The Thurlows

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Nature Notes 2019

September 2019: Now and Then

 

The first conservation body I ever joined was the Essex Bird Watching Society and they have just produced a 70thanniversary reissue of their inaugural annual report of 1949.  (Yes, I was one of their youngest members then …).  It’s just a slim report, lovingly typed out on a real  old-fashioned typewriter (remember them?) and printed on cheap post-war paper.  Compared to the fat, glossy county reports we get nowadays, it’s a poor thing physically.  But there are riches within.   There’s a whole string of records of species that were relatively common then but are now decidedly scarce or entirely absent: whinchat, woodlark, nightingale, turtle dove, spotted flycatcher, tree pipit, willow tit – all familiar birds of my boyhood in the woods and fields around Colchester.  Plus one more species I could actually watch from my bedroom window – a red-backed shrike, which nested in a bramble patch just opposite our house.  Its old country name was ‘butcher bird’, so called from its habit of keeping a larder of beetles and other insects impaled on thorns for a handy snack, and I could watch the grisly action from just yards away.  It’s amazing to think of this now.  Within a few years the red-backed shrike would be extinct as a breeding bird in Britain; and the old bramble patch was long ago grubbed out to build a large housing estate, so the skylarks and yellowhammers in the fields beyond have also gone.  It’s much the same story in Suffolk too, of course.

These devastating losses have been caused in this case not by climate change, which tends to be blamed for everything nowadays, but by more direct human interventions through intensive agriculture, pesticides, pollution, habitat loss and land development. The statistics of this decline are truly staggering, with some 44 million breeding birds lost from the British countryside in the last 50 years. But there are two other striking developments since the 1949 Report, which really arecaused by climate change.  First, we have had some gains as well as losses to our birdlife.  For example, there’s no mention in the 1949 report of little egrets or collared doves, both of which colonised Britain much later but are common throughout the country today – and are likely to be followed by other Mediterranean species that now find our climate more hospitable.  Secondly, there are interesting notes in the report on the arrival dates of various summer migrants, including two warblers that are traditionally among the first to return to Britain from Africa.  The report records the first date for the chiffchaff in 1949 as 31 March, and the first for the blackcap as 17 April.  By contrast, my first record for the chiffchaff this year was 7 March, and for the blackcap 13 March.  They have been getting here earlier and earlier, and indeed some of them have even started to overwinter here.  

If you still need proof of climate change, ask a birdwatcher.

 

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

 

 

August 2019: Return of a native

lavenham spoonieIt’s hard to remember just how recently little egrets have become such a familiar part of our landscapes.  You can’t now walk along a Suffolk seawall without seeing one in a creek or on the marsh, immediately recognisable by that dazzling whiteness – whiter than any detergent advertisement would dare pretend – and those cute yellow feet.  You even get them as far inland as Thurlow sometimes, along the river. Yet they were once prized by birdwatchers as exotic rarities, with the first breeding record in Britain only in 1996 – less than 25 years ago.  And they are being followed here by other exciting water-birds, like great egrets and cattle egrets, all encouraged by global warming to move north from the Mediterranean and colonise our shores.   

But the most impressive of these new immigrants are surely the spoonbills, huge white heron-like birds with extraordinary bills shaped like long ladles, hence the old name of ‘banjo bills’.   They feed by sweeping these from side to side in shallow water, using the ‘spoons’ at the end to trap small water insects and crustaceans, and even fish and frogs.  The bills are beautifully designed for the purpose, with little ridges to help them sift and grip their prey and lots of tactile sensors at the tip to locate food items in muddy water.  And their legs have the refined adaptation of being laterally compressed and flattened so they can wade through water with minimal resistance. Spoonbills also have elaborate courtship displays, with much bowing and the mutual touching and clattering of bills, but they are not the most faithful of couples.  While the males are off gathering sticks for the nest, the females often mate briefly with other partners; as indeed do the males when the females are sitting on eggs. Think of it as a sort of reproductive insurance policy on both sides, strictly for the birds of course.

