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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In the Pink

In the pink

My partner (who has very little interest in nature spotting ) likes to tease me, telling me I have just missed a wildlife spectacle just over there.. On Sunday it was apparently a huge cloud of butterflies that had just flown off when I had my back turned. What colour were they? Pink apparently.

Well I’ve not spotted any pink butterflies yet, and I’m not sure there actually are any on the list of Sussex butterflies, but what I have spotted are some lovely pink flowers, and some of them very attractive to the butterflies.

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The first was hiding near a hedge just up the hill. A cute little pink and white flower like a little doll’s bonnet faces. Research suggests it is common restharrow (ominis repens). The flowers were right down low on the floor. Apparently they are linked by fibrous stems with such deep strong roots that this plant could stop a horse drawn harrow, with the roots tangling the blades!

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This one is a bit more familiar, and found on the exposed chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters cliffs where the butterflies were congregating – wild thyme. What a wonderful scent too

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These little pink buds had me wondering a while. I think the yellow plant is Perforate St John’s wort.

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A week or two later flowers nearby seem to reveal themselves as common centaury (centaurium erythraea). A little beauty from the gentian family, that can be low to the ground appearing like an alpine on thin chalk cliffs or where grazed, or can be tall and slender. The flowers open in full sun. 17th century apothecary and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper reported of ‘Ordinary Small Centaury’ that ‘The whole plant is of an exceeding bitter taste’ and that it helped to cure ‘the dropsy’, a condition which is nowadays regarded as edema.

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One pink flower not spotted as of yet was the one referred to in this cryptic poem by Emily Dickenson

Pink small and punctual by Emily Dickinson

Pink—small—and punctual—
Aromatic—low—
Covert—in April—
Candid—in May—
Dear to the Moss—
Known to the Knoll—
Next to the Robin
In every human Soul—
Bold little Beauty
Bedecked with thee
Nature forswears
Antiquity—

Apparently the answer to the riddle is the mayflower trailing arbutus, which according to folklore with the first spring-blooming plant that the pilgrims saw in the new country of America. It is believed that the little pink plant has existed since the last ice age.

Cute.

 

 

 

 

Weed hogging and magpie hopping

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At the top of Seaford Head in early July, it was hogweed nurturing the most wildlife! Not the infamous giant hogweed, that is non-native and can very toxic if you touch it, common hogweed is a native plant and was blooming everywhere. Almost every flower head I peered over, was covered with busy red soldier beetles, feeding, mating and general congregating.

Hogweed (heracleum sphondylium) has lacy umbellifer flowers which are white or pink.

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Soldier beetles are very common here and feed on aphids, pollen and nectar. The larvae prey on ground dwelling invertebrates such as slugs and snails. Another welcome insect to try and attract to my garden then!

It was a windy day and the birds were mostly lying low, except for a noisy family of magpies in a bush beside the golf course. Presumably juveniles, they congregated and cogitated, then flew off in a noisy hullabaloo.

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As I walked down the hill towards Hope Gap, the hogweed was joined by ladies bedstraw (gallium verum). The tiny delicate yellow flowers combine into golden clouds that waft prettily all the way down the hill. The flower is most abundant on very poor chalk soil where it cannot be crowded out by other more vigorous plants.

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Their pleasant honey and hay scent of the flower, made it popular in days gone by for drying and using to stuff mattresses, especially of women about to give birth, hence the name! In Norse mythology it was also used as a sedative for women in labour! Due to its high acid content it was also used as a rennet substitute to colour and flavour cheese!

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(truckle bed at Singleton Downland museum)

The end of my walk was also accompanied by more noisy magpies, who clearly wanted to stand up and be counted. But I think I lost count in the end. Anyway this little chap certainly wasn’t on his own, so I think I can avoid the curse of a lone magpie today.

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One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss.[1]

 

 

 

Summer, so many things that I have never seen

Summer, so many things that I have never seen

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(1 Marbled White)

And so one of my resolutions for the Summer was to slow down. Get outside whenever I could weather permitting, and not to rush, but instead to stop and look closely, and photograph. Then to learn something I didn’t know last year. Trying to identify, names of birds, butterflies, flowers, insects and more. To learn my landscape as it changes through the year. I’ve made a good start, but this is the sort of journey, cultivating my curiosity, that takes a lifetime, and is never finished.

