In 2016, at the request of Winsham Web Museum, Liz Earl, undertook to keep a simple 'Nature Diary', recording some of the events and sightings she experienced over a twelve month period starting at the end of 2015. Liz has a lovely garden and small field located at the top of the village, which is often the place where she takes striking photographs of birds, flowers and insects, on the Parish Web Site.
Her 'Nature Diary' has become very popular, and has become a regular feature in recording the behaviour of the flora and fauna in and around Winsham.
The weather in January 2018 was quite a contrast to that of 2017. This year we had rain, gales and at times it was very cold. However this was tame compared with what was to come!
Winter Watch is on TV at the end of the month and on one programme the presenters discussed an interesting study on the intelligence of corvids. First they ran a fun skills test, crow versus raven, with crow coming just ahead. Scientists have studied the brain of a crow and compared it with that of a chimpanzee. The physical size of a chimp brain is about 10 times that of a crow but there are 6 times as many neurones per sq.cm in the brain of a crow. This is known as brain to body mass ratio. Rooks and crows are known to use tools such as twigs or bits of wire to prise larvae out of holes or fissures, the only birds to do so as far as I know.
As we got further into February the bird song increased and the blue tits and great tits showed great interest in the bird boxes. Feeding birds in winter is something we probably all like to do, both to help them through the cold weather and also for selfish reasons – so that we can watch them at close quarters.
Here are a coal tit and a great tit.
However, I am not in favour of feeding them all the year round. The bird food industry is a multimillion pound business and I am cynical enough to believe that the RSPB and the BTO encourage us to feed garden birds most of the year because they profit from doing so, being given by some companies a small percentage of the sales. I prefer the birds in my garden to find their own food when it is plentiful, so that I don’t need to use any pesticides.
Towards the end of February the weather got much colder and the last day of the month brought a sprinkling of snow and a bitter north east wind.
On 2nd March we got snow all day as storm Emma did her worst. We then had freezing rain which made an awful noise against the window panes. Freezing rain, we were told, is not sleet. It is liquid droplets which freeze instantly on contact with cold surfaces. Consequently the snow had a thick, hard frozen crust on it. The ground feeding birds, such as dunnocks, and blackbirds, trying to get to crumbs I’d thrown out, were skidding about all over the place unable to get a grip, and a magpie, landing on the apex of our garage roof, slid all the way down and ended up in the gutter. Most of March remained cold and we had around 1 inch of snow on 18th.
Here is a snapshot of how things looked on that day in Winsham:
Three days later was the first day of spring and the snow was beginning to disappear.
At the end of March we spotted a Brimstone butterfly. These lovely yellow butterflies emerge on warm Spring days after hibernating in evergreen hedges such as holly or amongst ivy. We also saw a brambling, which is a Winter migrant, and a greenfinch.
Sadly greenfinches are rare now after being decimated by disease, mainly trichomonosis which is spread by saliva, so good garden hygiene is essential.
Anne Rose reported she had seen a gold crest in her garden – I’m envious!
On 7th April I went to Cotley Farm, Wambrook to watch my brother perform in the ‘Skills of the Hills’ hedge laying contest, an annual event put on by the Blackdown Hills Hedge Association. It was a great day out with over 100 competitors and around 400 spectators.
Various rural associations were represented such as the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) and were ready to give advice. I learned some fascinating facts about the
management of hedges for wildlife. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology tested different cutting regimes on hedges and discovered that if hedges are cut every 3 years compared with every year you get 2.5 times more blackthorn and hawthorn flowers and many more pollinating insects, and more butterfly and moth pupae. Hedgerow trees are also important. For example a single standard hawthorn can provide as many flowers and fruit as 200m of regularly trimmed hedges. Whether leaving hedges to grow untrimmed for 3 years is practical is another matter!
Summer arrived overnight - 25 degrees today. The weeds are growing like crazy especially Shepherd’s Purse (capsella bursa pastoris), so called because the seed pod resembles the ‘leatherne bag wherein shepherds carry their victuals to the field’. Not only that but when ripe the seeds burst out like coins and you have 100 plants where you had but one before!
Goosegrass or cleavers is another interesting (and persistent) weed clambering up from the base of hedges. In the sixteenth century the plants’ juices were used as a slimming aid. The herbalist, John Gerard wrote that “women do make a potage of cleavers with a little oatmeal to cause lanknesse and to keep them from fatnesse”.
The wild flowers in the hedgerows have been wonderful this year as they were last year – primroses, stitchwort, violets, bluebells, wood anemones, dandelions, nettles, lamium, cow parsley, periwinkle, vetch and garlic mustard or Jack by the Hedge. This last plant is used as a food source by the caterpillar of the Orange tip butterfly.
