Monthly Archives: July 2022

The 2022 Wainwright Nature Writing Prize Longlist

Dear Readers, the 2022 Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing has released its longlist, and much to my astonishment I have actually read three of them already. Go me! Much About Mothing, by James Lowen, was a lot of fun, and is probably my overall favourite of the ones that I’ve read so far. You can read my review here. The book is enough to make you dig out the moth trap, or at least go out after dark with a torch.

‘Otherlands’ by Thomas Halliday is an absolutely fascinating depiction of life on earth, starting from the near past and going right back to the dawn of animal life. There is so much to enjoy in this book, and I found myself learning lots. Two things that I did note, though: somehow going backwards in time felt counter-intuitive to me, I think I would have been able to put it together better if it had worked forwards. And secondly, because I read it on Kindle I found some of the maps difficult to read. I think it cries out for a deluxe edition with lots of illustrations of the lifeforms described, I found it a bit confusing remembering which lifeform was which sometimes. Do not, however, let that put you off! There is lots to savour and learn here.

And this is the third one that I’ve read – I love Adam Nicolson, he can really write, and the first few chapters of this book are so fascinating that I kept interrupting my poor long-suffering husband to give him a few facts about marine invertebrates while he was trying to read about German tanks or something equally entertaining.  For some reason the book didn’t keep my attention quite as much in the middle, but I seem to remember it picking up again at the end. I love that Nicolson actually built himself a rock pool, realised that the design wasn’t quite right and then built another one.

And now to the ones that I haven’t read yet and, as the shortlist is announced on 28th July, I might not get to before then.

‘Wild Green Wonders – A Life in Nature’ is a collection of essays by Patrick Barkham. I’ve always enjoyed his writing, but I wonder if I’ll have already read many of these pieces? If anyone has read it, let me know.

On the face of it, ’12 Birds to Save Your Life – Nature’s Lessons in Happiness’ by Charlie Corbett falls into that category of ‘nature as consolation after bereavement’ that Helen MacDonald encapsulated in ‘H is for Hawk’. Corbett was devastated after the death of his mother, but was briefly pulled out of his sorrow by the sound of a skylark. As one who has found much solace in the natural world after the loss of my parents, I think this book sounds intriguing, and I shall certainly give it a look.

‘On Gallows Down – Place, Protest and Belonging’ by Nicola Chester sounds like an intriguing read. I have always admired people who will fight for the natural places that they love, and this seems to cover everything from those who protect ancient trees to the battle for Greenham Common.

Nick Hayes’s previous work, ‘The Book of Trespass’, is on my reading pile at the moment – it was one of those books that I picked up, read for a few days and then realised that I wasn’t somehow in the mood. This book seems to be much more about engaging with nature and realising how much we are part of it, as a way to recognise not only our rights to access the land, but our responsibility to protect it.

‘Goshawk Summer – The Diary of an Extraordinary Season in the Forest’ by James Aldred sounds right up my street – I do love a diary, and this is specifically about Aldred following a family of goshawks in the New Forest during the strange summer of 2020. High up my list.

‘Shadowlands – A Journey Through Lost Britain’ by Matthew Green tells of neolithic settlements buried in sand, villages abandoned through plague, places inundated by sea water and requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence. This sounds like a fascinating exploration of what’s been lost, and what’s just below the surface.

‘The Heeding’ by Rob Cowen is a collection of poems, illustrated by Nick Hayes (who wrote ‘The Trespasser’s Companion’, above). It’s great to see a poetry collection here. I loved Cowen’s book ‘Common Ground’, and I look forward to reading his poems.

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while – I read Liptrot’s previous book, ‘The Outrun’, about her time on Orkney and battle with alcoholism, and this is about her time in Berlin and her search for love as a sober 30 year-old. Berlin is a hotspot for all sorts of interesting urban wildlife including raccoons and nightingales, and as a fan of the animals that live in alongside us in our cities, this seems very interesting.

