2017 in Wildflowers

Common Whitlow Grass – Erophila verna

This little wildflower is everywhere in the springtime – at only a few centimetres high it is easily overlooked but it is forever offering up tiny bunches of flowers to those who would take note. I especially liked the setting of this photograph – on a grubby pavement in Grantham next to cigarette butts and other litter you find this little thing of beauty just waiting to be noticed.

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Oxlip – Primula elatior

I made a pilgrimage to Hayley Wood in Cambridgeshire this year to see these wildflowers. A relative of the more abundant cowslip, these are an ancient woodland species with a curiously restricted distribution, now found growing wild only in that part of the country where Essex, Cambridge and Suffolk meet.

Oxlip (Primula elatior) in Hayley Wood, Cambridgeshire

Green-winged Orchid – Anacamptis morio

I am lucky now to live just a few miles from Muston Meadows meaning there are ample opportunities to visit this ancient haymeadow – designated a National Nature Reserve. This is one of the green-winged orchids for which the meadow is so famous, set against the grassland in the sunset light in early summer.

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Greater Stitchwort – Stellaria graminea

Treswell Wood in Nottinghamshire is a beautiful place to spend some time exploring, especially when the sun is setting. Amongst the spring flowers, these greater stitchworts are one of my favourite woodland species with their bold white petals and delicate green framework.

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Bee orchid – Ophrys apifera

The return of these flowers each year seems like the return of a smile – their colourful, beaming faces always mean summer is here. This photo was taken among the dunes in Anglesey at the end of May, where these orchids arose from the sands along with the round-leaved wintergreens and dune pansies.

Man Orchid (Orchis anthropophora) and Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

Barnack Hills and Holes is situated just a mile or two off the A1 – it was formed by quarrying limestone in medieval times and now it is home to a stunning array of flora. At the right time of year, can reward you with two national rarities in a single shot!

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Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera)

A visit to Bedford Purleius to see these delicate little fly orchids has become something of an annual tradition for me now. They are so hard to spot at first, but once you get your eye in on the first flower, more and more appear amongst the grasses of the meadow.

Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus)

This photograph was taken overseas – in the Dolomites – but this is the one flower I was hoping to see most and the one which was most elusive. We spotted a single one, just as my dad was asking ‘what do they look like?’, I said ‘like… that!’ and there it was, nestled amongst the greenery beside us on the path.

Lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) in the Dolomites

Broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine)

I watched the plants of the broad-leaved helleborine grow beneath the beeches at Bedford Purleius for several months before arriving one day to find them finally in flower. A new species for me, these orchids are subtle but beautiful, blending with the greenery of the canopy leaves above them.

Great Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum)

This is a late-summer wildflower blooms in the meadows above Grantham and adds a beautiful swath of colour to the browning grasses around it.

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Black knapweed (Centaurea nigra)

A late-summer return to Muston Meadows saw the black knapweed in full flower amongst the late-summer grasses. The orchids of springtime are almost alone in the meadow, along with cowslips and cuckoo flower, but summer sees a riot of colour and contrast as different species vie for space and light.

Knapweed at sunset at Muston Meadows

Heather

An August walk along Cheddar Gorge as the mist was lifting, leaving droplets on the grasses and flowers. The colours behind the flower are provided by the bracken beginning to brown with the grass still fresh and green.

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Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

The soft sky-blue of the harebell set with the thin wiry framework of the stems is one of my favourite flowers to photograph – since finding a colony in the meadow above Grantham, I have watched the flowers persist through the summer and into autumn whilst the colours of the vegetation change behind them.

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Heather

The heather which covers much of the Peak district in late-summer is a spectacular sight – especially at sunset when the light softens and glows golden. Along with the bluebells of spring, I think heather would be a worthy focus for the Japanese concept of hanami – flower viewing – as a national pastime here in the UK!

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Dove’s foot cranesbill – Geranium molle

I was out surveying on the day Storm Ophelia passed over the country and cast the countryside in that strange apocolyptic light. This was one of a number of flower portraits I took that day – I especially liked the contrast of the fresh pink  with the fallen poplar leaves.

2017 in Bees

If trees are the elders of the countryside, then the bees are part of the summer pageantry of a fairground, here in numbers for just six months of the year they work hard and play hard, getting drunk on nectar whilst setting themselves up for the long winter ahead.