Spoonbills have been loitering around our Suffolk coasts each summer for years, particularly in secluded places like Havergate Island, and they seem poised to become the next local colonist.  Or in this case a re-colonist.   Spoonbills were common in Britain in the middle ages, when there was even a colony by the Thames at Fulham. And there’s a fascinating wooden carving on the misericords in Lavenham church, featuring a spoonbill (on the right) pecking at some unfortunate man.  The bird on the left is also usually described a spoonbill, but I’m not so sure.  The ‘spoon’ seems to be concave in this case and looks more like the man’s ear; moreover, if you look at the bird’s tail, which seems to be carefully depicted in the form of a drooping bustle of feathers, I wonder if this second bird could instead be another charismatic species once common in the Fens and now also making a come-back, a crane?    Cranes have nested at Wicken Fen this year, so they are getting closer.  Whatever next?  Dalmatian pelicans once nested in the Fens, too …

 

Jeremy Mynott

12 August 2019

 

July 2019: Moth names

If you’re of my generation, you will have some strong memories of the 1960s – whether it’s the Beatles, Mary Quant dresses or some youthful rite of passage… But one thing you may have forgotten is the experience of driving home late at night sixty years ago and finding your windscreen splattered with insects, in particular moths.   You don’t see it now, do you, and the reason is the catastrophic decline in all our insect species, including butterflies and moths.  That’s seriously worrying for the future of the planet, since insects are at the bottom of the food chain on which everything else depends; but what is also sad is that we risk losing, along with the moths, a treasury of the most extraordinary and beautiful names given to any animal group.  How wonderful to know that we have living amongst us such creatures as the Flounced Rustic, Pebble Prominent, Frosted Orange, Willow Beauty, True Lovers’ Knot, Powdered Quaker, Dingy Footman, Tawny Shears and the Setaceous Hebrew Character.  There’s a magic in these names and in trying to picture their owners.  

I’ve just read a lovely new book by Peter Marren, called Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers, which explains how our moths came by these weird and wonderful names and what they all mean.  Take that last tongue-twister, for example, the Setaceous Hebrew Character.  ‘Setaceous’ apparently means ‘bearing a bristle’ and it refers to the white line round the mark on the wing that looks like a ‘character’ in the Hebrew alphabet, the letter nun, as below, which is part of the moth’s wing pattern.

Screenshot 2019 07 20 at 10.39.32

Marren adds the tidbit that ‘A well-known Jewish moth collector, the Baron de Worms, whose thinning hair stood up in stiff tufts, was affectionately known by his fellow moth-hunters by that name’.  I could think of one or two local people one might want to call as ‘flounced rustic’ as well!  There’s a wealth of such charming anecdotes and surprising information in the book.  Did you know which is the only moth to be named after a character in the Bible, the only butterfly to be named after a woman, and which two moths are named after the city of Manchester? Nor did I, but they’re all in there.  Could be useful knowledge if you’re a pub-quizzer.

The scientific names are just as extraordinary as the English ones. How about Amphipyra tragopoginis‘fire-flier with a goat’s beard’ (the mouse moth) or Lacanobia thassalina‘sea-green vegetable eater’ (the pale-shouldered brocade).  Most of these Latin designations were assigned in the eighteenth century by the great Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, who was described as ‘a poet who happened to become a naturalist’. 

What’s more, despite the national decline in moth numbers we still have all these species locally, so you can take a trip back to the sixties in your own garden if you have a moth trap.

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

15 July 2019

 

June 2019: Conservation politics

I see that Chris Packham has raised the controversial question of whether we should cull deer to help protect nightingales.  What – do deer attack nightingales and kill them? No, not directly, of course. What’s true is that the deer population in Britain has exploded in recent years.  There are now an estimated two million deer at large in Britain’s countryside – the highest numbers for over a thousand years.  There are now no natural predators here like bears, wolves or lynx to keep them in check and the numbers of our native roe, red and fallow deer have exploded and have also have been augmented in recent years by various introduced species like muntjacs and Chinese water deer.   And all these deer are eating away the understory of trees and bushes in our woodlands on which nightingales and other songbirds crucially depend for cover. Nightingale numbers are in free-fall anyway.  We have already lost over 90% of the population from various causes and the deer may be finally pushing them over the edge.  Surely we couldn’t bear to lose this iconic species, that ‘singest of summer in full-throated ease’, as Keats put it?  On the other hand, could you look into Bambi’s soft brown eyes and pull that trigger yourself?  

