Dear Readers, I am pleased to say that my fever seems to have broken and I’m starting to feel a bit better, but still intend to take things steadily until I’m back up to speed. It’s always a shock to realise that you’re only one virus/trip/blood clot away from disaster, so let’s be careful out there, lovelies.
So I thought I’d start with a view from the back of the garden, beside the shed. In the late afternoon it’s the shadiest place to sit, which is a blessing at the moment.
The whitebeam is having a mini-mast year – it went berserk last year, but it’s not doing too badly in 2021.
And how about my splendid grassy-thing? I think it’s a Stipa but no doubt someone will tell me otherwise. It provides a bit of cover for the poor froglets, though if I was them I’d stay in the pond for now.
I have ivy growing over the oak sleepers (which are largely falling to pieces now but are valuable habitat anyway)
And although my husband cut the Virginia creeper back almost to the ground, it looks to be doing ok to me. It too provides a lot of useful cover, mainly for spiders I notice, and the colour in autumn is really something. It’s continuously reaching for the branches of the whitebeam and infiltrating the shed, and if it ever achieves the former we’ve had it 🙂
And in other news, how about this sweetheart? Every year gatekeeper butterflies put in an appearance just as the hemp agrimony opens its flowers. It makes me so happy, and this one is so new-minted.
And here is something exciting. I thought there was something strange about this bumblebee – it didn’t quite fit into any of the categories that I’d lovingly memorised. I asked the folk over at the Wasps, Bees and Ants group on Facebook, and it turns out that this little chap (for indeed he is a male) is either a Vestal Cuckoo Bee (Bombus vestalis) or a Gypsy Cuckoo Bee (Bombus bohemicus). As the former is much commoner in the South I’m going to plump for that. Cuckoo bees mimic other bumblebees (in this case the Buff-Tailed Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris). What a tale of skullduggery this is! In bumblebees, the queen-like cuckoo bee enters the nest and lays low until the resident queen has raised enough workers to support the intruder. Then, she kills or subdues the real ‘queen’ (she might simply drag the existing queen off her nest, a behaviour known as ‘mauling’). She may also kill the older workers who rush to defend the queen, but clearly it isn’t in her interests to kill too many or she’ll be unsupported (cuckoo bee females do not collect nectar or pollen themselves once they’ve found a nest). The younger workers and any larvae are allowed to remain and become ‘slaves’, feeding the queen and her grubs. The cuckoo bumblebee does not produce her own workers, so she has to depend on the ones that she’s subdued, presumably through pheromone production. Cuckoo bees produce very few males, so I was lucky to see this chap enjoying himself on the teasel. Note the two pale stripes, and the abdomen which is a bit pointier than usual.
Well, that’s quite enough for today! I’m off to put my feet up. See you tomorrow…
Dear Readers, I was very impressed by the speed with which my Covid -19 test results came back – the kit was sent off on Sunday and it was announced that I was negative on Monday. However, I have spent most of today in bed, shivering and with my teeth chattering, so clearly all is not well yet. I find it astonishing how even the roots of my hair feel sore, and how in the middle of a heatwave I wanted nothing so much as a hot water bottle. Still, with any luck I’ll be feeling a bit better tomorrow, especially as it’s my six-monthly performance review and I’ll need to be on the ball!
I just thought that you might want to see exactly why hardy geraniums are called cranesbills. Don’t these seedpods look just like the heads of an elegant bird?
Dear Readers, there are definitely worse fates than being stuck at home with a fridge full of food and a job that doesn’t involve any commuting. Today I am a bit brain-fogged and tired, but definitely improving. I decided to spend half an hour in the garden to see what was going on before I headed back for a sleep (luxury!) and of course the bumblebees visiting the teasel caught my eye. I love the way that they dig right into the flowers to get at the nectar – I’m guessing that only the longer-tongued species can get at it, and certainly the hoverflies who land sometimes look a bit confused before flying off to something friendlier.
