Monthly Archives: August 2023

Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – September Updated

And here we are again! I have my textbooks for my Environmental Science module that starts in a few weeks, the nights are drawing in and the year is speeding on apace. Let’s see what September has in store for us all….

Dear Readers, September is probably my favourite month of the year – it feels much more like the start of something than January does, probably because it’s the start of the school year, and because both I and my parents got married in September. It’s that point of the year upon which everything starts to turn, as we move past the Equinox and into autumn proper. And as the clamour of spring and the relative peace of summer pass, there’s a sense of gathering in and of preparation that suits my character somehow.

Things to Do

  • The Open House Festival is from Wednesday 6th to Sunday 17th September 2023, and while this might not appear to have much to do with nature, it’s a chance to look at some of the most interesting buildings in London, and there are lots of examples of sustainable development, in both new buildings and old ones. Open City run tours throughout the year too, which are well worth attending if you’re interested in the architecture of London.
  • The British Science Association will be holding its festival from Thursday 7th to Sunday 10th September 2023, and is at the University of Exeter this year. It’s Europe’s longest running science festival, and sounds like a lot of fun, for science nerds and the mildly-interested alike.
  • RHS’s Rosemoor Gardens at Torrington in Devon have a course on ‘Late Summer Evening Light – Flower and Close-up Photography‘ on Friday 8th September, which sounds really interesting. It’s all happening in the West Country this year!
  • And here’s a shout-out for the London Natural History Society library, housed at the Natural History Museum, and open multiple times every month – members can browse the books, borrow them, explore the Natural History Museum’s wildlife garden, and socialise with others who are interested in natural history. If you’re in London, joining the LNHS really is a no-brainer – there’s so much knowledge, so much going on, and so much help at hand for the amateur naturalist. The library timetable for September (and the rest of the year) is here, and details of how to join are here.

Plants for Pollinators

  • For bees, the RHS is recommending salvia, especially Amistad with its velvety purple flowers – the deep tubular shape of the blooms is best suited to long-tongued bumblebees such as the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) but many cheeky bees from other species will bite a hole in the base of the flower to get to the nectar.

Salvia ‘Amistad’ – Photo by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz

  • Other flowers recommended for bees include our old friend Verbena bonariensis (also good for butterflies as we know), single-flowered dahlias (a bit ‘hit-and-miss’ in my garden) and Ceratostigma plumaginoides, otherwise known as blue-flowered leadwort, and a very striking plant with bright blue flowers against foliage that goes red as it matures.

Blue-flowered leadwood (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides). Photo by Wouter Hagens

  • I am a bit surprised to find no mention of sedum (or Hylotelephium as some species are now known). In my experience it’s a great plant for hoverflies, butterflies, moths and bees during September when other plants are on the wane. Those prairie specialists Rudbeckia and Echinacea are also popular with our six-legged friends right into the autumn.
  • Michaelmas daisies are also coming into flower now, and again are popular with hoverflies and all manner of other small pollinators.

  • And this is about the earliest time that you can get stuck into the bulb planting. Every year I do some, and every year I forget what on earth I’ve planted until it comes up, which is a lovely surprise.

Bird Behaviour

  • There should be a bit more activity in the garden now, as moulting adult birds start to move about again, and everyone realises that winter is on the way.
  • The first of the birds moving south may turn up in the garden – willow warblers are often seen briefly at this time of year, along with any blackcaps who have decided to migrate rather than stay put. Chiffchaffs will also be leaving, but good luck with telling the difference between them and the willow warblers, unless they call and tell you their name.
  • You may see swallows and house martins massing and chattering, getting ready to leave for Africa. By the end of the month, only the most tardy of our summer visitors will remain.
  • Robins may well be the only birds singing, as they hold territories for the whole year – a pair of robins might combine their territory during the breeding season but will knock ten bells out of one another once that truce is over.
  • September is a peak time for little rodents, and so it’s also a peak time for the birds that prey on them, such as kestrels and owls. Kestrels hold a territory for the whole year too, but young birds will be trying to find a patch for themselves, and can often be seen close to the coast.

Kestrel in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

  • Jays are beginning to gather acorns and cache them for the winter – they can be exceptionally noisy and feisty with one another at this time of year.

Jay, also in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Plants in Flower

  • All the pollinator plants mentioned above plus canna lilies, autumn crocuses, crocosmia (or montbretia as my Dad used to call them), cyclamen, white bryony, bittersweet, our old friends Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed, yarrow and red, white and henbit deadnettle, hops and vervain and evening primrose.