Nature conservation presents us with many such dilemmas and choices.  We know that badgers and hedgehogs can’t coexist, for example.  They are both favourite characters in countless children’s books, but I’m afraid Mr Brock kills and eats Mrs Tiggy-Winkle whenever he can catch her.  Whose side do we take and why? We prefer red squirrels (Squirrel Nutkin) to the grey ones (aka ‘tree rats’)  – so much prettier and cuter.  The greys were introduced into Britain from North America in the 1800s and have progressively displaced all ‘our’ red ones by a combination of brute force and pox (‘oversized, oversexed and over here’ again).  So, should we perhaps re-introduce some lovely pine martens from Scotland to predate the greys, which the martens find easier to catch than the reds?  But, whoops, hang on – pine martens kill young chickens and pheasants too and take all manner of wild birds’ eggs, so perhaps they are best left up North? 

Introductions can go badly wrong anyway – just think of the disaster of taking rabbits to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788.  They bred – well, like rabbits – and caused untold damage to the environment and to crops.  Do you remember coypus?  This huge South American rodent was introduced into England to be farmed for its fur last century, but some were let into the wild and they started destroying the river banks and water systems and had to be expensively eradicated.  And are the Americans glad to have the two hundred million starlings that derive from the eighty pairs from England released in Central Park in 1890? 

How do we decide such questions anyway?  Is it a matter of sentimental human preferences, charisma, perceived beauty, economic interests, nationalism or what?  Someone should write a book about it …

 

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

8 June 2019 

 

May 2019: Changing places

This month’s Nature Note comes from New York.  What?  Nature in New York, the ultimate concrete jungle? Well, yes, there are jungles within jungles even here.  I used to work in NY once and my local birdwatching patch there was Central Park, which is alive with wildlife of all kinds. This was a sentimental return visit.  Central Park is over two miles long by half a mile across, so about the same size as my local patch in Thurlow – and the two have more in common than you might think. 

Central Park was created in the 1860s by two landscape architects of genius, Olmsted (an American) and Vaux (an Englishman, who actually invented the term ‘landscape architect’).  The area had been a sort of swamp before then, ‘a pestilential spot’, said Olmsted, ‘where rank vegetation and miasmatic odours taint every breath of air’) and they proceeded to recreate it completely, according to their manifesto that ‘the Park throughout should be a single work of art’.  They employed some 3,000 labourers (mostly Irish) and shifted one billion cubic feet of earth.  They introduced lakes, hills, rocks, streams, meadows, gardens and woodlands, all designed to create a green sanctuary within the city.  They planned it with human visitors in mind, but it didn’t take long for the birds to find it as well, and for two main reasons.

First, NYC is right on the flyway for the thousands of birds migrating between their summer homes in New England and Canada and their winter quarters further south. Every spring, tired migrants gratefully pause to rest and refuel in Central Park, which from the air must seem like an oasis in a concrete desert.  Secondly, the Park offers a great range of habitats: lakes and streams for wildfowl and water-birds; woodland for all manner of American thrushes, warblers, tanagers and vireos; thickets for owls and catbirds; mature trees for woodpeckers, flickers and sapsuckers; vantage points for raptors; and even a few paved areas for urban refugees like starlings and house sparrows. Starlings were introduced to America when 40 pairs were released in Central Park in 1890, on the initiative of one Eugene Schieffelin, who had the absurd ambition of introducing to America all the 60 or so birds mentioned in Shakespeare. The starlings and the sparrows flourished, but the nightingale and most others failed (and what he did about the ostrich and the phoenix isn’t recorded…).

You can see 100 different species here in a day in the spring, well over 200 in the course of a year, which compares very well with the countryside round Thurlow.  The other thing I like is the familiarity.  I knew just where I would find American robins on the Great Lawn, palm warblers by Willow Rock and buffleheads in the corner of the Reservoir. There was even a rare bird in the Ramble, a yellow-breasted chat, in which the drug-pushers were taking a proprietorial interest (‘It’s over there, second bush on the left, and would you be wanting anything else, Sir?”).

 

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

9 May 2019  

 

April 2019: Welcome migrants

April and May are the great months for travel in the natural world. For centuries people have used the comings and goings of birds as a sort of seasonal calendar.  As the Song of Solomon has it in the Old Testament, ‘For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.  The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land’.  Well, the lovely ‘voice of the turtle’ (that is, the turtle dove) isn’t much heard in this land now, and the prophet would be lucky to find one in Thurlow this year.  I used to think of the turtle dove as the sound-track of summer, with that lovely purring song, but the numbers have declined so precipitously in recent years and we’ve lost over 95% of our turtle doves in a generation.  But the general point is true.  Bird migration has long been a source of wonder, particularly its regularity.  I’ve been recording the arrival dates of summer visitors like the chiffchaff, swallow, cuckoo and swift (usually in that order) for over three decades, and although the dates have been getting steadily earlier with climate change, I still look out for particular birds on particular days each spring and welcome them like old friends, with a mixture of familiarity and relief.  It’s a bit like those airport announcements, ‘The 12 April Swallows from Cape Town have just arrived on time at the Great Thurlow Barn’.

