Herbert’s Meadow – a hidden wildlife hotspot

The hay is cut – a bittersweet moment in the year of the meadow. The thick, tangled sward, the riot of colour from grasses, herbs and rushes all jostling for space suddenly lie flat, to be dried by the summer sun and become sweet hay. The cattle responsible for conservation grazing across Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust’s reserves now have a good store of hay to tide them over throughout the winter months.

After hay cutting at Herbert's Meadow
After hay cutting at Herbert’s Meadow

This is an important and essential part of meadow management: without cutting or grazing, grasses become overly vigorous and smother the growth of delicate wildflowers. Hay meadows are the ultimate sustainable food source: growing each year with minimum input, they used to be the most important parcels of land on the farm. Consuming meat and dairy products from animals fed on native grasses and herbs (rather than grain) has significant health benefits, with increased omega-3, vitamins A and E and healthy fatty acids which can support the heart and immune system (1). Our modern intensive farming model isn’t good for us, the animals or the environment.

Herbert’s Meadow is one of the best places to see orchids in Leicestershire

The hay in question is from Herbert’s Meadow: a gem of a meadow in Leicestershire, part of the Ulverscroft Valley Site of Special Scientific Interest. At 4 hectares, it is quite small in area, but more than makes up for this with its wealth of biodiversity. It holds the title of being the most species-rich field in Leicestershire. Luckily I live very close by, so have had the chance to visit the meadow on many occasions throughout the year.

Devil’s-bit scabious covers the meadow in late summer

Over winter the meadow can appear to be the same as any old field, but on closer inspection the basal leaves of many different plant species are there, waiting for the turn of the seasons. In June, the first flowers appear and begin to paint the meadow with colour. At this time of year, the grass height is slightly lower, allowing the beautiful orchids to be observed in all their glory.

Hundreds of orchids carpet the meadow: upright spikes of various shades of pink and purple, with a fantastic array of petals patterned with dots, streaks and spots. Common spotted and heath spotted orchids and their hybrids can be seen, with amazing diversity of pattern: I don’t think two orchids look exactly alike. Another speciality on show is the fragrant orchid. These beautiful orchids have bright, shimmering pink flowers, with a rich, sweet scent. The combined elements of the flower’s long spur and its scent increasing in intensity at dusk both indicate the method of pollination: moths! (2).

Fragrant Orchid

The earliest meadow species to flower include quaking grass, red clover, hawkbits, meadow buttercup, yellow rattle, pignut, germander speedwell, ribwort plaintain and crested dog’s tail. Wetter areas of the meadow have patches of bugle, cuckoo flower and ragged robin growing amongst the rushes.

Quaking grass

Traditionally, hay meadows would begin to be cut from mid-June onwards: the herbs and grasses are at their most nutritious when in flower. In today’s landscape, hay meadows are small and fragmented, meaning that the hay cut can result in the sudden disappearance of a vast floral resource. This year, Herbert’s Meadow was cut late in the summer with a wide strip left around the edges; something I’m sure the local pollinators thrived upon. Historically, hay meadows could account for between a quarter and a third of land use on farmland (3). Having lost 97% of our meadows, it is an impoverished landscape that many species struggle to reside in today.

An insect’s eye view of the sward

Later on in June, other plants become more prominent, such as betony, bird’s-foot trefoil, common sorrel and oxeye daisy. Marsh thistle sprouts here and there, an important flower for pollinators to visit, being one of the top nectar-producing plants of all of our wildflowers. The flowers are complemented by the presence of woodland and scrub surrounding the meadow. From a pollinator’s perspective, there are abundant resources throughout the seasons: willow trees for the first nectar and pollen of spring, lesser celandine and bluebells to follow and bramble flowers as summer sets in.

The trees and shrubs surrounding Herbert’s Meadow also host a wealth of wildlife

Looking closely at the flowers one sunny day, I saw a flash of brilliant turquoise: I had found a forester moth! Relatively rare in Leicestershire, these day-flying beauties are found in a cluster of locations in the Charnwood Forest, but a few years can pass without seeing them in some places, such as Herbert’s meadow. This was my first forester of the year; I was lucky enough to find two more individuals at Herbert’s meadow and another two at the nearby Priory Pasture SSSI. Forester moths have a local distribution, with their colonies being vulnerable to habitat destruction and fragmentation. One of its foodplants is common sorrel, an abundant plant across the county; however this beautiful moth is declining in many places. Loss of the extent and connectivity of flower-rich habitats is largely to blame, additionally; the forester may be more vulnerable overwintering as a larva in over-grazed habitats.

Forester moth – this one is a female because of the thin antennae

As July comes around, the earlier spring plants give way to others. Common knapweed, great burnet, greater bird’s-foot trefoil, meadowsweet and devil’s-bit scabious cover the meadow. The sward takes on a purplish haze as bent grasses flower, their open panicles creating a soft, misty effect and obscuring some of the shorter plants. Evidence of the larger animals that visit the meadow can be scarce: the scat of a badger here, the smell of a fox there… although once I did spot a weasel in the grass!

