Author Archives: Bug Woman

LNHS Talks – London Hogwatch by Chris Carbone

Dear Readers, when I was in my twenties and thirties, our garden was positively awash with hedgehogs, from big lone males to whole families of hoglets. But the numbers declined, and I have never seen a hedgehog here in East Finchley. Recently, however, things have been looking up – I am hearing reports from the County Roads themselves of these spikey mammals being spotted, and only last week my friend A, who lives two roads away from me, rescued a poorly hedgehog in her garden and got him to a wildlife hospital. Could things be looking up for urban hedgehogs? I was looking forward to this talk to find out.

London Hogwatch is a case-study of urban mammals using camera traps run in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), and Chris Carbone has been involved with the project since 2016. The project overlaps with hedgehog studies in Regents Park, one of the last redoubts of the mammal in Central London. And, as the population of hedgehogs as fallen by over two-thirds in the past two decades, it’s a vital piece of research. The aim is to find out where the hedgehogs currently are, and to target these areas with campaigns and information to try to preserve them.

The project started in 2016 by concentrating on Camden, where the Zoo and Regent’s Park are situated. In 2017 it expanded to Haringey (not, I notice, to Coldfall Wood) and Richmond Park, and then on to Lambeth, Southwark and Sutton. Carbone explained that they are starting to do their first surveys in private gardens, and there’s a major programme of expansion planned for 2021, looking at Redbridge in East London for the first time (where I used to live and where hedgehogs used to be plentiful), and to other areas such as Hounslow and Enfield.

The projects have been run on something of a shoestring, relying on Masters and PhD students to do a lot of the analysis from the camera traps. I remember when I was running my camera trap that for every ‘valid’ photo of an actual fox there were dozens of cats, waving foliage and my legs going backwards and forwards to the shed, so I can only imagine the patience involved.

Carbone explained that camera-trap surveys had only really been possible during the past ten years – previous cameras were too big and expensive for widespread surveys. During the lockdown, cameras had been packaged up and shipped out for people to use in their own gardens, before collecting them back again, quarantining them and analysing the data.

There have also been a number of large-scale surveys. One, in Hampstead Heath in 2018, showed that there were at least 100 hedgehogs present. This was followed up in 2020 with some private garden surveys, which showed that gardens that were close to the area of the Heath where hedgehogs were present were also being visited by the animals, but that good habitat in places like Highgate Cemetery and Waterlow Park were completely devoid of hedgehogs, probably due to barriers such as the major roads that bisect the area, and walls and impenetrable fences between individual houses.

Studies also showed that there was a robust population of hedgehogs in the Barnes/Richmond/Roehampton area – an avid hedgehog fan in Barnes had been encouraging people to drill holes in their fences to enable the animals to travel between gardens. Camera trapping showed that there were lots of hedgehogs on Barnes Common and in the Wetland Centre, and that these were spreading out from this area, so this is an area of major importance for South London hedgehogs.

Interestingly though, to the south and west (i.e. in Richmond Park itself and the grounds of Roehampton University) there’s a population of badgers, who not only compete with the hedgehogs but will actually eat them. When Carbone showed his slide, there was a very clear demarcation between the areas where badgers were present, and those where hedgehogs were present. Although hedgehogs can co-exist quite happily with foxes and cats, it seems as it badgers are a step too far. However, badgers are much less likely to come into private gardens, and so Carbone feels that hedgehog highways and support from private garden owners can provide an important refuge for hedgehogs, where they are much less likely to come into contact with badgers.

Other surveys, such as one at Home Park which surrounds Hampton Court Palace, didn’t reveal any hedgehogs at all, but they did expose some interesting patterns of animal behaviour. Deer activity, for example, peaks very early in the morning before humans and dog walkers appear, and tails off to a much lower level when the park is being highly used. On Hampstead Heath, birds also try to avoid busy human times. With the usage of public greenspace having become so much more intense during the lockdown, it might be a while before some new balance between human and animal activity is achieved in our busiest parks and reserves.

So, what areas are good for hedgehogs, and what do they avoid? A predictive map of areas that should be good for the mammals has been built up from historic data gathered by other organisations and London Hogwatch, and the results show that:

  • Areas with badgers are really no-go areas for hedgehogs, as mentioned above
  • Allotments and gardens are good for hedgehogs, particularly if they have lots of invertebrates living in them
  • But! a lot more data analysis needs to take place to determine exactly what they need.