Canna lily

Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For

  • Wasps! Their nests are breaking up and the workers, having provided protein for the larvae all summer are now drawn to sugar. You’ll find them all over the windfall apples and the ivy flowers in a month’s time, but for now they can be seen foraging like any normal pollinator.
  • Spiders! A healthy garden should be full of webs as the orb web spiders get big enough to notice.
  • Harvestmen and craneflies – harvestmen are likely to be minding their own business on walls everywhere, while craneflies are starting to emerge from lawns everywhere, providing a late summer bonanza for birds and bats
  • September can be surprisingly good for dragonflies too – the common darter in the photo below turned up in the middle of September 2020. The males are red, the females are golden, and they are completely unperturbed by humans – I remember one using my arm as a perch for about twenty minutes a few years ago. I have rarely felt so useful.

Common darter

  • While there are still dragonflies about, keep your eyes open for the hobby (Falco subbuteo) – it is a summer migrant but it specialises in catching dragonflies on the wing. I caught the slightest glimpse of one in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in autumn 2020, and have been watching out for them ever since.

Hobby (Falco subbuteo) Photo by Rodrigo de Almeida

  • This is probably the noisiest time for foxes, surpassing even the carry-on of the breeding season – in my garden it regularly sounds as if the young adults, just leaving their home territories and trying to establish their own, are murdering one another.
  • The first of the autumn fungi will be putting in an appearance – I have made it my personal mission to see if I can see a parrot waxcap this year. Let’s see how I get on!

Parrot waxcap (Photo by Stu’s Images)

  • The full moon is on 29th September, and is known as the Harvest Moon – this year it will also be a supermoon (i.e. appearing especially large and bright)

Holidays and Celebrations

  • 7th September – Krishna Janmashtami (Krishna’s birthday) (Hindu)
  • 15th September – Rosh Hashanah – Jewish New Year – begins at sundown
  • 18th September – Ganesh Chaturthi (Ganesh’s birthday) (Hindu)
  • 23rd September – Autumn Equinox (day and night is of equal length) and the Pagan festival of Mabon
  • 24th September – Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement (Jewish) begins at sundown
  • 27th September – Prophet Muhammad’s birthday begins on sighting of the crescent moon
  • 29th September – Michaelmas Day (Christian/Pagan). It’s one of the quarter days of the Christian church, and also the day when harvest needed by tradition to be completed. Old Michaelmas Day isn’t until October, but traditionally that’s the day when the devil spits on the blackberries, making them inedible. You have been warned.

Blackberries at Walthamstow Wetlands


Wednesday Weed – Horseradish Revisited

Horseradish in flower

Dear Readers, back in 2020 I noticed how the top end of St Pancras and Islington Cemetery was a positive hotbed for horseradish (see what I did there?) but today I was confused by a mass of white flowers nearby. It took me a few minutes to realise that I was looking at the pungent blooms of the horseradish, looking rather pretty I thought. The grave in the photo below seems to be the epicentre of the horseradish invasion, and I always wondered why – was it just coincidence? Was the person buried there particularly fond of the stuff? Is there a cultural connection? Alas, I shall never know, but this is a most august plant (not just because it’s August), with a fine history spanning millennia. It might just be a humble member of the cabbage family, but the horseradish deserves our respect. Read on to find out why….


Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)

Dear Readers, there is a positive explosion of horseradish in the cemetery at the moment. I associate this plant with the over-grazed common land of Hackney Downs, back when I was a child: rugged ponies used to be tethered there (invariably piebald I seem to remember) and the turf was nibbled down to the roots. All that survived was great clumps of this stuff, and it seemed to me odd that something named after a horse seemed to be the only thing they wouldn’t eat.

I was therefore pleased to learn that the name probably has nothing to do with horses at all. In German, the plant is called ‘meerrettich’ (sea radish) and it’s thought that the English thought that it was called mare radish. From there, it was only a short jump to horseradish. Plus, calling anything ‘horse’ apparently used to mean that it was coarse and uncivilised, so maybe this also had something to do with the naming of this most uncompliant plant.

The plant is a member of the Brassicaceae or cabbage family, and has been grown for over 2000 years, largely as a medicinal plant – its pungent root has been used in salves for joint pain since 1500 B.C. It was also said, like many eye-watering herbs, to be useful as an aphrodisiac. Sadly, unlike the prickly lettuce  that I mentioned a few weeks ago, it doesn’t seem to have a priapic God to accompany the legend, but I do find it interesting that cabbage relatives, surely the most unromantic of plants in terms of their wind-producing aftereffects, have historically been used as a kind of sulphurous love-potion. Tastes certainly do change. 


Horseradish was also said to be a diuretic (and was hence used extensively for dropsy), a vermifuge (for expelling intestinal worms) and was said to be extremely useful for treating coughs – maybe something that could come in handy what with Covid and all. A slice of horseradish root in milk is said to improve the complexion, and if combined with lemon juice it can remove freckles, though why anyone would want to get rid of those delightful attributes I have no idea.

