Making a Difference

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Social media can be totally overwhelming.  When I first signed up to Facebook and Twitter my eyes were opened to the extent of environmental degradation and social injustice in the world.  I found myself in a permanent state of outrage, the more I read the angrier I became, and the more helpless I felt.

Eventually I began to realise that if I wanted to make a difference I needed to focus on the things that I could realistically do something about, and give myself permission to let the others go.

This summer I asked myself if there was one thing that I could concentrate on that would draw upon the skills, knowledge and relationships I have built up over the years, and have a genuinely beneficial impact on the environment and the local community.   The answer was pollinators.

 

I have friends on Facebook, who love bees, not just honey bees, but bumble bees and solitary bees, all kinds of bees that I had never heard of before reading their posts. I became fascinated with them myself, then alarmed as I began to learn about neonicotinoids pesticides from the same people.  The more I discovered the more concerned I became, I now firmly believe that if policy remains unchanged their effect on the environment will be catastrophic.

I volunteer at the North Somerset Butterfly House and over the three years I have worked there I have learnt a huge amount about ecology in general, and invertebrates in particular, from the owner Pete Dawson.  With his help, and drawing from what is already being done in Bristol, and other parts of the country, including Northumbria (illustrated below), I fleshed out a proposal for a pollinator project in North Somerset.

Since then I have discussed possibilities with other friends and colleagues, who have all been hugely supportive.

It’s a huge task, and there’s no way I can take it on by myself, I just want to get the ball rolling.  My vision is to see local and national wildlife organisations working together with the community to make North Somerset’s towns and villages a riot of colour and a haven for pollinators.

I won’t publish the whole of the proposal here but, for those who are interested, I have set out the key points below the slideshow.

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The North Somerset Community Pollinator Project

A partnership of organisations and individuals with relevant experience and expertise working together to:

  • Provide information about the importance of pollinators and the threats they are facing, namely habitat loss and the increasing use of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids.
  • Encourage individuals and communities in North Somerset to take action to provide good quality habitat for pollinators in gardens, parks and urban spaces.
  • Protect existing habitat and encourage sympathetic management of roadside verges.
  • Encourage local retailers and garden centres to sell pesticide free, pollinator friendly plants.
  • Discourage the use of horticultural pesticides
  • Signpost further sources of information

 

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A Small Miracle

Last May I looked for an egg, a very small egg, belonging to one of my favourite butterflies, the orange tip.  It seemed a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but I had been given very specific instructions.

‘Find a group of garlic mustard plants then go to one that is slightly separate, look at the flower head and examine the individual stems.’

To my amazement I found a solitary egg on the first plant I checked (beginners luck! I haven’t found one so easily since). Orange tip butterflies lay their eggs singly as their caterpillars are cannibalistic.

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An orange tip egg. I think this one is on a cuckoo flower, another favourite food plant.

I was with my daughter, and she was less than impressed when I picked the whole plant and carried it home to see if I could raise a butterfly.  Apparently it just wasn’t ‘done’!  I don’t think she expected me to succeed and to be honest I didn’t either, it was just one egg.

I put the plant into a vase on the kitchen windowsill and within a day or two the egg hatched.  The caterpillar was very well camouflaged, it looked just like the seed pod it was eating.  As the seed pods grew the caterpillar did too, munching down from the top, and moving from one to another as it consumed them. From then on I started looking for garlic mustard plants with missing seed pods, and became quite good at spotting caterpillars.

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Eventually my caterpillar formed a ‘C’ shape on it’s food plant, and spun a thin silk girdle around its body, a sign that it was about to pupate.

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The chrysalis was as well camouflaged as the caterpillar.  I knew that if a butterfly did emerge it wouldn’t be until the following spring, so I left it in a well ventilated container in an unheated outhouse and waited.

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At the end of April I moved the container to a sheltered part of the garden so it was in more natural conditions.  Last night, as the light was fading, I packed up my gardening things and stopped to have a look.  This is what I found…

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A perfect female orange tip butterfly.

After Dark

Fallen Tree

In one of the woods I visit occasionally, hidden in a secret spot next to a stream, there is a fallen tree that has been left undisturbed for many years.The trunk lies at the perfect hight to make a comfortable bench, somewhere to rest quietly and enjoy a few moments of peace. Lingering there a while ago, I realised that I had almost put my hand in a patch of fresh otter spraint.  I haven’t sat there since, I wasn’t too worried about getting mucky, but it felt intrusive somehow, it was someone else’s spot!  As the months passed it became clear it was a fairly regular sprainting point and I realised it was the perfect opportunity to catch a glimpse of one of the wood’s most elusive visitors, on film at least.  With the land owners permission, I roped in my husband and we set up our trail camera in a well hidden position with an uninterrupted view of the log and the adjacent stream. We did capture the otter, looking,sleek, well fed, and very much at home.