Betony and greater bird’s-foot trefoil

We had reached high summer, and peak time for bees and butterflies! On a warm, sunny day I walked around just over half of Herbert’s Meadow to conduct a survey for Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count. In 15 minutes, I had spotted 12 species of butterfly and moth and 81 individuals in total: a fantastic result. Noticing the abundance of bees that I couldn’t count at the same time as the butterflies, I walked back around again and counted 216 bees in just over 40 minutes. The meadow was absolutely buzzing with bees feeding on knapweed, marsh thistle, betony and bird’s-foot trefoil. As well as these eye-catching pollinators, many more insects fill the meadow with life throughout the summer months, including beetles, flies, hoverflies, dragonflies, crickets, grasshoppers and spiders.

Buff tailed bumblebee feeding on betony

Late summer and the meadow isn’t quite finished yet. Being such a botanically diverse grassland, there are plants flowering from spring all the way through to the autumn. Devil’s-bit scabious colours the meadow a beautiful shade of purple in August: one of my favourite flowers that persists until quite late in the year. The only problem I find is its name: it doesn’t sound particularly appealing, having been named after its stubby roots that were supposedly bitten off by the Devil who was angered by the plant’s medicinal properties. I think a more appropriate name for the plant would be something like ‘Meadow Button’, which sums the plant up nicely!

Red admirals on devil’s-bit scabious flowers

Beautiful hay fields such as Herbert’s Meadow were once common across our countryside. Sadly, sites such as this are tiny and scattered across the landscape. The hard work of organisations such as the Wildlife Trust ensures these habitats are managed appropriately so that they can continue to thrive into the future. Sometimes I wonder if it is enough to cling on to these small pieces of a much bigger puzzle: I believe that to truly strive to conserve special habitats, we must try to expand them where possible. If money were no object, how wonderful it would be to start transforming the adjacent arable fields using green hay techniques (to preserve plants best adapted to local conditions) to create even more wildflower meadows.

References

  1. Wilding (2018) Isabella Tree, Picador
  2. Biological Flora of the British Isles: Gymnadenia conopsea s.l. (2012) Meekers et al. Journal of Ecology
  3. Meadows (2017) George Peterken, Bloomsbury Natural History

My visit to Birdfair

At the weekend I visited Birdfair at Rutland Water for the first time. This is the 31st year of Birdfair, raising money for species in Cambodia, including three species of critically endangered vultures and the metre-tall Giant ibis.

Books, leaflets and other things from Birdfair 2019

The event covers much more than just birds, encompassing other animals and the rest of the natural world.

I started the day by attending a talk in the author’s forum about a book called ‘The Missing Lynx’ by Ross Barnett. The book covers the fantastic species that have been lost from Britain, some a few thousand years ago, some more recently. Contemplating giant cave lions, cave hyenas and woolly mammoths roaming the historic British and European landscape is an exciting thought, but a sobering one when we consider the reasons for their disappearance.

It is no mere coincidence that the extinction of many large animals occurs when humans colonise landmasses and islands. Cave bear fossils have been found with flint arrowheads piercing their bones and woolly mammoths disappeared from the fossil record when humans arrived on their island homes.

Ross concluded with the hope that we can remember what we have lost and try and restore species that can fit into our modern landscape, such as beavers.

I walked around some of the nearby marquees after this, looking at the beautiful garden display by the Butterfly Brothers and seeing some interesting moths and caterpillars up close at the Butterfly Conservation stand.

The Butterfly Brother’s garden display

I was astounded by the number and diversity of places to visit: the majority of stands were showcasing exciting locations to see birds and other wildlife. Peru, Ghana, Estonia, Iceland, Australia, Ecuador, Sri Lanka, Portugal, Japan… so many places with fantastic bird life and biodiversity.

What struck me was how important eco-tourism is to many of these countries. Talking to someone from Costa Rica Birding Hotspots, I was interested to learn that tourism accounts for over half of the Costa Rican economy. This small country has over 50% of its land covered in rainforest and contains 10% of all the birds in the world!

Whilst some conservationists may wish to avoid flying to reduce their environmental impacts, it is essential to these places that tourists continue to visit and cherish their natural capital. If it pays to retain nature, countries will strive to protect it.


This idea was discussed by Jeremy Purseglove in his author’s forum talk about his book ‘Working with Nature’. Using examples from around the world, he explained how preserving native species and natural habitats is key to some people’s livelihoods. For example, in Africa, shea nut trees are protected, as the bountiful harvests of nuts they produce attract a good price from the cosmetics industry. Additionally, cocoa plants only thrive in the shade, therefore maintaining healthy forest systems also benefits the cocoa farmers. Jeremy brought the theme home as he talked about his work restoring waterways in the UK. However, there is still a lot of work to be done, requiring more urgent action: in many places we aren’t working with nature, but losing species, degrading habitats and threatening our the health of our soil and water.


Common buzzard

If you are a wildlife enthusiast, there are plenty of celebrities to see at Birdfair. I just had to buy a print from Richard Lewington, the illustrator of so many of my natural history books. Identifying moths, butterflies and bees has been made so much easier with his beautifully detailed and accurate illustrations. In the end I settled for a painting of a noble chafer beetle, but it was a difficult choice!

I also saw Chris Packham signing copies of his book. Having already read ‘Fingers in the sparkle jar’, I took the opportunity to ask a question regarding his current campaign to see the end of driven grouse shooting. I have read how there can be greater success of ground-nesting birds on grouse moors where predators are controlled. Chris outlined the broader issues of ground-nesting birds such as curlews struggling in the wider landscape, due to land mismanagement and habitat destruction. Grouse moors don’t keep records of the amount of predators killed and also shoot some declining species such as golden plover. He said that if driven grouse shooting ceased, the moors would still need managing (obviously tailored to benefit wildlife) and that the current management has far more negative impacts than positive.

