding..... and with some degree of mortification when I reflected that, after all our pains and inquiries, we are still not quite certain to what regions they migrate, and are still farther (sic) embarrassed to find that some do not actually migrate at all.’ (The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne, 1789)

Charles Darwin’s (1809-82) writings have been so influential in every walk of life, not just biology, that it is impossible to find just one example to reflect his life’s work. Rather than seek the most notable, the most controversial, or the most beautiful, I have chosen an extract from one of his least known works. He spent much time studying earthworms. Employing his children to collect them from his garden at Down House in Kent, he turned the billiard room into a giant wormarium. He calculated that for every acre of pasture more than ten tons of dry earth passes through the bodies of worms annually and that every few years, therefore, the whole of the topsoil has been so transported. He concluded in a monograph...

‘When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse, we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms. It is a marvellous reflection that the whole of the superficial mould over any such expanse has passed, and will again pass, every few years through the bodies of worms..... It may be doubted whether there are many other animals that have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organised creatures.’ (The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Actions of Worms, 1871)

Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005) who, like her uncle Walter who founded the natural history museum in Tring, was a zoologist and almost as eccentric. Her major area of research was the diminutive flea: however, her writings covered the whole range of the animal kingdom, incorporating philosophy and history into her zoological treatises. One of her observations I came across was about the cuckoo...

‘The cuckoo was thought by the ancient Hebrews to be a hawk and for this reason along with nightjars and owls they excluded it from their diets.’

She goes on to speculate that this assumption, which persisted until the 18th century, was down to the bird’s habit of:-

‘beating along hedgerows or gliding out of a thicket or copse much like a sparrow-hawk or like bird of prey.’

Today, we who live in this part of the Chilterns would be very lucky to see such a sight. Instead we know there are cuckoos around because of the onomatopoeic calls of the males. Miriam, in her unique writing style, describes the female’s song as like:-

‘a soft burbling call rather like a sudden rush of water through a narrow-necked bottle.’ (Fleas Flukes and Cuckoos, 1952)

Richard Mabey (1941- ) attended school in Berkhamsted and spent 30 years observing and recording nature’s happenings around him. He wrote the following in 2010, having recently moved to a remote cottage in Norfolk:-

‘Beetles sidle in under ill-fitting doors. Crickets hang out in lamp lit corners of the living room. Goodness knows what’s going on in the thatch. But I also have the sense of the house being a kind of squatters’ encampment on anciently occupied territory.’

Much of Mabey’s writing has been about flora rather than fauna. His book ‘Food For Free’ was a landmark publication in the 1970s foretelling the resurgence of allotments, self sufficiency and TVs ‘The Good Life.’ His ‘Flora Britannica’ broke new ground by combining, through vibrant writing, plant taxonomy with social history and folklore. However, it is his observations about insects and the like that I enjoy the most. One of the easiest traps for the nature writer to fall into is anthropomorphism. I came across the following words from Mabey...

‘How does one write about creatures whose states of consciousness are so remote from ours, whose lives are so brief and mercurial and full of what we see as the horrors of cannibalism and slavery and living parasitism? Not, certainly, by trying to interpret insects’ behaviour in terms of human institutions, as in so much embarrassing writings about social bees and ants’. (On the anger of hornets in Nature’s Cures, 2010)

All the examples of animal behaviour in the extracts above are ones we can enjoy, or in Mabey’s house endure, but above all appreciate still today in this part of the Chilterns. So, in anticipation of the arrival of Spring, it’s a great time to get out there to see our local wildlife in the raw.

chrisbrown@rayshill.com


Nature Notes – February 2011

Most glorious night! Thou wert not sent for slumber!*


With the mercury in the thermometer at last registering temperatures above zero degrees Celsius after a record breaking average of minus one for December, wildlife has once again resumed its normal order. However, darkness still takes hold in the late afternoon and so the nocturnal habits of creatures are all the more noticeable at this time of year.

"Then nightly sings the staring owl - tu-who, tu-whit, tu-who"

As children we learn that owls make a tu-whit tu-who sound. In fact this is a corruption of the actual exchange from a pair of tawny owls calling to each other. The origin of this phonetic variation can be traced back to Shakespeare who coined it in Love’s Labours Lost. In fact the Bard slightly corrupted the phonetic spelling to fit witticisms within his prose! In reality the female typically sounds-off with a kee-wick and the other responding with a whu-whu.

In January, as dusk falls, last year’s tawny owls start to search out a new territory, having half-slept through the daylight hours typically wedged in the crutch of two boughs of a mature tree. They are, seemingly, content to be in full sight during the daytime and assert their presence as dusk descends. Come across an owl in such a position and it will rarely budge: instead will look straight at you with an unstinting stare. Their favourite roost is a clue to their alternative and older name of wood owl. Two birds in the same vicinity may be heard to engage in a rapid exchange of calls, trying to out-call each other with one eventually asserting its dominance and gaining or retaining territory. The tawny owl is the most catholic of owls when it comes to its prey and there is plenty of variety around at this time of year: worms, mice, voles, stoats, rabbits and small birds.

An owl

If you stray outside on calm evenings around dusk, the muffled sounds of dry leaves rustling and small twigs snapping can set the hairs erect on the back of your neck. More often than not, stepping through the undergrowth is a muntjac nonchalantly nibbling on green shoots. Startle one that turns out to be a male and you may be rewarded with a sudden bark as it retreats to a thicket. As we know only too well, once the barking has started it seems unable to know when to stop and we are treated to a serenade of increasingly indignant rasping shouts every 30 seconds or so.

Another mammal that makes its presence felt at night around this time is the fox. The male bark is a repetitive raff-raff-raff as it does the rounds reinforcing the extent of its considerable territory. Meanwhile the female may respond with one of those ear-piercing screams which are, in effect, a come hither signal to the males that they are in season.

In February, badger cubs will be born and the mothers become increasingly active making efforts to forage for the additional food needed to support their offspring. The testosterone levels of male badgers increase during the late winter as they seek to add to their dynasty. Together they are frequent visitors to our garden and often the first indication of their arrival is the hoarse grunting and growling as they skirmish and scrap for food along the hedgerow.

There are very few species of insect that thrive during the months of December, January and February. Moths almost exclusively require a much higher ambient temperature. One of the rare exceptions is the winter moth, which is on the wing for the next month or so - or to be accurate only the male flies as the female is wingless. The females stay put, emitting a powerful pheromone which can attract male moths from over a mile or so away. After mating the female lays large numbers of eggs in the deeper crevices of bark or on the scale leaves of leaf buds and remain dormant until the early spring when temperatures reach 13°C. The caterpillars, known as ‘loopers’ because they can move rapidly by pulling their rear end towards their heads with the middle section forming a vertical loop, feed on the leaves of most trees. They are so numerous that they provide a major source of food for insectivorous birds such as blue tits when they build nests and rear chicks.

Frogs and toads awake from their stupor or semi-hibernated state and use the cover of darkness to return to their favourite pond or ditch to mate. During the nocturnal hours of February they can create quite a stir across the water surface as males clamber for position in their pursuit of females.

Finally, I heard on the radio the other day an old farmer who recalled, in the pre-warfarin days when hayricks were in vogue, describing how armies of brown rats moved from field to field at night. Apparently if the wind was in the right (or is it wrong) direction, there was a distinctive pungent odour as a mischief of over 200 rats rolled past you. Today, while the number of city rats has remained stable, the quantum of rurally-based rats has declined considerably. Still I guess this is not a sight or smell for the squeamish!

So take an opportunity to appreciate the darkness and the wildlife that inhabits it at this time of year.

(* The quote used as the title is from Lord Byron.)

That’s all this time. As always your observations and questions are welcome. chrisbrown@rayshill.com 758890



Nature Notes – December 2010

Four legs bad and two legs good
(with apologies to George Orwell!)

A telephone call about a certain flying mammal and an interesting email I saw about pond weed a few weeks ago got me thinking about our sometimes schizophrenic relationship with the plants and animals that we live amongst.

A roadside verge with a splash of daisies can be a welcome site in late Spring. Meanwhile a golf green awash with bellis perennis, to give the flower its official name, is a greenkeeper’s nightmare. Similarly, New Zealand pygmyweed and Japanese knotweed, despite the suggestion in their moniker, may be part of the natural habitat in their country of origin: but here they are unwanted, invasive weeds found in Pallet’s Pond in Cholesbury or in the scrub woodland adjacent to the Hill Fort. Both are on Defra’s invasive non-native species list and need to be eradicated asap. The botanical maxim that sums up this duplicity neatly goes along the lines of: - ‘A weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place.’

A while back I wrote about the insects that share our houses. Though generally we would prefer to rid our properties of most of them, humanely or otherwise, from time to time we may tolerate the odd one and occasionally even proudly cherish them (I’m thinking particularly of those gregarious ladybirds, huddling in crevices over winter). Can we apply a similar principle to plants and weeds and the larger members of the animal kingdom that become uninvited guests in our homes?

Exhibit 1 - The birds we today know as house martins had for eons been building their nests on seaside cliffs. Some time later, perhaps 5 -10,000 years ago, when our ancestors quarried for building materials, the martins moved inland to exploit these newly created habitats. At the same time, the use of quarried stone and timber in building construction encouraged the more opportunist martins to choose to make their home close to human habitation.

These birds are summer visitors and feed on the wing, entirely off insects and with the increasing domestication of animals, the ample supply of insects on farms would have made the associated buildings a good choice of location. It was much the same story with Barn Owls, which must have also moved in on discovering the surfeit of rodents around farmsteads. Like the Dutch and residents of north Germany, who each year welcome back the storks and even provide wagon wheels on their roofs on which the birds build their precarious nests, house owners in Blighty have traditionally thought themselves blessed to have been chosen by house martins to make their home ‘chez-nous’.

Exhibit 2 - Bats tend not to be one of those animals which readily make it onto people’s Top Ten favourite cuddly creatures list. Most of us only experience bats when they appear flying just above our heads, which for some is disconcerting. Added to this are gothic superstitions which still persist, subconsciously at least. Visiting a zoo recently and standing in the walk- through bat enclosure, I was interested to observe a general change to the public’s perception of bats. With an opportunity to view them up close they come across as more endearing creatures.

A bat

There are 17 resident species of bat in the UK. All feed on insects and spiders, consuming up to 3,000 in a single night. Back in September I was told about a long-eared bat (which has a wingspan of 12 inches) that had surreptitiously found a temporary home in a spare room. Too early for it to hibernate, it may have come in on a chilly night to find a warm roost for the night and then could not find its way out. It was carefully relocated into a sheltered position outside, leaving the following night.

Bats pair up and mate in September and October and spend the rest of the month building up their fat reserves. In November, as temperatures fall and the volume of insects on the wing diminishes, bats seek out a suitable over-wintering site to hibernate anywhere dry and cool, and may happen upon an opening under the eaves and into the roof space. Most of the older houses in the area will at some time have provided a home for bats. Apart from a few droppings they cause no damage (unlike the other rodents we have to contend with: rats, mice and our not so dear ol’ friend the glis glis.)

Although some bats do hibernate in groups, many will roost on their own to see the winter out. Hibernation implies they sleep through, which is a bit misleading as it’s more like a shallow torpor than a long sleep and they do stir from time to time on the warmer winter nights and take to flying to look for food or water or even to relocate to a new site. If you discover your roof space is a favourite summertime roost for bats, there is no need to disturb them. If you need to do building work and think you may have bats in residence, there are ways of working round them without having to disturb them greatly. For this reason, bat roosts are protected by law and you are required to take and follow advice on how to proceed. There is a very helpful guide available on the Bat Conservancy Trust website at www.bats.org.uk.

Exhibit 3 – Rats and mice are classed as vermin and would readily overrun our houses or outbuildings and contaminate our food larders if we did not take steps to deter or remove them. To these two in this locality we need to add the so-called edible dormouse. However endearing glis glis may look running along the branches of beech trees or on the infra red closed circuit cameras on Autumnwatch, their destructive nature and the risk of disease they harbour when they invade our homes, outweighs any small level of sentimentality for them.

So from these three exhibits it would seem appropriate to twist around a quote from George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and adopt the maxim ‘Four legs bad, two legs good.’

Whether the pyracantha in our garden still has any of this year’s bumper crop of scarlet fruits on it by the time this article appears is uncertain. As I write there are blackbirds currently enjoying hawthorn berries but no doubt also eyeing up the ‘Fire Bush’ for the dessert course. Fieldfares and redwings will flock in by December. Two years ago I wrote about the infrequent visitors, waxwings, arriving from Scandinavia and reports from the RSPB indicate that it could be another ‘waxwing winter’ this year. These are unmistakable birds with, as I described last time: sleek beige coats overlain with russet brown and with black, yellow and white highlights. They may also be seen in the large car parks of supermarket stores, known for their fruit-laden bushes.