I was delighted to hear the children on their way to school this morning remarking on the bumblebees on the lavender and buddleia in the front garden. I must be doing something right. I sometimes think of bumblebees as a kind of gateway to the insect world for children – they’re big, furry, unlikely to sting unless really harassed, and have a kind of ramshackle charm that belies their superb adaptation to their environment and intelligence.
Honestly, who wouldn’t love them and want to look after them? On a sadder note, I found two bumblebees trussed up in a spider’s web on the fence. I might pop out later to see who the culprit is, but the web is very impressive. I did check to see if the bees were already dead, and they were, otherwise I might have had a tricky moral dilemma for all of ten seconds before I rescued them. I will spare you the photos, but here’s the web, and rather beautiful it is too.
Close to it a much smaller, less bee-murdering spider has slung a web. This is your typical diadem orb-web spider (Araneus diadematus), a very variable and common species but welcome for all that. Spiders eat so many garden ‘pests’ that I suspect we’d be chin deep in mosquitoes and greenfly if they didn’t exist.
For those of you on the edge of your seats about my small white butterfly egg, it’s turned yellow, which I think is a good sign…
And in other very exciting news, I noticed this while trying to follow a mystery moth. I discovered both that I suddenly have enchanter’s nightshade in the garden and leafcutter bees! Until I moved to East Finchley I had no idea that there were leafcutter bees in the UK, but then I saw that my rose leaves had these perfect half-circles taken out of them, and tied this in to the little bees that I saw feeding on what I thought was elecampane. How exciting! I shall keep an eye on it and see if I can catch them in the act, though I sense that it’s a little bit late in the year.
And now I’m off for a lie down. See you tomorrow, readers!
Goodness Readers, how this having a job business impacts on one’s social activities. I am not for one second complaining (and I am only part-time) but even so, some weeks it’s hard to stuff everything in. Nonetheless, I did find time for a quick ten minutes in the garden today, and as usual there was some interesting stuff going on. I love the way the teasel flower flowers, for one thing. Someone described it recently as ‘a sparkler that’s been lit in the middle’, and that’s not a bad description. What a stunning plant it is, even though it’s at the most peculiar angle. The flowerheads remind me a bit of cartoon snakes trying to look around a corner.
And the bees love them, clearly.
My ‘dwarf’ buddleia is now 8 feet tall, but the colour is spectacular. What would you call this colour? I’m dithering between magenta and cerise, but I’m open to suggestions.
There are cellar spiders in the shed again, and I can’t walk out there without demolishing a web that has been slung across my route. I managed to avoid this garden orb-web spider though – she’s made her web between the buddleia and the bay window in the front garden, and is getting stuck into all the aphids that fly into her trap. These spiders are around for most of the year, but they’ve just about gotten big enough for us to actually notice.
Although there have been a lot of aphids about this year, I’ve also noticed a huge increase in ladybirds and ladybird larvae. Today, there was this two-spot (though as you can’t see the spots I’ll need you to trust me on this one…)
And some harlequin ladybird larvae, who really do remind me of aphid-hoovers as they work their way through a herd of the poor things…
And here is a harlequin ladybird pupa just waiting for another ‘hoover’ to emerge…
Out in the back garden again, I notice that the slugs and snails have eaten all the sunflowers except two, one valiant entire specimen, and one where the stem has been eaten through so that the top leaves have fallen off. I wonder why they so prefer some plants over others? I need to grow most things until they’re the size of a tea pot before I can be sure that they’ll survive, and even so some still end up like lace. Where’s a hedgehog when I need one? And aren’t those frogs supposed to be earning their keep? Harrumph.
My last remaining sunflowers
And finally, it’s so nice to have the sparrow family still visiting the garden, along with the young starlings, the goldfinches and a couple more chaffinches yesterday. I might only have had ten minutes, but it definitely cheers me up.
What a strange summer it’s been so far! Yesterday, without any warning, a thunderstorm bubbled up, just as my husband was heading out for a haircut. It poured down for best part of an hour – the kitchen had rainwater coming in under the door, but further up the road basements were flooded, roads were impassable and torrents of water ran down the streets. And then, today, it’s hot, and in the garden there are dozens of damselflies, red and blue. Some are fighting, some are mating, some are just hanging out. A spider has built its web right across the pond and is dashing out every five minutes to truss up an aphid or some other tiny insect.