One of the highlights for me was watching the bird-ringing demonstrations. I haven’t done any bird ringing for some time, so it was interesting to watch and get to release a blue tit and great tit. The majority of the catch at this time of year is great tit and blue tit fledglings: it appears they have had quite a productive season this year.

Starling

At the end of the day I attended a talk about conserving predators in Kenya by the Kenya Wildlife Trust. Recognised as keystone and umbrella species, the conservation of animals such as lions, hyenas, leopards and cheetahs protects the other species that are part of the ecosystem. The Trust are working to try and reverse the declines of these amazing carnivores.

Education and incentives for the local community are key to reducing human-animal conflicts. Again, tourism is an influencing factor here: visitors want to see exciting large predators, so it is worthwhile for conservancies to try and maintain healthy populations of them. As well as gathering data on key species, the Trust helps to provide improved healthcare for local communities, takes local schoolchildren on safari trips and provides scholarship programmes to educate locals about their native wildlife. Working with the community is key to ensuring that the protection of predators can be in everyone’s interest.


My day at Birdfair began with a vision of a world we have lost, of fascinating species now extinct. Appreciating what we still have, taking steps to learn about it and protect it is how my day concluded. I hope that we can avoid living in a world where all we know of some of our birds, elephants and lions is from pictures and words.

 

Over the sea to Skye

In May I visited the Isle of Skye. Located in the Northwest of Scotland, its Norse name means ‘Misty Isle’. The weather changes quickly on the island, cloud turning to mist to clear skies, then rain as it blows in from the sea. The island has some interesting geology and ecology shaped by the elements. Rocks as old as 3,000 million years old can be found on Skye, with ice sheets sculpting the island only 12,000 years ago.

View over Skye from the Old Man of Storr

Every part of Skye had a different character: driving around the island would take you from quiet wooded corners to bleak, expansive moors; sheltered, rocky coves to brooding mountains. We explored a good part of the island, but it would take so much longer than a week to see all the wonders Skye has to offer.

Violets, ferns and lichens on the heathland

My first explorations were of the heathlands next to our little crofter’s cottage. The scent of the peaty earth with the salty tang of the sea filled the air as I walked over a carpet of colourful but tiny wildflowers: yellow tormentil, vivid purple heath milkwort, bright pink marsh lousewort and delicate white eyebright. In sheltered areas, there were bluebells flowering, with foxgloves, heath spotted orchids, wood sage and dog violets springing up. Heather, bog myrtle and bilberry formed low scrub, lightly grazed by sheep and cattle. Goat willow was springing up in boggy parts, providing a refuge for aptly named willow warblers, singing their beautiful descending song.

Early marsh orchid
Tormentil, Heath milkwort and Marsh lousewort on the heathland

It was a delight to hear one cuckoo, then another and another. Cuckoos became a regular feature of our time on the island, with one cuckoo waking us up as a personal alarm clock every morning. On a couple of occasions, I witnessed cuckoos being chased by alarmed meadows pipits: these feisty birds weren’t prepared to let their nests be parasitised!


Bluebells were an interesting feature on Skye: relics of a time when more of the island was wooded, with swathes of deep purple painting areas of hill and coast. Along the western edge of Scotland, the woodlands receive so much moisture that the trees are laden with mosses and lichen, thriving in the clean, pure air. A trip to Dunvegan castle showcased a variety of habitats, from wild sea lochs, to lush woodland, to cultivated walled gardens. I liked how the plants grown in the walled gardens were the same as those grown in 19th Century, for food, medicine, fibres and other uses.

Looking out over the loch by Dunvegan Castle

The Old Man of Storr had an eerie, ancient feel, with the rock stacks shrouded in swirling misty clouds. A solitary raven broke the silence as it appeared through the gloom. Despite the other visitors that had climbed up to see them, there was still a sense of peace and solitude. The distinctively shaped rocks are volcanic in origin and sculpted by the wind; fragments of rock I picked up showed the crystallisation process of the basalt geodes.

Old Man of Storr

The Cuillin mountains can be elusive things: on an overcast day, their peaks are masked by cloud, revealing nothing of the grandeur beneath. We were lucky enough to have a couple of days where the mountains glowed in the sun: steep, jagged and crumbling slopes, running with scree. Coming from the relatively flat landscape of the East Midlands, having mountains on the horizon framed so many beautiful views around Skye.

The Cuillin mountains

Coral Beach is an expanse of bleached white maërl: fragments of what is actually a type of seaweed that coats the seabed, providing shelter for a variety of wildlife. Inquisitive seals popped their heads up to watch us from the beach as seabirds including black guillemots and gannets flew low over the sea. The water was beautifully clear and turquoise and would be lovely to swim in were it not so cold at this time of year! This is one of the few places that you can see cows on the beach: they graze the grasslands by the beach and also feed on nutritious seaweed. It was so beautiful here I had to return on our last day, for one more look in the rockpools!

Coral beach

The rockpools on Skye reflect the clear, clean waters of this part of the world, with a wealth of species of seaweed furnishing the pools. Wherever I see them, I am irresistibly led towards rockpools, and enjoyed the crabs, blennies, prawns, whelks, sea urchins, anemones and starfish I found there. Even Toby the dog enjoyed watching a hermit crab come out of its shell!