That’s all this time. As always your observations and questions are welcome. chrisbrown@rayshill.com 758890.



Nature Notes – October 2010

When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl


Perhaps one of the scarcer trees we encounter along the hedgerow or in oak woodland is the crab apple. This autumn we appear to have a bumper crop of fruit locally, with apples ranging in colour from yellow through orange to crimson and brightest pink. The name, ‘crab’ is said to be derived either from the Norse word skrab, which means ‘scrubby’ or from the Viking word scogs, meaning ‘fruit’. Because of their white blossom they were distinctive long-living features in the landscape. In Anglo-Saxon charters they are found frequently recorded as boundary and way marks.

As apples need to be cross-pollinated, crab apples may also be found as the pollinator amongst more recent varieties in old orchards. Through cultivation, this tree is the precursor of many of the 6,000 or so varieties of ‘eaters’ and ‘cookers’, of which but a fraction survive for us to enjoy today. With their distinctive tart flavour, crab apples also make excellent pickle, jelly and jam; or in an Elizabethan dish they can be roasted with meat until they sizzle. Historically, a most valued wine (or more correctly cider) called verjuice was fermented from the apple. Verjuice is from the Medieval French - verjus - referring to the green colour of both grape wine and raw cider and is still referred to in modern-day recipes. Medicinally, it has apparently long been used to treat scalds and sprains.

Some readers may be familiar with the writings of Richard Mabey: a naturalist and author who used to live nearby in Hertfordshire. He relates the story of walking on Cholesbury and Hawridge Commons and noticing the number of apple wildings which had sprung up. Wildings result from those discarded apple cores. As nearly all apples are combinations of rootstock and cultivars, the resultant fruit may be a throwback to an early known variety more like a crab apple or maybe an unknown and tasty find. There is one apple variety, first found in 1883 and unique to this area, known as the Bazely Apple - thought to be a corruption of By- or Best-of-Lee, which can still be found in one or two gardens locally.

In October, over the past 21 years, there has been a celebration of our heritage of English apple varieties. This year ‘Apple Day’ is on 21 October and a number of pubs in the Chesham area are participating in the celebration, including our own Rose and Crown, by putting on real cider and apple dishes and raising a glass to celebrate the apple!

Swifts are one of only a very few birds that never purposely alight on the ground. By now the swifts are on their migration to tropical Africa. On this journey they sleep and feed on the wing, collecting flying insects in cheek pouches. Temperatures above the Sahara overnight fall to well below zero. Whilst larger migrating birds such as geese can tuck their legs into their down-filled rumps, swifts are built for speed and agility so there is no facility to insulate their legs. Instead, unlike their cousins the swallows and martins, swifts have uniquely evolved legs with their own downy feathers for protecting their legs from the cold.

After a wretched winter, and what some would say an indifferent summer, we are experiencing a few warm sunny, if showery, late summer and early autumn days. Not ideal for most insects, but one of the more prominent late summer visitors to the garden, the dragonfly, does well in such humid conditions: and does a great job for the gardener hunting down pests.

From our back garden over the last three months there has been a near daily plaintive outcry of a juvenile buzzard mewing and competing with a couple of guffawing adolescent great-spotted woodpeckers. At first the youngster was atop a tall tree and the parents were spiralling above, encouraging their reluctant ward to fledge. More recently the parents have not been seen so frequently and are probably travelling further afield. Buzzards favour wooded valleys and in the Chilterns their numbers have been steadily increasing over the last 30 years.

Aside from the odd crab apple there are several other autumn fruits on show. The elderberries are almost ripe as I write and each day the wood pigeons that keep noisy company with us dive bomb nearby bushes to quality-check the produce. In medieval times elder was believed to have magical powers. Grown near the house it acts as a deterrent to vermin, the devil and warts. The superstition continued well into the nineteenth century as it was also used to make horse whips to scare off evil spirits. Elder was commonly used in hedgerows as it was seen as a cheap and quick growing stock barrier.

There is a heavy crop of ripened haw fruit already weighing down the slender hawthorn boughs. This bounty of fruit is a consequence of last winter’s extreme harshness. In turn this will support the anticipated large flocks of redwings and fieldfares we should see this winter.

I read the other day that the latest threat to our bumble bees comes from inbreeding due to the risk from population isolation, which makes them increasingly susceptible to disease and pests such as the parasitic mite. There are several bumble bee species that particularly populate upland parts of Britain such as the Chiltern Hills. I don’t suggest they are particularly in peril but we can do our little bit to encourage them. Rather than throw out those old bean bamboo canes, cut them into six inch lengths, bundle together with some old twine, and lay on some old bricks to provide a winter refuge - much cheaper than those sold in garden centres! Instead, use the money saved to buy some lavender bushes, hollyhocks and foxgloves to encourage more bees to your garden.

I have several books on mushrooms and other fungi, and I studiously trailed around with Clive Carey pointing out which are safe to eat and which to avoid on his annual fungal forays across the Commons. Despite this and the bumper crop of fungi, I do not feel confident to try any out with bacon and egg yet. However, it’s still fun to play I-spy and see how many different colours and interesting shapes and distinctive odours there are around this autumn.

The quote in the title above is from Love’s Labour’s Lost by the Bard. That’s all this time. As always, your observations and questions are welcome. chrisbrown@ rayshill.com 758890.



Nature Notes – August 2010

A song, a smell, the colour purple, and an ailing conker


If the spring is the best time of year to appreciate our beech trees then the summer and early autumn are when to pay attention to another of our locally iconic trees, the horse chestnut. There are an estimated 470,000 horse chestnuts in the UK and we have some magnificent examples of mature trees.

There were once many Elm trees in the area but as we know, in the 1970s, most of these were destroyed by Dutch elm disease. Then, the source of the downfall of the elm was a tiny wood boring beetle which carried a deadly fungus. Sadly, a not dissimilar fate could also befall the chestnut which is being attacked by a disease known as "bleeding canker". In this case the carrier is not a beetle but a small moth called the leaf miner. The moth only attacks the white-flowered variety of horse chestnut. The red-flowered as well as the pink hybrid are not affected. The first instance of infected trees was in Wimbledon in 2002. Since this time, although concentrated in the South East, it has spread to most parts of England. Trees infected by the leaf miner have leaves with transparent sections which soon die off, leaving a mottled appearance. Meanwhile the canker infection takes hold over several seasons, eventually causing the tree to lose boughs and die back. If you see evidence of the disease it should be reported to Defra.

Perhaps because birdsong is such a normal part of our daily experience, both in our gardens and in the surrounding countryside, we tend to take for granted both the immense range of the sounds different birds produce as well as the complex "lyrics" of songbirds such as blackbirds and song thrushes. Many birds produce a variety of sounds under different circumstances. Birds produce these sounds or songs for different reasons; such as attracting a mate, warning off other birds from their territory, or as an alarm when threatened by a predator. The clue to how birds are capable of producing this vast array of sounds is a unique device called a syrinx. It is similar to our larynx or voice box but, despite the latter enabling us to speak, the syrinx is even more sophisticated.

The syrinx is located at the point where the birds' airways branch to the lungs. This enables the bird to make two distinct sounds simultaneously. Hence, the tawny owl uses a variety of calls to communicate with its mate or its fledglings, the starling mimics a mobile phone ringtone or, for that matter, the African Grey Parrot "talks" to its owner. One thing we do share with birds is the way in which our respective babies learn to communicate from interaction with their parents. Through imitation, listening and practising young birds and children learn the complex grammar and rules of communication. Apparently, according to researchers, birds also share with humans the sound of their own voices and sing "for the joy of it".

In the last Nature Notes I referred to the associations between some animals and plants either because of the similarity of certain features or because of a link for medicinal purposes. In a similar vein the names of some butterflies have an interesting origin. Many of the names came about during the 18th and 19th centuries when collecting butterflies, moths and beetles was a "sport" of gentlemen. This accounts for some of the more curious or exotic names. The gatekeeper was so named because the male defends a territory, chasing off any rival males who dare approach too close. The marbled white was, during the Victorian period, known as the "half-mourner" on account of the fashion of women in mourning to wear a mixture of black and white clothing.

Some members of the fritillary family of butterflies have interesting names. The family are so-named because of the chequered markings which resemble the snakes head fritillary flower. The Queen of Spain fritillary was so called by a collector in the 1700s because of the large number of silver markings which were seen akin to the vast riches of the Spanish monarchy. A related butterfly was named after an eccentric female collector, Eleanor Glanville. Sadly, after her death her notoriety as a fanatical collector was used to contest the validity of the will she had made on grounds of her clear insanity - a woman who collected butterflies! One quite rare butterfly which has been sighted in the local area is the purple emperor. This is one of the most spectacular of butterflies. It was given its name by a 19th century entomologist because he was struck by the similarity of the purple to robes containing Tyrian purple, a rare and expensive dye also known as imperial purple extracted from marine snails and only worn by royalty and such like.

Late August and September brings one distinctive smell to those who walk the footpaths and woodlands. The musty odour of the stinkhorn is not one that you can readily warm to, however often one comes across it. The sole purpose of the essence is to attract flies and beetles to spread its sticky spores in the neighbouring area.

That's all this time. As always your observations and questions are welcome. chrisbrown@rayshill.com 758890



Nature Notes – June 2010

After a winter whitewash, whither the wildlife; a wilderness of flowers and a whirring of insects?


Several months on from the exceptional winter weather, the impact on the rural scene and the bashing the wildlife has taken are becoming clearer. The most visible signs in spring include delays in leaf-burst and blossom from trees, perhaps by two to three weeks. In these elevated Chiltern parts hawthorn, normally seen as a weathervane of the season and for many hundreds of years known as May, will be seen at its best this year in early June.

While the emergence of winter flowers such as - ironically - snowdrops were much later, some spring flowers, such as violets, were unaffected by the prolonged cold snap and appeared on cue. Bluebells are normally racing to appear in late April, just in advance of the overshadowing limegreen beechwood canopy. This year both were delayed by almost equal measure.

The Cuckoos' arrival did not disappoint. Over-wintering in North Africa or the Mediterranean, they were blissfully ignorant of the harsh winter suffered by the birds they rely on to bring up their offspring. The first reported arrival in these parts was on 17 April. However, assuming the host birds (warblers, meadow pipits and dunnocks) have delayed nest making etc, the cuckoos will have had to wait for their foster parents to be in place.

Each year, on the last Sunday of January, the RSPB carry out their "Big Bird Watch" survey. The RSPB reports that results clearly show how devastating the effect of a prolonged period of harsh weather has on the bird population. Unsurprisingly, there is a disproportionately heavy impact on our smaller garden birds. In 2009 the long-tailed tit, which has been increasing in numbers in recent years, broke into the RSPB "top ten" list. This was explained by the feeding behaviour of these "bumbarrels" or "flying lollipops", adapting to the increased availability of garden feeders. This year it was relegated to thirteenth and other miniature favourites, such as the wren, coal tit and our smallest native species, the goldcrest, fared even worse.

In Bucks, the population of the house sparrow, once our most numerous bird and already in decline, took a sharp nose-dive in 2010. Although still the highest scoring of the smaller birds, the sparrow is now third. The robin has also been knocked off its high perch, coming in at number 8. The top ten in the county therefore included several medium and larger-sized birds, such as blackbird (1), starling (2), and wood pigeon (6).

Meanwhile, it was interesting to note that a number of more characteristically rural birds cropped up on the lists for town gardens; reflecting the unfavourable conditions in the surrounding countryside. In particular, elevated to the suburban garden bird premier league were fieldfare, redwing, bullfinch and yellow hammer. Next January, if you would like to participate, or at least compare what birds visit your garden, look out for publicity on the BBC Nature and RSPB websites, or in the newspapers.

Anyone familiar with the task of keeping children amused on a long car journey will have turned, perhaps in desperation, to the pub sign cricket game where legs and arms score runs. A variation for anyone out on a country walk is to spot which plants and trees include animals in their names. Starting with domestic animals, there are plenty of dogs around. There is the poisonous woodland plant dog's mercury, where "dog" in medieval English means "worthless or just plain bad". It was believed by herbalists that the roots of the dog rose and tongue-shaped leaves of the herb hound's tongue could cure someone bitten by a mad dog. Another common canine-related example is dogwood. Cats do not figure so frequently. The most likely in these parts is cat's-ear, a dandelion lookalike with small cat-shaped leaves on the flower stalk.