Needless to say we were delighted, but it wasn’t the only animal that was laying claim to this little piece of woodland property.  We replaced the card in the camera and left it for a while longer.  What we saw when we downloaded the footage was astonishing.  The otter had apparently moved elsewhere, but it wasn’t the only creature marking the log, it was also being visited regularly by at least one badger, and two different foxes.

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For some reason this fallen tree by a small stream, somewhere I thought of as one of my special places, has a significance to the true owners of the wood that I will probably never understand.

The Raven

The Stunted OakThere is a pair of ravens in the valley.  I often hear an unmistakable ‘kronk’ when I am out walking, but up until now, other than a distant view high over the wooded ridge, I haven’t seen them.  Recently their behaviour has changed.  On Christmas Day I saw one flying along the edge of the wood and I have come across them, hunting in the fields by the river or sitting on a fence post, every day since.  In this familiar context it becomes apparent just how big these magnificent birds are, they dwarf the ubiquitous crows, gulls and jackdaws. Yesterday I spotted one perched on a stunted stag oak which marks the far point of my daily stroll, and looks wonderfully atmospheric shrouded in mist.  It seemed very apt somehow, and set me thinking.

Raven

I love ravens, and am always happy to hear or see one.  I listen out for them when I am doing my dormouse surveys, and look for their silhouettes on the pylons when I am checking my otter sites on the moor.  I remember being amused by the antics of some fledglings at a peregrine watch site some years ago and finding them far more entertaining than the birds I  had gone to see!

It’s not just ravens, I’m fascinated by the whole crow family, although I realise that in some circles they are deeply unpopular.  They may be regarded as malevolent, or sinister, but in my view they are intelligent, resourceful, and playful, certainly never dull.  Some are beautiful; the first time I saw a chough I realised why people have gone to such lengths to protect them, and the jay is one of the most handsome of garden birds.

My first Choughs, Pembrokeshire October 2013

My first Choughs, Pembrokeshire October 2013

Even rooks, which I thought were spectacular coming to roost, but otherwise unlovely, have stunning iridescent plumage when viewed at close quarters.  I had no idea of this until I was eating lunch with my husband in the car park at Whitesands Bay in Pembrokeshire, on a particularly dismal November day.  A solitary rook approached the car and waited; it soon became apparent that it was cadging for food.  We watched if for some time, and I could see the outline of every exquisite feather. It was one of the most surprising and memorable wildlife encounters of our holiday.

It saddens me that many people consider corvids to be villains. I’m as guilty as the next woman of applying value based adjectives to wildlife, but human morality doesn’t apply to the natural world. No non-human animal is evil, not even a snake!

Sinister looking, but evil?

An adder at Upton Heath, sinister looking, but evil?

We know that predators, corvids among them, can cause problems, but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of admiration and respect than a lapwing, or a skylark. This isn’t the time to discuss the rights and wrongs of lethal control, but vilifying an animal is not a good way to start when making decisions about it’s management.  The sparrowhawk that snatches a blue tit from a feeder is no more ‘cruel’ than the blue tit, which snatched a caterpillar from an oak leaf ten minutes earlier.

Sparrowhawk eating a blackbird in my back garden.

Sparrowhawk eating a blackbird in my back garden.

It may not always be convenient to us, but every living creature, even the mosquito, has its own unique place in the infinitely complex web of life.

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First Frost

Looking past the riverside oak to the fishing lakes

It’s been a strange autumn.  Until fairly recently the trees in the woods and by the river have stayed resolutely green.  Now at last,  they are beginning to show their seasonal tints of yellow and brown.

The first frost was late this year but it had been so mild that when it came it took me by surprise.  I love cold crisp mornings  so I was out of the house with dog and camera in record time.

It was just after sunrise when I approached the river.  Mist was rising from the fishing lakes and the sunlight was filtered through thin cloud.  Overnight the valley had been transformed  into a scene of ethereal beauty.

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Sadly there’s a cloud on the horizon, pressure for extra housing has led to proposals that the land between the town and the river should be taken out of the greenbelt and used for development.  I’m hoping it never happens …

 

A Kind of Magic

Saturday was a perfect day for  being outside.  It was unseasonably warm, but I wasn’t complaining,  autumn tints were finally beginning to show in the hedges, the sky was clear and the sun was shining.

Willows

I was checking my otter sites on the  local brook and was in no hurry.  I stopped to watch a little troop of long tailed tits flitting through the willows calling to each other.  As I stood I saw a grey heron flapping lazily from its sentry position, and a little egret brilliant white in the sunshine.  Starling numbers were beginning to build up, but I missed the cronk of the ravens, I hadn’t seen or heard them for a month or so.

Heron

I scanned for spraint under a concrete bridge but couldn’t see anything obvious, so I ducked underneath for a closer look.  I wasn’t expecting what I saw. There was a large, almost perfect footprint, with the slight impression of a second close by.

Otter print

I knew a breeding female regularly visited the brook , but this print was bigger than anything I had seen there before.  A dog otter I guessed.  He didn’t seem to have been hanging around, there was no spraint to advertise his presence, and no other prints, so it seemed he was just passing through.