According to my Alien Plants book (by Clive Stace and Michael Crawley), horseradish is unusual in being mostly sterile (it almost never sets seed), with all the plants we see coming from the rhizomes. Many of the plants that appear alongside roadsides are the result of people throwing out unwanted plants from their gardens. Why then, I wonder, is this one particular grave in St Pancras and Islington (pictured above) absolutely covered in horseradish? The world is full of mysteries, to be sure. All theories gladly considered.

Of course, most of us know of horseradish in association with roast beef, although from the 1600s on in the UK it was also eaten with oysters. Country inns used to grow it so that they could harvest the root and grate it on the spot, which is undoubtedly the most eye-watering way to eat it. The English in particular, having no chillies or black pepper to call their own, seem to like the pungency of ingredients like English mustard and horseradish, and are rarely happy unless their eyes are watering and their nasal passages on fire.

These days, horseradish seems to have become popular with smoked fish (maybe something of the Scandinavian influence has rubbed off), and we also regularly eat it in Austria, especially with the boiled meat dish Tafelspitz.  Personally, I find it a tricky ingredient to pair with other flavours, but do let me know what you think. Interestingly, horseradish is one of the ingredients of the Jewish Seder plate, and an American food writer mentions that she used to eat ‘Hillel sandwiches’ (named for the famous Rabbi Hillel) which consisted of matzoh, horseradish and charoset (a very sweet, sticky mixture of apples and nuts with sweet wine). She came up with a recipe for apple tart with walnut-horseradish frangipane, which looks delicious, and could possibly work if the balance is right. The recipe is here, and there’s a photo below to encourage you.

Photo One from

Apple tart with walnut-horseradish frangipane (Photo One)

A quick look at Vickery’s Folk Flora pulls up a few other interesting uses for horseradish. In the Fens, one way of determining the sex of an unborn baby was for the prospective parents to sleep with a piece of horseradish under each of their pillows. If the husband’s horseradish turned black before his wife’s, the baby would be a boy, and vice versa.

Horseradish leaves (which look superficially like those of dock) can be used to treat nettle stings.

My favourite comment, though, was this:

My now ex-husband and I lived in a Steiner community near Middlesbrough for about a year. During that time he was very depressed and often angry. He was advised by a senior member of the community to wrap horseradish leaves on his feet to draw the heat from his head. It didn’t work and we divorced six months later‘.

This conjures up such a picture of domestic bliss, don’t you think?


Horseradish at the front, knotweed at the back.

And finally, a poem. During the 2012 Olympics (and how long ago does that seem now?) the Scottish Poetry Library collaborated with BBC Radio to publish a poem by every country involved in the competition. Song 352 was from Ukrainian poet Oleh Lysesha, and I love the image of homely horseradish and his always hospitable hut. Horseradish is thought to come originally from the grasslands of Eastern Europe, and so I imagine it being woven into the culinary memories of people from all over this part of the world.

Song 352 by Oleh Lysheha 

When you need to warm yourself,
When you are hungry to share a word,
When you crave a bread crumb,
Don’t go to the tall trees —
You’ll not be understood there, though
Their architecture achieves cosmic perfection,
Transparent smoke winds from their chimneys..
Don’t go near those skyscrapers —
From the one-thousandth floor
They might toss snowy embers on your head..
If you need warmth
It’s better to go to the snow-bound garden.
In the farthest corner you’ll find
The lonely hut of the horseradish..
Yes, it’s here, the poor hut of a horseradish..
Is there a light on inside? — Yes, he’s always at home..
Knock at the door of horseradish..
Knock on the door of his hut..
Knock, he will let you in..

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Slug Sex!

Two Black Slugs (Arion ater) mating.

Dear Readers, of the many things that you expect to see on a Bank Holiday morning as you gaze sleepily into the garden, two slugs mating is pretty low down the list, but here we are. These two are different colour forms of the Black Slug (Arion ater) – these are large but inoffensive detritivores, who clean up any dropped suet pellets from the bird table and also apparently have a taste for fungi. In the West Country I see more of the jet-black colour morph – I think that they’re rather beautiful, and look as if they’ve been chiselled out of a block of coal. The brown form is commoner in my garden, and has an  attractive tomato-red frill around the edge.

What on earth is going on here though? It looks as if the slugs are trying to trying to create a yin and yang pattern. The truth is even stranger.

Slugs are hermaphrodites, and have both male and female sexual organs. Black slugs can lay fertilised eggs all by themselves, but these would be clones, so they seem to prefer to find a partner to mate with (it’s good for genetic diversity, after all). The white ball in the middle is actually two packages of sperm, one produced by each slug.