I love to look back on photos from the year and see the changes in light and colour as well as species – hopefully this will come across in the retrospective below:

Honey bee – Apies mellifera

The first bees of the year for me, appeared on valentines day a whole month before I saw the next. These were the honey bees on the gorse flowers, just a stones throw from the edge of the residential in Grantham. I would expect these were from a hive somewhere in a garden nearby. The footpath here winds through the gorse shrubs, creating a sheltered microclimate filled with the coconut-scent of the flowers making an ideal first-forage of the season!

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Early Mining Bee – Andrena haemmorhora (male)

This beautiful little bee is the first mining bee I saw in 2017. This was taken at Farndon Willow Holt – a Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust reserve which is best known for its collection of willows but with many other habitats besides. This little male mining bee was on a blackthorn flower against the blue spring sky in March.

Early bumblebee – Bombus pratorum

This is the aptly named ‘early’ bumblebee – visiting winter-flowering honeysuckle in my parents’ garden back in March. Ornamental and garden plants such as this can really extend the range of nectar sources available for early-flying bumbleebee queens in the springtime.

Ashy mining bee – Andrena cineraria

This little bee appeared on the inside of our new greenhouse as we were assembling it over easter. The structure was only half-glazed at this point and upon flying in, it must have flown upwards and become trapped in the glass roof. After a few photos, I sent it on its way! These grey and black mining bees are very striking, and often the first ‘unusual’ bees which people notice in their gardens before discovering the world of different bees which their flowers support.

Early Mining Bee – Andrena haemmorhoa (female)

This was one of the first mining bees I ever took real notice of – it was searching for its hole next to me in the garden and I was struck my the beautiful patterning of the fur. This shot was taken in a spot I came to think of as ‘bee alley’ – just around the corner from work it has a good patch of green alkanet – an early flowering member of the forget-me-not family – and the aspect catches the sun at lunchtime resulting in a new species pretty much every day I visited! Read more about the bees I saw there on this page.

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Bumblebees along The Drift

The Drift is an ancient track which runs along the Lincolnshire/Leicestershire county boundary near us. The limestone grassland is filled with wildflowers but the key species for bumblebees is always the viper’s bugloss – it produces nectar-rich flowers which are accessible to a range of the ‘generalist’ bumblebees and will keep on producing more week after week. If you want to boost the bee-value of your garden – this would be my top tip!

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Tree Bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) Mating

The house next door to us had a tree bumblebee nest this year and one day, the garden was filled with the tandem flights of newly emerged queens and sharp-eyed males who had latched on to mate with them. It was amazing to watch the queens successfully take off with such an extra weight on their backs! You can see in this photograph how much smaller the male bumblebees are compared with the queens.

Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) Nest

This was a photo of a tree bumblebee arriving into its nest in a fallen willow. The nest was in a failed hazard beam meaning the cavity opened on both sides with the nest situated in the cavity above. By positioning myself on the opposite side, I managed to get this shot of a worker approaching and about to enter the nest.

Tree bumblebee entering its willow-cavity nest

Black Ruderal Bumblebee – Bombus ruderatus

This was another photograph taken along The Drift – this time of a bumblebee which had spent the night on a knapweed flower and had not yet warmed and woken up. This was one of several individuals which were all black – a melanic version of the ruderal bumblebee which is typically banded. This species of bumblebee is thought to be on the increase – possible reasons could include climate change or the increased planting of red clover.

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Leafcutter Bee (Megachile versicolor)

I had made a bee hotel way back in April and this was my favourite resident – a leafcutter bee (probably brown-footed leafcutter) which would spend its days bringing sections of leaf back to seal up egg cells within its nest tubes.

Orange-vented leafcutter bee building its nest with rose leaf segments in our home-made Bee Hotel

Male Bumblebee (species… forgotten!)

This photo was taken after a summer rain shower – this male bumblebee had been caught out on the verbena in the garden and was waiting to dry out. You can see the characteristic ‘yellow moustache’ which typically is found on the males of the commoner species including Bombus lucorum, B. lapidarius, B. pascuorum, B. jonellus and B. praetorum

Carder Bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum) on Carline Thistle

I liked the colour scheme of this shot – the carline thistle (in full flower despite the appearances!) and the carder bumblebee share the same straw-coloured brown which seemed characteristic of the countryside in late summer. This photograph was taken at Harbury Spoil Banks – a Warwickshire Wildlife Trust reserve.