One big problem is genetic isolation between populations. There are a hundred hedgehogs in Hampstead Heath, and about thirty in Regent’s Park. There’s only about a mile and a half of distance between these two populations, but between the roads, the walls, the fences and the swathes of concrete it would be a very lucky hedgehog indeed who managed to make the trip unscathed.

Another is the dangers posed by our roads. Carbone shared a photo of a sadly-squashed hedgehog on a zebra-crossing in a 20 m.p.h. zone, taken during lockdown. If a hedgehog can’t avoid getting run down under these circumstances, what chance does it stand of crossing a busy road during normal times?

So, what’s the future for hedgehogs, and for London Hogwatch? Carbone outlined a few key points. Firstly, the organisation wants to identify current hedgehog ‘hotspots’ and concentrate efforts on those areas. Secondly, there is a whole debate to be had about use of public greenspace, and how to balance the needs of humans and of urban wildlife. Thirdly, we need a better understanding of the relationships between different urban species. Finally, Carbone thinks that there needs to be better partnerships between different sectors and stakeholders – there’s a tendency for people not to think ‘outside the box’ of their own particular interest area, and this can make things very challenging.

Carbone was asked about how people could help hedgehogs, and he had a number of ideas.

  • The hedgehog highway idea is very important – this works best where a small community agrees to, for example, make routes through their garden fences so that the hedgehogs can access food from a range of gardens.
  • Feeding can work, but it’s important to make sure that you do it in such a way that you aren’t also feeding all the other urban wildlife
  • You can buy hedgehog ‘houses’ and nests which can be useful in some circumstances
  • Carbone is not in favour of translocating hedgehogs, but thinks we should foster hedgehogs where they occur naturally – if hedgehogs are not already in an area there might be a good reason for why they aren’t there.

In short, this was an interesting talk that gave a good picture of what is currently going on in the field of London hedgehog research. Personally, I would have loved to know a bit more about possible reasons for the decline (I blame slug pellets and increased traffic, but who knows?) but I learned a lot, and I certainly wish London Hogwatch all the best as they expand into new areas of London. It will be good to hear about what they discover.

You can watch the whole talk here.

London Hogwatch doesn’t have a website yet (though they do have Twitter at https://twitter.com/londonhogwatch?lang=en, but I found this map from Hedgehog Street to be very useful.

 

R.I.P Bailey, King of the Cats

Bailey, the world’s most magnificent cat in 2017

Dear Readers, a few nights ago Bailey, the King of the Cats, went to sleep for the last time at the fine old age of nineteen years. He has been so much part of our life, and of the lives of many people who lived in the County Roads, that I wanted to pay tribute to him here.

I first met Bailey before we even moved to East Finchley. We were standing on the patio of what was to become our new home when we heard a loud and persistent miaowing issuing from the bushes. Up strode Bailey. He bobbed up for a head scritch, rolled on his back and then marched up to the back door, demanding to be let in. As it  wasn’t yet our house, we decided that this probably wasn’t the best idea, but once we were living there he became a regular visitor.

On one occasion I heard the voice of Bailey’s owner, followed by an all-too familiar wailing.

“Bailey! Come down from there. Don’t make a show of yourself”.

And there was Bailey standing on top of the ten-foot fence at the end of the side return. He had gotten up there, but seemed not to have worked out how he was going to get down. We humans stood and considered what to do. I tried standing on a chair but it wasn’t quite high enough. Fortunately at that point my six foot three inch tall husband arrived home from work, fetched a stepladder and rescued him. Carrying Bailey up the road to his actual house became part of our weekly routine. I think he regarded us as some kind of taxi service for when he was too tired to walk the last hundred yards home.

We soon made friends with Bailey’s actual family (or ‘subjects’ as I’m sure he thought of them). We were in regular contact, as Bailey developed a habit of wandering off. We never fed him, but other people did, and locating him became quite a problem. I am convinced that Bailey never thought of himself as a cat, but as a small furry human being. He would make himself at home on the armchair and watch benignly as I worked. He also loved sitting in the sink, normally (but not always) when there was nothing in it. We learned that what he loved was to drink from a running tap.

Bailey trying to get us to turn the tap on by telepathy.

Finally!

You would not believe that in these photos Bailey was already fifteen years old. He retained his elegant good looks for most of his life, and he was such a popular character on the street that everyone seemed to know his name. Well, you couldn’t really miss an extremely vocal pure-white cat who simply demanded to know who you were and what you could do for him. I had the sense that Bailey always knew what he wanted, and a bit more besides. We found we had a lot in common with Bailey’s owners, and we would probably never have found out how much if Bailey hadn’t ‘introduced’ us. He always seemed preternaturally wise to me.