And finally!

‘Time on Rock – A Climber’s Route into the Mountains’ by Anna Fleming is about the author’s transition from terrified beginner to confident lead climber. What is it about mountains that challenges us so? There is no environment that I like better, and although not a climber, I am very intrigued by this book.

So, there we have it, a feast of reading for the summer. As noted, the shortlist comes out next week, and the final prize (for this and the other two categories, Conservation and Writing for Children) will be awarded on 7th September. Let me know what you’ve read, what you fancy, and what you think should have been included that was missed.

Wednesday Weed – Hemp Agrimony Revisited

Honeybee on Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum)

Dear Readers, I haven’t written about hemp agrimony since 2016, and so I thought that it needed a few more minutes in the limelight. These are the same plants that I planted in 2010, and they are still going strong twelve years later. Every year I cut them back in the autumn, and every spring they burst forth again without any bother or nonsense. This year I’ve put in a circular plant support so they’re not quite as flopsy-bunny as they’ve been in previous years, but they are still a little shaggy and unkempt, rather like me. No wonder I love them, and I’m not the only one. The honeybees pop over from the nearby allotments for a feed, especially as the lavender has gone over now, but it is also popular with all manner of little hoverflies, bees and wasps, including this rather intriguing visitor from Sunday afternoon.

Nomada sp. bee

You might think that the little critter in the photo above was a tiny wasp, but in fact it’s a bee, and a rather sneaky one at that. Nomad bees don’t build nests of their own, but are cleptoparasites – the females creep into the nest of another species of bee and lays her egg on the wall. When the larva hatches out, it kills the host’s larva and feasts on it and the provisions of pollen and other materials that the mother bee has so lovingly gathered. Normally the host species is some kind of mining bee, and the range of the nomad bee is very closely attuned to that of the intended target, so I shall have to keep my eyes open and see what mining bees are about. One other delightful thing about hemp agrimony is that the flowers are at eye level so I don’t even have to bend over to see all the drama. You might remember me spotting the spider below last year – she was hanging around trying to catch a bee or moth, or even a butterfly – today I spotted a comma, a blue butterfly and a large white all popping in to feed.

Candy-striped spider ((Enoplognatha ovata)

So, hemp agrimony definitely punches above its weight when it comes to invertebrate interest, and, as I have one plant in the sun, one in the shade and one in semi-shade it extends the flowering season to about six weeks.

I included some of the plant’s medicinal and folkloric uses in the original post below, but having a quick look at the Plantlore website, it seems that even as recently as the 1920s/30s, a poultice of the leaves was used to cure a fisherman whose arm was otherwise likely to be amputated. The person who had heard the story of the fisherman was, in his teens, much afflicted by boils on his neck and arms, and his parents remembered that the plant concerned was hemp agrimony. The youngster jumped on his bike and found a stand of the plants, and took some of them – sure enough, a poultice made from the leaves drew out the pus from his infection, and he was cured. He writes about how, whenever he sees hemp agrimony he regards it with ‘admiration and gratitude’, which is exactly how I feel about it, and about so many of the plants that I’ve grown to love through writing the Wednesday Weed.

And, as I didn’t include a poem in my original post, here’s a new one, by Matt Howard. He was born in Norfolk, and works as a nature conservationist and organiser of environmental and arts events. I think I would have known that Howard was a close observer of the world around him just from reading this poem, with its understanding of the interwoven lives of humans, plants and animals. See what you think. Howard’s website about his latest project, described as ‘ an innovative international poetry translation project that will map the poetry of nature and place across borders’ is here.

Reed sweet-grass by Matt Howard


A quarter acre of it, mowed
down the low meadow for the clearing.
Frost and stubble among the rides.
Dominant and too coarse to bale,
a day’s work, with rake and fork.


