Nature 2006 June

In Celebration Of Old Moldewarp

All agree that the cooler than usual Spring has delayed everything this year. Typically those trees and flowers influenced by temperatures are around two weeks later than average. But as our native flora is not all equally affected in this way the warmer and frost-free first half of May has also advanced the blossoms on some later flowering trees. So for the first time in several years we are seeing blossom on many different species simultaneously which makes for excellent shows of pinks and whites on cherries apples, blackthorn and chestnuts. One interesting side affect has been the impact on the levels of pollen with warnings of high pollen counts already being issued for the south east by the Met Office. But it’s the shortage of water beneath our feet which continues to have the most far-reaching effects. This time, two years ago, the well in our garden had eighteen feet of water and was rising by six inches per week, last year it was down to only six feet and this year it is bone dry signalling we are still experiencing very dry conditions for a third year in succession. The only suggestion that we will see some significant rainfall this year is that the ash just beat the oak into leaf so a ‘soak’ rather than a ‘splash’ might be coming our way.

Renowned as a nation of animal lovers we normally take small furry animals to our hearts, particularly those with cute, beady little eyes and whiskers. But we are a fickle bunch. It seems we are happy to cherish our wildlife as long as it keeps out of our way. Should it ever dare to venture into our back gardens, cricket pitches or bowling greens sympathy can quickly be replaced with enmity. On farmland their excavations can cause problems to farm machinery. Faced with a choice between allowing an otherwise harmless animal the freedom to roam and protecting the manicured appearance of our lawns the latter wins out, hands down. I think apart from rats, moles have more difficulty than nearly any other small mammal in gaining our affection. True they have the characteristics to score highly. They are small and furry they have a cute face with a pink nose and a respectable set of whiskers. Mole in The Wind In The Willows is portrayed as a delightful creature. The biggest problem impacting on their popularity is because we never see them. The only indication we have been blessed with a visit is the characteristic neat and evenly spaced piles of topsoil arranged across the green sward. The name mole derives from the medieval moldewarp meaning ‘earth thrower’. In fact a single mole can shift 13 lbs of soil in twenty minutes. They are typically solitary animals, are highly territorial fighting to the death if needing to protect their real estate. We assume they are creatures of open land but their traditional habitat is woodland where their hills are disguised under leaf litter. It was the action of man, clearing the forest and cultivating grassland that enticed them ‘under’ the open. Ploughing the soil increased organic matter which in turn encouraged the worms. Moles eat at least half their body weight each day. They can detect their preys’ tiniest movement from a great distance through picking up vibrations. Moles have 44 teeth, more than any other mammal in Britain, ideal for chomping the chewiest invertebrate. Nocturnal trips to the surface are rare and are made to forage for bedding and nesting materials. Glands on the skin emit a distasteful fluid making them unattractive to animal predators but many fall prey to tawny and barn owls within their first year although some may survive until their third season. The flint-ridden soil around here does not make a prime habitat for moles but if you are lucky enough for them to have chosen your garden bear in mind the good they do in removing pests such as leather jackets and slugs rather than the inconvenience of flattening the odd pile or two of pampered lawn.

Unlike the more showy insects such as butterflies and dragonflies, beetles receive little attention and much like moles what celebrity they attract has more to do with dislike of them than admiration. With over 4000 known species beetles far outnumbering all other UK animal species together and new species are still being discovered. It is true many undoubtedly do great harm to crops, such as the flea beetles and cockchafers or like weevils and wood boring beetles attacking the infrastructures or food stores in our houses. Without others though many of our garden flowers would not get pollinated and aside from the obvious ladybird numerous others also have bright, often iridescent, colouration and also consume garden pests. Elsewhere along with the slugs, earthworms and millipedes there are countless undistinguished black and brown beetles that help to breakdown or remove the ‘rubbish’ others leave around and replenish the nutrients in the soil subsequently taken up by garden plants. Similar to but on a much smaller scale as the dung beetle on the African plains. Imagine what it might look and smell like otherwise! Two contrasting examples in the English countryside illustrate beetles importance. Look into any large flower head on a sunny day and you are guaranteed to see one or more lozenge shaped rust-brown soldier beetles searching out for sap sucking insects and pollinating as they go. At the other end of the spectrum is the ferocious looking but totally harmless stag beetle which is currently making a slow comeback in woodlands where their management involves leaving tree stumps and fallen trunks to rot away. This provides a food supply for the cream- coloured grubs which take three years to develop into the adult beetle that does not eat during their the six weeks they stay alive. From May to the end of June they are most often seen out looking for a mate before dusk. They frequently take to the air on warm evenings and are the largest flying insect in the UK. The Chilterns is one area in which they are at home.

A superb picture sent to me last month of a Glis glis posing as it clung to a branch reminded me that a lot of wildlife is waking up and making itself known. The many hedgerows, which are at their best over the next few weeks, are great places to look out for animals and plants displaying their wares. So my suggestion for a walk this time is to choose one that includes one or more lengths of hedge. If you have not tried the walks on the website do visit and download one or more. There is a distinct hedgerow wildlife to prick the senses, ranging from the aerial displays of the speckled wood butterflies and hawker dragonflies, both so highly territorial that they will ‘escort’ you along their domain; to the staccato wren that heralds your arrival by their high-pitched shrill as they dart in and out of thickets; or the dazzlingly bright yellow archangel flower, named after the Archangel Michael and in folk lore believed to protect animals from evil spirits and black magic; or finally any of the fungi emerging this time of year such as the malodorous stinkhorn which gives away their presence long before they are even seen.

By the way, well done to a certain Guy in Hawridge for reporting the first cuckoo of the season on 21st April, commiserations to the runners up!

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