As the years wore on, Bailey got a bit slower and a bit stiffer, like most of us, but he was still a regular visitor to the garden. The birds never bothered about him, and I never saw him try to catch anything. Other cats scattered at a glance. He would sometimes pay a visit to the garden ‘waterhole’ for all the world like a domestic lion.

Bailey drinking from the pond

He’d always march straight up to the back door and yowl to be let in. If he caught your eye from an upstairs window he would re-double his efforts.

Let me in!

In April this year he paid a visit to the garden. He was clearly a very elderly gentleman, and yet he still announced himself in the usual way,

He was very wobbly on his legs and so we called his ‘Dad’ who came to carry him home. It is so sad to see an animal towards the end of his days, and yet Bailey was a cat who defied pity; he was still the same regal cat that he’d been when we first met him eleven years ago. He loved people, was never happier than when he was plonked down in a patch of sunshine, and seemed to be of the opinion that everything had worked out for the best. He was, as Samuel Johnson said of his beloved cat Hodge, a very fine cat indeed.

R.I.P Bailey. The street is quieter, and much sadder, without you.

 

A Scented Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Garden privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium)

Dear Readers, the woodier parts of the cemetery are heavy with the scent of privet flowers today – the perfume has a heady, creamy quality that I associate with lilies. I look at the small trees that the privet has become, and wonder if, years ago, they formed nicely trimmed hedges. I do love a feral plant, though, and so do the hover flies and honey bees who are all over the blossom.

In fact, it’s been a good day for pollinators in many ways. The reflexed stonecrop is having a very good year.

And now that the dandelions have gone over, the other members of the ‘yellow compositae’ are making a break for it. I suspect that this is catsear (Hypochaeris radicata) but you need a PhD in plant identification to get these guys right.

And howsabout all this ribwort plantain? I have been practicing getting down to ground level to photograph some of these plants in what I like to think of as ‘fox-eye view’.

Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

In the woodland grave area, the plants are busting out all over. There’s knapweed..

and St John’s Wort…

…and my very favourite umbelllifer, wild carrot. These plants all have that characteristic single red flower in the middle, but how I love the misty delicacy of them, and the way that they unfurl from their initial birdsnest buds.

Then it’s a quick visit to the horse chestnut tree to see how it’s doing. The leaf miners seem to be advancing and although the conkers are getting better, I don’t like the look of that canker on the stems. Maybe it’s nothing though. Everything is certainly getting bigger!

And now we have a puzzle – what on earth is this plant? The knowledgeable crew over at the Wildflowers of Britain and Ireland Facebook page have identified this as a pepperwort, but the jury is still out as to what species. At least it’s a complicated ID as opposed to something obvious.

A pepperwort, but which one?

The yarrow is also in full flower now, and this is another popular plant for hoverflies. What underrated pollinators these insects are! They transfer pollen in all innocence from one plant to another on their little sticky feet, and they especially like the open, easy flowers of daisies.

I also have a great fondness of spear thistle, which is a bumblebee favourite.

In the woodiest part of the cemetery I saw the buzzard fly across the path. I am convinced that they are nesting and roosting here, but they are very secretive, and who can blame them? These birds have been becoming commoner, with an increase in breeding birds of over 400% between 1970 and 2010 – when my book ‘The Birds of London’ by Andrew Self was published in 2014 there were thought to be between 66 and 93 pairs in the London area. I wish that the cemetery was more available to visitors during the week, so that I could do a bit more observing, but at the moment it’s just the weekend. Ah well.

There has been a sudden outburst of self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) in the cemetery too.

And look at this lone daylily (Hemerocallis) flowering amongst a tangle of brambles and privet. I guess that there was a well-tended grave here that has disappeared under the wild flowers.

The leaves of the herb Robert are starting to turn red.

And the Scotsman seems to have had a rather large bird sitting just above him. Let’s hope that it was something splendid like the buzzard.

Five Minutes in the Garden

Dear Readers, it’s been one of those days when what I’ve mostly done is compare and contrast two spreadsheets and try to bring them together as one coherent whole, so what a pleasure it was to get up, stretch my legs and see what was going on in the garden. There are still a few damselflies about, I rather like that this one has a bar-code on her tail. This one is a Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) and I know that it’s female because you can just about see a yellow band between some of the segments on the abdomen. She’s probably thinking about laying her eggs somewhere in the pond if she hasn’t done so already.