An aesthetic of summer justified
by muscle memory in February,
slung from hip, back, shoulder and wrist –
the idea of the nectar-rich; marsh orchid,
ragged robin, hemp agrimony


and what it all might mean. High talk,
but none of it bluff or bluster;
hard-pronged, our true vernacular sworn
and sweated by the good tonnage we heap,
taller than a big man. Purposeful.


The stack will grow warm as a body inside;
a hibernacula of predator and prey:
grass snake and her leathery eggs,
tunnelings for vole and shrew,
all bedfellows of the rat, three feet down.


Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum)

Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum)

Dear Readers, I wonder if there was ever a plant quite as ramshackle-looking as Hemp Agrimony when it’s past its prime. The flower heads looks as if they are in need of a good comb, and when the seeds come the overall effect is of a gigantic thistle with bedhead. But if we look at the photograph above, we can see a hoverfly who is in no way put off by the general air of untidiness. For, of all the flowers that has self-seeded around my pond, Hemp Agrimony is among the most popular.

IMG_4270Like many plants whose blossom is made up of numerous small flowers, Hemp Agrimony’s nectar can be easily accessed by the more non-specialised pollinators, such as flies and hoverflies. And the multiplicity of blooms means that there is a lot of food in one place. Honeybees also have a great fondness for the plant, and when it’s sunny the bees drift drowsily over the dirty-pink flowers, which Richard Mabey  compared to ‘whipped strawberry mousse’ in his book Flora Britannica.

IMG_4291Hemp Agrimony is a member of the Asteraceae, or Daisy family. You might expect that it has some psychotropic properties, what with it having the species name cannabinum, but this simply refers to the shape of the leaves. This doesn’t stop the occasional perfectly innocent Hemp Agrimony seedling being impounded of course, because botanical knowledge is not necessarily the first thing that they teach at Police Academy. Richard Mabey  mentions that young Horse Chestnut trees have been taken into custody because their leaves also have a strange resemblance to the true Cannabis plant, at least if you’ve never seen one of the latter.

IMG_4278Hemp Agrimony is a native plant in the UK, and like so many plants that have been here for a while, it has some interesting folklore. One alternative name for the plant is ‘Holy Rope’ – the leaves of Hemp, which this plant resembles, were used to make rope, and it was believed that such a rope was used to bind Christ before his crucifixion. A more day-to-day belief was that if bread was placed on a bed of Hemp Agrimony leaves, it wouldn’t go mouldy. The plant has also been used medicinally, especially in the Netherlands where it was for jaundice, as a blood-purifier and as a cure for scurvy. It is said to be toxic, however, and it has been noticed that the iron-stomached goat is the only creature that will eat it.

IMG_4271Hemp Agrimony likes damp, shady places, and so is very at home beside the pond in my north-facing garden. It’s a perennial too, so all it needs is some cutting back to stop it becoming too much of an eyesore. I put the hollow stems beside the shed, where they will hopefully be used by hibernating insects. And next year, without any bother at all, it will be back as a late summer feast for pollinators. I am very happy to live with its wayward habit and general shagginess when the reward is such an abundance of insects and other invertebrates.

Resources this week include: Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey

The Plant Lives website

The A Modern Herbal website


A Warm Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, we went for a quick amble around the cemetery on Saturday, before the temperature started to climb too much, but everywhere is still very crisp and dry. However, the spiders are clearly out in force: the statue of Alexander William Lamond, who died in 1926, has some spiders’  webs adorning his handsome neck.

And elsewhere, the dried seedheads of the hogweed are also draped in cobwebs, and herein lies a tale – I was watching reruns of ‘Masterchef the Professionals’ during the week, and one of the chefs, Oli Martin, made a parfait from foraged hogweed seeds which everyone seemed to enjoy. So, when I saw the plant on Saturday I was confident enough of my ID to pick a few seeds and give them a quick munch. Goodness! They have a very acidic, lemony taste which seems to shift to menthol towards the end. I was quite impressed, and could see how the seeds could add a very unusual flavour to something creamy. In my Wednesday Weed on hogweed, there’s a recipe for hogweed spiced biscuits. Just be careful though, lovelies, you wouldn’t want to gather a handful of hemlock seeds by mistake and end up deaded, as Bluebottle used to say in The Goon Show (#showingmyage).

