Friday, 24 April 2015

A new obsession

So, following on from my initial encounter with oil beetles at Woodhenge the other week, and the latest article in BBC Wildlife about them, I further consolidated my interest in them through yet another encounter at Martin Down NNR!

I had set out to explore the little patch of the reserve known as Kitt's Grave - it lies across the Blandford road from the main carpark, and consists of a Roman Road, tumuli, patches of chalk grassland, scrub and ancient woodland. With spring very much in the air, I thought it was time to check out what was going on over in this area.

It gets its name from the supposed grave of someone (presumably called Kitt) that was buried on the very point of the woodland, which marks the county boundaries of Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire. It's leased by the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust and managed by Natural England. Management consists of rotation scrub clearance to open up glades for invertebrates and flowers, and the temperature difference is quite noticeable in these microhabitats.

Cowslips were in evidence in the glades, with flowering blackthorn and gorse forming colourful walls alongside all of the paths, some being crossed by oil beetles, shining spectacularly in the sun. They really are beautiful and just so unusual, and coupled with their lifecycle and population declines, I felt quite privileged to see them.

Entering the woodland of ancient old beeches and hazel coppice, the dog's mercury formed carpets of lush green. I've mentioned how it's often overlooked in the past - here, it was almost like it was trying to attract attention! Here and there in patches, other flowers were starting to show off - wood anemone, the diminutive moscatel, dog violet and the first flowers of ramsons and bluebells.

I'll hopefully be back soon to check on the cowslip spectacle on the main part of the reserve, and then it will be peak bluebell time, where I'll head off to the usual haunt of Garston Wood. Trying to fit all of this in around my painting is difficult but a must!

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Visiting Canada

Well, not quite - to Canada Common to be more precise. This is part of The New Forest, right on the edge of the National Park near Wellow. I visited it last week with a friend, who remarked that much of the area used to be potato fields - it's quite amazing how quickly heathland will come back if allowed.

A lot of scrub clearance has been carried out in recent years, as part of a Higher Level Stewardship agreement between Natural England the Wellow Parish Council, allowing the heather and species-rich acid grassland to  move in. The result is a large open area, with a mosaic of habitats, including streams and wetlands. It's also, very handily, in close proximity to a very good pub The Rockingham Arms!

I was interested to read the article on oil beetles in the latest edition of BBC Wildlife - coincidental bearing in mind my recent post on my encounter. I'll certainly be sending my records in.

This leads me onto the general theme of wildlife records, and the need to encourage everyone (not just ecologists) to send them in - they provide valuable evidence (once verified by record centres) to support assessments on planning applications or habitat management. The Wiltshire and Swindon Biological Records Centre (WSBRC) are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, and are holding a competition to see who can send in records of 40 different species  - all those that succeed in entering this number will be entered into a prize draw to win a mini-bioblitz of their local patch - just up our street as local patch reporters!

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Cabin fever

Some might say I chose the perfect week to take off, with glorious sunshine and balmy temperatures. However, as mentioned previously, I am in the middle of a commission to prepare artwork for some nature trail boards, meaning I spent most of the week indoors!

Enjoyable though all that painting is, there comes a point when I just have to get out there - when I can hear the birds singing and see all those insects flying around, it's almost like they're mocking me!

Off to Martin Down I went (of course!) - every year I miss the flowering of the one specimen of the pasque flower on the NNR, as it flowers quite early. Despite my search, I was obviously a bit early - things definitely seem to be slow going this year. Nevertheless, the walk was beautiful and just what I needed to re-motivate me back at the drawing board. The air was alive with the sound of chiffchaffs, chaffinches, tonnes of beautiful yellowhammers, and of course, many, many skylarks. And the flora wasn't too bad either - the gorse is in full bloom, setting off the yellowhammer's plumage rather well, coupled with blackthorn just blossoming (bit slower than other parts of the country, I have noticed), and then there were the violets.

Hairy violets are one of the larval foodplants of the marsh fritillary butterfly (although you won't find this mentioned in the textbooks oddly - instead, they refer to devil's bit scabious and plantain) - you might think that a species with the word 'marsh' in the name would not be found on the down, but you would be wrong. Although it's not a massive population, it is well spread throughout the grassland areas, and you may come across some parts fenced off in a few weeks' time, to prevent damage to larval colonies. It's a beautiful but declining butterfly, and judging by the display of violets, it should be doing well this year.

