Thursday, November 08, 2018

The rise and fall of wildlife since 1938

For a long time I have thought about the many changes in British (and other) wildlife during the course of my life, increasingly stimulated by the growing number of accounts of environmental catastrophes and massive declines in biodiversity.

I was born in 1938 and will be 81 next year.  I seem to have been interested in natural history since very early childhood, partly encouraged by my parents and other family members and there have undoubtedly been many changes in wildlife as I have interacted with it over the years.

I will need to write this in dribs and drabs as I remember things and try to get them into some sort of order, so please, if you are interested, re-visit from time to time to see what I have added.

I was born in Chingford, then in Essex, now in north east Greater London and lived there until I was twelve.  Vast tracts of Epping Forest were within easy walking distance of our house and I spent much time exploring there.

A friend, David Smith, and I were very interested in butterflies and moths and enjoyed trying to raise the adults from caterpillars.  We could collect dozens of different species from sloe and hawthorn bushes on the forest plains and used to find suburban poplar trees very fruitful too.  They nearly always had puss moth eggs and larvae, poplar greys and poplar kittens.  On suburban willow trees we found red underwing larvae and once a lobster moth caterpillar climbing an oak trunk.  The pollarded limes along our road (The Green Walk) often had lime hawk larvae heading up or down and I found eyed hawk caterpillars on our garden apple trees.  Once I went with a school friend to stay in Linton in Cambridgeshire and saw dozens of privet hawk larvae busily trimming the roadside privet hedge.  That was the last time I saw an early stage of this species.

Despite frequent searching of likely looking trees and shrubs around our present home in East Sussex, I rarely find caterpillars or see the feeding damage they cause as a sort of indicator on where to look.  It is not surprising that many insectivorous birds are struggling and the more they find now, the greater the pressure on surviving populations.  What is usually described as a downward spiral.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Flowers & fruits, September 2018

On inspecting some rose hips growing over our garden shed, I was pleased to discover that the plant is a small-flowered sweetbriar (Rosa micrantha) rather than the common dog rose.  Note the small, white glands on the hips and elsewhere  It is a much more straggling plant than the normal sweet briar (Rosa rubiginosa) - there is a good coloured illustration of three of the sweet briar species here:

It is the main wild rose in part of Brede High Woods a mile or so away and the plants scent the air with an apple-like fragrance after rain.

Another pleasant surprise was the discovery of a baby wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis) at the end of the garden.  It looks like a seedling, but I suspect it is a sucker shoot from trees that grow a few metres away to the west.  The separate leaflets on some of the leaves is a variation that occurs occasionally in wild service trees and will not necessarily persist as the tree matures.  It shows the affinity with the rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) which, of course, has all the leaflets separated.

In Killingan Wood up the lane, there is a small group of Crataegus x media, the hybrid between common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and the Midland hawthorn (C. laevigata).  The shrubs have a distinctive leaf shape, halfway between that of the parents and the fruits vary between having one or two styles.  The C. monogyna is common locally, but I have not come across the other parent C. laevigata here.

We have several self-sown Cotoneaster spp. in the garden and the one below is, I think, C. simonsii, but it is a difficult genus with many species grown in gardens and very ready to hybridise.

At the end of the warmer months a plant of wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare) still has plenty of flowers and is a welcome port of call for the hoverfly Helophilus pendulus, sometimes known as 'the footballer' because of the stripes on the thorax.  The early stages occur in all kinds of water bodies from lakes to muddy puddles and marshy areas.  Sometimes the larvae are found in cow dung too.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Insects September 2018

This season was a brilliant one for the ivy bee, Colletes hederae and I think it is now the most abundant bee in our garden.  Strange for a relatively new arrival in this country with a rather specialised habitat - it visits almost entirely ivy flowers.

Plants of the great mullein often pop up in the garden.  This year one has been heavily colonised by the larvae of the leaf mining fly (Agromyzidae) Amauromyza verbasci.  The mines show as pale patches.

As usual a dark bush cricket, Pholidoptera griseoaptera, decided it would be better to live indoors now the colder weather was arriving.  These crickets wander about in the garden and sometimes one or two come indoors where they prowl around the siting room for a few weeks before disappearing into the silent warmth of death.  That in the picture below is our female visitor with her sword-like ovipositor at the rea

Other insects enjoying the last warmth of the year included several dragonfly species, such as the one below.  It is a common darter, Sympetrum striolatum, very well camouflaged as it perches on dead bracken fronds, using them both as a lookout post and a basking opportunity in the late sun.

There have been late butterflies too.  Mostly red admirals on the Michaelmas daisies but also the occasional speckled wood and, in a neighbour's garden a small copper on a stunted knapweed.  Whether by mowing or grazing, the flowering of knapweeds and other plants can be extended over a longer season than if they are in a meadow cut for hay.

