2020 will go down in world history as the year of the Coronavirus pandemic. Even in our own small community of Winsham, few aspects of life have been untouched by it. In an attempt to control the contagion, severe restrictions were placed on personal movement throughout the UK, easing to some extent during the summer months.
Exercise periods were allowed, and in our rural area, this encouraged local residents to take an extra interest in the local plant and wild life around them. During summer this was encouraged; the warmer weather gave some respite from the Covid-19 virus, and this encouraged further interest, as restrictions on personal movement were eased. Its vicious return in the Fall, followed by additional threats from the disease that was mutating, should remind us that the natural world is still the dominant force in our existence, perhaps giving a warning that a second disaster, Global Warming, will follow in its wake if rapid action is not taken by the developed world.
Liz Earl has produced a nature diary for Winsham Web Museum each year since 2016. In 2019 she also produced in collaboration with botanist Dr. Henk Beentje, another Winsham resident, a Butterfly Diary which can also been viewed on this web site. This addition to Liz's Nature diary has proved to be very popular; in this year's edition of the diary a summary of the observed incidence of some of the butterflies featured in last year's diary is included.
JSS (Ed.)28 January, 2021
2020 has been a funny old year and no mistake. As I look out of the window on this penultimate day of the year it is glum and gloomy. This December we have witnessed huge amounts of rainfall – over 6” (15cm in this area, though thankfully no flooding as in other parts of the country. We had Storm Bella on Boxing Day – surely too pretty a name for a storm!
The positive thing to have come out of the corona virus pandemic is that more people have been reconnecting with nature we are told. Also species which have been driven out of their natural habitats by crowds of humans, have returned, at least for now.
So what has been happening in and around Winsham in the past year? On the wildlife front I mean!
In the middle of January we invited a few friends to come and wassail in our apple orchard. There was lots of singing, dancing, clashing of pots and pans and sprinkling of alcohol. This is done in order to encourage the apple trees to bear fruit; and indeed it did! The word wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon greeting ‘Waes bu hael’ meaning ‘Be in good health’. Many of you will remember the shed loads of windfall apples lying rotten and unloved in people’s gardens in October. I almost wept at the waste, but a friend said: “Don’t worry. They are a feast for wildlife”. It is true that wasps and slugs, blackbirds and fieldfares among others love them. However there seem to have been very few fieldfares in this area this year.
In the middle of the month Storm Denis hit us. Strong winds and torrential rain. Then at the end of the month there was more of the same. This time Storm Jorge was to blame.
At the Ilminster branch of the Somerset Wildlife Trust there was an interesting talk on adders given by a volunteer who monitors adders in the Blackdown Hills. Briefly, they are our only poisonous snake, they are slow moving, give birth to live young and they are predated by crows and buzzards, and of course, being cold-blooded, there is nothing they like more than a south facing bank where they can bask in the sun.
A walk down Ebben Lane at the end of March revealed a lot of Dog’s Mercury (mercurialis perennis). It is prolific under hedges and is extremely poisonous. The 17th Century herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper, said: “There is not a more fatal plant native to our country than this.” So why is it called Dog’s Mercury? Mercury comes from the name of the Roman god who is supposed to have discovered it. He was the messenger of the gods and the leader of the souls of the dead to the lower world. The Dog’s because it was considered worthless, i.e. fit only for dogs.
April was hot and sunny like the last half of March. Lots of butterflies – Peacocks, Brimstones, Orange tips (all of which overwinter as adults) and small Whites, although they could equally be female Orange tips at a distance. My first sighting of Brimstones and Peacocks this year was 22 March, 3 weeks earlier than last year.
There are lots of lovely wild flowers about in April and it is a good time to visit Wayford Woods. Speedwell, wild garlic, dead nettle, archangel to name but a few.
I noted that our beech hedge is still hanging on to last year’s brown leaves. This set me thinking as to why beech hedges, and sometimes other juvenile trees like oak and hornbeam, don’t shed their leaves in Autumn. I have looked this up (Google is a wonderful thing!) and there are a variety of suggestions but no consensus. Some botanists think that marescence (retention of dead plant matter) means that in the Spring when the leaves drop the plant can make better use of the resulting compost. Others think that it protects the dormant buds against the harsh Winter weather and also nibbling of the twigs and buds by large mammals like deer.
Jim Everidge told me on 1st May he had just seen two yellow hammers while walking up Crewkerne Hill. Good news as yellow hammers are a threatened species. He also said he had a gold crest nesting in his garden. Am I envious? Not half!
Walking up Crewkerne Hill and through Midnell and Looe Farms I was struck by how few insects and birds there were. Just a few bees and a mayfly. And this in spite of the hedgerows and banks being absolutely full of flowers – cow parsley, red campion, foxgloves, dead nettles, mares tails, vetch, herb Robert, stitchwort, germander, mouse ear, dandelion and many more. Several studies have reported substantial declines in insect populations, mainly bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, dragonflies and damsel flies; this being mainly due to loss of habitat.
The charity Plantlife launched a campaigning experiment in 2019 called Every Flower Counts and No Mow May and this year I enrolled. We didn’t mow our lawn through the whole of May and then had to randomly select 1m square quadrants and identify the flowers which were growing there. It was really interesting to see what was flowering and to read the national results. Daisies topped the leader board followed by white clover, self heal and birds foot trefoil. Seven species of orchid were also recorded.
On looking at our eaves from outside the house one day I noticed that we had a steady stream of wasps flying in and out and going into the loft I discovered an enormous wasps’ nest, and I mean enormous. I’m a great fan of wasps but I didn’t want them in my loft so a pest control man came to destroy the nest. I then discovered that the loft was home to quite a number of bats judging by the numerous droppings. These were mainly pipistrelles but when my son went up there to video them he found there were 2 greater horseshoe bats as well.
Two grey squirrels are busy harvesting sweet chestnuts and burying them ready for the lean Winter months. Are they really capable of planning for the future like us humans?
I’d like to know if anyone agrees with me but I feel that feeding garden birds from hanging feeders favours certain breeds such as tits and goldfinches but does nothing to help wrens, blackbirds robins and thrushes so we are propping up large populations of some kinds artificially.
It is a sobering thought that insects are on the decline, particularly bees, moths, butterflies, beetles and dragonflies. We all need to do our bit to encourage them by laying off the insecticides, weeding and mowing less and cultivating the plants they like. To lift our spirits here are some lovely photos of dragonflies taken by Henk Beentje.