This plant has just popped up (as they do), and it’s a willowherb, probably Hoary Willowherb (Epibilium parviflorum),  a common willowherb of damp places. It’s so delicate that it’s hard to imagine how it held its own amidst the more vigorous plants, but here it is.

And over in the bittersweet there’s a bumblebee with bright orange pollen baskets on her legs. She looks as if she’s wearing a pair of tangerine-coloured bloomers.

This bee is carrying grey pollen, and interestingly you can tell what plant a bee has been foraging on by the pollen colour. Grey pollen can come from hazel or elder (probably elder at this time of year), and orange can come from lime – there are masses of lime trees in flower at the moment.

And having mentioned that I hadn’t seen any chaffinches for a while, a young one popped up on the seed feeder.

And finally, look who turned up on the guttering this morning while I was half-way through (yet another) Zoom call! The garden has been full of sparrows all week, and some were even belatedly examining my sparrow nesting boxes. Let’s hope they remember them next year.

LNHS Talks – ‘Are Gardens Good For Birds’ by Mike Toms

Dear Readers, this is a topic that will be close to all of our hearts, I’m sure. Are we actually helping birds when we feed them in our gardens? Should we be doing it all year round? What are the pitfalls of attracting large numbers of birds to a small space? I was eager to hear what Mike Toms had to say – he wrote the ‘Garden Birds’ volume of the New Naturalist series, one of my favourites, and currently works at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), so he’s a man who knows of which he speaks. I’ve given quite a lot of detail  here as I found it absolutely fascinating.

Toms started by explaining that the BTO is a research-based organisation that looks specifically at bird populations – changes in distribution and numbers, and the reasons for those changes. The bird that has been studied the longest is the grey heron – BTO have data going back to the 1930s and were able to map a correlation between cold, hard winters and declines in the heron population. Increasingly, though, the BTO studies birds in urban environments. In 2008 the world reached a point where half the population now lives in towns and cities, and this is expected to increase to two-thirds of us in 2050. Urbanisation has consequences not just because of the footprint of the areas themselves, but because of the resources that are needed to support them. Globally, some of the areas that are urbanising most rapidly are also those with the highest current levels of biodiversity, such as south-east Asia and the Horn of Africa.

In the UK, some species can adapt very nicely to the urban environment (Toms showed a photo of two herring gulls looking hopefully at somebody sitting on a bench with a sandwich). Such species have a broad diet, and are not too specific in their requirements, which is one reason why dove and corvid species do so well in our towns and cities. In the garden environment, you’re likely to see a lot of seed eaters, such as sparrows and finches, but far fewer insectivores.

London is particularly well-blessed with green space, however, and although we think about this in terms of parks and woodland, private domestic gardens are by far the biggest space. Taken together, the gardens of the UK cover a larger space than all of the land set aside for nature reserves. At this point, Toms did a survey on whether the live audience thought that gardens were good for birds, and over 90% thought that they were.

Toms then started to look at gardens in more detail. One trend, especially since lockdown, was that people wanted to make their little bit of greenspace more wildlife friendly – he showed a slide of a garden from the Chelsea Flower Show which was contemporary but had a bird feeder, lots of pollinator-friendly plants and some small trees and shrubs – it seemed like a nice combination of the aesthetic and the useful.

The big draw for birds in our gardens is clearly food – Toms had the staggering figure that across the UK we spend £200m per year on bird food (and about half of that is me 🙂 ). For birds to stay in our gardens, and not just use them for food, there need to be nesting opportunities too.

Toms showed an interesting graph which illustrated the reporting rates for robins – volunteers at the BTO record which birds they see in their gardens every week. It showed firstly that reporting rates for rural and suburban gardens are higher than those for urban gardens overall, but that all three types of garden showed a drop off during the breeding season – this seems to indicate that while robins will use gardens during the winter season as a food resource, they prefer not to nest in them.

Why is this? One reason is that most birds feed their nestlings on insects, and these are just not plentiful enough in gardens. Blue tits, for example, will nest in deciduous woodland where there are lots of caterpillars given the choice. This year was particularly devastating for birds as May was so cold, and June so wet, so there were lots of reports of nests failing and nestlings starving in the nest. However, a significant proportion of birds (over 50% of starlings and sparrows, a third of jackdaws and blackbirds and, surprisingly, 25% of song thrush) do breed in gardens, so the habitat is clearly important for these species.