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Solitary Bee on creeping thistle

I’m afraid my ID skills aren’t up to this one, but this is one of the small solitary species resting in August. I like the way the thistle flower looks similar to an anemone, reminding me of the clown fish and sea anemone relationship. This little bee was actually blowing bubbles into the wind when I found it – a behaviour thought to be useful in reducing the water content of the nectar and increasing its concentration.

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Heath bumblebee – Bombus jonellus

This was a male heath bumblebee on the heather at Curbar Edge taken just before sunset. This was one of the last bees I saw in 2017, and the first time I have seen this species which is common in heathland areas but can also be found in parks and gardens near to the habitats. I liked the way this one posed at the top of the strand – actually he was trying to be lazy and reach the next flower without taking to the wing!

2017 in Trees

The darkness of the winter is always a good time to reflect on a year passed, not only to appreciate what you’ve seen and experienced but to look forward to the treasures which await the eager explorer in the year ahead.

As always,  I find trees feature strongly when I look back at the photos I’ve taken. There is much to appreciate in the natural world and each element has its own pleasure and essence. Trees feel like communing with the elders (no pun intended!) – even a stand of spindly silver birch will have been alive almost as long as I have and some of the trees you meet allow you to reach back through the generations, to the limits of living memory and far beyond. Here are a just a few such encounters from this year.

Clumber Park

Clumber has much to offer at any time of year – the double lime avenue on the entrance just keeps rolling the trees before you like an unfurling scroll as you drive in, and the old parkland has many veterans to tell you their tales. This photo was taken across the lake, as the sun sunk low on a Sunday afternoon in January, lighting the trunks and stretching the reflections out across the water.

Grantham

This tree sits proudly on top of the hillside overlooking Grantham and I pass it most days on my lunchtime walk. It is a sycamore and sits at the end of an incongruous line of old oaks, beeches and other sycamores which speak of an older time. A friend refereed to it as ‘that amazing oak’, assuming the species from its stature and prowess. I wonder if she’ll read this… Stretching out below is the course grassland and gorse of Harrowby Hill and above it lies the Hills and Hollows where barn owls and short-eared owls hunt through the winter months and marsh orchids nestle in the summertime.

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Hatfield Forest

We went with some friends to listen to Sam Lee’s ‘Singing with Nightingales‘ at Fingringhoe Wick in spring, and took the opportunity for a walk around Hatfield Forest. Hornbeam was growing in the woodlands with a frequency and regularity I never see here in the Midlands, but this particular specimen was exceptional. This is an old hornbeam pollard where the heartwood had rotted away and the tree split into two live, healthy halves which were easily large enough to walk through.

Treswell Wood

Treswell Wood is a very special place – Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s first reserve, it is an ash dominated ancient woodland in the north of the county which now plays host to the successfully reintroduced dormouse populations as well as supporting a whole range of other species. Springtime sees the trees burst into an abundance of fresh green leaves and creamy white blossom and this photograph of the mixed canopy captures this exuberance for me.

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Muston Meadows

Muston Meadows is an ancient haymeadow in Leicestershire – it’s deep ridge and furrow grassland supports an exceptional population of green-winged orchid as well as a burnet, pignut, cowslip, quaking oat grass and meadowsweet. This photograph of the oak and ash within the boundary hedgerow was taken as a starlapse at midnight under moonlight in the springtime. I love to be somewhere that allows you to feel such a strong connection to the past, I imagine scenes from D. H. Lawrence’s works where the haymaking in these meadows was a time of great importance for sustenance and survival, as well as opportunities for intrigue and romance.

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Bedford Purleius

The light filtered through a thousand leaves has subtleties of which vary from species to species, from place to place and from month to month. There can be few however to match the soft light of sunshine through newly unfurled beech leaves, as this stand in Bedford Purleius. Later in the season, the ground beneath these trunks will support helleborines which flower in mid-summer.

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Millstone Edge, Derbyshire

Leaving the twisted, gnarled oak woodland of the valley beside the Burbage Brook, you turn onto an entirely different scene – one of light and green and air. This edge is populated almost entirely by silver birch with sketch a monchrome array between the greens of foliage above and grassland below.