So if I come across a snail on the chalk path leading up the hill, I should resist the temptation to tread on it (my garden ones are never spared!) and instead wonder about whether there are many varieties of snails, and whether the snail shell always curls the same way. What do the snails eat on the thin chalky grassland? In my garden they managed to climb several layers of copper tape, slide across sharp gravel and chew their way through every stem of zinnia every time… The stem of the struggling remaining one, has been repaired several times with sellotape. Which seems to work, and the poor flower is battling on valiantly. Not that I’m bitter.. well not that bitter..

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Anyway I still don’t know the answers about snails (I’ll get there, but they are not exactly top of my list) but I have enjoyed my way so far. Be patient, as my travels so far may take a while to tell, and if the weather is good, I won’t be typing, but outside instead.

According to the Sussex branch of the Butterfly Conservation society there are 52 species of butterfly found in sussex, 43 entirely native to Sussex. So I wonder if it’s possible to spot (and photograph all of them?) It seems worth a try. Second I want to be identify the flowers and plants that thrive within walking distance of my house. I already belonged to a couple of facebook groups for birdwatchers, and recently joined one for wild flowers. I haven’t yet dared post any photos (although it is mostly friendly enough) but I have learned just how many flowers there are , and just how difficult it is to identify them, especially from just one photo! I have a lot to learn!

You have to start somewhere, so I’ll start with my first butterfly of the year, the marbled white. The first ones I saw were up Seaford Head on 3rd July, in the long grass near the golf course, and they are normally pretty common there. This year I was also very pleased to find one in my garden on the verbena bonariensis, which I’m encouraging to run rampant anywhere it pleases.

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“The Marbled White is a distinctive and attractive black and white butterfly, unlikely to be mistaken for any other species. In July it flies in areas of unimproved grassland and can occur in large numbers on southern downland. It shows a marked preference for purple flowers such as Wild Marjoram, Field Scabious, thistles, and knapweeds. Adults may be found roosting halfway down tall grass stems. 

Found in unimproved flowery grassland with tall sward but may stray into gardens. The strongest populations are found on chalk or limestone grasslands but other habitats such as; woodland rides and clearings, coastal grassland, road verges and railway embankments are also used.

Caterpillar Foodplants- Red Fescue (Festuca rubra) is thought to be essential in the diet of larvae but Sheep’s-fescue (F. ovina), Yorkshire-fog (Holcus lanatus), and Tor-grass (Brachypodium pinnatum) are also eaten. It is thought that several other grasses may be used, but the full range is not known.

There’s a lot of knapweed up on Seaford Head, and you don’t have to peer at many heads before you spot some wildlife. Bees, soldier beetles and butterflies are all fighting over it! In fact I think knapweed will be on my list of things I really want in my garden next year!

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But of course nothing is that easy.. Knapweed – well is it greater knapweed, lesser knapweed, common knapweed, cultivated knapweed? Well according to the couple of books I have, I’m going to plump for greater knapweed. But I’m always happy to be corrected, as it’s in the process of being wrong, that we learn something. I have a terrible memory too, so the harder the journey is to answer the question, the more likely I am to remember this time next year when I’m out with my camera again, and checking what’s new.

“I sit beside the fire and think
Of all that I have seen
Of meadow flowers and butterflies
In summers that have been

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
In autumns that there were
With morning mist and silver sun
And wind upon my hair

I sit beside the fire and think
Of how the world will be
When winter comes without a spring
That I shall ever see

For still there are so many things
That I have never seen
In every wood in every spring
There is a different green
J.R.R. Tolkien

 

 

Wild about Spring

Wild about Spring

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I dream’d that as I wander’d by the way

Bare Winter suddenly was changed to Spring

And gentle odours led my steps astray

      Shelley

And so the suddenly green shoots were pushing up so fast you could almost hear their lush unfurling and the pots exploded in a lush blaze of colour Snowdrops, narcissus and crocus popping up in pots and in the beds. Far more than I thought I’d put in! Spring was here.

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When I walk to work from the station, I choose the peaceful path up the side of the campus, alongside established trees. All Winter the ground has been a crackling brown carpet of leaves under bare branches. As the days warmed up little leaves appeared taking advantage of the bare canopy. I’m not great on identifying wild flowers, but I’m trying to learn! Am very smitten with a book I found in a bargain bookshop in Lewes, Wild Flowers, by Sarah Raven!

The first leaves to appear were like miniature cyclamen. And pretty soon their flowers appeared, another Springtime yellow, a mass of lesser celandine. It was a real delight watching the brown dead carpet become a mass of colour as the weeks passed by.

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I was rather less delighted when I realised that my new beds were also becoming a sea of celandines too. A “freebie” that came with my free top soil! After researching them I realised that these were pretty difficult to eradicate; digging them out was likely to leave tubers that resprouted! After removing them only where they appeared to be most encroaching on precious plants, I took a philosophical view to love and leave them for now.