More profuse than cows in these parts are cow parsley and cowslip, both plants sharing pastures with their animal namesakes. There are several horses: horse chestnut, the name deriving from the horseshoe-shaped scar left on the leaf stalk and horsetail, a primitive plant more ancient than its animal namesake. Porcine-related "monikers" that come to mind include pignut: the root was, in medieval times, a valued food which pigs were capable of detecting, much as they do with truffles. Meanwhile hogweed, (not of the giant kind) was collected as fodder for pigs.

Unsurprisingly there are several grasses with sheep in the name; however sheep's-bit is so-called after the custom of sheep to bite off the flower heads. Goatsbeard needs no explanation. For ducks we have duckweed. For chickens we have both fat hen and several types of chickweed, the seeds of which are enjoyed by domestic fowl. Geese are fed cleavers, hence the alternative name goose grass. Whereas meadow foxtail has a clear derivation, foxglove is a misnomer; the origin being "folk's musical instrument". The fly, the rat and the hare are also represented and there are many more.

Out and about in June and July will be this season's crop of whirring insects. A measure of how severe the winter has been will be the number of butterflies on the wing, comprising the second generation of over-wintered adults and those who migrate. Other prominent insects will be bees, able to recover lost ground quickly despite the death of over-wintering queens and the late emergence of spring flowers. Dragonfly nymphs should have been insulated from the cold after three years underwater and will crawl up a stem to transform into adults. To survive, the larger invertebrates use habitat dominance: strength, speed, camouflage and sensory perception. Smaller insects, vulnerable to the vagaries of weather, predation and food shortage rely on the capacity to reproduce in higher numbers. In the air, flies and midges predominate; in the soil and detritus it's beetles while in ponds, water fleas proliferate. Without this annual explosion of the invertebrate biomass most of our mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes and amphibians would not survive.


Nature Notes – April 2010

The Taste of Spring


I happened across the following short extract from a letter written by one of the most famous novelists of the early 20th Century.

"Do you remember that autumn afternoon on Cholesbury Common, when we were picking blackberries...?"

For an author whose experiences while living in this area provided the inspiration to write such controversial (for the time at least) novels as The Rainbow and Women in Love, it's interesting that one lasting memory for DH Lawrence of Cholesbury was the innocent enjoyment of collecting some wild fruit.

Aside from the obvious contrast between the freshness of a punnet of blackberries with those straight from the hedgerow, the real distinction is in enjoying the taste and texture of fruit where some peril is involved, and maybe discomfort suffered in the pursuit of the most ripe and therefore most inaccessible examples of the bramble fruit. A word of warning though: according to folklore the berries should not be eaten after Michaelmas Day, 29 September as they will have been cursed by the devil’s spit! How good this autumn’s crop of fruit will be largely depends on the good start to the growing season offered in April and May. In effect the pleasure derived from their ripeness in autumn is ‘the taste of spring’.

The popularity of the TV programme The Good Life may have rekindled an interest in homemade wines however, these were oft based on age old recipes which had also experienced a renaissance in Tudor England. Henry VIII, having fallen out with the Church of Rome, popularised these ‘Hedge Wines’, as he called them, as a political statement that his court and his people would only taste the wines made from the fruits of his own Empire. The tartness of these fruit wines or cordials was preferred to the often insipid and heady condition of grape wines. Hedges of that time which survive to this day still display the richness and diversity of food plants. They were never a haphazard assortment of trees, shrubs, climbers and herb plants but a carefully husbanded assembly, providing all year round food supplies, flowers, hips, haws, berries as well as fragrances and potpourri, medicines and poisons(!), protection and fodder for animals, building materials and firewood.

Although around this part of the Chilterns most woodland comprises mainly hardwood trees, we are blessed with some impressive stands of conifers, such as the narrow plantation that runs up the valley side to Oak Lane near Widowcroft Wood. In Scotland, crossbills make a handsome living using their eponymous tool to wheedle out the flanged pine fruits from their cones. In the otherwise silence of a highland forest, the rasping sound of these birds betrays their presence. We cannot boast this colourful finch but its cousin, the greenfinch, might be found this time of year seeking out maturing cones and doing a passable imitation of its Hibernian relative. A close inspection of their conical bill reveals it too has a scissor-tipped beak enabling it to ‘turn a hand’ to extracting the tasty morsel. The ability of birds to taste or smell is extremely limited in enabling them to cope with the nasty stuff they come across when foraging or consuming, but sufficiently developed to ensure they reject poisonous insects or plant items.

There are some plants in bloom we admire for their colour and others for their perfume. It is easy, when talking of April, to wax lyrical about the waxy blue bloom on the woodland floor of the bluebell. In doing so, one can overlook the delicate inflorescences of wood anemone, white above and a thin pale pink stripe beneath: a perfect flower for an artist’s still-life study. The Greeks called them windflowers on account of their requiring a spring breeze to bring them into flower. Like many woodland flowers at this time of the year they rely on early emerging insects. Beetles and flies taste their spicy nectar and pollinate them. Their bitter perfume does nothing to complement their beauty and provides them with their alternative Old English name of ‘smell foxes’. Standing proud and firm amongst the bluebells as well as in its own ‘plantations’ is another white flower; the fivestarred wild garlic. Again its traditional name gives a clue to its main feature. ‘Ramsoms’ derives from rans meaning ‘rank’ which reflects the unmistakable odour when it is encountered. Such an all-pervading smell can truly be tasted as we walk amongst it and its essence from bruised stems carried back home with us.

I have commented previously on noticing a year-on-year reduction in cockchafers in May. I doubt the maybugs around here could have somehow evolved to ignore the appeal of security lights. In towns where garden lawns provided a likely habitat, increased manicuring and replacement may have taken their toll, but here with a more varied habitat the causes are less clear. On agricultural land their demise could still be man-made as they are rabid feeders on cereal roots. Changes in weather patterns might play a part, or changes in soil temperature and water-table levels. Another possible cause may also be the increase in populations of corvids (crows, magpies and jackdaws) which scavenge for the tasty creamy-white C-shaped grubs of the beetles known also as ‘white worms’. The adults hatch in October but hang around underground until May when they swarm around trees, such as oak, on which they feed. It will be interesting to see if this year bucks the trend or not, reports from eye or ear-witnesses would be welcome.

Three other signature species for April and May: the Cuckoo, last year heard early (17 April): this year perhaps it may be late? Then there are Orange Tip butterflies busying themselves, tasting the nectar of the bank-side flowers, careering back and forth giving the false impression of a mass invasion. Thirdly swallows, tasting this year’s crop of insects while on the wing. So in conclusion, and like Lawrence, why not also enjoy a perambulation on, and in moderation, the fruits of the Commons.

That’s all for this time. Comments and questions welcomed as usual, phone 758890 or email chrisbrown@rayshill.com



Nature Notes – February 2010

Patrolling in a dignified procession of one


It’s the second weekend of January when I’m penning this. The snow is still lying deep in many places. Over the lawn where the powdery snow has drifted and accumulated in places it provides some clues as to what has been out and about.

If one can suspend total disbelief that animal behaviour is not radically altered by weather conditions, animal tracks provide one insight into their nocturnal or otherwise unseen habits. There are tracks, some straight and purposeful; from A to B, meanwhile others meander, crisscrossing or even backtracking. Closer examination provides more insights. For example, a fox whose signature track with paw imprints aligned front-to-back had taken the same route to traverse the garden on more than one occasion, but this just one small segment of their very large territory. In one or two places en route, the powdery snow had been scattered when the fox pounced and scraped away to reveal part of a sod beneath. Perhaps the fox had sensed there was food beneath to scavenge.

Very small mammals, too small to hibernate, find it warm enough beneath the snow blanket to forage for food. In contrast, a muntjac disclosed, a hesitant personality, if such is an apposite description, with tracks that describe several shallow arcs, stopping, inspecting and starting frequently. The single track suggests that sadly the there not much to sustain deer here at the moment. The most interesting track is one that does not start on one edge and end on another side of the lawn. A largish bird had emerged from under a hedge which clearly can cope well with powder-snow, not a woodpigeon but a solitary cock pheasant whose presence is betrayed by the frequent but obviously nervous warning croaks largely ineffective but loud enough to draw one to the window to see the bird somewhat pathetically foot-scraping. Later inspection reveals both bold beak-marks and distinctive solid footprints in the snow.

Assuming no repeat of the winters of 1947 or 1963 or even the slightly less severe weather conditions of 1979 or 1982, by the time you read this, lawns will have re-emerged from their arctic blankets. A naturalist's focus in the garden naturally tends to be drawn to the tree and plants and away from the largely monoculture patch of grass. For a change, focusing on the lawn provides some new insights into garden wildlife. I am reminded of that film of the 1980s "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" where a scientist’s invention shrinks his children to the size of small insects who then find themselves having to traverse the length of their garden lawn which has become a hazard-strewn environment comprising fierce beasts and triffid-sized plants. In other words as the lyrics go: ‘It’s a jungle out there’, every bit as dangerous, for those that inhabit it, as the full-size version.

In its natural habitats grass is the ultimate survivor, despite being heavily grazed, cut to the ground, trodden on, frozen solid or burnt to a crisp it has evolved the supreme ability to overcome devastating injury because of its capacity to regenerate from the base of the plant or its roots, to grow faster than and therefore drive out less vigorous plants. Created as lawns swards of grass are surviving on the edge and under stress for increasing periods of the year as our climate becomes more ‘Mediterranean’ in nature.

An interesting consequence of this artificial habitat is the occurrence of ‘fairy rings’. Here the spread of the mushroom mycelia (the equivalent of roots in the fungal world) first results in a diminishment of nutrients by strangling the grass roots. Whilst this first stimulates the grass to grow faster and luxuriantly, ultimately it starves the growth of the grass, turning it brown and killing it off. This is followed by the fungi ‘fruiting’ throwing up a ring of mushrooms. Having used up all the scarce nutrients in situ, the mycelia seeks further nutrient by spreading outwards, equally on all sides and repeating the process with the fairy ring slightly enlarged. Some such rings can easily be as much as 50 or 100 years old.

Cock pheasants visiting gardens in their territories do so more frequently and more confidently in March. Later in spring the male pheasant may be seen escorting one or more female birds but even on their own this escorting behaviour seems embedded in their behaviour. I read somewhere that the way a pheasant promenades across one's lawn was as PG Wodehouse once described a butler’s habit of ‘patrolling in a dignified procession of one’. Sums the pheasant up very neatly.

One of the more indiscreet visitors to our lawns in February and March is the Green Woodpecker. A distant relative of the Kookaburra it shares with its cousin the desire to announce its presence with a somewhat raucous cackle. A short reconnoitre on a tree is followed by a confident landing on the lawn. Standing uncomfortably upright but with head bowed at an acute angle it starts its search, probing as it goes. Later in March it might tackle one of those small ant nests that appear in the grass, but earlier its prey are any invertebrate which is disturbed by its prodding. Woodpeckers have extremely long and sticky tongues which can articulate and are capable of precise movement which is excellent for dislodging and extracting insects.

Four more birds which flourish on lawns which have been subject to less manicuring are blackbirds, thrushes, starlings and dunnocks all of which will be attracted to the invertebrates a grass sward which also contains a variety of low growing wild flora such as Dog violet, red clover bugle and dare I say plantain, buttercup and dandelion. Unlike suburban gardens we hardly need to introduce these, just manage them so they don’t overwhelm your lawn.

That’s all for this time comments and questions welcomed as usual. Tel: 758890 or email: chrisbrown@rayshill.com



Nature Notes – December 2009

Otherwise obscured or easily overlooked


“Having wandered through woods for several miles, the lane suddenly came to the open, and I found myself on an open escarpment of the Chilterns, a country so familiar...” J.H.B. Peel (1970)

The Chiltern scene at this time of the year confirms that the familiarity with which Peel talks about is not just a singular experience to be enjoyed only in spring or midsummer, such as one might experience in an equatorial rainforest where the seasons are unchanging. The Chilterns may be described for the tourist as verdant woodland and pasture but the winter season affords contrasting views of beige through to brown and at times provides the only chance to see the flora and fauna around us which may be otherwise obscured or easily overlooked.