Then, each slug will take its partner’s sperm into its body, and each will head off into the undergrowth to lay eggs.

I find all this rather amazing (though apologies to anyone who is currently eating their breakfast). Black Slugs will lay about 150 eggs each time they mate, several weeks after mating. The eggs will take between 4 and 6 weeks to hatch, depending on temperature, and the young slugs will be grey with a darker grey head. A Black Slug can live for up to two years, taking refuge in cracks and crevices when it’s too hot/dry/cold, and as mentioned previously, it is a relatively benign garden inhabitant, preferring to eat plants that are already sick and decomposing to nice fresh seedlings, though I suspect it is not immune to having a nibble if it happens to pass some freshly-planted greenery. As Black Slugs are a great favourite with hedgehogs I am inclined to turn a blind eye, but no doubt some of you will have a lower tolerance.

I am always quite taken by the way that Black Slugs compact themselves into little square blocks if threatened.

A threatened Black Slug (Photo by Saharima Roenisch from

It’s interesting how slugs seem to have a much higher ‘ick’ factor than snails, even though a slug is literally a snail with either a small internal shell, or no shell at all. I suppose there’s something endearing about snails carrying their homes about on their backs and peering out with their eyes on the end of stalks. Both of these molluscs are slimy critters, for sure (to the extent that the Black Slug was once used to lubricate the axles of carts in Sweden and Germany), but this is mainly for protection from predators, and to enable them to move about. I am finding them fascinating, and for more information, let me refer you to the talk on slugs by Imogen Cavadino that I watched back in 2020. If she doesn’t convert you, no one will.


A Sunday Walk Around East Finchley

Dear Readers, a damp Bank Holiday Sunday might have some of us wishing that we were sitting by the Mediterranean, sipping wine and surreptitiously feeding fresh sardines to a hungry street cat, but many of these things can be found on the streets of East Finchley, with a little imagination. First up, how about these grapes, spotted on a vine on Twyford Avenue. I have no idea how they’d taste, but they were certainly plentiful, and unexpected. I wonder if there are enough to make a limited-edition East Finchley vintage?

But first of all, back to the County Roads, where our walk commenced. As usual, I had a quick look at the tree pits. The yarrow and clover were doing very well in what I think of as the wildflower tree pit.

And some cherry tomatoes were coming along very well in the Edibles tree pit, though I can still see no signs of courgettes, just the flowers. In my experience, though, courgettes can hide and then turn into marrows at the drop of the proverbial hat, so let’s see.


Courgette flowers

Now, this little beauty is clearly not a street cat but is someone’s well-loved pet. Still, the moment reminded me a little of one of those Mediterranean harbours where all manner of felines suddenly appear at the first scent of barbecued fish, slinking narrow-eyed out of the nearby alleys to watch every mouthful with unnerving intensity.

I think it will be a good year for fruit and berries of all kinds – someone was remarking that in many places the blackberries have gone over already, which is a bit worrying. Robin Harford, a forager with years of experience, says that the blackberries are fruiting early because of ‘climate breakdown’ – many plants will flower or fruit at unexpected times if they are sick or ‘perceive’ a threat, as their main drive is to reproduce. As the legend used to be that blackberries shouldn’t be picked after Halloween, as this was when the devil spat on them and rendered them inedible, you can see how early the season is this year.

No blackberries on the County Roads, but some very fine crab apples.

Then there’s a quick loop past All Saints Church on Durham Road. There is a most unusual mauve rose – I think it could be ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, but feel free to correct me. I’m never sure if I like ‘blue’ roses (which usually tend towards grey in my eyes), but this one is rather fine.

And then I spot an Abelia bush with some enormous bumblebees on it. It’s time for queen bumblebees to appear – they’ll be getting as much nectar into their tummies as possible in preparation for hibernation over the winter. Most queens will be tucked up in bed (normally a mousehole or some other tunnel, preferably east-facing to get a bit of the morning sun but not so much that the bee is woken up early) by September, though some nests now survive through the winter if it’s relatively mild. There are some really whopping big bees about at the moment, so it’s worth watching out for these gentle giants.

And so we end up on Fortis Green, where there’s a new grocery and coffee shop called Green and Blossoms – if you’re local it’s well worth a look for all manner of healthy food, plus the best selection of Hackney Gelato icecream in the area. And the flat whites are fab. Plus you can sit in one of those curved antique windows and watch all the fit people going to classes in the gym opposite, which always imparts a feeling of relief that I’m not doing the same.