Rural gardens in particular can also be important for birds such as the yellowhammer, tree sparrow and reed bunting, who are seedeaters  –  Toms showed a graph of farmland birds who visit gardens  with a seasonal peak in April, when all the natural food that the birds would normally eat has finished. In days gone by, there would be grain amongst the stubble, but with more efficient farming methods, the birds have taken to visiting feeders. This is especially important in the case of the cirl bunting, a very rare species in Devon, where garden feeding has really helped to reinforce the population.

Turning to blackbirds, Toms showed a graph of the reporting rate of the birds which showed a marked fall-off in the autumn every single year. He explained that this is partly due to the birds becoming more secretive during the moult, but also that they often move out of gardens during the glut of berries that are available in parks and the countryside.

With blue tits, Toms spoke about ringing exercises (where individual birds can be identified), which shows that it isn’t just the same old three or four birds visiting the feeders, but a succession of birds – you could have thirty different blue tits visiting the feeder in the course of a day.

Toms moved on to coal tits – these little birds largely feed on the seeds of coniferous trees, and so have done very well with the planting of sitka spruce plantations (one of the few creatures that have, I imagine). Again, the data from the recorders showed an annual peak and trough, but the peak was supressed in years when the spruces were ‘masting’ (producing their seed) – this only happens every few years, so that there is so much seed that the predators can’t eat it all, and the tree has the best chance of reproducing. In other words, if the spruce seed is available, the coal tits will eat it in preference to visiting the garden, but they will use the gardens if it isn’t so plentiful.

Then, Toms looked at longer term studies. One of them, on goldfinches, has showed a massive increase in the use of gardens by the species. Interestingly, there seem to be two ‘spikes’ in the data, which might indicate that firstly resident birds are using the gardens for food during the breeding season, and then a second wave of migrant birds comes in to take advantage of the resource.

Feeding is not an unalloyed good, however – Toms gave the example of trichomonosis and the greenfinch. This protozoal parasite is spread in saliva and faeces from infected birds, and is a very good reason for making sure that feeders are cleaned regularly. What I hadn’t realised was that the ‘spillover event’ probably came from woodpigeons, who have been carriers of this parasite for years, and one place where pigeons and greenfinches come into contact is at seed feeders in gardens. Greenfinch and chaffinch populations have been horribly affected, with Toms describing the chaffinch population as being ‘in freefall’. It made me think about the last time that I saw chaffinches in the garden, and it’s been quite a while ago.

The ‘pox’ that we sometimes see on blue and great tits seems, according to the BTO research, to have actually come from blackflies which have jumped across from the European mainland, thanks yet again to climate change.

Finally, Toms looked at blackcaps. These birds are increasingly using our gardens in the winter time (probably migrating in from Eastern Europe), and interestingly they prefer urban gardens, which are warmer because of the urban heat island effect (all that concrete stores heat during the day and releases it at night, increasing the ambient temperature). Blackcaps also prefer gardens where food is available every day.

So, it seems that the food that we provide is changing the behaviour of some birds, but by attracting them to our gardens we also increase their exposure to some diseases, and to different predators, such as cats and grey squirrels, which might not be so common in the countryside.

So, what were the conclusions? It’s very clear from the BTO’s studies that the birds who are visiting our gardens have become more diverse over time. We’re also putting out different foods – many of us are feeding not only seeds and peanuts, but suet products. Apparently, too much fat can affect a bird’s feather condition, but the addition of Vitamin E can counteract that. Where do I get suet products with Vitamin E, I wonder?

Living in an urban area brings a whole selection of risks and opportunities. There is pollution in cities that especially affects birds with their delicate lungs, glass windows claim billions of bird lives globally every year, and night time lighting can be confusing and destructive. Some studies have shown that blackbirds living in urban environments have shorter telomeres (the sections of their genetic code that protect the core genes), indicating that they have increased stress levels. Robins have to sing at night because they can’t make themselves heard over the traffic noise. Woodpigeon populations have gone through the roof, and may be contributing to disease in other species.

To sum up, Toms indicated that gardens are probably good for birds on balance, because they provide feeding opportunities and help to offset some of the damage that humans have done elsewhere. But it isn’t straightforward. Toms put in a plea for more research on what birds need, and especially pointed out the BTO’s Garden Bird Watch

To watch the whole talk, click here

How the Mighty Have Fallen….