Take the simple example of birds’ nests. Built to survive the rigours of the weather and to avoid being discovered, they remain largely undisturbed hidden by leaves. With hedges and trees stripped bare this is the only time of the year when the intricacies of design, construction and disguise can be seen. Low down in a bush maybe a wren’s nest, a woven tapestry of leaves, moss and sedge or grass. Higher up, a long-tailed tit’s bottle-shaped dome remains entwined in the blackthorn thicket, held in form by the tension of slender twigs and spiders silk. In contrast, swaying in the highest boughs of the stand of beech trees, are the tatty remains of more haphazard nest-building by rooks and crows. The latter will already be hard at work rebuilding theirs, the former soon to follow their industry.

Mammals of all sizes need to steal some of the shortened daylight hours to forage for food or trap prey and are more likely to break cover and be seen and disinclined to seek cover if disturbed when feeding.

There may be over 900 species of moss in the UK. Perhaps we have over 100 in this part of the Chilterns: all on north-facing surfaces. Somehow overshadowed by the tree canopy they remain all but invisible to our senses for most of the year. Now unhindered by leafy boughs the woodland floor is flooded with bright direct sunlight in December and January. Taking advantage of this, mosses make the most of the next two months with vigorous growth, and replenishing their stores of energy. Within a few days they will transform from the dullest to the brightest shades of green, for this short period the most distinctive feature in an otherwise almost monochromatic wood.

You may not have spotted them straightaway but once encountered, others may come into sight, tucked away in a crevice, maybe a door or window jamb. It seems to be one of those winters when the bumper crop of late-season ladybirds are set on making our houses their temporary quarters. Regardless of the willingness of some of us, their hosts, to tolerate and accommodate them, our centrally-heated homes do not provide the right conditions for these beetles to survive the cold season. In their natural environment they would hibernate right on until at least April, unless spring comes earlier in late March. Inside, the artificial climate will stir them into activity too soon, perhaps as early as mid-January before there is any prey, typically aphids, for them to eat. As a consequence they will starve to death. So for the kinder-hearted amongst you, the best advice is to evict the ladybirds, thereby encouraging them to find an alternative hermitage.

My reference book advises on the use of a pooter, a peculiar device: a Victorian invention still used today by entomologists who suck up small insects via a tube into a specimen jar. I suspect this is not a device you have to hand, in which case a tickling stick in the form of a small brush or cottonbud will disturb the beetles sufficiently to encourage them to relocate to suitable place. A superior hotel for insects can be made from a bundle of foot long, hollowended bamboo sticks. In true "Blue Peter" tradition a wholly satisfactory alternative motel-standard home can be constructed from a plastic lemonade bottle cut top and bottom and the cylinder filled by a length of corrugated cardboard, rolled up and stuffed loose enough for the insects to come and go freely. Ensure that the cardboard is sitting well inside the bottle with none left hanging out. If it gets damp the insects won’t use it. Having encouraged your visitors inside, mount the bottle in a tree or tuck into a south-facing wall, pointing slightly downwards to allow any moisture to drain out.

I end on something off-beat though entirely in keeping with the theme. For a seasonal topic I thought what, at this time of year, might one all too frequently stumble over on a walk around these parts? What frequently lies beneath our feet in some quantity at this time of year? I mean all that glorious mud which reliably confronts us wherever we choose to stroll and, despite our best efforts, returns homeward with us. I am assured that wherever it occurs it is of a unique composition and true reflection of the place in which it lies, comprising not just inorganic minerals but the organic remains of the particular plants that grow nearby and the animals that pass over or through or fall into and get trapped.

It’s the sort of stuff that TV forensic scientist Grissom could pin down within a few metres. So as elsewhere, in this part of the world there is a peculiarly Chiltern ooze within which there will be a high proportion of tree leaves; particularly beech, shards of bracken frond, fruits such as hawthorn and sloe at some stage of disintegration. On top there will be the tracks of muntjac, badger, fox, pheasant, horse or human. However, it is also a living habitat for local invertebrates; worms, beetles and centipedes as well as fungi and bacteria. Now while some of the detritus will have disintegrated or dissolved beyond recognition, it will also contain, trapped in the uppermost layer, this year’s deposits yet to be consumed by those invertebrates or dissolved by fungi. A contemporary fossil if you like. Mud is what Peel describes as a ‘chiaroscuro’ of colours and textures and just another reflection of the Chiltern country so familiar.

As always I welcome comments and questions.

chrisbrown@rayshill.com 758890


Nature Notes – October 2009

A thousand shades of ochre, silver, emerald, smoky brass


Sometimes, when I get stuck for a few words to start these Notes I turn to one of the various emails and articles that come my way, to gain some inspiration, or see what is topical at that moment. So this being one of those times, my attention was grabbed by one email, in particular, which seemed to be a good place to start this month. Spiders! Now the first thing the article said was that when spiders are mentioned you lose half your readers. So, to the 50% of you who are still reading, thanks for staying at least this far. Apparently, one thing you may have in common with fellow readers at this stage is a preference for reading less about ‘the fluffy or cute members of the animal kingdom, bunnies and dolphins’, preferring ‘nature in the raw’.

Anyway, back to the spiders, and in particular the house occupying ones which will have started to make their presence known scurrying along the skirting or emerging cautiously from the fireplace. About now, and like clockwork, London Zoo starts getting calls each year from troubled house-owners who are desperate for advice to rid themselves of extremely hairy, long-legged arachnids which, thanks to David Attenborough or the late Steve Irwin documentaries, they readily, but mistakenly, identify as the deadly tunnel spider: no doubt imported on some exotic Australasian fruit.

It’s not just the hairiness which is exaggerated, the going rate for size is around four inches long! It may feel like some kind of invasion, but this generation of house spiders will have been unseen, uninvited houseguests since they hatched out at the start of the year. They remain discretely out of sight until their last moult is done and, now they are ready to find a mate, are at their most active. Such is their delight in living alongside you, if you manage to corral them into a tumbler and drop them out through the window they have a strong homing instinct and will find their way back in very quickly. On the upside, house spiders are efficient pest controllers ravenously devouring flies, mites and other small insects, equally though they can survive a famine for several months between meals.

As I write this, swallows are tumbling high above frantically feeding on the wing, making the most of the bloom of energy-rich invertebrates and storing up the food reserves for the journey to southern Africa. The aerobatic spectacle is the result of the annual explosion of flying insects and those microscopic cousins of the aforementioned spiders who, despite not having wings, spin silk strands on which they ride the air currents. Periodically, and in ever more increasing numbers, the birds rest up in ordered lines along any convenient wires, conversing loudly. Before electricity and telegraphs what did they use instead? On past years’ evidence, by October they will be on their way. However, more and more sightings of these birds have been reported in southern England during November and even December suggesting a small, but increasing number do not make the marathon 6000 mile journey. This change in habit results from a milder autumn period, which in turn is extending the period during which a larger than previous supply of winged insects is available. It is doubtful though that those which remain behind survive through the winter, but in time we may find our swallows become winter companions.

On the path leading to St Laurence’s Church I came across a newly established patch of liverworts where the holly had been cut back. In the wild they must be one of the most overlooked groups of plants, while in our gardens they are frequently the subject of complete annihilation. In past times these very primitive organisms would have been collected, dried and used, as their name suggests, as a cure for a range of diseases attributed to the liver. This is because the simple, flat emerald green ‘thallus’, which comprises the whole plant, is liver-shaped. The Chilterns may not be one of their prime habitats but they are still prolific and enjoy any damp, dappled shaded woodland edge or perhaps a newly created clearing where a tree may have fallen. Their success lies in being able to invade quickly virgin territory, creating an overlapping, scaly green carpet across the unoccupied bark, which then develops its own moist microclimate: the perfect habitat for centipedes, beetles and mites. I know greenkeepers and nurserymen consider them a nuisance and will eradicate them, but in your garden they will provide an important part of your local ecosystem, a source of invertebrates for small mammals and birds, like wrens, goldcrests and treecreepers.

I always enjoy exploring the interconnections between natural and local history. Once such example links our autumn hedgerows with the Second World War, which started sixty years ago last September. At the outbreak of war, there were food shortages. The impact of rationing on diets and the Nation’s health resulted in cases of rickets and scurvy. A campaign initiated right here in Buckland Common by Claire Loewenfeld, a nutritionist, to promote the collection and processing of hedgerow fruits into syrups and preserves to supplement the diets of children with Vitamin C was enthusiastically taken up by the Government of the day, who distributed instructions and recipes to hospitals and schools. Top of the list of beneficial fruit were rosehips, which had the highest concentration of Vitamin C. I am sure many can recall, both during and after the War, children being given the bright red sweet rosehip syrup on rice pudding or semolina. Claire also encouraged the use of other hedgerow fruit including blackberries, elderberries and crab apples. While our diets may not need supplementing in such a vital way we can still enjoy the tastes of the hedges, as well as their autumn colours. Others waiting to enjoy the low hanging fruit will be badgers and this year’s new foxes set free from the security of the vixen, while redwings and thrushes, incoming from the north, will gorge on haws and sloes.

I conclude with a few words from a poem written some 170 years ago, which could describe our autumn scene.

"Leaves of all textures that a leaf
could be: palm, fluff, prickle, matte and plume;
bobbled; shaggy plush. A thousand shades
of ochre, silver, emerald, smoky brass..."

They appear in a new book, "Darwin: A Life in Poems", written by the naturalist, both aboard the Beagle and later. This new book coincides with the 150 anniversary, in November this year, of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, and might make a worthy Christmas present for someone interested in natural history and poetry.

That’s all this time. As always your observations and questions are welcome.

chrisbrown@rayshill.com 758890


Nature Notes – August 2009

September sights and sounds; spangling, semaphore, sheaves, shucks and swallows


The weather conditions in North Africa are not my usual starting point I admit. However, the wet winter season in Morocco has provided us with a ‘once in a decade’ display of spangling colour. Painted Lady butterflies are not a resident species in the UK; well at least they’re not for the present anyway. Each year we rely on the northern migration of this distinctive butterfly. It is one of the most widespread and well-travelled butterfly tribes around the globe and is related to another migrant, the Red Admiral. Both belong to a genus called Vanessa, the girl’s name which had been coined by Jonathan Swift around 1700.

Anyway, the unusually heavy rainfall in February caused a verdant covering of food-plant in the Atlas Mountains which in turn supported an abnormally large herd of rapacious caterpillars. Emerging a month later from bejewelled chrysalises, the adults departed northwards to France, Spain and Portugal. A second generation left from there northwards. This year, rather than just tens-of-thousands, up to a million or more arrived across the UK. They have been reported as far north as the remoter Scottish Islands and although they prefer open ground they have been plentiful in the more secluded parts of the Chilterns.

In July these generally non-gregarious caterpillars - which are black/grey spiky with a pale cream stripe along each flank (Peacock butterfly larva is a glossy black) - could be found feeding on thistle and nettle. By the time this imago edition of HTN emerges through your letterbox, the British-born generation of Moorish imagoes should also be about to emerge too. So keep an eye out for this large showy butterfly with its characteristic speedy corkscrew flight pattern.

This UK-born generation do not breed here but disappear and there is debate as to their next destination. Although it has been suggested they head southwards again, there’s no confirmation of the theory that they actually return safely back in North Africa. Lepidopterists are hoping to crack this mystery later this year.

This mystery has a parallel with one which puzzled naturalists over 200 years ago. Then there was a theory about where swallows went in winter. The collective view was that they buried themselves in muddy banks until the spring. Today there is no doubt where swallows go in winter. On warm September evenings they can be seen feeding up on the clouds of insects drifting on the thermals and at dusk congressing as they masse together on overhead wires ahead of their synchronised departure for southern Africa.

A year or so back I commented on the absence of lapwings from our fields in more recent times. This year there have been sightings in an arable field in Heath End and I was also lucky enough, while walking the parish boundary, to see a pair performing a haphazard display, from which they get their name, and aimed at distracting would-be predators from finding their chick(s). Their black and white wings seemingly using a unique semaphore to beat out their message. These were a welcome sight as the lapwing is one indicator of how well or otherwise the local wildlife is faring.

We tend to associate owls with the hours between twilight and dawn and conversely not birds ‘of the day’. Tawny owls break this rule. Fledgling tawnies leave the nest early, after five weeks and far too early perhaps, as they then hang around perched on branches in nearby trees for up to three months, relying on their parents to feed them. I think this is akin to serving a kind of apprenticeship whereby the youngsters supposedly are learning how to lay up motionless and unnoticed during the day. However, like all young children, they crave attention and are given to break cover with spontaneous outbursts along the lines of “Keewik” in the middle of the day. Once heard, look out for a gawky-looking fluff ball trying feebly to appear inconspicuous.