Hogweed and Spiders’ webs.

Elsewhere, the acorns are filling out very nicely. There is something about them when they’re little that I find adorable. I’m surprised there are so many after last year’s bumper crop, but maybe they take more than a year to mature, I shall have to wait and see. 

‘My’ swamp cypress is doing very well, and doesn’t seem to be suffering too much in the heat in spite of its preference for boggy ground.

And I thought that the light through the leaves of this ornamental beech tree was really lovely, it looks like a rather subdued plate glass window.

And finally, I have always been a little dismissive of the more ornamental marigold varieties but I am clearly wrong, because look at these bumblebees all over these yellow flowers! It goes to show that you can’t believe everything that you read, and that bumblebees are very versatile animals.

And so after a slow amble around the cemetery we decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and that it was time to head back for some shade and a delicious slice of spanakopita (feta, greens and filo pie) from our local greengrocer, Tony’s Continental on East Finchley High Street. I will be battening down the hatches for the next day or so as the temperature climbs to 100 degrees Fahrenheit because I am a delicate, pale-skinned creature, prone to overheating. So here is a lovely cool photo for you to peruse if you’re in need of some protection from the weather.


Monday Quiz – Summertime!

Swift Photo by pau.artigas, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Swift (Apus apus)

Dear Readers, temperatures in London are expected to exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the next two days, so I thought for this quiz we could have a look at some summer songs, and see if we could find the title and the artist. There have been some cracking songs about this time of year, and to be honest probably the best thing for most of us Londoners for the next few days would be to stay in, pull the curtains, drink lots of fluids and listen to them!

One mark for the song title, one mark for the artist (or an artist who has recorded the song). You have until 5 p.m. UK time next Saturday (23rd July) to pop your answers into the comments, and the answers will be published next Sunday (24th July). So, UK readers, have fun, stay cool and don’t do anything too intrepid. Depending on the humidity and a number of other factors, temperatures as low as 95 degrees can be deadly, as this article explains.

The Songs

A)Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity?
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head

B) Fish are jumpin’
And the cotton is high
Your daddy’s rich
And your mum is good lookin’
So hush little baby
Don’t you cry

C) Ole ole – ole ole / Ole ole – ole ole

D) Whenever he calls my name
Soft, low, sweet, and plain
Right then, right there, I feel that burning flame
Has high blood pressure got a hold on me
Or is this the way love’s supposed to be?

E) Sittin’ here restin’ my bones
And this loneliness won’t leave me alone, listen
Two thousand miles, I roam
Just to make this dock my home

F) Hot summer streets and the pavements are burning
I sit around
Trying to smile but the air is so heavy and dry
Strange voices are sayin’ (what did they say?)
Things I can’t understand
It’s too close for comfort, this heat has got right out of hand

G)Out on the road today, I saw a DEADHEAD sticker on a Cadillac
A little voice inside my head said, “Don’t look back. You can never look back”
I thought I knew what love was
What did I know?
Those days are gone forever
I should just let them go but-

H)Sweet days of summer, the jasmine’s in bloom
July is dressed up and playing her tune
And I come home from a hard day’s work
And you’re waitin’ there
Not a care in the world

I)Well, we got no choice
All the girls and boys (girls and boys)
Making all that noise (ooh)
‘Cause they found new toys

J)I used to think maybe you loved me, now I know that it’s true
And I don’t want to spend my whole life, just waiting for you
Now I don’t want u back for the weekend
Not back for a day, no no no
I said baby I just want you back and I want you to stay


Monday Quiz – Full of Beans! – The Answers

Title Photo by Karyna Pachenko

Dear Readers, this week Fran and Bobby Freelove and new player Thirlsmith aka Wildflowerhunter both got a magnificent 10 out of 10 – congratulations Fran and Bobby and Thirlsmith! And on Monday, I suspect there will be something on the theme of summer songs….