Rockpools by the ruins of Duntulm Castle

A trip to Talisker Bay led us through a small patch of woodland, unusual on the island. I saw a starling nest in the hole of a sycamore tree, the starling imitating a crow before entering to feed to chicks, perhaps to throw predators off the scent?

The sand on the beach was a blend of bright white contrasted with dark volcanic grains of sand, thrown together and speckled with shocking pink seaweed. Gazing towards the horizon at the rolling waves, I was astounded to see one dolphin leap out of the water, then another. Two bottlenose dolphins moved across the bay, giving us glimpses of their fins and breaching again, before disappearing, possibly in pursuit of prey. Seeing wild dolphins is a breath-taking moment, an exhilarating view of an animal so familiar yet so alien.

Bottlenose dolphin at Talisker Bay

Returned to their ancestral homes, the White tailed eagles and Golden eagles are some of the most special species to see in Scotland. We were lucky to witness a few individuals soaring around the island, but had our best views on a boat trip from Portree. A pair of White-tailed eagles had created a nest in young trees clinging to the edge of a rocky outcrop over the Sound of Raasay. Enticed by fish thrown from the boat, an eagle took off from his lookout spot and glided effortlessly over the water to scoop his prize on hooked talons.

We saw the same performance from another younger individual, but the eagles won’t always come to the fish if they aren’t hungry, allowing the gulls to fight over it. They are such magnificent birds and it was a privilege to see them and their hidden-away nest, safe from people and predators.

White tailed eagle perched on a cliff

Carnivorous plants are a speciality of the boggy heathland habitats found on Skye. Growing in such harsh, acidic conditions, plants such as sundews and butterworts have evolved to source essential nutrients from small insects that get caught on their sticky tendrils and leaves. Tiny, but beautiful, these amazing plants are well worth looking out for.

Round-leaved sundew

We visited the Fairy Pools in the evening, as the low sun lit up the water and the mountains. A tributary of the River Brittle, the stream runs down from the Cuillins above into a series of clear blue waterfalls and pools. The rushing water had carved and smoothed the rocks into fantastic shapes in some places and formed small gorges in others. At the top of the walk, the stream falls over a perfect crescent-shaped plateau of rocks, almost as if someone had designed a water feature. On the walk back down, the pools formed a stream of silver by the setting of the sun.

The Fairy Pools

I’m sure we will return one day to the Isle of Skye, a very special and beautiful place.

On The Origin of Species – A Summary

One of the most important books for an ecologist to read must be Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’. Published in 1859, it was the result of years of developing ideas, experimenting and researching by Darwin. The previous year, the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace wrote to him with the same concept of natural selection. After announcing their joint theory at the Linnean Society, Darwin was finally pushed into action to publish his ideas. The resulting book, whilst only thought of as an abstract by Darwin, is very interesting; ground-breaking, thought-provoking and still relevant today.

Unfortunately one of our most important scientists is no longer on our bank notes.

The book opens discussing ‘Variations under Domestication’ and the many examples of selective breeding of domestic animals. Looking at the different breeds of dogs, horses, pigeons and plants, the accumulative actions of selection become clear. Darwin noted how throughout history, many cultures and civilisations domesticated animals and plants for their own benefit, from the ancient Chinese to the Romans.

‘We cannot suppose that all the breeds were suddenly produced as perfect and as useful as we now see them…the key is man’s power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him.’

So what of variations under nature? Questioning whether the principles of domestic selection applied to wild plants and animals, Darwin first wanted to establish whether they are subject to variation. Noting how individuals of any species possess slight individual differences, there must be the capacity for these characteristics to accumulate in a particular direction. He found that the most abundant species in the larger genera have a lot of variation and are most likely to evolve into other new species. Deeply appreciative of the natural world, Darwin argued how natural selection is much superior to ‘man’s feeble efforts.’ After all, human attempts at selective breeding have to start with an organic being already equipped with many well-adapted characteristics for their place in nature.

‘We see beautiful co-adaptations most plainly in the woodpecker and mistletoe… in the structure of the beetle which dives through the water; in the plumed seed which is wafted by the gentlest breeze; in short, we see beautiful adaptations everywhere and in every part of the organic world.’

Beautifully adapted: an Acorn Woodpecker

In his ‘Struggle for Existence’ chapter, Darwin described the processes that regulate populations of species:

 ‘Every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period of its life; that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or old, during each generation or at recurrent intervals. Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little, and the number of species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount.’


Darwin studied many species including bumblebees and observed how red clover relied on bumblebees for pollination; concluding that red clover would go extinct if bumblebees did too. Another of his thoughts on the interconnectedness of different species was how bumblebees were more common in areas where cats were present due to their predation of mice, which themselves can predate bumblebee nests. If only bumblebee abundance today could be quite so simple!

A male Early Bumblebee – male bumblebees have evolved to have no sting.

In the chapter entitled ‘Natural Selection’, Darwin explains how slight modifications brought about by natural variation could tip the scales in favour of the individual if it was advantageous to it:

‘This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection.’

He discussed interesting examples of wolves and deer; how the swiftest wolf would survive, and concerning flowers and bees; how each would become gradually modified to benefit the plant and pollinator. Darwin noted how there were no examples of species evolving beneficial characteristics for other species, unless they were of use to the individual in the first place.