The meadowsweet and the hemp agrimony and the teasels had all been knocked horizontal when the angelica fell over a few days ago, and they were just starting to right themselves when yesterday’s storm hit. Ah well, they are still flowering even if some of the angles are a little strange. The teasel flower is a peculiar thing anyway – it flowers in the middle, and then the two bands of flowers move away from one another to opposite ends. It is beloved by all manner of little pollinating creature.
Teasel with tiny bees
I have never seen a bee so drenched in pollen. Unlike those sophisticates the bumblebees with their pollen baskets, a lot of little bees just basically roll about in it so that it adheres to their legs and tummies. This one has been identified as a base-banded furrow bee (Lasioglossum sp.). There are over 1700 species, with the ones in the UK being tricky to tell apart, though most of them are solitary bees building their nest tunnels in light soils. In the tropics some Lasioglossum species are sweat bees, which can be a bit irritating if you aren’t used to them, though as the poor things only want to feed it seems a bit harsh to hate them.
Apologies to anyone who gets seasick watching this, it’s the teasel moving, not me 🙂
And here is a bumblebee, doing that pollen-collection thang properly. This one is buzz-pollinating the bittersweet, vibrating at a high frequency so that the plant will release its pollen. Not that you can hear the sound above the wind…
And watching benignly from the pond is this frog. All the fuss and bother of the year is already over, and s/he can just sit and watch the world go by (though if s/he could see their way clear to munching on some of the slugs and snails that have appeared after the rain that would be very helpful). As I haven’t even seen them paying much attention to the water snails, though, I suspect this might not be on the cards.
Dear Readers, following my trip to the cemetery on Saturday I decided to find out a bit more about this rather strange plant. It looks rather like a giant shepherd’s purse although the seedheads are different. I was fairly sure that it was a member of the cabbage family, but one that I hadn’t seen before. Fortunately the knowledgeable people over at the Wildflowers of Britain and Ireland Facebook group were able to give a tentative identification – this is most probably Narrow-leaved Pepperwort (Lepidium ruderale). To identify it properly, I need to give the leaves a rub next time I’m in the cemetery – they are said to smell like a combination of horse dung and horseradish. I can’t wait!
The genus of the plant, Lepidium, means ‘small-scale’ in Latin – some authors think that this refers to the use of some species to treat leprosy, which causes scaly skin in its early stages. It might also refer to those tiny round seeds, which definitely have a resemblance to fish scales. However, the leprosy interpretation is supported by the fact that a close relative, dittander (Lepidium latifolium) was used as a treatment for leprous sores, and that stands of this unusual, normally coastal plant, have been found growing in the grounds of 3 hospitals in Kent and nowhere else in the county(Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey, page 153).
Dittander (Lepidium latifolium) growing in its normal seaside habitat (Photo One)
The plant has also been used in a tincture to treat impetigo, another skin disease, and it’s said that it can also reduce blood pressure and decrease respiration (though why you’d want people to breathe less I am unsure). Furthermore a close relative of ‘our’ plant, field pepperwort (Lepidium campestre) was said to be an antidote to poison, and was sold under the name of ‘mithridate pepperwort’. And for those of us who are ladies of ‘a certain age’, yet another relative, maca (Lepidium meyenii) develops a huge, bulbous taproot which is said to taste like vegetable caramel, and which is said to be a great treatment for hot flushes. In its native Peru, maca is also used as an aphrodisiac, and there is some evidence that it has a direct influence on the action of hormones such as oestrogen, so maybe this isn’t so unlikely.
Maca roots (Lepidium meyenii). Not to be confused with parsnips! (Photo Two)
As you might expect from the name, pepperworts of all kinds are said to have intensely mustardy, pepper-flavoured leaves, which can be used in salads when picked young. Having read the description of the smell, however, I might leave this one for the hardier folk among us. In fact, the plant is so strongly-flavoured that it can taint the milk of the animals that graze upon it, and furthermore it appears to be herbicide-resistant. Bees love it, however, and there was a tiny hoverfly feeding on this specimen, which you can probably see if you squint.