Photo One by Anne Burgess

1) F. Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)

Photo Two from

2) E. Wood Bitter Vetch (Vicia orobus)

Photo Three by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

3) G. Wild Liquorice (Astragalus glycyphyllos)

Photo Four by AnemoneProjectors, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

4) B. Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria)

Photo Five by Lawn Weeds, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

5) I. Black Medick (Medicago lupulina)

Photo Six by Lawn Weeds, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

6) J. White Clover (Trifolium repens)

Photo Seven by paul dickson

7) H. Broad-leaved Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius)

Photo Eight from

8) C. Common Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculata)

Photo Nine by By Epibase - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

9) A. Goat’s Rue (Galega officinalis)

Photo Ten by Andrew Curtis at

10) D. Tufted Vetch (Vicia cracca)

Photo Credits

Photo One by Anne Burgess

Photo Two from

Photo Three by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by AnemoneProjectors, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by Lawn Weeds, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by Lawn Weeds, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by paul dickson

Photo Eight from

Photo Nine by By Epibase – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Ten by Andrew Curtis at

An Old Friend

Fencepost jumping spider (Marpissa muscosa)

Dear Readers, I was talking to my friend J about tattoos at lunch today. At the age of 60 she is planning on getting one in the shape of a swift, and so the conversation turned to what I would have, in the event that I decide to be artistically punctured with lots of small needles.

“A jumping spider”, I said, without any hesitation. And therein hangs a tale.

When I was six or seven, I was out in our tiny garden as usual. I had spotted a tiny creature on the concrete slab that housed the giant post for our washing line, and I had noticed that it was acting very strangely, so I lay on my stomach (in my best party dress as we were supposed to be going out) and realised that the animal was a spider about the size of my fingernail. A few inches away on the slab, a house fly was cleaning its eyes with its hairy front legs, rotating its whole head by about 240 degrees like they do. The spider was prowling ever closer, using the lumps and bumps in the surface of the concrete as cover. Then, it paddled its legs, tensed itself and leapt through the air onto the back of the fly.

And in that moment was Bugwoman born. Because I don’t think I had ever seen anything quite so thrilling or so unexpected, and it opened my eyes to a whole world of astonishment and good old-fashioned awe.

Back to the present day, and I was getting some cushions for the chairs in the garden out of the cupboard when I noticed this little chap. And I am quite sure he was a chap because those ‘boxing gloves’ are pedipalps, which he uses to insert his sperm into a female spider if she is willing to accept him, though my lovely friends at the British Spiders Facebook Page tell me that this is just a young male, as in adults those pedipalps would be more formed, and his stripes would be more defined.

Jumping spiders don’t use webs or any of that namby-pamby stuff – though they will anchor themselves to the ground with a silk line before they spring, just in case the jump fails. They are hunters through and through, and so they have those astonishingly large eyes at the front of their faces which help them to judge distance. The slightly smaller eyes which are further back are used to detect motion.

Most invertebrates, including most spiders, seem broadly oblivious to human presence, moving away when they sense a shadow or hear the vibration of footsteps, but jumping spiders actually look at you. They may even cock their heads like attentive dogs. To me, they are utterly adorable, and much easier to love than some of the bigger, hairier, danglier spiders that you might encounter in a shed. You are not supposed to have favourites, but I confess that these creatures fill me with a warm glow. Here’s a short film of this little chap.

Jumping spiders will also chase a laser pointer in much the same way as cats do. They probably have tetrachromic colour vision (which is better than our colour vision) and they also have high-sensitivity to ultraviolet light. They live in a colourful world, for sure, and in experiments they’ve been shown to be able to learn, remember and recognise particular colours.