‘Though nature grants vast periods of time for the work of natural selection, she does not grant an indefinite period; for as all organic beings are striving, it may be said, to seize on each place in the economy of nature, if any one species does not become modified and improved in a corresponding degree with its competitors, it will soon be exterminated.’

Darwin discussed the concept of ecological niches (though this term was yet to be invented) as he noted how it was advantageous for species in a region to be diverse, adapted to fulfil a particular role. Observing an area of turf 3 x 4ft in size, Darwin saw that it supported 20 species of plant belonging to 18 genera: a fitting example of how, though diversification of structure, so many different plants could co-exist in a small area. Only by occupying a specific niche can an abundance of species live so close together.

Different species of wildflowers jostle together in a Slovenian meadow.

Throughout his book, Darwin stated numerous times how the evidence showed inheritance of characteristics through natural selection, refuting claims that species were independently created.

In ‘Laws of Variation’, Darwin discussed how natural selection would enhance or diminish certain organs for efficiency if they are/aren’t required. Examples include how a number of beetle species inhabiting Madeira have evolved to be flightless through disuse of their wings and cave-dwelling crabs have evolved eye-stalks without eyes. The steady accumulation of slight differences can add up beneficial modifications of structure, such as a bat’s wing.

In ‘Difficulties on Theory’ Darwin discussed various issues that have the potential to disprove his theory, including organs of extreme perfection (e.g. eyes) or organs that are of little importance. Anthropocentrism pervaded the way the natural world was seen in Darwin’s day: some naturalists believed that many parts of species anatomy had been ‘created for beauty in the eyes of man’. The idea that species must have some beneficial use for humans is still one held by many today.

Flowers evolved to be attractive to pollinating insects – and coincidentally are also attractive to us!

Another obstacle for Darwin’s theory was the presence of distinct species, but no species that appear to be the transitional links between one and the other. The geological record is far from perfect: a tiny area of the earth’s surface has been geologically explored and the conditions required for preservation and discovery of good specimens are quite rare. Darwin compared the geological record to a large book where only short chapters and passages have been preserved across the vastness of time. He wrote with humility how we could struggle to grasp the vastness of time over which evolution takes place: we can struggle to appreciate the length of time of a couple of generations, let alone 100’s of millions of years.

Referring to the absence of these stepping stone species (e.g. the evolution of a horse from a tapir):

‘The new and improved forms of life will tend to supplant the old and unimproved forms.’

The numerous, transitional species will improve and evolve; outcompeting weaker forms and we will always have missing evidence due to the fragmentary geological record. Evidence of several stages of chalk formation showed distinct species, but all sharing characteristics showing them being closely related.


Explaining how non-native species can become invasive and dominant in other countries, Darwin stated:

‘Natural selection in each country must act chiefly through the competition of the inhabitants one with another and consequently will produce perfection or strength in the battle for life, only according to the standard of that country’.

‘Instinct’ is a fascinating chapter. Species such as cuckoos and cuckoo bees with their unusual adaptations to survive fitted into Darwin’s theory, as he saw they possess evidently successful methods of living and have not yet become extinct. He went into great detail to explore how instinct drives honeybees to create the honeycomb structure in the hive and how the design of this space-saving shape could have evolved from the simper, spherical design of bumblebee cells through the sections of natural selection.

Darwin went on to discuss how the production of new species consequently went hand in hand with the extinction of less favoured forms: ‘There is a struggle for existence leading to the preservation of each profitable deviation of structure or instinct. The truth of these propositions cannot, I think, be disputed.

Of course, today our continued destruction and exploitation of the natural world hinders natural processes, meaning that more species are going and will continue to become extinct at our hands.

Whales evolved 45 million years ago and our behaviour could determine whether they can continue to exist whilst we inhabit the planet.

In exploring the means in which species disperse to colonise new islands, Darwin performed experiments with a number of seeds: He floated a number of seeds from many different plants in sea water for between 20 and 137 days, and found that a large proportion successfully germinated after immersion, concluding that around 15% of all plants could survive after being in seawater for a month. The same process could explain the similar communities of species found in bodies of freshwater far apart.

Darwin was fond of creating his own experiments to discover fascinating things. He once collected 3 tablespoons of mud from the edge of a pond and counted 537 individual plants growing from it: such is the abundance of life in the soil.

Looking at oceanic islands, Darwin discussed how the amount of endemic species is high. These island’s species bear a close affinity to those on the nearest continent, even though climate, soils and conditions of life are different. Here Darwin compared the Galapagos and the Cape de Verge archipelagos, observing how the theory of independent creation by God couldn’t be correct because despite similarity of size, climate and soils, the inhabitants are very different, resembling those of the nearest continents, America and Africa respectively: ‘All the inhabitants of an archipelago, though specifically distinct on the several islets, should be closely related to each other.’


The finches of the Galapagos provided an excellent example of modification through natural selection:

What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions?

A horse’s legs are perfectly adapted for power and speed.

When classifying species, Darwin concluded that embryological characteristics can be of importance. Embryos of species within the same class can be very similar: mammals, birds and reptiles can look alike at early stages and in ‘The Descent of Man’, Darwin went on to show illustrations of human and dog embryos that bear very close resemblances: ‘The embryos of air-breathing mammals and birds possess branchial slits and arteries running in loops like those in a fish which has to breathe the air dissolved in water.’


In his conclusion Darwin stated:

More individuals are born than can possibly survive. A grain in the balance will determine which individual shall live and which shall die, which variety or species shall increase in number, and which shall decrease, or finally become extinct.