Monday, October 15, 2018

September fungi, 2018

The fungus season has started with the usual crop of species that are often hard to identify.  One of the first, found on wood chip in our garden, is shown in the picture below.

Nick Aplin of the Sussex Fungus Group thinks it is probably a Psathyrella species.  This discussion group is very useful on the mycological front:  Trouble is things cannot always be identified from pictures or without detailed microscopic examination of the spores and other structures.

The next one I feel reasonably confident about: dead mens' fingers, Xylaria polymorpha.  These are growing through the moss on a fallen log in Killingan Wood where there are still very few ground fungi compared with former years.

Also in Killingan Wood (TQ7819) was a cluster of toadstools (below) at the base of a coppiced oak.  The Sussex Fungus Group people reckon it is the spindle toughshank, Gymnopus fusipes (= Collybia fusipes),  'Fusipes' means 'spindle-shaped' and the photo below shows a stem that is widest in the middle.  One author writes "The distinctive shape of the stem makes it almost impossible to confuse this species with any of the other common woodland mushrooms." Spindle toughshank is parasitic or saprobic mainly on oak and can cause the death of trees, though it usually favours already weakened or unhealthy specimens. It is a species that favours drier woodlands and is said to be increasing.

Back to the woodchip.  Theis one below is, I think, hare's-foot inkcap, Coprinosus lagopus, growing on woodchip, a habitat it prefers.  These toadstools are very ephemeral, dissolving into spore-filled liquid almost as soon as they have appeared.

In Churchland Wood there is a good showing, as in most years, of  yellow brittle cap, Russula ochroleuca, a common species found in both broadleaf and coniferous woodlands and which usually does well here.

I also found a number of interesting microfungi in September.  One that was new to me was a dematiaceous anamorphic fungus (sic) that forms these reticulated patches on elder leaves. I have identified it as Cercospora depazeoides. If you look very carefully, you will see little black dots in the 'islands' which are the spore-bearing bodies.

In Killingan Wood there is a young ash tree infected with a bacterial canker (not a fungus) that rejoices in the name of Pseudomonas syringae ssp. savastanoi pv. fraxini (pv is short for 'pathovar', a bacterial strain).  Although unsightly to all but a bacteriologist, these deformities seldom kill the tree unless they ring the trunk.  They do not seem to spread much either and I am only aware of two or three infected trees in our area.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Edible wild leek bulbs

We were digging about in the garden the other day when we discovered a nice crop of leek bulbs on the roots of a Babington's leek (Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii).  Leek bulbs form underground from the second year of growth of both Babington's and the ordinary garden leek.  In the past they were part of the vegetable armoury for the gardener and allotment holder, but in recent times they seem to have sunk into obscurity.  These bulbs are not formed in concentric rings like onions but have even white flesh all the way through like water chestnuts.

W.W. Weaver in his Heirloom Vegetable Gardening (Voyageur Press, Minneapolis, 2018) wrote: Leeks left in the ground to overwinter normally produce an epicurean delight the second year.  This is known as the "leek bulb", small bulbs that form about the base of the leeks that are ready to bloom.  Some of the bulbs can grow quite large, perhaps 1" in diameter, and make a perfect substitute for shallots.  The longer the leeks are in the ground, the larger the leek bulbs become, and they can be further increased by breaking off the flower spikes.

In the Gardeners' Magazine (April 24, 1875.  Page 536) someone named 'S.H.' wrote of leek bulbs "....the way to understand their real value is to stew them in gravy and eat the hot with butter and pepper."

Babington's leek as a wild plant is endemic to south west Britain and Ireland but is widely available in the nursery trade.  The bulbs are quite mild tasting and, to me, somewhat of a cross between leek and garlic.  We used those illustrated above to make leek and potato soup with 50% bulbs.  It was very good.  Here is the recipe:

10 or a dozen leek bulbs
The same amount of potato (unpeeled)
Salt and pepper

Unpeeled potatoes give a slightly earthy flavour to the soup.

METHOD  Chop the vegetables and fry gently in butter without browning for 4 or 5 minutes.  Put in a saucepan and add water (for two people, two mugfuls).  Boil for about 25 minutes then process to a smooth texture in a blender or with a blending stick.  Stir in some cream or crème fraîche to taste and adjust seasoning.  Some vegetable stock powder will give a slightly deeper flavour.  

In addition to its gastronomic and conservation interest, Babington's leek makes an interesting ornamental plant.  Its flower heads rise on slender stalks to  about 2 metres in height and carry a globular head mainly of bulbils with a few flowers scattered about on longer stalks.  As they extend these tall stems look like long-necked birds and the developing heads move during the course of the day to different orientations as though searching for something.  For their size these stalks are remarkably strong and never seem to get broken by summer winds.