Inside Green and Blossoms



Barnet’s Own Tiny Forest

The Tiny Forest at Henly’s Corner

Dear Readers, no sooner had I posted about the Miyawaki Method and the Tiny Forest Movement than several people commented that not only were there were Tiny Forests in London, but one of them was only twenty minutes walk from East Finchley. Furthermore, I had actually read several articles about this endeavour, but hadn’t linked it with what I was writing about. Doh. So, it felt as if the least I could do was head over to the junction of Falloden Way and Finchley Road, walk alongside the Mutton Brook, and take a look at how our very own Tiny Forest was doing.

The Mutton Brook

If it wasn’t for the roar of traffic coming from the North Circular Road and the A1, this spot would be almost idyllic – I did a walk along the Mutton Brook (which arises somewhere in East Finchley, though probably not in Cherry Tree Wood as I’d previously thought) a few years ago, and very interesting it was too (for me at least). You can read about my adventures here and here. Maybe when I’m retired I’ll explore some more of my local streams, it’s always fun to ‘join the dots’ and see how the geology of an area works.

Anyhow, the Tiny Forest really is tiny! It’s probably slightly larger than a tennis court. It was planted up in February 2022 by local volunteers and school children with help from the staff at Earthwatch who are pioneering the Tiny Forest movement in Europe. The list of plants could be a register of all the most valuable plants for wildlife in the UK.


Dog Rose



Bird Cherry


Scots Pine

There is also Alder Buckthorn, Crab Apple, Silver and Downy Birch, Blackthorn, Elder, Guelder Rose, Hazel, Small-leaved Lime, and both Goat and Grey Willow.

All the trees that I saw seemed to be doing well, but there was a small crisis in summer 2022, just after the trees had been planted, when London experienced a drought and some of the highest temperatures on record. Local volunteers came up trumps, however, bringing buckets of water up from the Mutton Brook.  Such was the community spirit that the whole site got a good watering within half an hour.

I will be very intrigued to see how the Tiny Forest fares – it is a tribute to the hard work of the people who planted it, and who look after it now, and it will be interesting to see how it affects the biodiversity of the area. Certainly there are plants here that provide food for caterpillars, and hence food for birds. I shall be keeping an eye on it over the coming years to see how it does.

You can read all about the Tiny Forest here, and the Facebook page for the group is here.  There is also  a helpful leaflet from Earthwatch about the theory and practice of Tiny Forests here. Many thanks to the people who pointed out that Barnet already had its own Tiny Forest, I was both intrigued and delighted to see one ‘in real life’.

A Visit to Mum and Dad, and the Dreaded Blandford Fly

Dear Readers, every time I come to visit Mum and Dad, I find myself in a flurry of activity – pulling up long grass, getting rid of plants that haven’t made it, trying to clean up the stone plaque (though I definitely need to speak to the stonemasons about the best way to clean it up – I don’t want to pollute the surrounding area with caustic chemicals, but I do want to be able to read their details). Then there’s the putting the old plants on the compost heap, getting rid of the dreaded plastic pots, positioning the new plants, and finally I slump under the cherry tree and feel a great sense of peace descend. This really is the most serene spot. All you can hear is the cooing of woodpigeons (plus the occasional ‘clap’ as one of the males demonstrates his strength by ‘clapping’ his wings at the top of a rollercoaster flightpath), the chinking of the many, many house martins, and the wind in the yew trees. I bring Mum and Dad up to date with my latest news – my retirement, all the medical tests that I’ve had since I ‘saw’ them last. I find myself telling them about my heart valve defect, and telling them not to worry. When I mention my retirement I can almost hear Dad saying ‘What took you so long?’. It might seem funny to talk to people who are dead, but I also know that I’m far from being the only person who does it.

I take a walk to see how my favourite lime tree is getting on (it was blown down in a storm last year), and it seems to be doing fine. It will take many years to reach its former splendour, but I love that it is hanging on.

The lime tree today

The Lime Tree in its full splendour

Now, when Mum and Dad first moved to Dorset I remember Dad telling me to be very careful that I didn’t get bitten by ‘the Blandford Fly’. How I laughed! However, following my walk down by the stream yesterday I have picked up about five nasty bites, and although I suspect that they’re merely mosquito bites, I have been casting my eye over information about the Blandford Fly, and I think that I owe Dad an apology.

The Blandford Fly (Simulium posticatum) is a species of blackfly which lives as a larva in the weeds alongside slow-running rivers. When the females emerge, they, much like midges, require a blood meal in order to for their 200-300 eggs to mature. Along comes a handy human walker or angler or someone wearing shorts and the fly is in heaven. The bites seem to be particularly irritating and painful, and because of this are prone to becoming infected. In the worst case people are hospitalised, and the name ‘Blandford Fly’ comes from an outbreak in the 1972 when over 600 people were so badly affected within a four week period that they needed treatment at the doctor or their local hospital.