Further upstream I checked a ledge under a pretty stone bridge where I nearly always find spraint.

Otter Bridge

There was nothing new there, but before I extricated myself I double checked and found fresh spraint on a much smaller ledge that, as far as I knew, had never been used before.  Otters are creatures of habit, and mark the same rocks time and time again, so this supported my gut feeling that the signs I was finding were left by a different animal.

Otter spraint on the 'new' ledge

Otter spraint on the ‘new’ ledge

 

Casting back to September I remembered that I had found spraint at a completely new site, upstream of a busy road that crosses the brook. I had been slightly concerned at the time as I feared the resident otter had been dicing with death (the bridge is grilled so she couldn’t get underneath).

I began to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together.  Partly guesswork I know, but I built up a picture of a new, larger, animal patrolling this stretch of stream.  Dog otters generally cover more ground than bitches, and may have more than one female in their home range, so I wondered if he could be the father of previous cubs, or an outsider in search of a mate, or a new territory.

For some reason I stopped and wondered how I had developed the ability to conjure up so much from a footprint and a few piles of poo.  It had become like a sixth sense, a kind of magic.

It’s not magic though, it’s something that can be learnt, and if I can learn it anyone can!  When I attended my first otter survey training course with Avon Wildlife Trust six years ago I doubted that I would ever be able to recognise spraint, let alone footprints, but all it takes is time and practice.  I was lucky that the first site I was given to survey was visited regularly by otters.  The brook was tiny, narrow enough to step over in places, and I didn’t think for one minute I would find anything there.  Much to my surprise and delight the first time I looked I came across several bony droppings with the unmistakable whiff of otter poo.  I’ve been looking ever since!  Footprints were harder, but with experience, and a fair bit of help, I began to gain confidence.  The trick is to ask when you don’t know, and not to be afraid of making mistakes or looking silly.

Look, otter prints!

Learning to recognise animal tracks and signs is one of the most rewarding things that any aspiring naturalist can do.  It has given me endless hours of pleasure, to the bafflement of several of my friends who comment wryly on my obsession with ‘poo and prints’.

Few of us are fortunate enough to get even a a fleeting glimpse of a wild otter, but it’s possible to learn a great deal about them if you know what to look for.  I have been asked how often I see ‘mine’, the answer is I don’t!  I would love to of course, but most of the time I can honestly say that it’s enough just to know they’re there.

I had my first and only local otter sighting here nearly ten years ago.

I had my first and only local otter sighting here nearly ten years ago.

 

Spider Magic

Teazels

One of the sure signs that summer has come to an end is the appearance of large male house spiders, scuttling across living room floors in search of a mate,  or getting stuck in the bath.  This year, if the press are to be believed, they are bigger than ever, and have caused a wave of hysteria to sweep the nation.

Spare a thought for the poor spider, even the much maligned false widow is highly unlikely to do you any harm, she and her kin may have been living peaceably in your broom cupboard for years doing nothing more sinister than eating a few flies.  If you do provoke her, her bite is no worse than a wasp sting.

I may not be able to make you love spiders, but I can show you some of their magic.  I look forward to the misty autumn mornings when these eight legged architects drape every available surface with their jewel encrusted creations, and they arrived this week without any fanfare.   On Tuesday I was so preoccupied with giving the dog a decent run before I had to be somewhere else, that  I was taken by surprise by the dew covered webs hanging from the seed heads and thistles on the river bank.  Caught in the sunlight, they were overwhelmingly beautiful. I had my camera in my pocket, but less than five minutes to spare. Not for the first time I berated myself for my inability to get out earlier in the mornings, but I did manage to take some quick snaps and (almost) get back before I was missed.

I have always had a soft spot for spiders.  One of my earliest childhood memories is finding a large orb weaver on the wall of our garden shed.  It looked just like one of the leather buttons on my grandfather’s coat, and I wanted to show my mum.  I put it into the first thing I could find, a little yellow plastic bath from a dolls house, covered it with my hand to stop it escaping, and ran up the garden. It bit me!  I don’t remember what happened afterwards, but if I did tell my mother there were certainly no histrionics and, although it didn’t turn me into spider woman, it obviously didn’t dampen my enthusiasm.

Almost 50 years later I am still trying to get to grips with the clever little predators, and have armed myself with a field guide, a hand lens, and a second hand copy of Bristowe’s ‘The World of Spiders’.  I doubt I will ever learn more than a handful of their Latin names (sadly very few have common ones) or be dedicated enough to identify them to species, but I don’t think it matters.  I find them endlessly fascinating, and even those who have little love for them must agree that their remarkable, intricate, webs are truly wonders of nature.

This one is cheating, I took it several years ago, but it's one of my favourites.

This one is cheating, I took it several years ago, but it’s one of my favourites.

One final word, if you do find a house spider in your bath throw in the towel!  It will thank you by using it to climb out.