The charity, Plantlife, is campaigning for local authorities to cut roadside verges less often and later in the year, to give time for seeds to ripen and germinate. Financial cuts could encourage them not to cut!
Do bear in mind that as well as nectar rich flowers for butterflies you also need to provide plants which are a food source for their caterpillars – stinging nettles for peacocks, small tortoiseshells, commas and red admirals, thistles for painted ladies and a variety of grasses for speckled woods, not forgetting brassicas for large whites!!
There is growing concern about the drastic decline in farmland birds so I have made a list of those birds we have heard in the past around Crewkerne Hill and Ebben Lane but did not hear this summer. They are skylark, cuckoo, yellow hammer, spotted flycatcher, lapwing, swallow and swift.
This is quite alarming and worrying. However, I’ve seen swallows elsewhere around the village.
On a more optimistic note, Janet Smart and I joined a group of Somerset Wildlife Trust (SWT) members to visit Home Farm in Curry Rivel where the owners, Richard and Henry Lang, gave over 75 acres of their 1000 acre arable farm to the Environmental Stewardship scheme 15 years ago. This acreage comprises wildflower meadows, woodland, 7m. wide borders to the wheat fields. Henry told us that the increase in wildlife has been dramatic – larks, cuckoos, lapwing, rare butterflies and moths and other insects and hares. Many of his hares have been poached by gangs turning up with packs of dogs and the police have been called in on more than one occasion. There is nothing Henry gets more satisfaction from than taking round groups of primary school children. But the brothers need to make a profit from the rest of the land so they farm the remaining 925 acres intensively.
See his website for more info.
Phew! This must be our longest, hottest dry spell ever. We’ve scarcely seen rain since mid-April. The grass everywhere is brown, the trees look stressed and are losing some of their leaves and the wheat is already harvested. But in spite of all the sunshine butterfly numbers are very low. However the dragonflies are doing well and there are lots of empty casings on the iris leaves.
Tonight it is cloudy. What a shame! After all the nights of clear skies, we are having a full lunar eclipse tonight.
We have a lawn which is full of ants’ nests. Green woodpeckers are very fond of ants so it was good to see an adult bird teaching its offspring how to find its own food.
The blackberries are amazing this year. Why are so many left to rot in the hedgerows? They are delicious, nutritious and FREE!
These tall plants with numerous, yellow daisy-like heads and slightly prickly leaves, were growing at the edge of a field of maize (Tennis Court Field). I took a photo and decided to look it up. I was dismayed to see just how many yellow-flowered plants there are in the daisy family which all look very similar. So I willingly handed over the task of identification to an expert – Henk Beentje. He identified it as Sow Thistle, also known as Milk Thistle, a common weed of cultivated or disturbed land.
I love the stories associated with plants and according to the Roman historian and botanist, Pliny the Elder (who died at Herculaneum when Vesuvius erupted) a dish of sow thistles was eaten by the Greek hero Theseus before he slew the Minotaur. For centuries the leaves of the plant have been boiled like spinach or eaten raw in salads. Many animals, such as rabbits and hares eat the leaves. So why sow thistle? It seems that sows would almost instinctively eat the plant’s hollow stems which are full of a milky juice (a bit like dandelions) and this would increase their milk yield after giving birth.
While tidying up a wooden shed I found a tiny pygmy shrew, probably a young one, very dead, its body quite desiccated, but its beautiful fur undamaged. The 50p coin shows how very small it is. The body measures 3cm, the tail 3cm and the snout 5mm. They are probably the most widely distributed mammals in Britain.
I have just read a very inspiring book called Wilding, written by Isabella Tree. She recounts how she and her husband after several years of losing money on their intensively cultivated 3000 acre farm in West Sussex, decided to return it to the wild. They gradually introduced long horn cattle, fallow deer, pigs and Exmoor ponies and allowed them to roam free once they had acquired the money to put up a perimeter fence. The wildlife which returned was recorded and was extraordinary by any standards. Do go to the Knepp Farm website!
The introduction to the book outlines the drastic decline in so many species of birds, insects, mammals and flowers, and the decline is far worse in the UK than in most other countries in the world. The updated 2016 State of Nature report discovered that the UK has lost significantly more biodiversity than the world average and we are ranked 29th lowest out of 218 countries.
We are bombarded with gloomy statistics about climate change, melting ice caps, coastal erosion, droughts, floods and much more and it is easy to feel that there is no point in trying to do anything. But…if enough of us do our own tiny, infinitesimal little bit to help perhaps we can help to reverse the trend. Let’s choose our trees and plants with care, throw away the chemicals and fight against our better nature to be too tidy.
Nature is truly wonderful. I leave you with this brilliant example of camouflage.