Robin Hood’s Bay

This was an opportunistic photograph of the sunlight playing through woodsmoke from a bonfire in the clearing below. It’s not often that mist and fog will persist long enough through the day to allow such vertical shafts of light in a woodland scene, so I took advantage of serendipity to catch a shot which reminds me more of rainforest than an English woodland.

Quantocks

The Quantocks has become one of my favourite places to visit – the different characters of the trees and woodland set within an ancient landscape are irresistible. You can read more in this blog post from the autumn, but below are a couple of my favourites.

First is the gnarled oak woodland crowding the road which ventures up over the wooded hillside from Nether Stowey towards Crowcombe.

Next is the massed boughs of the coppiced beeches which line the Drove Road – a prehistoric track which runs across the ridge of the hillside above Crowcombe.

This photograph is perhaps my favourite of this year – it shows the woodland closing over the road with Tolkinesque grandeaur. If these were ents which came to life, I wouldn’t be so very surprised…

Cambridge Botanic Garden

This shows the beautiful soft browns of the autumn needles of swamp cypress – an evergreen conifer – against the backdrop of yellow maple leaves. I was in Cambridge for a meeting and had an hour before catching my train which gave a perfect opportunity to explore the botanic gardens which were conveniently close to the station. As well as the stunning floral displays and specimens, they have some beautiful trees and it’s a great spot for autumn colour!

Wappenbury Wood

Small-leaved lime used to be the key component of the woodlands around the midlands, before the clearance of the wildwood and the generation of the stands we see today. They still occur if you know where to look – Steve Falk‘s guides can help if you’re lucky enough to be in Warwickshire – and these old coppice stools within Wappenbury Wood are a fine example of a tree with which we should all be more familiar. Coppicing was the ancient practice of cutting the tree down to a bole, from which new growth would appear and could be substantially harvested without ever killing the tree. On the contrary, some of the oldest trees you can find are coppices and pollards, including small-leaved lime coppices in Westonbirt Arboretum thought to be over 2000 years old. This photo shows the tall, straight trunks of the regrowth many years after their last cut.

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Bottesford Church

This photograph was taken at a local churchyard one frosty morning on Novembe. The night had turned the grass and gravestones to white whilst the sunrise caught the embers of autumn leaves on this beech and ignited them into a celebration of orange, umber and yellow. It was only a few more days before the leaves fell, but this was a moment when autumn had not yet given way to winter and the right morning can provide you with the best of both.

Staverton Park

I was very pleased to find myself within a few miles of this woodland in November, and took the opportunity to explore one of the most impressive assemblages of ancient trees in the country. You can read more in my blog post, but here area couple of my favourites.

The path through The Thicks wound its way between trees and shrubs, but split around this majestic old oak which stood in the centre of the path and demanded all that pass must pass around it.

This photograph was taken at sunrise, of one of the idiosyncratic old oaks on the edge of the parkland. The ground layer beneath is dominated by bracken, and I thought the frond and the tree made a nice contrast against the morning sky.

Whatton-in-the-Vale

Grantham Road is a bypass to the old road, which was subsequently bypassed again by the new A52 which avoids the village altogether. The road now links the two parts of the village and, though less than 100 years old, is bestowed an authority and antiquity by the double-line of planes which enclose it. The houses at the end are where the Griffin’s Head pub once stood. I liked the way the glow of life and civilisation lay at the end of the imposing avenue against a starry sky, like coming out of the woods into the safety of a home.

Millstone Edge

Back once more amongst the silver birches of Millstone Edge – their black and white stems through the snow transports you to another country, to Russia or else eastern Europe.

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Bedford Purleius

With the seedheads of the helleborines still standing, this was the last view I had of these beech trees in 2017. I love the softness of the light which seems to remain as a memory of those leaves from early springtime.

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The Wildflower Year around Grantham

At the beginning of 2017, I took part in the annual New Year Plant Hunt – organised by the BSBI, this is an annual event inviting everybody from beginners through to pro’s to walk a route and see how many species they can find in flower. You can read about the results of my Grantham survey from 2017 in this blog post.

I was curious to see how the number of species, as well as the composition, changed through the year. Rather than having a snapshot of what was flowering on the 1st January alone, I’d like to know how long it had been flowering, and how long it would go on. The route I chose to explore further is a portion of the full route I took for the New Year, and is entirely within Grantham town, taking in a walk along the river, through the town centre, out around the train station and across parks and carparks.