The flower heads are composed of tightly packed bulbils each of which will produce a new plant.

Babington's leek is a winter green plant with leaves that appear above ground in December.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Marsh spurge (Euphorbia palustris)

Marsh spurge (Euphorbia palustris) is one of the most fascinating and beautiful plants in our garden.  As I write on a sunny 3rd September, the third day of meteorological autumn, I can see a couple of the plants in a large black cubical box.

This spurge always seems to be doing something, often several things at the same time. The largest plant in the box is about one and a half metres tall.  It has small but complicated yellowish flowers (technically 'cyathia') on many of the upper parts of each cyme and the flowers are often accompanied by green and ripe brown seed pods.

Lower down the dusty red stems new shoots of green leaves with a central white stripe are appearing and I imagine these will be heading towards flowering next spring when the plant puts on its greatest show with acid yellow bracts around the flowers.  (In fact many of these new shoots were flowering by 21 September, so the plant was flowring on both the older stems and the ones that had developed after midsummer).

Throughout the summer many of these early bracts and older leaves fade to complex and subtle shades of old rose, faded orange and tired green..  Although the name indicates that it is a marshland plant, it grows perfectly well here in ordinary and often very dry soil.  I do have one plant that I keep very wet.  It grows well and in due course I will be able to see how it does compared withe others.  If plants get very dry they die back to woody rootstocks from which shoots appear very quickly if water is restored.

In mid-September the lower leaves turn colour on my plants that are growing in wet conditions.

According to the Biological Flora of Central Europe it is an endangered river corridor plant whose natural habitats are being destroyed.  However, plants are very widely available in the nursery trade in the UK

It has been described as a hemicryptophyte, a perennial having its overwintering buds at the soil surface.

The plant is not a British native, though it seeds itself readily and has been recorded from various places in the UK.  The only 'wild' record I can find here in East Sussex is on a verge at Gray Wood (TQ5316) east of East Hoathly.  It is widely distributed across central and eastern Europe and western Asia.  There is a cultivar of E. palustris called 'Walenburg's Glorie' which apparently turns proper red in autumn and is described as 'dazzling' by the Royal Horticultural Society.

There is also a cultivar called 'Zauberflote' (Magic Flute) which is assigned both to E. palustris and Balkan spurge, Euphorbia oblongata, and I wonder if the two species have been conflated.  Monty Don, well-known for his TV gardening programmes, describes 'Zauberflote' as smaller than normal E. palustris and 'fabulous'. On her web site horticulturalist Sarah Raven says of E. oblongata (which she calls 'eggleaf spurge') 'the all round best-looking, longest-flowering foliage plant you can find anywhere in the world. It forms the base of 95% of my floral arrangements, and lines most of the beds in my garden at Perch Hill.  You never tire of their brilliant acid-green flowers and bold, strong shapes. It is really a short-lived perennial, but it flowers best in its first year, so we treat it as a hardy annual.  One nursery says E. oblongata is almost identical to Euphorbia coralloides which does not seem to be the case, but I think the relationship between these various spurge species needs a more critical look.

Balkan spurge, E. oblongata, is illustrated in wonderful detail in BSBI News, vol 71 page 47: with details of UK records.  There is a good web page on Euphorbia palustris here:

On 21 September 2018 some seedlings of Euphorbia oblongata from the Sarah Raven Nursery came up in a square of nine small pots.  They were shiny little humps of reddish chestnut brown and the seeds had been recommended for autumn sowing.  The following day I went to see how they were getting on and every one had been pulled up.  Those I found scattered around the area appeared to have had the cotyledons 'bitten' off, but otherwise remained intact.  There were many other seedlings of different plants in this area and none appeared to have been touched.  Also various spurges sow themselves liberally in our garden and do not appear to suffer these depredations.

It is difficult to imagine what might have attacked the spurges and why?  I suspect a bird, but spurges contain toxic juices and would not, I imagine be very attractive.  My daughter suggested that their shining brown colour might have simply interested a bird or, perhaps, been mistaken for a small worm or similar, but that does not really account for the disappearance of the cotyledons.  I have planted the sad remains of one or two seedlings back in a potlet and placed the whole in a mini greenhouse for protection and in the hope that there are still some seeds to germinate.  I have also tried to germinate five seeds on damp paper in a small polythene container in a dark drawer and saved a few seeds for spring sowing.

Monday, September 03, 2018

More on the drought

There has been scarcely any rain since the beginning of May and this has affected the more open parts of M3.  The rush plant on the left of the picture has collapsed but many plants survive.

Today I noticed that the large birch tree was struggling.  The branches are hanging much lower than usual and the leaves look dry and dull.  In the picture below the sallow has the bright green leaves and appears to be doing much better than the birch.  I would have expected the reverse to be the case.