Dear Readers, those who’ve been following this page for a few weeks might recognise this plant as the nine-foot tall angelica that popped up this spring. Well, the flowerheads have gone over and the plant has been looking a bit precipitous for a few days, but the rain and wind on Sunday night finally blew it over altogether. What a shame! But it’s clearly become handy for some of my local visitors, who find it very convenient.

The garden is still full of fledgling starlings – by this time in a normal year they’d be much more independent, and the garden would be falling silent. This year, the little devils are still everywhere. Each time I walk out to the shed they positively explode out of the surrounding trees and shrubs, followed by the woodpigeons, collared doves, goldfinches etc etc.

I’ve taken to saying “Calm down guys, it’s only me” every time I go out, but I’m not convinced it’s working.

And then, I had a very nice surprise this morning.

Fledgling sparrow marching along the hand rail.

Look at this fledgling house sparrow! I haven’t really seen sparrows in the garden for months, apart from the odd fleeting visit, but this morning the place was full of them. Here’s a Dad feeding his youngster…

For an enchanting ten minutes they seemed to be everywhere. Perching on the hemp agrimony….

..hanging out on the greater willow herb…

or just chilling on the hand rail waiting for some food….

…and every so often getting lucky…

Mum used to love sparrows.

“They’re so friendly!” she’d say. “You never see them fighting”.

Well, all I can say is she must have been watching a different species from the one that I observe, because I see sparrows squabbling all the time though, to give Mum her due, it does normally seem short-lived and non-serious. And today it was all about the difficult business of rearing these hard-earned balls of fluff to maturity. I always feel so privileged to host the local birds, especially when, like sparrows and starlings, they’ve become so much rarer than they were when I was a girl. The garden might look a bit wild and woolly, but goodness a lot of wildlife pops by, and that makes me much happier than a manicured plot would ever do.

Wednesday Weed – Creeping Jenny

Creeping Jenny (Lysmachia nummularia)

Dear Readers, I was rather taken with this pretty little plant when I spotted it at the cemetery last week. I have been thinking about getting some for the edges of the pond: it likes damp conditions and shade, which is just about perfect. It’s a member of the primrose family, though it superficially resembles a buttercup, and is a native plant, found mostly in the south of England. It’s also known as ‘moneywort’, probably because of its golden flowers and round leaves: its Latin name ‘nummularia’ also means ‘like a coin’.

Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)

Creeping Jenny is also known as ‘herb twopence’, probably because of the leaves laying two by two along the stem. It was felt to be a most beneficial plant, one of the very best for treating wounds, and useful also for scurvy and haemorrhage. Boiled with wine and honey, it was believed to be a useful treatment for whooping cough. In Chinese traditional medicine it’s used to treat kidney and urinary stones, and it’s also said to be useful in the alleviation of gout.

Snakes were said to seek out the plant when they were in need of medicine, and yet another alternative name for it is ‘serpentaria’. I wonder if grass snakes, with their love of water and damp places, were often seen in association with the plant? This is often how these connections are made.

When burned, creeping Jenny was thought to deter insects and vermin in the house. Nobody will admit to actually eating the plant, but you can make a tea from its flowers and leaves.

A garland of creeping Jenny laid across the shoulders of yoked oxen is said to have made them work more peacefully together. As part of the loosestrife family (along with spotted loosestrife), it is said to generally increase serenity and lessen conflict, something that could come in very handy.

You may also have seen this golden version of creeping Jenny, which seems to be particularly popular for container displays.

Photo One by Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Golden version of creeping Jenny (Photo One)

And finally, a poem. I rather liked this recent work by American poet Jack Ridl, published in Reformed Journal. I hope he has better luck with the sweet woodruff than I did, though.

Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees 

by Jack Ridl

And the angel said unto thee, Go thou
into your garden and plant Creeping Jenny,

alyssum, Sweet Woodruff to crawl across
the earth, and herbs to bring culinary alchemy

into each and every meal: oregano, rosemary,
lemon balm, chives, sage, and thyme. Then

set deep into the soil two wisteria vines, three
redbud trees, a butterfly bush, lupines, salvia,

zinnias, a hundred zinnias. Wait for the bees.
Wait for the 20,000 kinds of bees, from bumble

to honey to mason. Watch how they live in
harmony, all humming as if they can trust

one another and the petals, stamens, the ways
the flowers make their indifferent offerings

of pollen. Genuflect to the bees that ye may
eat of the fruit of the land. Be ever humble

in your unknowing. Learn the intelligence
of worm, vole, sparrow, spider, how none

needs even a holy word to linger and
work, becoming nothing more than what

they are under the benign disregard of sky,
the unpredictable nonchalance of weather.