To be honest, being a scientist, my appreciation of our English poets had until now sadly not stretched as far as John Drinkwater, whose works were influenced both by his childhood in the Warwickshire countryside and the later horrors of the First World War. I happened across the following poem, called September, which not only reflects these influences and the time of year but is of particular relevance for another unexpected reason. The verses are believed to have been inspired by the countryside around here, experienced during a short visit in 1915/6. But that’s a story I will save for another time, wearing my local rather than natural history hat on!

Wind and the robin’s note to-day
Have heard of autumn and betray
The green long reign of summer.
The rust is falling on the leaves,
September stands beside the sheaves,
The new, the happy comer.
Not sad my season of the red
And russet orchards gaily spread
From Cholesbury to Cooming,
Nor sad when twilit valley trees
Are ships becalmed on misty seas,
And beetles go abooming.
Now soon shall come the morning crowds
Of starlings, soon the coloured clouds
From oak and ash and willow,
And soon the thorn and briar shall be
Rich in their crimson livery,
In scarlet and in yellow.

Almost 100 years on, many of these September sights (and sounds) around our villages have changed. There are but a few remnants of those ‘russet orchards’ and the image of sheaves is an even more distant memory. Although these elements of Drinkwater’s rural idyll may have disappeared, the autumnal woodland vista and hedgerows described in his third verse still remain very much part of our September scene today, except where they have been replaced by a monoculture of sterile trees.

So perhaps while out one late September day you’ll catch that first glimpse of this year’s ‘clouds’ and realise the timelessness of that view. Meanwhile, there’s also that distinctive crunch underfoot as you walk on the remains of nutshells, beneath a hazelnut tree. Those discarded by squirrels have been splintered in their jaws. Others more intact have a circular hole and teethmarks, having been gnawed through by wood or yellow-necked mice. Amongst the discarded shucks may also be some shells with a tiny circular hole bored in them. This is the work of a third consumer, the nut weevil. One egg is laid by the adult beetle when the shell was small and soft. The larva feeds on the growing nut and, having drilled its way out, continues the journey to adulthood over-wintering under an insulated blanket of leaves.

Thinking of entering a photo in this year’s Hort Soc Show? Some well-positioned over-ripe fruit, such as bananas or plums is an excellent way to attract those large butterflies to the garden and get them to keep still while you photograph them. Happy snapping!

Thanks for the questions and sightings since last time, keep them coming.

chrisbrown@rayshill.com 758890


Nature Notes – June 2009

Socialising - ‘Whilst many a mingled swarthy crowd – rook, crow, and jackdaw – noising loud’




Weathewise, June is the month by which we judge how good our summers are. The rare occurrence of a ‘flaming June’ somehow dictates our impression of the season as a whole. Take 1976, which we oft quote as the benchmark on which all summers are to be judged. It was characterised by an all but perfect June. True, July and August were also sunny but that is not so unusual. My conclusion is that it’s the length of the summer season that stands out in our memories not the occurrence of scorching hot days. So what about this year? Although the Met Office has announced it will be a ‘good summer’, folklore contradicts this with the first cuckoo late announcing its arrival this year (25 April). The only other prediction I will make is that rain will not interrupt play on Centre Court this year!

I was the witness at a wedding a month or two back. Not a wedding I had been invited to and not one involving just a single couple but one with many, many participants. It was a noisy affair but there were no humans involved. It was a ‘crows’ wedding’ but there were no crows involved. Instead, each day from late January for several weeks, there were normally over a hundred rooks flying in tight formation, stalling and stumbling. Why is a conflagration of rooks assigned to crows? Rooks and crows are closely related of course and at a short distance both birds look black but rooks have shiny feathers which in sunlight have an ‘oil-on-water sheen’ of blues, bronzes, purples and mauves. So what is going on at such ‘weddings’? Rooks are the most intelligent and sociable birds of the ‘corvid’ family (rooks and crows, etc) while crows lead a mainly solitary existence.

Maintaining good relations in a crowded community necessitates order, customs and conventions. Rooks achieve this by having rules reinforced by a complex vocabulary; some say up to 30 distinct calls. Younger birds joined in to learn the ropes and practise these elaborate flights ultimately aimed at establishing pairings and hierarchies in the rookery. As the days went by many couples cemented a relationship by synchronising their displays. Victorian writers did not try and distinguish rooks from crows, both of which were imbued with age old affiliations with death and disease and were equally blamed for their destructive abilities and scourge of arable land. Rooks in particular outnumbered crows by a hundred to one, so it remains a bit of a mystery why we have ‘scare crows’ and not ‘scare rooks’. We may describe distances in terms of ‘as the crow flies’ yet it is the rooks in their hundreds, rather than crows, that are known for long, straight flights up to 25 miles returning to their roosts. Much like a rook in a ploughed field, I unearthed this tasty morsel, part of a longer poem about the month of January by the 18th Century poet John Clare, which paints for us a still relevant picture:-

Whilst many a mingled swarthy crowd –
rook, crow, and jackdaw – noising loud,
Fly to and fro to dreary fen,
Dull winter‘s weary flight again;
They flop on heavy wings away
As soon as morning wakens grey,
And, when the sun sets round and red,
Return to naked woods and bed.

One interesting find, summing up the love-hate relationship with the rook, was an account of how colonists to New Zealand in 1874 took rooks with them. Some writers, somewhat romantically, have said this was to remind the émigrés of the ‘Old Country’. Not at all, despite their lessthan- harmonious relationship with man, they were seen as ideal pest controllers to deal with insect infestations prevalent in the South Island. Rook populations may have fallen in the UK but are on the increase down under and there are serious concerns they will become a major pest in their own right in the North Island. Another reminder of animals living in an unusual association with humans came from a recent conversation about the arrival on someone’s doorstep of some wild but highly sociable bees, living happily in the crevices beneath the brickwork - a source of neither damage nor danger. Bees are the most highly developed of all insects. Although the colonies of honey bees may seem to be the ‘bee’s knees’, these housesitter bees are in fact the top of the beepyramid. These bees have developed a specialised trade, wood-boring or leaf-cutting for example. Many of them have consequently sacrificed their ability to bite or sting. So to insure their progeny are protected against predation, they live as individuals but in a loose, but sociable community preserving their individuality but adopting a level of give and take with their neighbours. These bees are in fact the most ‘socialised’ of all bee societies, proving the motto ‘Good fences make good neighbours’. The next group of bees and the largest of all are in fact strictly solitary, shunning publicity. Some are even aggressive towards their own kind and prime candidates for a bee ASBO for their persistent unsociability. Honey bees represent the third way.

A highly ordered, sociable community sacrificing individuality for an impressive organisation of labour, comprising foragers, defenders and egg producers (queens and drones) all locked together by an advanced form of communication. Man has harnessed this community living to his own ends, exploiting their industry as pollinators and harvesting the fruit of their labours. A few thousand years of intensive bee husbandry may be having disastrous consequences. Colony Collapse Disorder is the name coined for the yet-to-be- determined cause for rapid decline in bee communities right around the world. Some of the possible reasons for the declining numbers could be a bee plague, pesticides, or malnutrition. If the commercial bee community were to collapse totally within as little as three seasons, fruit and vegetable food production could have all but ceased. The consequences for food production would be devastating on the human population. I don’t normally recommend a walk amongst the nettles but if the harsh winter has not taken too heavy a toll a third brief example of sociability to look out for are the colonies of small tortoiseshell, peacock or red admiral caterpillars clustered tightly on the freshest leaves. Safety in numbers and co-ordinated reactions to predatory wasps protect the vulnerable larvae and ensure a healthy population of butterflies to socialise in your garden or up and down the hedgerow.

Comments and questions as usual to chrisbrown@ rayshill.com, 758890.


Nature Notes – April 2009

In celebration of the beech!


If the Chiltern Hills has but one signature feature it is the beechwoods. The topography, height and overall poorer fertility of the Chiltern soil has set apart this upland area from other similar ones in southern Britain, such as the Cotswolds, with their rich sheep pastures, or the Oxfordshire and Wiltshire Downs with their sheep folds.

The history of the Chiltern beechwoods is a long one but is cut short here. The last Ice Age sculptured the Chilterns as we see them today. It took until around 8000 years ago, 2000 more years than oak, for mature beech forests to emerge, spawned from pollen blown across the joined-up continental land mass soon to be split by the English Channel. Since then, there have been successive clearance and envelopment by the ancient Wildwoods before being finally ‘tamed’ by axe-wielding Stone Age man around 2-3000 years ago. Without continuous human intervention, these hills would not have the patchwork of managed woodlands, open pasture or arable land we have inherited today. Instead, a mixture of wildwood or impenetrable scrub would have persisted until probably the 16th century and the typical Chiltern villages we live in today would either never have emerged or would not have uniquely developed around or along open common land as they have.

Unlike today, in medieval times a stand of beeches would not have stretched half way to the sky. Instead, trees may have been pollarded or coppiced and if allowed to grow upwards at all would certainly not have been left intact into late middle age or allowed to grow lanky trunks topped out by a broad tree canopy. If oak provided the early settlers to this hilltop region with building materials, beech supplied the energy source domestically and industrially (for smelting iron). From the 16th century, beech’s value as firewood was such that it could be felled and profitably transported from the Chilterns by barge to London.

The next dramatic change came in the 17th century when the first plantations of beech appeared in the Chilterns to support the demand for wooden furniture. Writers of the time, such as Gilbert White, were able to describe both the gnarled and unblemished barked versions of beech growing alongside each other, debating in letters to each other their preferences either for ‘smooth rind’ or ‘knobbed and studded’ versions.

Wood pasture, an almost forgotten farming method these days, was an essential part of this overall woodland management, right through from the early middle-ages, with animals let loose to graze in the autumn off the beech mast. A wood was valued and taxed according to its ‘hidage’ which equated to the number of swine or other domesticated animals that could be supported therein. Look out for clues remaining today of this historic woodland use, such as banks and ditches on wood edges: some still with the remains of coppice and hedging which was once regularly maintained to pen in the grazing animals.

Stepping back and thinking how a woodland was (and is) used also unlocks the key to the wildlife that has been attracted and sustained historically. For example, the robin has always been an opportunist bird. The use of woodland to turn out pigs or forests to sustain wild boar for hunting led to the robin following the swine around, even perching on its back whilst the animal turned the soil in search of roots and bulbs but also unearthing worms and insects for the bird. Fallow deer were introduced by the Romans for hunting and would have been penned in certain areas. Pheasants have been introduced to our woodlands several times and eventually led to the elimination of polecat and martens. Beaver were commonplace until the middle ages when their activities came fatally into conflict with man. Even red squirrels were introduced to hardwoods in the middle ages and were prized for their fur. Their natural habitat were the coniferous forests where they have since retreated: following introduction of the grey squirrel from America in the 19th century, which in turn severely damages the bark of beech trees. Both Muntjac and Glis glis have similar dark histories.

The demise of oak trees and coppiced beech woods, replaced by plantations of smooth-barked beech, has also eliminated many species of moss, liverwort and lichen from the beech woodland scene. The close canopy has starved the woodland floor of light but this has provided an ideal habitat for the early flowering bluebells which so uplifts the spirit each Spring.

With the timber industry no longer supporting the management of woodland resources, protection of beechwoods as Chiltern heritage is important. Conservation organsations (eg the NT) and local people purchasing a woodland at risk from exploitation, are vital for the protection of local woodlands. But there are other risks too. In an ancient woodland, a healthy beech tree might live up to 250 years. Plantation stands of beech now well over 100 years of age are already well past their ‘fell-by’ dates. Hitherto, the trees would have been cleared and replanted after 40 to 50 years. Grown close together on shallow, well drained soils or on hillsides, many are unlikely to survive into old age. On a walk in the woods today you are quite likely to come across an upended tree. The clues to its demise are the overstretched shank (trunk) which has grown fast and spindly as it struggled against its neighbours for light. A second clue is the huge haunches or plates which the tree has been forced to enlarge to buttress the trunk at ground level. Eventually, either unable to support its own weight or, as average annual temperatures increase and the water table falls, becoming ‘stressed’ through not being able to draw sufficient nutrient, it will all the more likely succumb to a gale. In their lingering death and afterwards they provide more sustenance to flora (fungi and bacteria) and fauna (beetles, wood lice and millipedes) than perhaps they ever did in life.

The latest threat to our oaks and beeches, reported in the last 12 months, is from a fungal disease spread via rhododendrons, which are frequent escapees into woodland from parks and estates, including our own local invasion in Drayton Woods. There are plans being prepared nationally to remove rhododendrons in such locations to stem the increase in sudden death of wood and parkland beech and oak.