At first (as was always the case), the treatment was to spray the riverbanks where the larvae lived with a chemical biocide. This resulted in the death of many other species of blackfly (important for fish and for other invertebrates such as dragonflies) and a disruption to the ecology of the river. However, in the 1980s another way of doing things became available. River ecology expert, Dr Mike Ladle, suggested that a newly-discovered bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (found in the Negev desert in Israel) could be used to target the Blandford Fly specifically without endangering any other species. The river was first sprayed with the bacterium in 1991, and Dr Ladle suggests that  ‘this is probably the best example of the use of a biological agent to control a pest, in an ecologically friendly fashion, anywhere in the world.’ It does seem to have been a remarkable success – in 1980 there were 1400 recorded cases of bites, but by 1999 it was down to 45 cases. 

All the more reason, then, for alarm in 2014 when disagreements about who should fund the spraying, and new EU legislation about licences for river treatment meant that the bacteria might not be used in time for the emergence of larvae in 2015. An 80 year-old Blandford resident, Pat Ashworth, went shop to shop, street corner to street corner, with an old-school petition, and managed to get nearly 2500 signatures to say that the treatment must go ahead. I suspect that many Dorset towns and villages are basically run by feisty retired ladies who won’t take no for an answer, and more power to them (and I also suspect that this phenomenon is not limited to Dorset).

Ashworth was obviously worried about people getting sick, but she also had other concerns. Hospitals and GP practices in the West Country are under a lot of pressure in the summer due to the influx of tourists, so bite treatment would be one more thing. She also cited the name of the Blandford Fly as being a deterrent to tourists, and suggested that it could just as easily be named ‘the Wimborne Fly’, passing the blame on to another Dorset village. She was absolutely right that the fly was present along most of the river Stour downstream of Blandford, so there are a number of other towns and villages that are affected.

Spraying with the bacterial agent recommenced in 2016, so at least in Dorset the risk of a nasty bite is much reduced. However, the fly is spreading, with cases in Herefordshire and Oxfordshire, and I note with some interest that ‘garden water features’ are thought to be a factor. Well, as the insects require slow-running rivers I suspect that the average garden pond can be exonerated. Always beware of articles on invertebrates in the local and national press, these guys frequently illustrate articles about bees with hoverflies so we can assume that the level of entomological knowledge is not what it might be.

I think we forget that although the UK isn’t tropical (yet) we do have all manner of biting insects, from your average mosquito to the terrifying midges of the west of Scotland, to cleggies in Devon and horseflies more or less anywhere. As I’m sure you know, it’s the anti-coagulant that the insects inject when they bite you that is the main irritant, and if you can avoid scratching you will greatly reduce the risk of infection. I generally use a hydrocortisone cream for a brief period until the itching subsides (calamine lotion can also work and is safer). If I fear that the irritation will keep me awake I might also take chlorphenamine maleate (the active ingredient in Piriton and many of those other antihistamines) but again just for a day or so. Comfrey ointment and comfrey tea have also been recommended to me, and the ointment certainly works. I’m always open to hearing about things that work for bites, as all manner of invertebrates seem to love me just as much as I love them, so fire away!

And just for the record, as Blandford flies normally bite the lower leg, and are most active from May to June, I am pretty confident that my bites are just from a mosquito, and that they’ll be sorted out within a few days. But apologies to Dad. The Blandford Fly does appear to have been a menace historically, even if it is now more of a minor nuisance.

Incidentally, Woodhouse and Hall, the local brewery, created an ale called Blandford Fly, flavoured with, among other things, ginger, which is said to be a helpful treatment for a bite. I do love how something so unpleasant can be turned into a marketing opportunity.

The story of the Blandford Fly (with a rather unnecessary dig at EU ‘bureaucracy’ ) is here. There are some photos of the redoubtable Pat Ashworth too.

Return to Dorset

The streamside pathway in Dorchester

Dear Readers, as you might remember my Mum and Dad’s ashes are buried in the churchyard of St Andrew’s church in Milborne St Andrew, a small village just outside Dorchester. So, three or four times a year I go to visit them, to tidy up the grave and to tell them what’s been going on. It might seem silly, but it gives me comfort to bring them up to speed with the news, and to let them know that they’re not forgotten.

First, though, I spend the afternoon and evening at Westwood House, a guest house in Dorchester. It was recently taken over by a new couple, Jocelyn and Karl, but the welcome, the breakfast, the rooms and the hospitality are just as good as ever. Plus, there was a new little visitor in the room.

This little cricket/grasshopper was a very determined critter. Before I went out for a walk, I managed to catch him/her, and put them outside on the balcony.