Why, if man can by patience select variations most useful to himself, should nature fail in selecting variations useful, under changing conditions of life, to her living products? What limit can be put to this power, acting during long ages and rigidly scrutinising the whole constitution, structure and habits of each creature, – favouring the good and rejecting the bad? I can see no limit to this power in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life.

His arguments are so well thought out, challenging the commonly held views of the most eminent naturalists of the time. He admits our own inability to grasp the vast expanse of geological time across infinite numbers of generations, to explain how we need to expand our thinking to truly understand this almost incomprehensible theory. A true scientist, Darwin took great care to try and prove or disprove an idea with experiments, research and accumulated facts. He stated how those who prefer to stick to old, unexplained ideas than to new and numerous facts would reject his theory and how new enlightened naturalists could fully consider both sides of his arguments. His ideas were always well expressed, with a beautiful writing style, and although quite intense, ‘On the Origin of Species’ was a fascinating read.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.’

California Road Trip, Part Two – San Francisco and Monterey

Like the naturalist John Muir, I much prefer being in the wilderness to the city, but San Francisco has interesting history, topography, parks and harbours. There were fantastic views across the streets and to the bay all over the city, with plenty of interesting plants in small parks and gardens. I never got tired of seeing hummingbirds, and there were lots of them whizzing about and feeding on a range of flowers. One came very close over our heads, hovering and observing us curiously.

A hummingbird feeds on flowers in San Francisco

In the middle of the city, just past Chinatown, one doesn’t expect to see magnificent butterflies, but I was lucky to see and photograph Western Tiger Swallowtails fluttering around under some trees. There was an abundance of butterflies at another special place in the city; San Francisco’s Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park. Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies have big, showy wings with iridescent blue colouring. The California native garden was teeming with them, feeding and fluttering about, showing the benefits of native plants for indigenous species.

Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly
Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly

Another special sight in the Botanical gardens was a great view of an Anna’s hummingbird’s nest. Carefully woven with lichens and spider silk, the eggcup-sized nest housed a tiny chick, stretching and fidgeting. I was privileged to watch it being fed by the mother: hummingbirds feed their chicks a regurgitated mixture of nectar and insects for full nutritional value. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay all day to watch these exquisite birds, but we were headed to our next exciting destination: Monterey Bay.

An Anna’s hummingbird feeding her chick

Monterey Bay has been exploited by humans for thousands of years: around 5,000 years ago, native American people dived and fished in simple boats in the bay and in the 1940’s the sardine fishery was bringing in 250,000 tonnes of fish in one season. By the 1950’s the fishery collapsed, due to overfishing and natural population fluctuations of the sardines. Today, the sardine numbers are still low and the fishery is closed to allow some recovery.

A Sea otter mother and pup in the bay

As soon as we arrived, it was striking how rich the marine ecosystem here was. Walking along the coast from Lover’s Point to Cannery Row, a Sea otter mother and pup rolled in the waves, diving and feeding. A little further on, Harbour seals were hauled out, sunbathing in the evening sun, whilst their pups lay next to them or fed on their milk. The seals all had beautiful and unique mottled patterns and looked especially peaceful as their beach was fenced off to prevent disturbance from people.

Monterey bay and its Harbour seals

The next day dawned bright and still; perfect weather for whale watching. We went out with Monterey Bay Whale Watch who provide year-round opportunities to sea a variety of cetaceans and the other wildlife of the bay. Right on cue, we saw Sea otters and Sea lions in the harbour, the latter in a large group, diving and playfully waving their fins. Out in the bay, a large group of sea lions were ‘porpoising’ in the water with Harbour porpoise: a type of feeding behaviour.

Sea lions in the harbour

Once we’d been cruising out in the bay for a short while, the boat headed with purpose to the west. In the distance, a large, knobbly white fin was waving at us… a Humpback whale! Of all the species of whale, I had always wanted to see a Humpback; they are acrobatic, have beautiful markings and are full of character. We drew up right next to the whale, where he indulged in plenty of pectoral fin slapping and rolling in the water. Our close proximity to the animal meant that we heard every splash and the deep inhalations and exhalations of those giant lungs. We also got to hear contented squeals from the whale as he spouted bursts of air.

The Humpback whale’s fin

After a while, the whale dived down, flipping his tail out of the water and disappeared for a few moments. Suddenly, he appeared in front of the boat, breaching out of the sea in a plume of water: such a huge animal to be able to leap in the air with such agility. It took everyone on the boat by surprise and the whale biologist told us this wasn’t a regular occurrence. The whale took another breath, diving down and soared up more than halfway out of the water, fins aloft, with water streaming and sparkling off it’s skin. It was a magnificent sight to watch such a huge animal at such close quarters and for it to be totally comfortable and even curious towards us.

The whale takes a breath…
…and dives…

The whale breached a number of times out of the water

Back on land, we spent the afternoon immersed in the marine world inside Monterey Bay Aquarium: formerly the site of an old canning factory, but now focused on showcasing and conserving marine life. One of the best tanks featured a kelp forest with the associated species, including a shoal of sardines. Outside the aquarium in the real kelp forest, Sea otters were floating about and Bottlenose dolphins were hunting.