Victorians viewed beeches as elegant landscape trees: ornaments to show off an estate’s features across open countryside. Elegant tree cathedrals sprang up. Beeches were planted to adorn ancient landmarks such as our own Cholesbury Hillfort. Sadly, as all these trees were planted at once, there is no succession and a walk around the ramparts will reveal time is already taking its toll. A visitor returning in less than 30 years will no doubt do so to a very different scene. So get out there and enjoy the beechwoods and the wildlife therein while you can. They may not be around for much longer!

No weather notes this time by the way. There was just far too much of it in February: making no further mention seems the decent thing to do! Look forward to questions and comments as always.

chrisbrown@rayshill.com


Nature Notes – February 2009

Darwin’s legacy – if eaten, beetles can leave a bitter taste in the mouth


A cold start to the year with Chesham and Benson in Oxfordshire sharing the National honours on the night of 6th January. With snow on the ground, temperatures fell to minus 11°C. Locally, I recorded –11.8°C that night. The outlook for the rest of the winter season is for slightly warmer and dryer conditions than typical for this time of year.

February 12th marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. He was one of the foremost scientists of the 19th century, who demonstrated how all species of life evolved from common ancestors by the process he called natural selection: a discovery that continues to have a profound impact on scientific thinking to this day. Although this is what he is principally remembered for, his inquisitive mind not only addressed this fundamental question but he also resolved, or at least laid the groundwork for, answers to many other big questions of the day.

So this Nature Notes picks up on just a few of the less celebrated of Darwin’s discoveries as an observer of nature and his largely unrecognised contribution to agriculture, market gardening and animal husbandry. His nature writing is descriptive, at times poetic, and elsewhere highly amusing. One or two quotes are picked out and included below but his complete works are available online at www.darwin-online.org.uk.

Charles Darwin initially trained to be a Doctor in Edinburgh but found himself not suited to following his father as a country GP, having observed the gruesome autopsy of young girl. This experience also conditioned his lifelong thinking as an anti-vivisectionist who resisted the new fashion of experimenting with live animals. In desperation, his father encouraged him to resume his studies at Cambridge with the aim of becoming a parson. However, instead of theological studies he soon became distracted by his exploits in riding, shooting and fishing.

Darwin Deniers repent!

Luckily for science, this extra-curricular activity led to him submitting letters of his discoveries to learned journals which brought him into contact with, and to the notice of, the most renowned naturalists of the day. This led to an invitation to be the ‘gentleman naturalist’ to accompany Captain Fitzroy on board the survey ship Beagle in 1831. After a five-year voyage of exploration and discovery to South America, including the Galapagos Islands, Australia and South Africa, Darwin returned with thousands of specimens and many new ideas. He took over 20 years to summon up the courage to publish "On the Origin of the Species". The book immediately met with hostility from the established church, however his ideas survived this onslaught and were reinforced by the work of the scientists who followed him. Although his travels provided numerous exotic species, he equally relied upon numerous observations and studies of everyday British wildlife. Here are just a few.

On the earthworm, Darwin elegantly remarked "... it may be doubted if there are any other animals which have played such an important part in the history of the world as these lowly organized creatures". He carried out experiments (in the billiard room of his family home in Downe, Kent), and calculated how materials strewn on the surface found their way deep down in the topsoil. He calculated that, over 10 years, the top two inches would have all been through the gut of worms. We take this subterranean activity for granted today but until Darwin investigated this most essential aspect of soil fertility, it was not understood.

Ever wondered how plants attach themselves to and climb up almost anything so effectively? So did Darwin. Although several had studied this plant behaviour previously, there was no clear understanding of how this occurred and, more importantly, how the different methods of climbing evolved. Darwin studied over a hundred different species grown from seed (including growing hops in his bedroom). His research enabled horticulturalists and market gardeners to develop new varieties of climbing plants: be they clematis, hops or runner beans.

There were many occasions when Darwin was challenged to explain the variety and wonder of the natural world. One such related to wild orchids and how species such as the bee and fly orchids mimic insects in the design of their flowers or as Darwin described them "... the wonderful contrivances of the orchid". During a visit to Torquay in 1861 he noticed how wild orchids were distributed on the cliff side. Consequently, he had an orchid house built and demonstrated how only cross-pollinated orchids produced fertile seeds and the more successful an orchid at attracting insects, the more likely its inherited characteristics would survive. Darwin predicted this effect was down to the transference of genetic material, although it took another 50 years for Darwin’s theory to be proved and the principles of genetics to be developed. Unlike today, breeding of both domestic and exotic fowl and game birds were of popular interest. So it was typical of Darwin’s curiosity with nature in general that he experimented with the breeding of a wide range of varieties. He examined the features of racing pigeons and the colouration of male birds. At times the whole house stank of boiling bones as Darwin sought to determine differences in bone structure of birds bred for racing.

In his latter years Darwin turned his mind to the mysteries of plant movement. He was able to demonstrate that it was not a single entity that controlled plant movement but rather the reaction of a small number of cells just behind the growing tip of the shoot or root which reacted in one way to gravity and in the direct opposite to light. In relation to the root or ‘radicle’ Darwin, in dismissing many of the previous speculations, was close to resolving the mystery when he commented, "It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle - having the power of directing the movements of the adjoining parts, acts like the brain of one of the lower animals". Once again it took until the 1930s for the final solution to emerge, but it was Darwin’s pioneering work that laid the groundwork for today’s market gardening industry.

To finish, an anecdote from his student days at Cambridge. Darwin describes the perils of being swept along by a beetlecollecting craze, which was fashionable at the time among young gentlemen. "No pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow. I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one." Itself, an evolutionary tale of sorts, I guess.

chrisbrown@rayshill.com


Nature Notes – December 2008

Three of a kind


So an unexpected cold easterly wind unusually brought freezing rain and snow at the end of October. For any self-respecting wildlife, which was hoping for a prolonged warm spell, that snap has signalled winter is on the way. For migrating birds such as geese and swans, which had been reported delaying their journeys from Scandinavia and beyond, this was sufficient to trigger the packing of bags for the flight south. Last winter was much wetter, warmer and generally unsettled than normal. This year there is expected to be a return to cooler, but slightly dryer conditions. With the water table remaining high, footpaths and bridleways will remain ‘claggy’ and waterlogged.

Three birds which make their presence known, even in the heart of winter, are thrush, great tit and robin. Song thrushes are, in January, one of the few to provide a musical tune at either end of bleaker days. Silent since the summer, Mavis (as it is colloquially known) has a distinctive and mellifluous sound, heard as night turns to day and day to night, singing for up to an hour. Each stanza starts with a sound not unlike “January joy”. Listen out for a particular bird’s unique signature notes which typically will be repeated three times during its repertoire of resonant reprises. Their smaller relative, the mistle thrush, has an altogether more random song, a kind of improvised jazz but more persistent when the weather is inclement for which they have gained the name ‘storm cocks’. Meanwhile, during the short days, great tits launch into song, a triplet of “teacher, teacher, teacher” high up in a barebranched tree. Ironically, during the season of good will, the iconic robin is at its most fierce, defending its territory and chasing off every red-breasted opportunist that dares to make an appearance with an equally strident vibrato call.

Three things to look out for! First, during October/November, this part of the Chilterns has been host to a festival of kites displaying over the open fields at Braziers End and St Leonards. Several sightings have been made, indicating this may continue to be a regular feature in this area. Such mass sightings signify that the birds are supplementing their scavenging with food specially provided for them. Second, winter parasites. How do you get rid of those irritating fleas, ticks and mites from your feathers? In a dry summer, a dust bath can do the trick but in winter what options do you have? Well try out what crows can be seen doing this time of year by using the smoke from chimneys. It can make the eyes water but you should be able to stick it out longer than your unwelcome visitors.

Third, one of the earliest signs that the season is on the turn are the catkins of hazel, in clusters of three, slender and brown at first but early January sees them lighten and turn from pale to brimstone yellow.

Every three years or so we are invaded by a third and most colourful Scandinavian visitor whose sole purpose in visiting seems to be food shopping. Waxwings, with their sleek beige coats overlain with russet brown and with black, yellow and white highlights, are particularly partial to the red and orange berries of cotoneaster, pyracantha and vibernum bushes that adorn supermarket car parks. They start with the north-east coastal outlets but as the weather hardens they move south and west so a cold snap could bring them to a local Tesco, Waitrose or Sainsbury (with the obvious bonus of nectar points!) or to your garden.

A triplet of trees to look up to: Sycamores with the most ungainly arrangement of branches of all our local trees hold the key. The last bunches of bedraggled, winged fruit (keys) hang waiting to be wrenched away and assisted on their journey by just one more gust. Later on, the first pale green buds of the new season are visible, having shed their waxy scales. Also making a show; the more subdued spear-shaped beech buds remain tightly shut but have turned a dark purple and now stand out aside the rusty leaves retained on the tree to protect these more delicate buds. Oak leaves may remain into December in more sheltered spots, if the weather permits. On bright days the leaves appear pink. This is partly due to the remaining pigments gradually being milked of their remaining goodness as the tree withdraws vital elements into its sap. However, the colour is sometimes augmented by disc-shaped protuberances, containing the larval stage of the spangled gall wasp. The tree produces these structures in an attempt to isolate itself from the invader, but provides just the protection the larva needs to mature into an adult.

Three so-called cold-blooded animals, snails, newts and snakes are forced into hibernation from now onwards. It is not just the temperature, but the lack of accessible water when temperatures fall to around zero or below. In the invertebrate world there is often a correlation between speed and longevity. Take the garden snail, which can apparently travel at up to 0.03mph or about 2 ’ 6” per minute. Life expectancy is 10 years in captivity, but two years in the wild. For half that time it will be totally inactive, living within its shell and sealed from the outside world by a bung of mucus called an epiphragm. Before closing the door on winter the snail will have perhaps followed the trail laid down by other snails down an old mouse hole or under a stone.

The three species of newt: smooth, palmate and great-crested, can also live for up to a decade. From late November they hibernate within stone walls, piles of logs or occasionally within the mud of their breeding ponds, until emerging in late February or March. They can travel up to two miles to find a suitable breeding pond.

Each of the three British snakes: grass, smooth and adder hibernate and choose regular sites known as hibernacula. Typical are old rabbit scrapes. Unlike the previous examples, snakes have already found a safe haven by now. The young of grass snakes hatch from eggs in October and immediately seek refuge for the winter. Snakes will only emerge when temperatures have maintained certain levels over a number of days and will quickly seek sunny areas in which to bask and warm up. Much of their hunting is done from water in which they are most agile swimmers.

Three books of a kind for Christmas now: ‘Food for Free’ by Richard Mabey is full of interesting stories, superstition and use by man of plants we can forage for today. ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’ and ‘Wildwood, a Journey Through Trees’ are both by the late Roger Deakin. From a quick browse, they are full of brilliant observations and writings on everyday life in the countryside and the wider world.

That’s all this time, so let me have any observations as always.

chrisbrown@rayshill.com


Nature Notes – October 2008

Nature’s own autumnal aerial display - pioneering flyers, paragliders, hoverers, helicopters and parachutes


Here in this part of the Chilterns in the last week of August and first two of September, we had over 3 inches of rain. A squint at the Met Office website to remind me what had been predicted back in July about the late-summer weather brought amusement when I alighted on the words "... rainfall totals will be near or above the long-term average". Well, whatever that means, does that level of precision provide confidence for the autumn forecast? "... The UK and north-western Europe will probably have below-average amounts of rain this autumn." We shall see!

Whatever the outcome, the reality is that this pattern of relatively cool, wet summers and warmer, dry winters might come to be the norm rather than the exception. We are also told that during high-summer and early autumn we can expect more extreme weather events, sudden and heavy summer downpours or a blistering heat wave or both. At least we can take comfort from being at 650ft plus, away from flooding rivers and with bedrock of porous chalk for insurance too.

To be fair, our weather has always been impossible to forecast. If it were otherwise we would not talk about it whenever we politely exchange a greeting and I would not be rambling on about it here! No surprise then that the media has developed a near obsessive focus on global warming as the simplistic cause of all unusual meteorological happenings. This ignores that the British Isles’ unique maritime position adjacent to the continent of Europe has always given opportunities for extreme or unpredictable weather. In other words, for us the unusual is the usual.

It has always been the case though that even on a busy news day there is almost always a story about ‘environmental disasters’ or impending climatic perils. But while these threats appear to be of increasing frequency, the terminology is not new, becoming a part of common usage back in the 1970s when the fear was not that the planet would over-heat but precisely the opposite, the fear that we were on the edge of a new Ice Age.