A pepperwort, probably narrow-leaved pepperwort
It seems to me that we owe so much to these nondescript little brassicas, not just because many of them are the ancestors of the cabbages, turnips and radishes that we enjoy today but in their own right. With their peppery flavour they added some much-needed flavour to our ancestor’s diet, and they can be surprisingly attractive to the human eye too: I rather liked the long spikes of flowers and seeds on the pepperwort. As already noted, they can be popular with pollinators, and caterpillars that can get past the mustardy flavour that is meant to deter them can find something tasty to eat.
And so to a poem all about cabbages. I love this! Words actually fail me. See what you think. My mother, too, used to overcook it, and put a spoonful of bicarb into the water, in theory to keep it green.
There was no sex in our village there was only cabbage. Row upon row of it filling the haggards on high, straight ridges. This is where babies came from we were told, in all seriousness. My sister still remembers being shown the exact head that she was discovered under. We knew everything about growing the small, limp plants that needed constant watering. Learned how to protect them from root fly and caterpillar infestations. Recognized the different varieties, from January King to Curly Kale, sewn in sequence for year-round cropping. Instructed that it was never harvested until the hearts were firm and babies were something only grown-up women found. Of sex we knew nothing. We all hated it; the dank smell of it cooking that permeated through the whole house for hours after it was eaten, the sloppy look of it on the plates, the run-off staining the spuds and bacon. But it was good for us so we were made to finish it. Remember how mother would add a teaspoon of soda to the water to soften the fibers? Years later, I learnt that this destroys the flavour, disarms the vitamins. The myth was easy to believe in a farming community until our hormones and neighbours’ sons, well educated in animal husbandry, illuminated the shortcomings in our education.
Oh my sisters, we are the daughters of cabbages and should celebrate our cruciferae lineage; tough and sinewy of a strong variety, adaptable to any climate, winter hardy; never ones to take ourselves too seriously: when I think on it, my sisters, all that green we swallowed.
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.
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.
Entrance to Granary Square and Coal Drops Yard in orange and red….
Dear Readers, it’s been months since I’ve been to Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross. Last time I was very impressed by the pollinator-friendly planting, but the entrance above was closed. Today it was open again, and so I took this photo for your delectation. The colours change as you walk along, but it’s very unusual to find it empty, so it was a mad scramble to unpack the phone and get this shot just before people came into the frame.
….and in green and blue.
Upstairs I was happy to see that a dogwood (possibly Cornus kousa) was in flower next to the new Camden Council offices. In fact I spotted several during this walk. The trees are obviously suddenly in fashion.
The architectural panoramas in Kings Cross are always worth a look.
Some of the trees are underplanted with ornamental persicarias. The hoverflies were very fond of this one.
Then it was up to the planting around Coal Drops Yard itself. There were some foxtail lilies (Eremurus) in full flower, and they were attracting a lot of insect interest. I am still puzzling about what the flats in the gasholders behind are actually like to live in. I must hang around outside and accost someone 🙂
I like the way that this allium is just coming into flower, from the bottom up clearly if the bumblebee is anything to go by.
Elsewhere there are great drifts of Achillea in sherbet-yellow – they were disappointingly lacking in insect activity, except for this bumble. I think insects prefer straightforward yarrow, to be honest. They are creatures of simple tastes. It’s all about the pollen, the nectar and how easy it is to access – everything else about how a garden plant looks is strictly for our benefit.
Well, after all that excitement I head back to Coal Drops Yard, stopping to admire Thomas Heatherwick’s splendid roof…
….and the fine photography exhibition that’s just being installed….
…and the fountains that in warm weather are full of toddlers and small dogs….