Photo Credit

Photo One by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

A July Visit to Barnwood

Nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis)

Dear Readers, Barnwood, a Community Forest in East Finchley, has become a real treasure-trove for biodiversity. I’d been sent a photo of a nursery web spider a few days ago, so I couldn’t wait to go and have a look for myself. In the photo above the proud Mum was looking after two balls of tiny spiderlings – a ladybird was roundly told off, though the spider clearly knew that the beetle wasn’t very tasty.

Nursery Web Spiderlings

The romantic life of a nursery web spider is fraught with danger for the male, who must woo the female with a wrapped gift of a fly or other tasty morsel. While she’s getting tucked in, he will hope to mate with her. If he’s lucky, he’ll make his getaway before she eats him. Then, the female lays a number of eggs which form a white ball – she will carry this around with her, and will also form the ‘nursery web’ that you can see in the photos. This is not used to catch prey – the spider hunts for these in the undergrowth – but for protection. The mother retreats into the sanctuary with her egg sac, which soon hatches to produce a mass of tiny spiderlings. At this point the mother stands guard outside until they disperse. 

I love the way that Barnwood has become not just a haven for wildlife, but a real community resource. Many of the fruit and nut trees are doing well, and the over-55s group has been making soup from foraged ingredients too. Here’s just a selection of the edible delights that are popping up…

Beech nut

Currants

Gooseberries

Apples

Medlars

One new development since my  last visit has been a lockable ‘shed’ – only someone who has had to lump garden tools backwards and forwards from their house without any way to store them on site will appreciate what a tremendous asset this is. And very fine it looks too.

The shed/lock-up

I tried to help ID some moths that had been caught in the trap overnight, but identifying these slightly worn noctuid moths is always a nightmare, at least for me. They will all be released into different places in the undergrowth so that the birds don’t learn where to find them. My friend L at Barnwood is going to ask a more experienced moth-er for some help with the ID. I am full of admiration for people who can understand the nuances of appearance between the different species.

We think that the tree growing by the entrance to Barnwood is an osier willow (Salix viminalis) – the plant’s flexible stems were historically used for basket weaving. It’s also a very useful plant for wildlife, and like all willow species can decontaminate heavy metals in soil.

Osier willow (Salix viminalis)

The prickly sowthistle and the common knapweed are in full flower – both are much favoured by bees and hoverflies. 

Prickly sowthistle (Sonchus asper\0

Common knapweed (Centaurea nigra)

And a speckled wood butterfly is basking in the sunshine. 

While we had a rest on the new benches in one of the clearings, a buzzard flew up from the locust tree opposite and soared off towards the cemetery. I wonder if it’s one of those that I regularly see over the cemetery? L remarked that he’d seen a red kite from Barnwood several times, and so we sat in companionable silence for a few minutes to see if one would cooperate and appear. We didn’t see one, but still, Barnwood feels like a place of great biodiversity, full of opportunities for all kinds of invertebrates and birds, and yet also a place that welcomes human diversity too. There is something for everyone at Barnwood.

For a great piece about Barnwood and its history, have a look here.

Book Review – Much Ado About Mothing by James Lowen

Dear Readers, anyone who has ever had access to a moth trap knows the mixture of apprehension and excitement that comes with peering into it early in the morning. Sometimes there are all sorts of jewelled wonders sitting in the egg-trays that you’ve put inside for their comfort. On other occasions, you have a variety of worn, brown creatures that are almost impossible for a novice to identify. But that’s all part of the fun. Will you spot some unusual migrant, or a stunning hawk moth, or a buff-tip that looks for all the world like a broken twig?

Photo One nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Buff tip moth (Phalera bucephala) (Photo One)

My mothy adventures have been limited to my back garden (so far), but James Lowen is on a mission to convert those of us who still think of moths as being the drab relatives of those pretty day-flying butterflies. Personally, I love a quest – I’m thinking about Peter Marren’s wonderful book about finding the rare wildflowers of Britain. Lowen’s quest is a bit looser than Marrens’ but he still manages to travel the length and breadth of Britain in his search for rare and unusual moths -he encounters a man who breeds Death’s Head Hawkmoths at home, longhorn moths that ‘lek’ (perform a mating dance to attract females), moths that were thought to be extinct, moths that are just starting to appear in the UK from mainland Europe, and moths that look like other insects.