Another contemporary phrase ‘nature conservation’ had already ten years’ start and its emergence as an important public issue was denoted in the first set of newstyle commemorative stamps appearing in 1963. Depiction of an everyday crosssection of wildlife was more modest than today and those first stamps included daisies, buttercups, ferns, badgers, bees, field mice, deer, a butterfly and, more surprisingly, a woodpecker and longtailed tit. Compare that list to one from a recent set of stamps, which featured less everyday examples including a pine martin, wildcat, yellow necked mouse and Natterer’s bat: an illustration of how the public’s education and awareness of British wildlife has been enhanced by a long line of TV nature presenters from Johnny Morris to Bill Oddie, via of course, Sir David Attenborough.

October is when summer and winter wildlife meet. In the early part of the month the yellows of hawkweed, upright and fitter look-alikes of their relative the dandelion, and the pinks of willow herb and alien balsam flowers mingle with the reds and purples of autumn fruits, rosehips and sloes. The latter matures right on cue to greet the mass arrival of thrushes, redwings and fieldfares from far ’up North’. The former, not content with enticing eager goldfinches to spread their genetic materials, improve the odds by providing each seed with a pristine parachute to spread far and wide at the whim of air currents. In the hanger, the oak stands out as one of the last to give up its deep-green canopy.

Meanwhile, the crop of beech leaves is ageing more prematurely this year and will display briefly in yellow rather than their signature oranges, bronzes and purples. On windy autumnal days, the leaves on maples and sycamores will fall and expose greybrown winged fruits, whose graceful helical descent has been suggested as a possible inspiration for Leonardo de Vinci’s ‘helicopter’ designs.

Other gyroplane mimics choose this month to lift off. Pesky craneflies emerge from their subterranean caverns to lie in wait for any unsuspecting walker foolish enough to encroach on their territory. Prior to their all-to-brief flights of fancy, craneflies are known as leatherjackets. This alter ego lives but a few inches down, feeding on the roots of turf grass. Despite stories of venomous bites, both the larvae and the adults, which feed on nectar, may be ugly but are totally harmless to us. Spider webs glisten in the dew-soaked grass; their architects having launched themselves on silken strands to glide on undetectable currents of air across open fields.

The surprise of a warm sunny September Saturday morning brings a crop of newly emergent red admirals, drawn to some old fermenting sugar-rich raisins on which they binge close to intoxication bravely ignoring the attention of a marauding hornet. All the old textbooks will tell you red admirals do not survive our harsh winters and come afresh each year as continental migrants, but this is no longer always the case. Alongside the regulars, (brimstones, peacocks and small tortoiseshells), a few will survive our milder winters. This year’s cool and wet summer has dictated probably just two rather than the usual three broods. These late arrivals though are monster-sized versions of their spring ancestors. They need to be titans as endurance flying is essential, paragliding in the cooler air above hedgerows in search of over-ripened blackberries and nectar rich ivy flowers.

Another late display is provided by pheasants, which can be seen locally with plumage variations from bird to bird. The vast majority have the characteristic ‘vicar’s collar’ and blue/bronze plumage denoting they are the descendants of Chinese stock introduced for sport to estates in the 18th century. Occasionally seen are almost black pheasants, again specially bred to impress. These may owe their ancestry to the much earlier introduced Roman and Norman breeds, colloquially known as ‘British pheasants’. All are equally capable of giving the unsuspecting walker a start as they launch themselves haphazardly skywards. Meanwhile, look out for the aerial displays of juvenile rooks, jackdaws and crows. They assemble in larger and larger groups to practise their adolescent aerobatics, much hovering and stalling, accompanied by mutual squawking before breaking out of the congregation in all directions.

So for the next month or so I hope you find time and clement weather to experience the fresh air and open spaces roundabouts, as much as this autumn’s wildlife will be too.

Observations and questions as always to:

chrisbrown@rayshill.com


Nature Notes – August 2008

Stingers, Suckers, Biters and other pesky critters


I set off writing this as Federer and Nadal take an extended rain-break on one of the few wet days for the last month or so but this has most likely set the pattern for the much of the summer to come with both hot, steamy and cloudy, cool days.

A question from a couple of visitors to our area from rural Georgia in the southern United States a month or two back got me thinking about the risks we run when we are out and about in the countryside. Walking down Parrotts Lane, we were forced to cling on to the bank as one of those unnecessarily large 4x4s tentatively negotiated a narrow stretch. As the car pressed by and we moulded ourselves snugly into the grass bank my friends nervously asked if we had any dangerous wildlife they should be aware of at this precise moment. No, I said reassuringly.

However as I said, this got me thinking as to what there is out there in the wilds of the Chilterns, which could trouble us. Well I guess the obvious place to start is with snakes. Of the three British species only the adder is of serious concern. Distinguished by the zig-zag down the back they are not normally aggressive and unless threatened, tend instead to slink away. If unfortunate enough to be bitten (although not normally life-threatening to humans or pets) medical attention is essential. Neither of the other two is venomous. Grass snakes, normally having a yellow or orange neckband, kill their prey by biting; often under water. Meanwhile, the very rarely seen smooth snake is, surprisingly, neither armed with poison nor a fierce bite but a constrictor, tackling the likes of mice and voles.

It is insects and other invertebrates that more often than not bring us grief. They fall into four types. The ‘stingers’ include that unwanted picnic guest, the wasp, which becomes increasingly irritable as the season progresses. The hornet, a close relative of the wasp, certainly packs a punch but despite its reputation steers away from troubling us if we in turn leave it alone. Meanwhile (Hollywood movies aside) bees have to be seriously provoked to retaliate.

The next group of insects are the ‘suckers’. All of these are pests of domestic animals, such as horse flies and midges and are doubly troublesome to us as being also carriers of serious diseases. Only the females bite in order to obtain blood for protein as part of egg production. Nowadays, mosquitoes in Britain no longer carry malaria but one hundred and fifty years ago during Victorian times this was a major cause of death in the Kentish marshes before these areas were drained.

The third group are the ‘biters’, ranging from centipedes that use their front legs to insert poison into the skin, to the water spider that can also inject venom with a painful bite, leaving you with an inflammation similar to a bee sting.

The fourth group are best described as the ‘pesky critters’. Brown-tail moth caterpillars have barbed hairs which when brushed against can cause anything from a mild rash to headaches and nausea. Meanwhile beware of sitting on a mound made by woodland red ants. Do so and you may experience multiple bites followed, if you are unlucky, by stinging, and if you are still around they will spray you with formic acid for good measure. For most of us such attacks result in a relatively mild reaction caused by our bodies producing histamine; but for a few, just a small amount of venom or anticoagulant can cause anaphylactic shock where urgent medical attention is needed.

Dangers are also lurking for us in the world of plants. There are just three contact poisonous plants in Britain. I’ll just mention stinging nettles only in passing. Next on the list has to be giant hogweed that contains a phytotoxin, which reacts when the skin is exposed to sunlight and causes blisters and longer term scarring. The third is only a threat if you fancied a quick dip in one of our ponds. Blue-green algae, which is present in both fresh and seawater will, if confronted when swimming, affect our eyes and provide an all over body rash.

Apart from some over-friendly highland cattle and some inquisitive ostriches, the only large animals I could come up with were the occasional sightings of wild boar! Mind you a regular contributor of interesting local observations (P. Dice) has passed on that there has been a sighting of a very large black cat (of puma-sized proportions) in the area, so keep a good lookout!

Meanwhile as we walked along the lane I learned from my American friend what they had to contend with in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains: ten different lethal snakes, cougars, lynx, wolves and bears. I’ll spare you all the spiders and insects and plants!

So what’s out and about this month? Down in the leaf litter under hedges, pigmy shrews, our smallest mammals, are rushing about in search of beetles etc. They weigh less than four grams (or one penny coin) and females must feed continuously to top up their metabolism as they produce at least five litters per season. Adult toads are on the move. They travel considerable distances in the Spring to find a breeding pool and at this time of year will be found in and around the ponds building back up their strength, stalking their food and using their sticky tongue to snare it, then blinking their eyes to assist the swallowing processes.

Swallows, swifts and martins will be making the most of the billowing clouds of insects wafting on the evening breezes. Last year was a disappointing one for butterflies. The cool wet weather prevented many adults emerging or having sufficient time on the wing to pair-up. So far this year things are looking up with a good supply of early summer ‘flutterbies’ making the right moves. Look out for fast flying day time ‘hummingbird’ and ‘bee’ hawkmoths visiting the flowers in August. They are very fast and look just like their respective names.

Take care driving along the lanes as dusk falls. There is a large number of young muntjac around straying naively onto roads away from the safety afforded by their mothers. Owls are also out hunting to feed their young and frequently sweep low along the high-sided verges, so are also vulnerable. Perhaps a collision with either of these will be the biggest risk you’ll run with the local wildlife, so take care!

Finally in the ‘Recently seen in the Hilltop Villages’ section (Puma’s aside that is). We seem to be a popular place this year for raptors, with more and more sightings of red kites and buzzards, plus some interesting chance observations of some smaller birds of prey engaged in aerial acrobatics over the woods in Hawridge Vale last month: and just before going to press, I have also just had a delightful report of one of this year’s cuckoos being fed by a pair of dunnocks. So as always questions and observations always welcome.

chrisbrown@rayshill.com


Nature Notes – June 2008

Black is the new grey for the shadow-tailed one


I’m not sure if it is just me or have others noticed all our seasons seem mixed up these days? I guess it could be to do with a climate influenced by global warming but then again just as easily the English obsession with the weather. Last year, our summer was much wetter than in recent years (as wet as 1914; a very wet year). This year, although a repeat is not expected, the Met Office tell us we are liable to have some unsettled spells with cool wet springlike days as late as June or July.

The name ‘squirrel’ comes originally from a Greek word meaning ‘that which makes a shade with its tail’. Squirrels are back in the news again for two reasons. Firstly grey squirrels have established themselves in Scotland, territory of the ‘reds’, for the first time and secondly, black squirrels are displacing greys in England. In mainland Europe black and albino variants of red squirrels are quite common but are unusual in Britain, meanwhile albino variants of grey squirrels have been regularly reported, mainly in Essex, Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Between 1876 and 1929, around 30 introductions of American grey squirrels were made into England and Wales although the ones introduced to Woburn Park (Bedfordshire) at the end of the 19th Century are attributed with their subsequent naturalisation in England. ‘Black’ examples of ‘greys’ have until now been limited in number but the situation is changing rapidly in seems. Surveys indicate there are about two million grey squirrels in the UK and between 125 and 150 thousand ‘reds’ the majority of which are in Scotland. However it has been estimated there are at also at least 25,000 black squirrels distributed across the eastern side of England. The ‘black’ is a variant of the common American invader the ‘grey’. When I say black, some are ruddy/brown/black while others are a sleek jet black, the latter offspring of two ruddy adults, two black or combination of both.

But why? Where blacks occur they appear to be dominant over their grey cousin. Genetically they are missing a sequence of DNA. As originally described by Darwin in his theory of Natural Selection for such a mutation to persist it must be giving the black variety an advantage: in this case providing the black with a better immune system or higher levels of testosterone in its blood, which in turn influences the animal’s behaviour. In short they are thought to display more aggressive behaviour than the more placid grey – tell that to a red squirrel at the time the greys were introduced!

The first sighting of the black mutant was in 1912 in Letchworth Hertfordshire, which now has a black squirrel as its town mascot. Since then they have spread out to other parts of Herts and Cambridgeshire where in some villages (e.g. Girton) they represent 50% of all the squirrels present and it is anticipated to move into parts of East Anglia. So are they coming this way? Maybe. The sightings nearest to us have been in Whipsnade and nearby Studham, which is, but a squirrel leap from Ashridge forest. So it is quite possible the odd black shadow-tail is lurking in a beechwood around here. Keep an eye open.

There are around 260 species of bee in the UK. Each year, regular as clockwork, our outhouse plays host to a small but growing colony of wild social bees. The queen that hatched at the end of summer last year and hibernated over winter is first seen in late March/early April, seeking out a suitable venue to lay its eggs. In this case the space behind some pine lap, accessed via a discrete knot-hole. May sees the first activity of this year’s brood of workers. As I write this they are streaming back and forth, decked in the yellow pollen gathered in the rape fields about a mile or so away. By June the hive is at its height of activity as the queen will be in full-swing egg-laying, supported by the drones, which according to a local (female) apiarist, are “just typical of males, hanging around the nest just in case the queen needs servicing!” These small bees are almost silent; there is just a slight hum as you listen close to the entrance. The peace is disturbed though by the low-frequency drone of a larger very black and hairless bumble bee ferreting (can a bee ferret?) back and forth aside the pine boards until it alights, switches off the power and then silently enters via the hive entrance. This methinks may be a cuckoo bumble-bee, one of six varieties we have here. Their life is one of solitude and their habit is parasitic and brutal. They carry no excess baggage so are honed for speed and attack. The mission of these all female agents ‘women in black’, is to enter the hive undetected, kill the queen, lay their own eggs and exit unscathed mimicking the behaviour of the social bees and so avoiding discovery. Meanwhile the ‘midwived-cuckoos’ are looked after by the mesmerised host drones. Not this time though as this cuckoo has been rumbled and makes a speedy retreat from the nest.