But it isn’t just birds that make these huge and hazardous journeys.  Lots of butterflies and other insects do, too.  Most of the red admirals and painted ladies we see here in the summer have migrated from the continent, sometimes in huge numbers.  I well remember the extraordinary summer day in 2009 when painted ladies poured in off the sea on the Suffolk coast in what seemed like a continuous stream for hours on end.  It’s estimated that over ten million of them crossed the channel into Britain that day and they were everywhere.  Some moths migrate, as well, and we are just learning some remarkable facts about how they manage it.  The Silver Y moths, for example, one of our common summer migrant moths, can choose exactly the right altitude at which to fly to catch the most favourable tail-winds and can even orient their tiny bodies in the best direction to compensate for cross-winds.  Incredibly, they can sometimes fly faster this way than migrating birds like warblers crossing at the same time.  Ladybirds have also been recorded migrating at great heights – sometimes as high as 1,100 metres.  And marmalade hoverflies (what a great name) arrive in their millions every summer, to perform a wonderful pest-control service in your gardens where their larvae consume literally trillions of aphids.  And they do it for free.

 

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

18 April 2019 

 

 

March 2019: Connections

You know that BBC programme, Only Connect, where brainy panellists have to guess the unlikely connections between quite different words.  Well, here’s a free suggestion for a tricky question: what’s the connection between cows, beetles and partridges?  

Starting with cows, then. Cows have been blamed for a serious contribution to global warming through their massive emissions of methane gas. That comes from both ends, so to speak –belching and flatulence.  Apparently, a cow can produce some 50 gallons of methane a day, and since methane is over twenty times as powerful as the carbon emissions we hear so much about, and there are some 16 million cows in Britain, you can see (and often hear) the scale of the problem.  In New Zealand, which has much more livestock than we do, there was even talk a few years back of a ‘flatulence tax’ to help save the planet.  But I recently read a scientific article with the splendid title, ‘In praise of cowpats’, which makes a rather different point.  Cowpats feed a host of insects.  Masses of flies and beetles arrive within minutes of a fresh, glistening cowpat hitting the ground; these are followed by legions of others as the pat matures, decays and is eventually pulled underground by worms and dung beetles, so contributing to rich new plant growth. Each pat in open pasture produces some 1,000 developing insects this way – so with an average output of six pats a day that’s 6,000 insects a day or over 2 million a year.

And we now know how crucial insects are to the whole chain of animal and plant life.  They pollinate plants, provide food for birds and mammals, and are crucial to human agriculture and food supplies.  It’s been estimated that if all the world’s insects were ever to disappear humanity would only last a few months and the earth would eventually become a vast compost heap, supporting only a gigantic blooming of fungi.  But we also know that insects are themselves under great threat. A recent study in Germany revealed a 75% decline in insects since 1989 – and that was in German Nature Reserves! This is largely a consequence not of climate change but of habitat loss and the pesticides with which we drench the land; and that in turn explains why many farmland birds have declined so sharply. 

Which brings me to the third element in my quiz question: the grey partridge, whose numbers in Britain have declined by a staggering 90% in a single generation.  Wild grey partridges were once common in the East Anglian countryside, but the ones you see around here now tend to be released birds, though there are plenty of red-legged partridges. Now – I’m getting to it at last – the scientific name of the grey partridge is perdix, so called because the whirring sound of a covey of partridge taking flight was thought similar to the natural human process described by the ancient Greek verb perdomaimeaning ‘to break wind’. So there you have it.  Not many people know that. 

 

Jeremy Mynott

16 March 2019 

 

 

February 2019: Changing diets

Did you make any New Year resolutions about diet?  Still keeping to them? Thought not, so take a tip from wildlife.  Some species have remarkable ways of changing their diets to suit the season – and in particular to get them through the winter.  As the days get darker and colder in autumn insects become much scarcer, so blackbirds, blue tits, starlings and other insect-eaters go vegan and switch to alternative sources of energy like seeds, nuts and berries.  A good example for us, if you believe all those diet books.  