There is a flower, the Lesser Celandine

That shrinks like many more from cold and rain

And the first moment that the sun may shine

Bright as the sun himself, tis out again!

W Wordsworth

On a March walk at Cuckmere I was delighted to spot these little violets which I’m almost certain are sweet violet rather than the more common later dog violets. A shy and sweet delight.

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At the campus perimeter the celandines were soon finished. The next leaves to shoot up were more delicate fronds, I was guessing cranesbill but suddenly they grew, at least a foot a week! Triumphant Cow Parsley, some of it already chest high.

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Nettles and dandelions are next and down the slope a few bluebells already opening those fragrant blue petals.

However much I  carefully nurture my garden , it reminds me Mother Nature is pretty good at blossoming forth without any help!

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Enjoy it while it lasts

Winter gloom and the darkling thrush

 

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So where has the time gone? One minute the Winter is dragging on and the next we are galloping towards Summer. So what has happened in my coastal garden so far this year?

Well this Winter wasn’t so bad. Not too much wind and rain, no real storms taking all the fences away (though there is still time!)  A couple of frosty spells, but nothing too severe. The Winter pansies I grew from seed last year hunkered down stubbornly refusing to bloom until Spring arrived. The rosemary bush seems to have doubled in size and most shrubs seem to have survived well except possibly the ceanothus I was given in October. It really needed more shelter from the wind than I could give it.

The potatoes I grew in a pot for Christmas dinner got forgotten in December. When I did find time to check them, I found a little bucketful of perfect tiny new potatoes. They were soon cooked and covered in home made aioli. Mm garlic!

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The wagtails and wood pigeons made themselves at home. The starlings grew their coats of many colours, and came crashing into the garden at regular intervals for food and a bath (even on the coldest days where I had to break the ice with a hammer and boiling water)

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Since December I’ve been working at home two days a week, and it’s been lovely getting a view out onto my garden, especially in the depths of Winter when otherwise I wouldn’t see it from one weekend to the next. I even got a glimpse of the black redstart venturing in, and posing cockily on the bird feeder station, and the fence.

A number of the plants in pots were dying/suffering, and after emptying a couple I found that most were infested with vine weevil. Quite a few of the little blighters were moved  to the bird table (a tasty snack much appreciated by the starlings) and I’ve had to empty the worst pots, and have drenched the rest with a nematode, and top dressed with gravel. From now on, no plant comes in the garden without a root inspection! It does explain why some pots like the trellis planter did badly last year regardless of which plants were in it, and where I put it. You live and learn. I was most worried about the crab apple tree in a pot, but it seems to have made it.

Inside my heated propagator and sunny windowsills were filled with little trays of seeds and I’m dreaming of Summer.

The song thrush had been and gone, clearing the bushes of berries through the dusky afternoons, and moving on again.  

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The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

               

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;  

By Thomas Hardy

 Just when it seems that Winter will never end, come the first buds appear. Behold the joy of Spring.

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M is for marigolds, mice and mist

M is for Marigold. An easy bedding plant in cheery yellow and orange, and also Marsh Marigold a lovely marginal plant for a pond.

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A great plant for the beach area is the Mediterranean salt bush (atriplex halimus) which thrives in poor soil/drought and salt contaminated soil. As we have had sea water run into the garden in the past, this seemed a survivor that could cope here. It thrives too, seeming to grow by the minute during the Summer, and frequently obstructing my path to the compost bin!

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The Mint had another good year, various varieties in pots, that reappear each year full of vigour. I do  like a cup of fresh mint tea!

Another nice daisy plant is the Marguerite though mine struggled to keep its flowers this year.

And garden visitors, well there was a thrush briefly but I think it was a song thrush rather than a mistle thrush.The odd Magpie also pops in for a few seeds, always on the nervous side though.

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And I think we harbour quite a few Mice. A few times I’ve opened the compost bin and found a couple cute little field mice poking their heads sleepily up. I don’t mind them so much outside, but this week I was wrapping my Christmas stocking fillers in my ground floor office, and discovered some unwrapped and partly gnawed Christmas chocolates.. Oh dear they must have come in from the cold. So now all the presents are banished upstairs and the only food is in a couple of traps.. sorry beasties.

And I shouldn’t miss out the Mist – I love the way you wake up to a sea mist, that gradually lifts and reveals the glory of the day. And I love Love in the Mist! What a fabulous name, want more of these in my garden next year! More more more.

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