Currant Clearwing (Synanthedon tipuliformis) (Photo Two)

Not content with the bigger moths, Lowen takes a shine to micromoths as well. How I love an enthusiast! Even the moths that he admits aren’t particularly brightly coloured or ‘interesting’ are memorably described:

‘Granted, Marsh Moth is never destined to be a pin-up, its hues a greyer beige than a wainscot. Jagged lines across its wings track the share price of a particularly volatile stock. Subtle and understated, it is a moth-er’s moth.’

Photo Three Ilia Ustyantsev from Russia, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Marsh moth (Athetis pallustris) (Photo Three)

Lowen describes the highs and lows of being a moth fanatic with great accuracy. The nights sitting in the cold and rain, the stomping up and down hill with heavy equipment, the ones that got away, the ones that turned up without any warning. A friend points him in the direction of a Clifden Nonpareil, the UK’s largest moth, under a strip light at Brockenhurst railway station.

Photo Four By Harald Süpfle - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4663638

Clifden Nonpareil (Catocala fraxini) (Photo Four)

He describes the etiquette of moth-ing – can you count a moth that flew into someone else’s trap, for example, even if you saw it first? If a friend catches a rare moth and holds onto it until you can arrive to see it, does that count? Ethical dilemmas abound. All moths caught are released into a safe spot, and the scientific information collected by monitoring numbers is invaluable, but Lowen is clearly a man who wants to do no harm.

This book has really made me want to get the moth trap out to see what’s happening in my garden, and to do some recording – the picture is changing so rapidly with climate change, and moths are an interesting early indicator of what is happening already, and what might happen in the future. Lowen wears his extensive knowledge lightly, and I learnt so much about this fascinating group of insects. Highly recommended.

You can buy the book here.

 

A Mid-Year Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Reflexed stonecrop (Sedum rupestre)

Dear Readers, I have some page-a-day calendars in my office – one with a daily photo of cats, one of dogs, and one of nature scenes. And so, I have to break it to you that today is the day when we reach the mid-point of the calendar year, and all the photos have to be turned around so that I can start looking at the images for the second half of the year. How did THAT happen? It feels like Christmas was about twenty minutes ago. Nonetheless, there are plenty of signs in the cemetery that the year is already starting to think about autumn, although there are still plenty of flowers about too, like these lovely yellow reflexed stonecrop, which are popping up on certain graves where the conditions are right.

On the horse chestnut, the conkers are getting bigger, but the leaves are showing the very first signs of the leaf miners that will have nibbled them to a frazzle by the end of August.

And please forgive me for a few more shots of the fox and cubs (Pilosella aurantiacia) – they are stunning.

Here’s a new plant in flower – generally known as Creeping Jenny, this is a member of the primrose family, and very pretty it is too. It was a very damp day today, which suits this little plant very much – it loves damp places, and in fact I was thinking about getting some for around the pond to soften the edges.

Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)

I pause to examine the numerous trivial plant bugs (Closterotomus trivialis) on some hogweed – they are everywhere this year! The males are mostly black and red, the females are mostly green, and all of them feed on pollen and nothing else, but help to pollinate the plants as they do so.

There are great frothy masses of white stonecrop (Sedum album) around too.

The yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is coming into flower – quite a lot of it seems to be pinkish this year.

And the goat’s rue is putting in an appearance in both pale mauve and white. This is one of those plants that has gone from being a relative rarity in this part of the world to being pretty much ubiquitous in the cemetery.

Goat’s Rue (Galega officinalis)

I spot my first meadow brown of the year….

Meadow brown(Maniola jurtina)

And here is a very fine black-and-yellow longhorn beetle (Rutpela maculata) – the larvae live in the deadwood of deciduous trees, and the adults hang out on umbellifers, as in the photos below. I advise getting up close and personal to any stands of wild carrot or hogweed that you see – they are a great place to see interesting insects.

What really struck me today, though, was the way that the leaves on some perennial plants were already turning, and how beautiful they were. Look at these dock leaves! The colour may be due to a rust fungus or insect infestation, or it might just be part of the natural cycle of growth and decay (or indeed both of these things).

The leaves on the garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) are going through a similar process, but in shades of purple-red and yellow.

And the herb Robert is starting to display the clearest crimson of all…

And let’s not forget this splendid agent of decay who was obviously enjoying the rain. This is the brown-coloured form of Arion ater, the Great Black Slug. A very fine slug indeed!

And of course, I had to say hello to the Scotsman, who is standing pretty much in a grove of spent stalks and dry foliage at the moment. He doesn’t seem unhappy though, for all that.