A shoal of sardines in the kelp forest

My favourite features of the aquarium included the native California species, some of which were rescue animals that couldn’t be released into captivity. A walk through enclosure allowed fantastically close views of shore birds such as avocets, plovers and phalaropes, all very relaxed, feeding and preening in our presence. Seeing the Sea otters up close was fascinating: they are completely at home in the water, amazingly acrobatic as they glide around with their flipper-like back feet. Their front paws are wonderfully dexterous when handling food items such as crabs, which they are adept at crushing between their strong jaws.

A Sea otter grooming at the aquarium

Out on the shore, I also marvelled at the tiniest inhabitants of the ocean in the rock pools: hermit crabs. One of my favourite creatures, their ability to exploit the shells of other creatures in which to reside is a fascinating example of evolution. I quite literally had to be torn from the rock pools as it was time to leave and return to Vegas and then home. Our final impressions of California were of the beautifully rugged and wild Big Sur coastline, complete with crashing waves and vultures soaring overhead.

Hermit crab
Big Sur coastline

The overarching theme of our trip was conservation. The amazing wildlife and natural landscapes we were lucky to witness speak of the foresight and dedication of visionaries who saw far more value in their protection than their exploitation. Thanks to passionate naturalists like John Muir, we too were able to marvel at the world’s largest trees and experience the rush of Yosemite’s magnificent waterfalls. The wealth of marine life inside and outside of Monterey Bay Aquarium (the site of a former sardine canning factory), allowed us to appreciate the wonderfully rich marine ecosystem of the bay and the see the beginnings of the recoveries of the sea otter and sardine populations following their decimation. I’m thankful there are still such wonderful plants, animals and ecosystems to witness in the world today.

 

 

California Road Trip, Part One – Sequoia and Yosemite

This April my partner and I went on an interesting and exciting trip to California via Las Vegas. The reason for visiting such a strange location as Vegas was to visit family; my new baby niece arrived right on cue and we ate a lot of pancakes, but for a nature lover, a city in the middle of the desert can be challenging. Fortunately, the hummingbirds in the parks and gardens were a delight to watch: I saw them bathing in sprinklers, foraging on flowers and even watched a mother feeding its fledgling in a tree.

After a couple of days we set off on the way to our first destination. Driving out of the Mojave Desert, over the mountain foothills and into the Californian valleys, the vegetation gradually became taller and greener. It was almost like someone had slowly turned the colour saturation levels up and it was a relief to arrive at Three Rivers at dusk and hear running water. In the morning, the contrast between the desert and the Sierran foothills was stark. The sun was rising and lighting up the valley whilst the Kaweah river ran rapidly over the boulders in the riverbed. The garden outside our lodge was a haven for wildlife: there were flocks of waxwings feeding on the berry bushes, fence lizards creeping out to bask on the warm rocks, hummingbirds flitting about and even a monarch butterfly.

The Kaweah river in the morning sun

We entered Sequoia National Park, winding our way up through the valley, getting higher and higher. At the lower elevations, the spring flush of green leaves coloured the oak, maple and buckeye trees, with scatterings of the deep pink flowers blooming on the western redbud trees. On the open slopes, California poppies and lupines were flowering. Beyond a certain point, the vegetation started to shift from broadleaved to conifer woodland, we were getting closer to the Giant Forest.

Lupines growing in the Sierran foothills

Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks cover an area of 865,257 acres, a vast area compared to the tiny size of our ‘wild’ areas in the UK. Throughout the world, Sequoia trees grow only in groves along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains at around 6,500ft in elevation. They have precise requirements for conditions to be moist but not too wet and have a complex ecology with fire.

Sequoia seeds require fire in order to germinate and grow
Sequoias growing around the edge of a meadow

I’d seen photos of sequoias, but nothing prepares you for the sheer scale of these trees. General Sherman is the largest tree in the world, by volume. At 2,200 years old, this sequoia is 275ft tall and over 100ft around the trunk. The huge bulk of the trunk disappears up into the canopy, furnished with knobbly, gnarled branches and sprays of spiny scale-like leaves. I was dwarfed by this unbelievably huge organism, in years and in stature. From a distance, the size of this giant tree became even more impressive, as the people milling around its base were like tiny insects at the base of a tall sunflower.

General Sherman – the largest tree in the world
Up close to a giant tree

We also paid a visit to the widest tree in the world, General Grant; which can accommodate 20 people holding hands around the base of its trunk. There were many other sequoias to see around these impressive record-holders, and we spent a few hours walking through the giant forests to admire them. The sequoias all had a golden hue, dusted with thousands of tiny pollen-loaded flowers. Their bark was thick, spongy and fibrous, helping the trees cope with forest fires. Where trees had been damaged by fire, most continued to grow, despite cavernous black scars almost splitting them open. Some fallen giants lay in the forest, as big as freight trains, with twisted roots snaking up into the air. It was very interesting to walk through them and wonder at their size from a different angle. There was one grove of middle-aged trees, growing together in a group, arching overhead like the roof of a cathedral – their height was best appreciated lying on the ground and looking up!

Looking up at a sequoia grove

Once we followed a trail that led out of the ‘goldilocks zone’ for sequoias and into the wider forest, composed of various pines and other conifers, more suited to the drier conditions. On the trail, I spotted acorn woodpeckers, golden-crowned kinglets, treecreepers, red-tailed hawks and the paw print of a bobcat in the snow. After almost getting lost, we found our way back and prepared to head on to the next location. Leaving the snow-dusted mountain peaks behind us, we made our way back into the valleys.

