Saturday, 21 June 2014

Town versus country

Writing in 1906, Ford Madox Hueffer described an English countryside very different from what we see today. Through his book ‘The Heart of the Country’, Hueffer explored the tensions that existed between town and country, identifying how the different physicality of the countryside and the nature of its human community served to alienate those whose origins were in the town.

Heuffer’s exploration of town and country, although very much shaped by the ‘Fin de si├Ęcle’ literature that preceded him, in terms of style and perspective, still has relevance today. In many ways the tension between town and countryside still exists. Despite the move away from the land that came with industrialisation and the increasing mobility of our population, there is still a real division between the two. Many of the youngsters born to our inner city estates will never experience the countryside from anything more than a seat on a train or in a car. A sense of isolation can also be seen in some rural communities.

Heuffer was writing at a time when great changes were happening within the countryside and for England herself. Many of those living within the ‘dark, toilsome town[s]’ had been brought up in the countryside but could only carry the remembrance of it in their hearts. While the same is true today for some of our urban dwellers, for many others the town is all that they have ever known.

One important consequence of being divorced from the countryside is that people have a much-reduced sense of ownership over it. It is no longer the place that provides the backdrop to their formative years or sustains them through their working lives. It has less significance and its value is lessened in our increasingly urban-focused gaze. And this is where the tension begins to develop, as our towns are viewed in isolation from the countryside that surrounds them. There is a real danger that the voice of the countryside is being lost and this is something that needs to be addressed. It is not about maintaining country traditions, though this is where the more vocal protests are heard, it is about maintaining the link between town and country and re-establishing the bonds that once existed.

Friday, 20 June 2014


Once people discover that you are a naturalist they will often reveal some of their own interests in the subject. While such interests are usually rather casual in nature, they are invariably sufficient to prompt questions about things that have been seen in their garden or while out walking in the countryside. Just the other day, for example, I was asked to identify a ‘bug’ that someone had found on their arm. A quick glance at the resulting smartphone photograph revealed it to be the final instar nymph of the forest bug Pentatoma rufipes, one of the large, robust and aptly named shieldbugs.

As with other shieldbugs, this particular species goes through a number of moults as it grows. Insects, having a chitinous exoskeleton, have to shed their rigid outer layer if they are to increase in size and this individual would soon moult through into the adult form. The forest bug is one of our largest shieldbug species, the adults may reach 14 mm in length, with a body that is shaped like an elongated heraldic shield that has projecting shoulders (picture an American footballer viewed from the back). The nymph is more rounded in appearance, mottled in shades of grey, green and black, and with patterning which helps it to blend in with the tree bark on which it lives.

Unusually for a shieldbug, the forest bug overwinters as a small nymph, which means that come spring it is already well developed and can quickly gain maturity. The first adults are seen in the last week of June but numbers don’t peak until the first half of August. The forest bug is a common enough species, associated with deciduous woodland and often encountered along the edge of woodland rides. It is thought that the species is mostly vegetarian in its habits, feeding on sap and honeydew, but it will feed on dead insects when the opportunity arises. What I particularly like about this species, and other shieldbugs, is the unusual structure of the forewings. These are part hardened and part flexible, the hardened section when folded over the back forms the ‘shield’ that gives these bugs their name. They are well worth a glance through a magnifying glass if you get the chance.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Holt Blackbirds

It was great to see the Holt blackbird project feature on BBC SpringWatch the other week and to read follow-up pieces in the local and regional media. The project, which is operated by Dave Leech, underlines the tremendous things that volunteers and communities can do for our understanding of wildlife populations. 

Dave, a professional ornithologist and a volunteer bird ringer for the Thetford-based BTO (British Trust for Ornithology), has been fitting special coloured rings to the blackbirds using his parents’ garden in Holt for a number of years. The combination of colours used means that individual birds can be identified without needing to be recaptured. Sightings of the birds, made by the local community, are then used to build up a picture of the local movements and survival of individual birds, providing very valuable information that reveals how the lives of these suburban blackbirds compare with their country cousins. The project has also shown just how many individual blackbirds may use a garden during the course of a day, with 74 different individuals recorded from one garden in Holt.

The use of colour rings in this way is not just restricted to blackbirds. Elsewhere in Norfolk there are many other projects looking at everything from mute swans to woodpigeons and gulls. Being able to identify individual birds in the field delivers much-needed information on survival rates and how these may change over time or vary between different age or sex classes. It can also be used to study behaviour and breeding success.

Judging by the responses being seen on social media and in the press, the Holt blackbird project has captured the imagination of householders living locally and now on the lookout for Dave’s birds. The partnership that has been formed between Dave, the researcher, and the community of observers serves to underline the power of citizen science. Having a community watching for these birds, feeds many more observations into Dave’s dataset, increasing the material available for his analyses and delivering more robust scientific outputs. The project does more than this, however, because it also engages more of us with the natural world and with the efforts being made to understand and to conserve the wildlife with which we share our gardens and our countryside.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Blooming Marvellous

Rather unexpectedly but much to everyone’s delight, a bee orchid has made a surprise appearance in the lawn at work. This rather exotic looking plant, with its highly specialised flowers, delivers a sense of rarity, even though it is an adaptable and widespread species within southern Britain. The area around the plant has been taped off to reduce the chances of its bloom being crushed by an ill-placed foot and its photograph has even been posted on Twitter.