“There”, I thought, “That’s that”. But when I got back after a trot along by the stream (of which more later) there s/he was again. I caught them and put them out for a second time.

And then today, there they were again. Clearly I needed to translocate them to some better environment. But how? I used the wooden carved box that was in the toilet, but the cricket got out of the carved holes at the top and sat there grinning. Then it jumped onto the floor. Eventually I caught it in yet another box, and this time I managed to find a nice grassy area on a tiny alleyway where there was hopefully lots to eat and plenty of other little crickets to play with.

If it turns up again tonight I will be completely freaked out.

Anyhow, off I went for my usual walk, down to the stream and past the allotments and the little nature reserve. I spent a lot of time watching for fish: there were lots about (as two anglers would seem to indicate) but I couldn’t quite catch them in a photo. Here, to get you in the mood, is some water weed though. I always find it very relaxing to watch.

And just look at this. This is a male Banded Demoiselle, the only UK damselfly with a parti-coloured wing. They are found in lush vegetation alongside rivers and streams, and the females (who are metallic green or bronze, with a white spot on their wings) lay their eggs by injecting them into the stems of fleshy plants. What beautiful insects they are, especially earlier in the year where the males display by fluttering those black and blue wings.

The allotments are looking great too. Someone is obviously very keen on marigolds, which are excellent companion planting and good for pollinators too!

And someone has a fine crop of sunflowers too. If the heads are left, the goldfinches will have a feast later on.

And then it’s time for a little wander through the nature reserve. During the winter the boardwalk can be inundated with water from the local streams, but it’s much drier in the summer. You can almost guarantee that as you round the corner, someone will be sitting at the picnic table smoking ‘something or other’ but on one memorable occasion a few Christmases ago, it was two teenagers, one in a lion onesie and one dressed as a cow, both high as kites and giggling furiously. Well, I suppose it was the festive season.

The streamside pathway in Dorchester

This time it was just one guy with earphones looking pensively over the field, so I left him to it, and went on to admire the mass of Himalayan Balsam that has grown up in the past few months. What a pretty plant this is, and what a pain – it’s very clear that it’s taken over half the reserve, and will be taking over the whole thing if a way to contain it isn’t found.

Still, it was a fine walk, and it’s one of the reasons that I love Dorchester – unlike so many towns, it hasn’t been ruined by generic developments, and has managed to hold on to many of its historic buildings. It’s clear, however, that the pedestrianised High Street is travelling, with many shops shuttered. Marks and Spencer pulled out a few years ago, and with it went the underwear and socks of the people of Dorchester, not to mention the ready meals and the rhubarb yoghurts. Still, it looks as if the building might be turned into a spot for ‘mini shops’, for people who can’t afford the high local rents. What a great idea! I shall be interested to see how it plays out.

Tiny Forests – The Miyawaki Method

Miyawaki forest at Kasuga Shrine in Japan

Dear Readers, in my British Wildlife magazine this month Peter Thomas describes the rise of the microforest – 6 have been planted in the Lichfield area alone, and 21 are planned in Middlesborough. These are forests, sometimes only a few metres square, which are planted extremely densely, which encourages competition and results in rapid growth and, over time, the development of a dense and biodiverse understorey.

The method was developed by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki (1928 -2021)who was especially interested in the reforestation of degraded land. Firstly, the soil in the area to be reforested is improved with whatever organic matter is available, from coffee grounds to old woolly jumpers to manure to waste vegetable matter. The method also recognises the importance of mycorrhizal fungi, which are added to the substrate. Then, native trees and shrubs are planted as densely as possible – typically between two and seven trees per square metre (even more densely in tropical regions), echoing what would happen in nature when a clearing appears due to a tree dying, or on the edge of a woodland. Thomas lists the species planted in a three year-old forest in Oxfordshire as being Goat Willow, Field Maple, Silver Birch, Dogwood, Guelder-rose and Hazel, with some Elder and Apple trees. The downside is that survival rates for individual trees are very low (possibly as low as 15%), but the thinking is that within a decade the forest will be up to 30 times denser than a conventional mixed-species plantation.

During his lifetime, Miyawaki was involved in the planting of almost 1300 mini forests across Japan and neighbouring countries, but his method has been taken up all over the world – in the UK, Earthwatch Europe plans to develop five hundred urban ‘mini-forests’. The method is especially suited to degraded environments, and so a ‘pocket forest’ can easily spring up where a house has been demolished, or where there is a small area of unused ground. You can see an interactive map of the tiny forests planted by Earthwatch so far here. Sadly none in London (yet) so I shall have to make a special pilgrimage to check one out (though I do note that London Borough of Barnet, my local council, is one of the sponsors, so maybe one will arrive soon).