View across King’s Canyon National Park
Bobcat print in the snow

Yosemite was today’s destination: due to the shortness of our trip, we had one day to see some parts of the valley, although it would be great to have been able to spend two weeks there! We followed the rushing Merced river up into Yosemite valley, where brooding clouds began to fill the sky. The waterfalls of Yosemite are their most impressive in spring, and the first one we saw, Bridalveil Falls didn’t disappoint. The water rushes over a perfectly flat edge of rock, descending straight down into the valley and resembling a bride’s veil. As we approached the base of the falls, the roar of water became louder and louder. The force and volume of the water created foaming white comets falling one after the other over from the sky. When we arrived, the spray was pluming into the air, drenching anyone standing on the viewing platform. It certainly made the perfect impression of the power of the water in this landscape.

Bridalveil Falls

We stood and looked up at El Capitan as the clouds descended lower, brushing the tops of the peaks. The sheer granite walls of the valley towered above us, smooth and neatly streaked with rain. Across one of the meadows from the swinging bridge, Yosemite Falls rose up in the distance.

Yosemite Falls

This waterfall is made up of upper, middle and lower falls, cascading down into the wooded valley – we took a trail to the lower fall overlook. As we hiked closer and closer to the falls, it got wetter and wetter. Past mossy boulders, gnarled oaks and through numerous streams splashing down the granite cliffs and disappearing over the edge. Looking out over Yosemite Falls, we were well and truly soaked, the falls appearing through the swirling cloud as a white rush of powerful water. The sound of the water crashing onto the rocks was intense and thunderous. At our lookout point, we were greeted by two very inquisitive Steller’s jays: birds with deep blue plumage and punk-like crests on their heads. They hopped up very close to us, as if to inspect who had come to visit their part of the woods.

Steller’s Jay

We managed to get back down the trail and out of Yosemite just before the road was closed: they had evacuated the valley with the heavy rains and if we had come a day later, we wouldn’t have been able to visit!

The Yosemite Falls trail

I have now been reading the works of John Muir, the naturalist who explored these areas extensively. After walking 200 miles through the Sequoia belt and visiting the forest in which General Sherman grows, he noted: “this part of the Sequoia belt seemed to me the finest, and I then named it ‘the Giant Forest’… one naturally walked softly and awe-stricken among them.” He also stayed for many years in Yosemite, writing: “this one noble park is big enough and rich enough for a whole life of study aesthetic enjoyment. None can escape its charms. Its natural beauty cleanses and warms like fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree.”

Western redbud trees in bloom along the Merced river, heading out of Yosemite

Next: California Road Trip, Part Two – San Francisco and Monterey

Mosses: forests in miniature

Most people probably pay little attention to mosses, unless perhaps it grows as a weed in their lawns (personally, I find a mossy lawn to be green, soft and springy, what’s not to like?). But the world of bryophytes, to give mosses and liverworts their collective name; are luxuriant forests in miniature.

Bristly Haircap moss (Polytrichum piliferum) – this is a male plant, with red ‘flowers’.

At the weekend I joined on an excellent moss and liverwort ID course at Altar Stones Nature Reserve in Markfield led by Uta Hamzaoui of the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust. Walking around this tiny but fascinating reserve, there was a huge diversity of species to discover growing on trees, dry stone walls and the exposed pre-Cambrian rocks.

Wood Bristle-moss (Orthotrichum affine) growing on an oak tree.

Mosses and liverworts were some of the first plants to evolve to grow on land over 400 million years ago, descending from aquatic algae. They still require moisture to survive and reproduce, similar to the way amphibians have evolved. Moss can reproduce by producing spores (released in dry conditions) and by regeneration of small parts of plant material, meaning they can easily spread. Mosses are very resilient, occupying niches that other life forms would struggle to survive in, such as on exposed rocks. They can survive drying out and then spring back to life when it rains again.

Ciliated Fringewort (Ptilidium ciliare) and Atlantic pawwort (Barbilophozia atlantica) – both liverworts growing together in moist conditions on the rocks

As well as being fascinating in their own right, mosses provide a range of ecological functions, from storing water and reducing soil erosion, to breaking down substrates to release nutrients for other plants and providing nesting materials for birds and other animals.

Broom Fork-moss (Dicranum scoparium) forming islands on the rocks

Altar Stones Nature Reserve is one a number of sites in the Charnwood forest that have perfect habitat conditions for bryophytes. Mosses, liverworts and lichens jostle for space on rocks and branches, with something new to discover around every corner. What would normally be a quick walk can turn into hours exploring and observing the diversity of species: we spotted over 20 types of bryophytes in around two hours.

We also found lichens such as this Cladonia coccifera at Altar Stones – the colours are beautiful!

Moss can be found anywhere, from atop walls and roofs in urban environments, to clothing trees in ancient woods. Perhaps the reason they are often overlooked is their diminutive size, but if you look closely, they have wonderfully intricate structures and would surely be more widely admired if they were bigger, or we were smaller!

This delicate moss is called drumsticks (Aulacomnium androgynum) – note the tiny balls on stalks are called gemmae – small parts of moss material that can spread to form a new plant.

As a ranger, learning about new groups of species is important to ensure that habitat management is tailored to ensure the biodiversity of a site can thrive. There are always new animals and plants to learn about and I hope to continue discovering every year.

A mixture of mosses and lichens

 

The Country Diary of a Leicestershire Lady