Hedgerows are at their very best this time of year. My suggestion this time is to make a bee-line for one near you and dally a little to take the vista in. Hedges are just blooming alive with animals on the make at the moment. The creamywhite of elderflower takes over the baton from hawthorn. Clumps of yellow archangel point to a hedge-line that is all that remains of scrubbed out woodland. A typical hedgerow herb is the pinky-white cuckoo flower (lady’s smock), which is out between May and June in these parts. It’s just one of many given an alternative name by poets or herbalists of old associating them with the arrival, call or departure of the eponymous bird. Others include cuckoo buttons (burdock), cuckoo’s bread and cheese (wood sorrel), cuckoo boots and stockings (bluebell), cuckoo rose (wild daffodil) and cuckoo buds (buttercup) used by Shakespeare in Loves Labours Lost.

Cuckoo, bring your song here!
Warrant, Act and Summons, please,
For Spring to pass along here!
Cuckoo Song - Rudyard Kipling

And finally, I will have to be more careful in the future when asking as I did last time for reports of the first cuckoo as it seems I may be causing a bit of a frenzy around these parts. This year I had both emails and calls over the 12 hours between 15-16 April (a day earlier than last year) announcing arrival of at least one very busy male bird in Hawridge and St Leonards. The males arrive first and fly around calling a lot to try and maintain as large a territory as possible ahead of the females. Interestingly enough, cuckoos are not the only ones on the hunt for bird nests this time of year. Despite having strict vegetarian habits for eleven months of the year, the shadow-tailed one is also partial to a bird’s egg or two about now.

Questions and comments welcome as always.

chrisbrown@rayshill.com


Weather and Nature Notes – April 2008

Gowk, Har and Whin


A very wet start to the year saw nigh on 4 inches of rainfall in January. As I write this, the wind is getting up for a second night this week. Will I finish before the power goes off again? Looking ahead we should not bank on repeat of last Spring’s record temperatures, the warmest since 1914. April will be noticeably cooler than normal although later on in May it will probably make up for a slow start to the growing season. Rainfall will be much as you would expect for the time of year but as the water table remains high there will be a continued chance of surface flooding if we experience a heavy downfall.

It is not immediately obvious but over the first part of this year many thousands of our commonly seen garden birds are on the move, ‘migrating’ back from their seasonal quarters. Each autumn many of the birds in our gardens make themselves scarce. By spreading out along the hedgerows and woodland edges they can feast themselves on energy-rich seeds, nuts or berries whilst taking refuge from the worst of the weather. In recent years this habit has been slowly changing. With the milder winter season and our growing tendency to supplement their diet by putting out food, some varieties of garden birds are staying put. Birds have different ways of feeding in the winter or when food is scarce. Typically goldfinches, specialist nut feeders, linger on the perch and can be seen defending their ‘horde’ (e.g. sunflower and niger seeds) meanwhile, nuthatches and coal tits neither of whom hang around are smash and grab merchants. Then there are the marauding troupes of long-tailed tits that noisily breeze in at 10 to the dozen an as quickly spiral off as though connected by invisible elastic. All these birds have been on the increase in our gardens, in recent years, according to the census numbers reported by the BTO and RSPB. Another conspicuous visitor this winter which has, this year, been reported in these parts has been the brambling. It often congregates with other ground-feeding relatives such as chaffinches, whose numbers like sparrows, have been falling in recent years. So one action that can be taken is to provide a supply of seed in a trough or the like at ground level this will help the ground feeders including enticing some of the larger birds such as pheasants.

It’s the time of year for the Har. Har is another name for the hare and is Old English for grey or old. Old perhaps because the hare looks like it’s a stooping rabbit. Brown hares were brought to Britain with the Romans, possibly for the sport of coursing. (Before this only Mountain hares could be found in moorland Britain). Their sudden arrival in this country and prominence around the festival of Eostre probably accounts for their adoption as mystical creatures in Pagan culture. They were originally animals of the steppes in Asia, which moved into the continental grassland prairies. The clearance of forest and development of arable farming enabled them to spread fast in lowland areas but they cannot survive in the highlands where their cousin still holds sway. The next two months is the best time of year to see hares; they are active over their prolonged breeding season from February to September and despite being night-time feeders they are most visible around now with crops only newly emergent. The “boxing”, for which they are noted is not a territorial battle by males but is instigated by the females repelling over-amorous suitors. Females can raise up to four litters per year, each of two to four young (leverets). Unlike rabbits they do not use burrows but rear their young in scrapes or forms, where they and are particularly vulnerable so they stay motionless all day and only being fed at dusk to avoid detection by predators. Hare populations vary considerably from place to place and season to season, leverets, in particular, being heavily predated by foxes and stoats. They rely on their marbled camouflage to avoid detection and their speed to escape. Although around here their numbers maybe modest, two places I have see them in recent times are the fields at Bellingdon End and those between Hawridge Common and Heath End. Elsewhere, when numbers overrun and due to the damaging impact they can have on cereal crops and young tree saplings they have to be managed as a minor pest.

It’s also the time of year when one listens out for the Gowk. The work Gowk is a Scottish or north English word for one who is an awkward or a foolish person who does not take their responsibilities seriously. In this case we are referring to the cuckoo, well named on account of it leaving parental responsibilities to others. Last year the first call was on 17th April. It is said to be lucky if you hear your first cuckoo when out walking and no such luck if still in bed! Let me know if you hear one around this date this year and what you were up to at the time!.

The hedgerows and commons really come into their own this month. Yellow flowers predominate attracting in particular some of the first bees of the year. Although already making a showing if March is warm, Lesser celandines appear where the ground is wetter. Cowslips like well-drained undisturbed pastures where chalk is not far from the surface. Look out for Common gorse, which is one Old English name that has stuck, as it has also has regional names of furze and whin (as in whinchat a bird which sings from the top of furze bushes). These days its erstwhile usefulness is largely forgotten. Its presence on the Commons are not an accident, as it would have been carefully managed and cherished, as the young shoots are a valuable source of animal fodder, whilst the woody parts make excellent fencing to keep animals in or out or for fires. So any Commoners found abusing their right to collect furze were liable to a heavy fine.

Once again with the bluebells due out in the last week in April there is only one choice for the kind of walk this time of year but plenty different woods to choose from. But beware the first speckled wood butterflies have emerged and are all males. They set up territories along the woodland walks and are prepared to defend their domains ruthlessly!

Please let me have your observations and questions as usual.

chrisbrown@rayshill.com


Weather and Nature Notes – February 2008

Spinning a tale or two about the web of life


Difficult to believe in a year when there was no summer to talk about, but 2007 was the third warmest on record, only edged into bronze place with 1998 in gold and 2005 in silver. Despite this, 2007 also proved to be the wettest so far this decade (circa 33 inches fell locally). Whereas Britain suffered major flooding in 2007 we were lucky to escape most of the deluge in July, which luckily fell mainly elsewhere. In fact this increased rainfall has been a significant feature of the last 18 months or so and has led to a dramatic rise in the local water table, which rose to over 50 feet by April: its highest point since 2001. As the water table has remained high going into 2008 and with the medium-term meterological forecast suggesting a wetter than average first quarter, I anticipate that we may see the seasonal chalk streams and bournes spilling out lower down the ‘vales’ and as in 2001/2 once again putting pressure on Chesham’s flood management.

There are over 640 species of spiders in Britain and 100 of these can be found in our gardens and around a dozen more living amongst us indoors. Early morning dew bedecks the webs of garden spiders. It is only the female who constructs these traps. The male scavenges for food rather than producing these elaborate structures. The webs are built twice, the first time a non-sticky framework, which is tensioned with stout strings. When the second web is spun it starts as a fine spiral on the central section of the web. This is where the spider will await its prey. Meanwhile the outer sections are then re-spun using sticky gummed silk produced by a special gland and entwined by three spinnerets on the spider’s abdomen. The non-sticky strands of the first web are eaten as it goes. To avoid getting tangled, the spider spreads special oil liberally over its legs. Not all spiders produce elaborate webs. Some lay their sticky strands across the grass in a mesh; others produce funnels or ‘spit’ a sticky net at their prey. For the spider this is a web of life, for its prey a web of death!

Cock pheasants are prone to causing a disturbance day or night at the moment as they patrol their territory, ensuring their harem of hen birds are not wandering off. Occasionally, a younger male ‘on the make’ will try and muscle in and this will set-off one or more controlled couplets of clucks. Where the encounter is with a deer, human or predator, rather than a cluck it’s a cacophony. More distinctive though are the wing beats of the defending male as he drives the upstart off. Whereas we hear this as the drumming, it is not so much the noise but a low frequency vibration, too low for our ears, which resonates for several miles around and signals to other contenders to keep away. Other ‘game’ birds such as grouse and quail have their own distinctive signature tunes. Perhaps most unusual is the snipe, a wading bird much persecuted as ‘game’ in earlier years, which I recall hearing as a youngster as its booming sound bombarded my ears causing me some discomfort.

Populations of these game birds are subject to many ups and downs. Typically, this is the result of being both reliant on a reliable and constant supply of invertebrates, grain and grass or in the case of pheasant all of these. On the other hand, healthy populations of ‘game birds’ support many predating animals – fox and stoat, or bird – sparrow hawk, peregrine and jay, or reptile - grass snake, which like the jay, happen also to take eggs. This web of life is complex. So fluctuations in the population of ‘game’ birds have an impact on those above and below them and vice versa.

Early morning - the hour before dawn - the airwaves are the province of blackbirds, chaffinches, starlings and thrushes. Blackbirds having made the running during January although due for a comeback in March, fall silent in February leaving the way clear for Mavis (the thrush) to rehearse any one of over 100 tunes it has in its extended repertoire. Meanwhile, starlings freed of their autumnal murmurings will be heard to whistle as they seek out a cranny (or nook). Chaffinches start hesitantly but when others have had their say are still going strong, finishing with a flourish. The mellow laughter or ‘yaffing’ of green woodpeckers in flight can be heard. The key to breeding success for such birds will be the availability of invertebrates. Warmth encourages the early emergence of sugar-rich flowers such as celandines, the ninepetalled stars bursting through their leaves, garlic, and in these milder days, cow parsley. In early March, there is the annual flourish of blackthorn, the pungent whitewash marching at the double along the lanes from Chesham, Tring and Wendover taking perhaps a fortnight to reach the hilltops. Without this sugar-rush there will not be an explosion of flies and bugs to provide the source of carbohydrate essential if these birds are going to have sufficient energy to propagate. This web of life is fragile. No warmth, no flowers, wet grass means plenty of worms and ground beetles, meanwhile a sharp frost and bug and bird alike are sunk.

On warm March days look out for the sulphur-winged brimstone butterflies emerging from hibernation, normally but not always ahead of small tortoiseshells. Our mild winters now support overwintering red admirals hitherto delayed abroad until the first favourable continental winds. However, a forestalled spring and shortage of suitable nectar-producing flowers will mean fewer eggs are laid and therefore less predation of the food plants. The web of life is selfregulating. So in good years an excess of caterpillars will consume all the food leading to shortages later in the season.

Some of you may have heard Sir David Attenborough last month launching the 2008 Year of the Frog campaign aimed at raising awareness of the fragility of the populations of frogs due to industrialisation, pollution, deforestation, climate change and in particular a newly discovered disease which is affecting certain populations around the world. Frogs are unsurprisingly not at the top of most people’s list of favourite animals. However, without them many pests of our cereal crops such as slugs, or beetle larvae and, further afield, locusts would be uncontrolled. Alongside spraying and inoculation they are the principal control for mosquitoes and the spread of malaria. The campaign is not aimed at changing their celebrity status but is more about raising their importance for conservation purposes and the crucial role they play in the web of life.

So next time you happen on a glistening spider’s web, think about the metaphor it portrays. A delicate inter-connecting weave of plants and animals whose ecology is balanced on thin threads which are easily damaged.

As always I look forward to your questions and comments.

chrisbrown@rayshill.com