But other species take more extreme measures you’re unlikely to want to imitate.  There’s a bird called a bearded tit, for example – a real misnomer, since (a) it isn’t bearded (it has a nice black moustache) and (b) it’s unrelated to the blue tits and great tits you see on your bird-table.  Bearded tits breed in large reed-beds like those at Minsmere and Walberswick, but they range more widely in winter.  I’ve seen them a few times on the Suffolk coast, feeding – rather incongruously – at the roadsides.  What they were doing was swallowing gravel and tiny stones, which they store in their crops to help them crush and digest the seeds they’d been harvesting from bulrush heads.  It’s a sort of DIY grinding machine. Their waists and weights expand accordingly over the winter period.

Shrews go even further.  They can’t hibernate and switch off, but need to feed continuously and therefore have to take quite drastic measures.  The organ that absorbs most of their energy budget is the brain, so they re-absorb that and literally shrink their heads to reallocate resources. The scientific name of this strategy is known as Dehnel’s phenomenon. As a solution to a critical problem it’s a no-brainer, you might say. Come spring, if the shrews have survived, they just grow their brains again. Don’t try this at home, but ‘going to see a shrink’ may take on a whole new meaning for you.

The most extreme solution of all is practised by various moths. The December moth, for example, is so called because it’s one of the few flying at that time of year. But in its earlier form it fattens itself up as a caterpillar, over-indulging as if it’s Christmas lunch every day. And when it later emerges as a plump moth from its chrysalis stage into chilly winter, with no nectar or sap to feed on, it just lives off its accumulated fat … and then dies.  Adults are physically incapable of feeding, so that’s it.  No Plan B and not much of a life, you might think.  But it does at least get to mate and deposit some eggs to ensure the next generation.  Whether as a moth it remembers its happy childhood seems unlikely, but that’s metamorphosis for you.

I think humans tend to put on a little weight in the winter as well – to cheer themselves up and add a little insulation, but you can always revive your resolution and change your diet again in the spring.  Life goes on.

 

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

12 February 2019

 

January 2019: Berried alive

HawthornI’ve never seen the hawthorn bushes so laden with berries as this year.  If you walk along the lanes you’ll see the lines of ancient hawthorns stippled in scarlet like a pointilliste painting.  The haw of the hawthorn is the red oval cup, technically called a pome (not to be confused with the acronym P.O.M.E.  ‘Prisoner of Mother England’, originally used of inmates deported to Australia – just in case you’re doing any pub quizzes).  The hawthorn belongs, somewhat surprisingly, to the large rose family, which also includes rowan, blackthorn, damson, apple and cherry, as well of course the rose itself, all of which have similar pomes encasing their seeds.  The word ‘haw’ comes from the old-English haga-berige, meaning hedge-berry, and the trees are an ancient part of our landscapes.  There are more references to hawthorns in the Anglo-Saxon charters than to any other tree and hawthorns are also the trees most often encoded in English place-names, like Hawstead.  But it wasn’t until the parliamentary Enclosures of the 18thand 19thcenturies, when some 200,000 miles of these ‘quick-thorns’ were planted, that they marked the rectilineal geometry of our field boundaries in such abundance.  

In spring, of course, this is the May tree (the only tree that shares its name with a month), and last spring was notable for the billowing clouds of white blossom that graced our hedgerows everywhere.  I met a lady on a walk in Thurlow recently who asked me if I believed the old country saying that a heavy berry crop presages a hard winter. In fact, I fancy that the causation works the other way around, and that the foaming bridal display in spring is now being realised in this wonderful, winter fruitfulness.  I doubt the hawthorn can make long-range weather forecasts any better than the BBC can … 

Any tree as ancient and charismatic as the hawthorn is bound to present itself today not just as a biological species but also as a cultural icon, trailing a comet’s tail of myth, fable and folklore.  The hawthorn’s red berries, like those of the holly, speak of dark rites involving blood and sacrifice. But they can be positive omens, too: Joseph of Arimathea, leaving Jerusalem after the crucifixion, is supposed to have travelled to Britain and struck his staff into the ground at Glastonbury, whence it burst into a sacred thorn tree that has for centuries flowered in the nativity season; and every Christmas a sprig from its descendants is still sent to the Queen as a symbol of renewal.  And these same berries are providing a rich larder for all the winter thrushes – redwings, fieldfares and blackbirds – that have migrated here from northern Europe to escape the hard weather.  Let’s hope these little beasties from the East don’t bring it with them this year.

 

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage

 

 

 

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