Witney Tiny Forest 17 months after it was planted (Photo by Whitney Tree Keepers from

Of course, there are also criticisms of the Miyawaki method. The first one that springs to my mind is the sheer waste of seedlings – why plant so many if so few of them will thrive? However, the whole point of the method is that the sheer competition means that trees will grow quickly, sequestering carbon as they go. In a ‘real’ forest, only a tiny proportion of the trees will ever grow to adulthood, so perhaps my dislike of ‘waste’ is clouding my judgement here.

Further criticisms seem to be based on implementations where the basic premise of only using native trees has been ignored – species that have no natural predators or competitors will often outrace native trees that are already an integral part of an ecosystem. An interesting article about the use of Miyawaki forests in Chennai points out that the city has mainly slow-growing palm trees and mangroves rather than dense deciduous forests, and points out that the native wildlife is attuned to Chennai’s natural habitats.

Another criticism is that the cost of a Miyawaki microforest can be high, what with the soil preparation and the number of viable young seedlings that are required.

There is a sense that lots of people have jumped on the Miyawaki bandwagon – as in all fields, there are ‘flavours of the month’ in conservation, and in many ways this looks like a no-brainer – tiny, fast-growing forests in environments that would otherwise be concrete wastelands. In the right place, with the right plants, Miyawaki forests seem to be oases of peace and biodiversity. However, there is also a real need to protect the native forests and street trees that we have in urban areas and beyond – a forest that has grown up over generations will have a range of interactions with its local ecosystem that a microforest won’t achieve for many years, and as I mentioned in my ‘Tree of the Year’ post last week, a single mature elm tree can form a habitat for a rare butterfly all on its own. However, there is evidence that the microforests, because they’re young, will attract a different range of insects and birds to the established forests, thus increasing biodiversity overall. There is no single answer to the problems that we face – climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution – but I applaud any attempts to restore nature and mitigate global heating. It will be interesting to see how the Miyawaki forests thrive in the UK. I look forward to reporting back in a decade or so.

If you have Miyawaki/miniforests in your area, do let me know how they’re doing, and all opinions welcomed, as usual!

Spiders, Spiders Everywhere!

Dear Readers, after a long day in the office (front of the house), I went into our bedroom to get changed into something more comfortable, and spotted a spider, seemingly floating in mid-air.


It took me a second to realise that not only had this spider moved in, but she had actually made a web going from the ceiling to the duvet.

Goodness, Bugwoman, I thought, I know that you’re making the place friendly for wildlife, but I suspect that your husband might think this is a step too far. Fortunately, I had a glass to hand, and so I gently removed the spider and popped her onto the climbing hydrangea outside the open window (which is probably how she got in in the first place).

It made me think about how quickly a spider can spin a web – this one clearly wasn’t there when I woke up, so in the space of about eight hours this extraordinary structure had been created. And I was very lucky, because another spider was making a web right across the path to the shed in the garden.

It’s a funny old time at the moment – I’m still working, but on 15th September I’m finished, and I feel very ‘between worlds’ – wanting to do a good job at work, anxious about taking this step into the unknown, eager to get on with my new life, sad to be leaving my old one. But there is something so very grounding about just sitting down and watching this everyday miracle taking place, preferably with a cup of tea in one hand. The lad next door is having a bath and playing some Latin American music, which somehow seems to blend with the whole sunny, late-afternoon vibe.

I loved watching how the spider produces the silk from the spinnerets at her rear end and then manipulates the strand into position in a process that’s almost too quick and neat to see.

But, yet again, this wasn’t the best place for a web, and no sooner had she finished than we had to go to the shed and there was nothing for it but to barge through all that hard work in order to get to the secateurs. I do hope that she finds somewhere that will be a bit less disrupted tomorrow.

All Grown Up – Leopold Road Neighbourhood Garden

The Leopold Road Neighbourhood Garden

Dear Readers, I took a little walk around East Finchley on Saturday, and decided to visit the Leopold Road Neighbourhood Garden. Last time I was here, in March, it looked like this:

And now look at it! It’s been designed as a spot that’s nice for humans and pollinators, and I applaud the choice of plants: as you can see from the first photograph, there’s sedum and Bowle’s Mauve perennial wallflower, both of which will flower right into the autumn.

On the other side of the path, the goldenrod and the Rosanne geraniums are putting on a splendid show, and on this mild-ish day there were lots of bees and hoverflies buzzing about. It’s amazing how quickly plants grow, and how much they can cheer a place up. And I love the notice board, which explains what a collaboration this pocket park was, and how it forms part of a pollinator pathway. More and more people are growing at least some plants for our insect allies, and this project is providing solace for local people and sustenance for invertebrates. What a great achievement!