Now, the down is all grazed down, and most of the sheep removed, ready for the plants to put on a growth spurt and erupt into colourful carpets of blooms - I can't wait to see it all unfurl once more.

Monday, 6 April 2015

No rain on the Plain!

Apologies for appalling cliche!

You may have seen in the news about the evacuated village of Imber in the middle of Salisbury Plain being open this Easter weekend - we've never been organised enough to visit in time, but yesterday we were!

As were many other people - although it was busy, it was still amazing to wander through streets that used to be part of a living, breathing village, prior to 1943 when the MOD said 'ta-ta' to the residents. Visiting St Giles church (lovingly restored a few years ago) was touching - some of the graves surrounding it are relatively recent, as the people living there in the 40s pass on. And the headstones on the older graves, all wonky due to mole activity, were covered in a beautiful collage of lichens. A testament to the excellent air quality (comes from being in the middle of nowhere!)

The drive to Imber is pretty amazing too - it's not every day you get to drive through the largest piece of lowland species-rich grassland in the UK in an active military range - literally, you couldn't see an end to it, either way you looked. It must be beautiful in the summer with all the wildflowers - I really must get out there and explore it a bit more. I usually drive across the Plain (on the public roads!) onto somewhere else - not good enough!

And then today we've just come back from my great little walk to view Stonehenge for free! Now, of course you can do this from your car on the A303 - and in fact, as this was pretty much at a standstill, you would probably have got some good pics. The other option is, of course, to pay for a timed slot via the museum (apparently well worth a look) to see the stones via the land train. Although, for Amesbury residents, with the appropriate pass from the library there, you can get in for free (not so for Salisbury residents, much to my annoyance!).

I had been determined to see the stones for free, and first walked this route over a year ago - it's much more interesting than just paying to visit, I would argue. It starts at Woodhenge (with the post holes marked out by concrete bollards - not the most aesthetically pleasing but free parking! Also much older than Stonehenge and a proper henge!), takes in a dismantled railway via skylark-filled meadows, before crossing the Cursus (over 5000 years old and absolutely massive earth bank - check out an OS map!) with views of the stones getting closer, before finally traversing the end of the Avenue. When they closed the old A344 (that split the stones from the Cursus and Avenue), they turned it over to grass, which is now the only thing separating the low fence of the stones from the walkers. You get great views and get to take in the archaeological landscape, as well as some of the wildlife. On the walk back, again with many skylarks, we bumped into some oil beetles (violet oil beetle apparently) - beautiful glossy bulky beetles, that are so named because they emit pungent oil when alarmed. Apparently, the larvae climb flowers after hatching, and attach themselves to a passing solitary bee, being carried back to their nest, where they develop (feeding on the bee eggs and pollen stores) and become adults. The Buglife website says they have suffered massive population declines in recent years as they depend on healthy populations of their host bees. Fingers crossed the various research initiatives pay off and we can turn this around.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Rain stops play

As the title suggests, all inclinations to venture outdoors last Sunday were halted by much precipitation. On the plus side, it meant I could paint all day and watch the Grand Prix!

I needed to crack on with the nature trail boards I mentioned a few posts ago - I'm taking this week off to blast my way through them all (or at least, a significant proportion!).

I started the Easter weekend with what was supposed to be a picnic in the Cotswolds for a friend's birthday. This was actually partaken inside their house due to yet more rain - actually, judging by the amazing spread, this would have been pretty much impossible to eat as a picnic!

However, soon the rain had stopped, enabling us to start our walk, through the village of Wotton under Edge and up onto the Cotswold Way escarpment. Amazing views to the flat floodplain below, and the hanger woodlands were abloom with primroses, sweet violets and lesser celandines. There was an ever-present scent of wild garlic accompanying us, with carpets of their leaves among the ancient hazel coppice stools. Stopping to catch our breath at the top of the escarpment next to a potato field, we found many brachiopod fossils just lying on the surface - the easiest fossil hunting session ever! And also amazing to think that this far above the current floodplain used to be the bottom of the sea or a lagoon (more likely the latter judging by the species found). We descended back through the village, passing through the churchyard, again, awash with flowers, ending the day with much tea and cake - a perfect way to start the weekend!