Jumping spider chases laser pointer

Although this particular jumping spider is not very brightly coloured, the family to which he belongs (the Salticidae) are extremely varied, with over 6000 species, including the peacock spiders. You may well have come across them before, but if not, have a look at this extraordinary BBC film . Such tiny creatures, with such complex lives! It just reminds me of how little we actually know about the animals and plants that we share the planet with.

And so, I persuaded the jumping spider onto the fencepost for which he is named. Hopefully he’ll find a female jumping spider. At the very least, he’ll be able to find some insects to munch on. Good luck, little chap.

Cat Shenanigans

Willow in calmer times

Regular readers might remember my cat Willow, who loves to a) follow a patch of sunshine around the house, b) get a good grooming with her favourite brush, c) snuggle up on my lap when I’m reading in bed, and d) crunch through the most expensive kibble that money can buy. Things that she doesn’t much like include:

a) Being picked up

b) Being put into a cat carrier

c) Being put on the back seat of a taxi and

d) Sitting in the vet’s waiting room with all those horrible dogs

Well, as you might remember, she is 13 going on 14 years old, has high blood pressure and so needs regular monitoring. Over the past few months she has been steadily losing weight in spite of eating like the proverbial equine, so she has to go to the vet for blood pressure checks and a weigh-in, not to mention getting her claws clipped because there is no way I’m doing it and living to tell the tale.

Anyhow, today my husband was off on jury duty so I had to wrangle her into her cat carrier all by myself. It doesn’t matter how nonchalant I try to look, she always knows that something is up, so today I had to almost rugby tackle her to the ground. I landed a bit awkwardly on one foot, so now I’m limping, and the cat is giving me that ‘serves you right’ look.

The taxi driver was wearing a shirt covered in penguins. I liked him immediately, and he didn’t raise an eyebrow at the caterwauling (the cat, not me).

In the vet there was a bit of a crisis because some poor young girl had been looking after someone else’s French bulldog and the animal had collapsed. We’re having what passes for a heatwave here in the UK at the moment, and I am shocked by the number of people who are still walking their dogs in the heat of the day, especially the little short-faced breeds that already have trouble breathing. I suppose while people are unaware of the health problems that these dogs have and are seduced by how cute they look, they will keep buying them, and the animals will keep suffering. Certainly the lass who had been looking after the dog was mortified, all the more so because she’d been entrusted with someone else’s pet.

Anyhow, there’s a new vet ( a very nice chap) and the cat, as usual, loved him – she doesn’t actually hate all the fuss she gets when she’s in the clinic, just all the palaver of getting there. And sadly she’s lost another 100 grams, so she’ll have to go back in a month. The vet and I wrestled her to the ground to clip her claws (just as the toenails of humans get a bit gnarly and hard as we get older, a cat’s claws can actually grow into their pads if their owner doesn’t pay attention). It’s rather nice that she doesn’t clippety-clip around the house anymore, her claws tapping on the wooden floors like a very small circus pony.

And so that was the excitement for the day, and it was back to work. One of the great sadnesses of life is that our animals don’t live as long as we do – I’ve had to say goodbye to many companions, dogs and cats and any number of smaller animals. I hope that all this veterinary care will give Willow a happier, healthier life, and that it’s worth all the personal injury involved. Now I must go, it’s time for the cat’s  afternoon tea.

Willow exploring her domain.

First Images from the James Webb Space Telescope

The Carina Nebula

Dear Readers, I watched the launch of the James Webb telescope a few months ago with great trepidation. This is the most ambitious project for decades – the telescope is orbiting the sun at a point over a million miles away from the earth, and is equipped with 18 hexagonal gold mirrors and a sunshield to prevent it from being damaged by the sun. After launch, there was a six month wait while the mirrors were unfurled and the telescope was calibrated. Now, it is looking into a part of space never examined before, which is thought to be where the the very first stars and galaxies formed, over 13 billion years ago.