The adaptability of the bee orchid means that it can be found across a range of grassland habitats, though favoured sites are usually on light and well-drained soils, often low in nutrients. A garden lawn is not an uncommon site for what is one of the most spectacular of our orchids, perhaps because it is tolerant of trampling.

Flowering from late May or, more usually, early June, the blooms are well worth looking at in detail. Each flower resembles a bee, and the broad, maroon-brown lip has a three-dimensional shape that perfectly mimics the rear of a bee in the act of visiting the flower. This mimicry evolved to attract male bees to act as pollinators but it appears to have been largely abandoned and most bee orchids are now self-pollinated. Self-pollination is an effective strategy, resulting in the formation of as many as ten thousand microscopic seeds. Individual plants may live for a decade or more following their initial ‘appearance’, perhaps even managing to flower several years in a row. In other years they may remain dormant underground or appear above ground but fail to put up a flowering stalk. This suggests that they need to build up a certain level of resources before they are able to produce a flowering spike.

Finding your own colony of bee orchids requires a little bit of detective work, either to identify potential sites by looking for poor, often chalky, soils where there is bare ground or an open sward structure, or by searching the internet for information on where they have been seen this season. They are well worth catching up with and there is a good chance that once you have seen one, your interest in our orchids will bloom.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The cuckoo's calling

I am not sure which is the more unpleasant: that I am stood in four feet of muddy water and have a leak in my chest waders, or that an unscheduled thunderstorm has soaked me to the skin and put an end to my reed-bed nest monitoring for the evening. It’s not even as if I get paid for this monitoring work! I am a volunteer, like dozens of others around the country who give up their time to monitor nests in support of conservation and research. What I do get, however, is the opportunity to see our birdlife from a privileged viewpoint, plus the knowledge that what I am doing is making a difference. And that, as the television adverts insist on telling you, is what life should be about.

That I am wet from top to toe does not matter; it has been a beautiful evening. A female cuckoo was calling upon my arrival; various damselflies could be seen dancing just above the water’s surface and the reed-bed echoed to the chattering songs of reed warblers. So far, none of the dozen nests in this particular reed-bed have been parasitized by the cuckoo, but many are yet to contain eggs and there’s a good chance that the cuckoo will pick her moment and lay her deception in the nest of an unsuspecting reed warbler. When she does, I will have the solemn task of completing two nest record cards: one charting the demise of the warblers’ own nesting attempt (failed due to being parasitized) and one charting the fortunes of the single cuckoo now demanding the full attentions of its foster parents.

Anecdotal reports suggest that it has been a good year for the cuckoos, with many different being reported from across the county. A fellow volunteer, monitoring a site not far up the road and just on the edge of the Brecks, has found 17 cuckoo eggs so far, the output of two different female cuckoos working his site. Given that reed warbler numbers are on the increase and that cuckoo numbers are in decline, one hopes that we will see a few more successful cuckoos this year.

Monday, 16 June 2014

In a Welsh wood

At first it is almost as if I haven’t heard the song at all, the rich trill having to penetrate deep within the layers of memory before it is finally acknowledged and recognised. A series of notes builds and then flourishes with a descending trill to reveal the presence of a male wood warbler, proclaiming ownership of his territory. I am in Wales for the weekend, helping to check the contents of a nest box scheme being operated within a stunning piece of oak and ash woodland that cloaks the deep valley sides. It is a hard wood to work, the ground rough and boulder strewn, the stones thick with moss and slippery with moisture. It would be easy to twist an ankle and I must remember to watch where I place my feet.

This year we are a little late, caught out by a particularly early breeding season that has seen many young pied flycatchers already out of the nest. Those that are still present in the boxes are pretty close to fledging, but still safe enough to ring without the risk of them leaving prematurely. A few of the pairs are on eggs or very young chicks, perhaps late arriving or making a second nesting attempt after the failure of the first.

The presence of the wood warblers is a particular treat. While we won’t be looking for the nests of these ground-nesting relatives of the more familiar chiffchaff and willow warbler, we do set up the nets to catch and ring some of the adult males. Work on wood warblers has become increasingly important as we try to understand why our breeding populations of this summer visitor are in decline. I remember hearing wood warblers as a child in Surrey but the species has been lost from there as a breeding bird, a pattern repeated over much of its former range. It is thought that part of the problem may be changing conditions on its wintering grounds within the humid zone of tropical Africa. Today, however, it is the song that is foremost in my mind. It is delicate, delightful and in perfect harmony with this beautiful woodland. Even the midges cannot lessen the smile on my face.