But I was in need of light refreshment and since it had been a whole two hours since breakfast it was clearly time for some icecream. I really like Ruby Violet – Julie Fisher started off with a market stall in Tufnell Park, then got a shop, and now also has the parlour at Kings Cross. Today I had a scoop of Belgian Chocolate and a scoop of Salted Caramel and Almond Brittle. If you are ever in Kings Cross I can’t recommend them highly enough. Plus they have a teeny tiny garden outside.
Well after all that I needed to walk off a few calories (ahem) so I strolled about twenty yards to a much less visited part of the development. The first time I came here, I found a wasps’ nest, but this time I noted that there was a lot of lambs-ear (Stachys), and so I wondered if I’d see any wool carder bees, who use the soft fibres from the leaves to make their nests. They say ‘if you build it, they will come’ (or at least Kevin Costner did in ‘Field of Dreams’) so after a little bit of looking I spotted a female guarding a largish patch of the leaves against all comers. I love this species, they look like winged teddy bears but this one was very feisty, even seeing off a perfectly innocent red admiral butterfly who’d drifted overhead.
And here’s a large skipper butterfly (Ochlodes sylvanus) – I can tell that it’s a male by that black streak on the wing. These butterflies lay their eggs in long grass, and so it’s so pleasing that there are more and more patches left unmown even in display gardens like these.
I really liked this zippy little fly too, with its green metallic thorax and bronze abdomen, but what species it is remains to be seen.
A blackbird must have a nest nearby, judging by this adult with a beak full of worms…
And although it’s easy to forget that we’re right on the canal, here’s a damselfly to remind us…
And who is this, running around on the lawn like a little clockwork toy? It’s a juvenile pied wagtail, just trying to catch some pesky flying insects.
It’s a hard life being a young bird and trying to work out what’s what, but this one has picked a good spot, not just for flies but for crumbs as well.
It’s nice to see that nature is still taking advantage of the niches and opportunities that humans create, both deliberately and accidentally. I have a suspicion that if we all disappeared tomorrow, the peregrines would soon be nesting on the cranes and the swans would be playing in the fountains. For some bizarre reason, that makes me very happy.
Dear Readers, as a break from all the bugs, here is what I think of as the quintessential meadow plant, a deep-blue geranium known as meadow cranesbill. Like so many native plants it has a whole raft of pet names, from ‘Jingling Johnny’ and ‘blue basins’ to ‘grace of God’ and ‘Loving Andrews’. In Iceland it was known as ‘Odin’s flower (blue being the colour of Odin’s robe and eyes) and was said to be used to produce a blue dye, although the method is no longer known. It also has associations with St Andrew of Scotland, hence the ‘Loving Andrews’ vernacular name. In the Isle of Man, the plant is known as “Cass-calmane ghorrym” which means ‘blue-dove’s foot’.
Once, meadow cranesbill popped up in hay meadows all over the country, but today it seems to be restricted to places like the cemetery, where the grass is cut intermittently, and to roadside verges. In the North it shows a marked preference for areas with limestone, but in the South it’s much less choosy.
The centre of the plant gives the name ‘cranesbill’ – the central part becomes upright, producing a ‘beak-like pod’ according to Plantlife.
‘Domesticated’ meadow cranesbill ‘Mrs Kendall Clark (Photo One)
Meadow cranesbill was a garden favourite even before Elizabethan times, and many of our domesticated favourites have some of this species in them. ‘Johnson’s Blue is a hybrid of meadow cranesbill and Himalayan geranium, and you can find other hybrids with white or pink flowers, and even with double flowers (though please don’t, as bees love geraniums but not the ones with complicated flowers).
Johnson’s Blue Geranium (Photo Two)
Apparently, in Northumberland meadow cranesbill is known as ‘thunder flower’, and picking it is said to cause bad weather. I wonder if the deep blue of the flowers reminded people of thunder clouds?
On the plus side, the flower was said to be just the thing to help treat dysentery, cholera, diarrhoea, haemorrhoids and nosebleeds, so it was probably worth taking a chance on a soaking.
Meadow cranesbill, like all species geraniums, is great for wildlife: bumblebees love it, especially buff-tailed and red-tailed bumblebees (though the one in the photo below is on viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) instead).