The James Webb looks for light in the infrared and near infrared spectrums – visible and ultraviolet light have been what’s known as ‘redshifted’ as the universe expanded.

So, if that’s not mindblowing enough, bearing in mind that the images that the telescope is capturing are historical – the stars and galaxies in the photos may have already ceased to exist, as it takes such a long time for the light to arrive at the telescope.

All images from Nasa here.

So, first up is a photo of the Carina Nebula (top) – it might look like a series of crags but  the clear, starry area in the middle is where the intense ultraviolet radiation and solar winds from the birth of new stars has carved out an area in the middle of the nebula.

Next is Stephan’s Quintet, which is apparently featured in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ – enlighten me, Readers, as I’ve missed this holiday classic. You can see the tails being pulled from some of the five galaxies due to the gravitational pull of the others, and there are also shock waves in the middle where the galaxies are crashing into one another.

The images are put together from many, many shots – this one was created from almost 1000 separate ‘photos’.

Stephan’s Quintet

Next, the Southern Ring Nebula. The star in the centre is expelling clouds of dust and gas and it dies.

This side-by-side comparison shows observations of the Southern Ring Nebula in near-infrared light, at left, and mid-infrared light, at right, from NASA’s Webb Telescope.

And finally, this is the image unveiled by President Joe Biden on Tuesday. This is the deepest and sharpest image of the known universe to date. This photo covers an area of the sky about the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground, and just look at the detail. It’s a composite made from photos taken by different cameras, and it took 12 hours to put the image together (as compared to several weeks for the poor old Hubble telescope). The image shows the galaxies as they looked 4.6 billion years ago. If you hear a strange sound, it’s just my brain melting…

Deep Field Image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723

What a truly spectacular set of images these are. We will find out so much, not just about deep space but also about things like exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars) – the telescope can analyse the atmosphere of these planets, and so determine what kind of life could possibly exist on them. I look forward to the discoveries that this truly ground (space?) breaking innovation will provide.

Wednesday Weed – Clustered Dock

Clustered Dock (Rumex conglomeratus)

Dear Readers, this plant is apparently very common in the south of England but rare in the North, and it’s one of those ‘weeds’ that is everywhere, but unnoticed. Normally it grows alongside streams according to my Harraps Guide to Wildflowers, but this one was growing in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in a shady spot. I did notice that they tend to grow in the lower-lying spots, so maybe it’s damp enough for them. It is native to Europe (including the UK), North Africa and Asia as far East as Pakistan, but has been introduced to the coastal areas North America and the west coast of South America, probably in grain and in seeds for cultivation.

The plant is very similar to wood dock (Rumex sanguineus), which is what I would expect to find under the horse chestnuts and ash trees in the cemetery, but in clustered dock the stems project out from the main stem at a wide angle to the stem, and that’s good enough for me, looking at this plant. The stems are also said to be very slightly zig-zag, which they were, though this isn’t captured in the photo. It’s a rule of nature that if there’s a distinguishing feature on a plant, I won’t have photographed it. Why I never take my ID guides into the field is another mystery (maybe because I usually walk with my husband who doesn’t have unlimited patience for my looking at sepals with a hand lens).

Photo One by Stefan.lefnaer, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Clustered Dock showing the zig-zag stem (Photo One)

Like all docks, clustered dock is edible, but the leaves are said to taste very bitter, especially when the plant is older. However, docks contain a high level of oxalic acid which can cause the aggravation of kidney stones and gout. Even if we shouldn’t eat too much dock, the various species are foodplants for many, many insects, including these Ghost Moths (Hepialus humulii). The caterpillars feed on the roots of dock, and the emerging adults are different colours, as you can see below. The white males ‘lek’ above stands of plants to attract females, hovering in mid-air with their sparkling wings. However, these are a very ancient species, and are completely deaf and so, to avoid being eaten by bats, they display for just 20 minutes every day. I would give several eye-teeth to be around when these exquisite insects are displaying.

