Friend or Foe, Pest or wildlife?

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(2 Holly Blue)

It’s a bit ironic really that a lot of gardeners see butterflies as a bonus, but caterpillars as a pest! We really can’t have one without the other! I was delighted to spot a holly blue butterfly in my garden, and if that means I’ve been hosting a few caterpillars on my variegated holly bush, then so be it (though with the number of birds coming in to feed at the nearby bird feeder at the moment, I wouldn’t like rate their chances!) Maybe if I was trying to grow cabbages, then I’d feel a bit differently!

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(3 Small white)

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Back in May a walk in at Cuckmere Haven I spotted lots of these striking caterpillars, in cocoons in the hedges. It’s taken me a while to work out an ID, but I think they are brown-tail moth caterpillars. These are found throughout Europe and in the UK mostly frequently in the south, especially by the coast. They feed on a variety of deciduous trees including hawthorn and blackthorn. The cocoons and caterpillars should not be handled or disturbed due to the stinging hairs that can cause skin reactions requiring medical treatment. The hairs can even become airbourne in strong winds causing a hazard in public places, as a result of which many councils will deal with an “infestation”.  Anyhow I found them rather fascinating. I believe the stinging hairs also act as an excellent defence against predators such as birds!

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Another day, another caterpillar on its favourite plant, and this time it’s the plant that’s the baddie. What a beautiful beast this is, the cinnabar moth! Just stunning, with those tiger stripes and gorgeous long hairs.

Newly hatched larvae feed from the underneath of ragwort leaves within the area of their old eggs. The larvae absorb toxic and bitter tasting alkaloid substances from the ragwort, and absorb them, becoming unpalatable themselves. The bright colours of both the larvae and the moths act as warning signs, so they are seldom eaten by predators, with the exception of cuckoos.

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The host plant, common ragwort is classified as a pest, but the moth caterpillars can quickly decimate a plant, working their way up from the bottom. I looked this week in the place I took these photos, and the ragwort was almost all gone!

Ragwort is one of five weeds specified by the UK’s Weeds Act 1959, which “requires landowners to take actions as may be necessary to prevent weeds from spreading”. The plant is toxic to horses and other grazing animals. Most animals avoid eating the plant, but if gets into dry hay, it can be eaten by the animals and can poison them. The plant has had a lot of bad press, encouraging the public to pull up this weed wherever it can. However the law does not require that the plant is removed, only that an order may be issued to remove the weed. In fact if members of the public walking across land, do pull up the plants, they are breaking the law that states it is illegal to uproot any wildflower. This is only legal if carried out by the landowner, occupier, someone authorised by them, or a specified official. In any case pulling up the plant is unlikely to prevent it coming back.

Common ragwort (senecio jacobaea) is hugely beneficial to wildlife, providing a home and food source to at least 77 species of insects. Thirty of these use ragwort exclusively as their food source! Of these, seven are officially deemed as scarce. Species depending on this plant include the cinnabar moth, picture winged fly and the Sussex Emerald moth.

So celebrate our ragwort, and our wildlife! It certainly brightened my day!

The ragworts, growing up so straight,
Are emperors who stand in state,
And march about, so proud and bold,
In crowns of fairy-story gold.

Francis Darwin Cornford

Another plant I spotted at the edge of the water in the Cuckmere valley, looked just like the fennel I grow at home, but there was no smell. I’m pretty sure this is wild parsnip (pastinaca sativa).

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Again this plant is very important to the insect life that feeds off it. This plant (like many others) has sap that can cause a skin rash and cause sensitivity to sunlight. It would be advisable to wear gloves if handling it. A recent story in the Eastbourne news featured a four year old that had bad blisters caused by picking the flowers for his grandmother. The grandmother wanted to warn others about the dangers of this plant as “other children may pick it”.

Fair enough, but I would like to add to that.. please do not let your children pick wild flowers. Some sting, some have thorns that can hurt you, some have sap that will irritate, some will have been contaminated by dogs and rodents and most (even the unfairly maligned ragwort) are very precious. Leave them there in their place, for the wildlife that depend on them, and for the rest of us to enjoy. Thank you

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Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves

I love to see thee come and litter gold…

Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields

The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn

So bright and glaring that the very light

Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn

And seems but very shadows in thy sight.

 

John Clare 1831

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