The leaves are often nibbled upon by the larvae of the geranium sawfly (Ametastegia carpini), who produce slot-shaped holes in the foliage. Sawflies are relatives of the wasps but are not social, and are much weaker fliers. The youngsters can certainly do a fair bit of damage – this leaf looks it’s been lace-ified (if that’s even a word).
Geranium leaf after a visit from geranium sawfly larvae (Photo Four)
And finally, because today is a work day and my back is killing me so I no longer want to sit at my desk, here is a poem. This work, by Thomas Clark, has appeared here before, but there is something so meditative about it, and there is so much in it, that I thought it could do with a repeat airing. It’s worth pausing after each ‘verse’, much as the poem does…
A visit to the island of Colonsay, Inner Hebrides, April 1987
There are other lives we might lead, places we might get to know, skills we might acquire.
When we have put distance between ourselves and our intentions, the sensibility comes awake.
Every day should contain a pleasure as simple as walking on the machair or singing to the seals.
The ripples on the beach and the veins in the rocks on the mountain show the same signature.
When we climb high enough we can find patches of snow untouched by the sun, parts of the spirit still intact.
The grand landscapes impress us with their weight and scale but it is the anonymous places, a hidden glen or a stretch of water without a name, that steal the heart.
The mere sight of a meadow cranesbill can open up a wound.
We live in an age so completely self-absorbed that the ability to simply look, to pour out the intelligence through the eyes, is an accomplishment.
You will require a tune for a country road, for hill walking a slow air.
When I climb down from the hill I carry strands of wool and fronds of bracken on my clothing, small barbs of quiet in my mind.
At dawn and again at dusk we feel most acutely the passing of time but at dawn the world is with us while at dusk we stand alone.
The farther we move from habitation, the larger are the stars.
There is a kind of bagpipe and fiddle music, practiced in a gale, which is full of distance and longing.
A common disease of sheep, the result of cobalt deficiency, is known as ‘pine’.
The best amusement in rain is to sit and watch the clouds negotiate the mountain.
Long silences are as proper in good company as a song on a lonely road.
Let everything you do have the clean edge of water lapping in a bay.
In any prevailing wind there are small pockets of quiet: in a rock pool choked with duckweed, in the lee of a cairn, in the rib-cage of a sheep’s carcass.
When my stick strikes a stone, it is a call to order.
The most satisfying product of culture is bread.
In a landscape of Torridonian sandstone and heather moor, green and gold lichens on the naked rock will ignite small explosions of sensation.
Whatever there is in a landscape emerges if we just sit still.
It is not from novelty but from an unbroken tradition that real human warmth can be obtained, like a peat fire that has been rekindled continuously for hundreds of years.
After days of walking on the moor, shoulders, spine and calves become resilient as heather.
The hardest materials are those which display the most obvious signs of weathering.
We can carry a tent, food, clothing or the world on our shoulders, but how light we feel when we lay them down.
Just to look at a beach of grey pebbles can cool the forehead.
On a small island, the feeble purchase that the land obtains between the sea and the sky, the drifting of mist and the intensity of light, unsettles the intellect and opens the imagination to larger and more liquid configurations.
Although the days should extend in a graceful contour, the hours should not be accountable.
A book of poems in the rucksack – that is the relation of art to life.
On a fine day, up on the heights, with heat shimmering from the rocks, I can stretch out on my back and watch all the distances dance.
The duty of the traveller, wherever he finds himself, is always to keep faith with the air.
We should nurture our own loneliness like an Alpine blossom.
Solitude and affection go well together – to work alone the whole day and then in the evening sit round a table with friends.
To meet another person on a walk is like coming to a river.
In the art of the great music, the drone is eternity, the tune tradition, the performance the life of the individual.
It is on bare necessity that lyricism flourishes best, like a cushion of moss campion on granite.
When the people are gone, and the house is a ruin, for long afterwards there may flourish a garden of daffodils.
The routines we accept can strangle us but the rituals we choose give renewed life.
When the lark sings and the air is still, I sometimes feel I could reach over and take the island in my hand like a stone.