Photo Two by By Ben Sale from UK - Ghost Moth pair, CC BY 2.0,

Brown female ghost moth and white male ghost moth (Photo Two)

Medicinally, an infusion of dock has been used as a blood cleanser and as a treatment for scurvy (the leaves contain Vitamin C). It has also been used to stem bleeding, and a poultice made from the leaves is said to be good for ‘cutaneous eruptions’. What a great description! I imagine that it means boils and warts.

And here is a poem by Rosni Gallagher, originally from Leeds, now living in Scotland, and of Indo-Guyanese and Irish heritage – you can hear her reading her poem here. I think it’s easy to take feeling comfortable in the countryside for granted, though even as a white woman I know that sudden feeling of unease when a man behaving strangely hoves unexpectedly into view. I love how she has noticed the dock leaves turning red, which indeed they already are.

Dock Leaves by Roshni Gallagher

Often, I want to flick shut
Stranger’s eyelids.

I’m sick of anticipating my own othering.
Thank god for places where people aren’t –

The green of the trees has always been a door
To walk through and become whole.
The green sinks into me and the woods beat

With spires of dock leaves,
Deep red, like a hundred bold hearts.

Who dared trick me
Into thinking I was a guest?
Up ahead, the wild silver lake exists

For a brown girl
To crouch beside it and try to catch the frogs.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Stefan.lefnaer, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by By Ben Sale from UK – Ghost Moth pair, CC BY 2.0,

The Tale of the Large Tortoiseshell

Photo One by By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Large Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis polychloros) (Photo One)

Photo Two by By Jörg Hempel, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Small Tortoiseshell (Photo Two)

Dear Readers, in the 1940s you would have seen large and small tortoiseshell butterflies on the scrubby edges of forests, but in 1980 the large tortoiseshell was declared extinct in the UK. The possible reasons were many. One was that the caterpillars of the large tortoiseshell feed on elm (unlike those of the small tortoiseshell, which feed on nettles0, and as we know, elm populations crashed following the introduction of Dutch elm disease. This on its own has reduced many species to a remnant of what they once were, but for the large tortoiseshell there was also the habitat of the adults to consider – they feed on the nectar of willows in the spring, and in the UK ‘scrub’ seems to have become a dirty word. Many scrubby areas have been rooted out and either planted with crops or with pine plantations. Large tortoiseshells seem to be particularly prone to parasites that destroy their caterpillars and eggs, and, as the caterpillars feed on the very top branches of trees, they are susceptible to predation by birds.

However, this year comes the news of yet another success at Knepp, famous for its rewilding project. Knepp has seen a burgeoning population of turtle doves, nightingales and many other creatures, and this year, large tortoiseshells have bred. This isn’t the first time that the butterflies have reproduced since their official ‘extinction’ – the butterfly migrates from mainland Europe, and there may have been some rump populations that have staggered on since the 1950s. The butterfly has been seen regularly on the south coast Some butterflies are bred and then released by mavericks trying to reintroduce species, which can make monitoring the actual status of a species very difficult. However, Knepp has a particular policy of restoring habitat rather than introducing species, and the conservationists worked very hard to restore the willow scrubland that the butterflies enjoy. The lepidopterists involved in the project  believe that while there might be some captive-bred butterflies about, too many are spotted crossing the Channel now for it to be all about releases – some butterflies are clearly making the crossing themselves and will breed if the habitat is suitable.

Photo Three by By Abrahami - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Large tortoiseshell caterpillar (Photo Three)

So, it just goes to show that if the habitat is correct, and if a species still exists in mainland Europe, it is possible to encourage them to return naturally. I look forward to hearing further tales of how the rewilding at Knepp is doing, and what other animals might turn up. It’s good to have a positive story for once, when so much is being lost.

You can read the whole story here.