I completed the last monthly survey on the 4th December, totalling 12 months of records, and here are the initial results!

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In total I recorded 164 species in flower with a peak of 78 different species in June. So far, my first survey (on the relevant portion of the wider transect) in January was the lowest count, with just 24 species. My final walk in December was still turning up 40 different species – some of which were looking much worse for wear after the first frosts.

Coupled with the species accumulation curve – shown in green in the graph above – this pattern supports the idea that most of the flowers you find in the New Year Plant Hunt are likely to be hangers-on from the previous season, or species which flower happily in all seasons such as daisies and dandelions. In January, there are a few new appearances such as winter heliotrope and early snowdrops, but the vast majority have been persisting into the winter rather than appearing during it. There are marked increases in the records of new species, which reach a peak in May/June but this tails to nothing by November and December.

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It’s also interesting to see how many species I only picked up in just one or two months. The graph above shows how many species were recorded in 1, 2, 3… up to 12 months. A small handful were recorded throughout, but nearly a third of species were recorded in only a single month.

Below is a quick run through some of the groups of species and trends I recorded throughout the year:

The Constants

These are the species which were recorded every month, give or take the odd one which was usually due to somebody ‘tidying away’ a patch rather than reflecting a lack of flowering! One quite noticable trait from walking the same patch over and over was the reduction in management through the coldest months – I assume that people don’t think of weeds as a problem in the winter, and so I was happily watching opportunists thrive beside pavements and at carpark edges through January to March, until the weather warmed up and they were suddenly noticed and obliterated! Species pictured below are red deadnettle, annual meadowgrass, daisy, petty spurge and yarrow.

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The Early Birds

A number of species appeared first in the early spring and quickly disappeared again. Winter heliotrope was the earliest ‘new’ flowerer, followed by the spring bulbs such as snowdrop, crocus and hybrid bluebell (all naturalised) along with primroses, violets and lesser celandine. Pictured below are lesser celandine, lords and ladies, and common whitlow grass.

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The Trees

Alongside the Early Birds, or close behind them, were the trees and shrubs scattered through the town. These included some of the earliest new arrivals of the year, such as hazel which appeared in February, through to the later flowering species such as lime which put in its first appearance in June. In between came willows, silver birch, whitebeam, poplar, beech, oak, ash, blackthorn, hawthorn, rowan and alder. Pictured below are hazel, elm and hawthorn.

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The Carpark Attendants

A few species were to be found only in carparks in the centre of town, and here they were fairly constant throughout the year. Interestingly, the species composition of some of these was predominantly non-native: gallant soldier, Guernsey fleabane, Canadian fleabane, snapdragon, red valarian and buddleia to name a few. These sprung up often in the tiniest scraps of soil and were rarely subdued by the occasional cleanup for long, rejuvinating within a month or so. Native species joining the mix here included ivy-leaved toadflax, ragwort, feverfew and hedgerow cranesbill. The latter is pictured below, along with gallant soldier and ragwort.

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The Summer Heralds

Species which appeared first in May or June, heralding the summer when the highest numbers of species were recorded. These included a range of the more common meadow species which had found a foothold somewhere within the bounds of the town – speedwells, creeping cinquefoil, black medic, goat’s beard and sorrel to name a few. In this list also should be included the grasses – meadow foxtail, cock’s foot, false oat grass and Yorkshire fog for example. Fern grass too was a surprise, flowering within the brickwork just outside the door of our office! Pictured below are a selection of the pinks – herb Robert, red campion and honesty. And poppy, for luck!

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The Late Arrivals

Later summer saw the appearance of some of the most exciting species, to me anyhow! Yellow toadflax and blue fleabane are common in the pavement edges near the train station; elsewhere ivy comes into flower amidst a hum of happy pollinators and naturalised species such as Russian vine – a relative of Japanese knotweed – brightened up the fences the colonise. Other examples include rosebay willowherb and autumn hawkbit. Pictured below are yellow toadflax, blue fleabane and rosebay willowherb.

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Get involved

If you’d like to get involved in the New Year Plant Hunt this year, check out the BSBI website for more info! It’s great fun to see what you can find, even in the dead of winter, and even more satisfying to watch the shift as the season progresses.

Staverton Thicks

I am currently reading Oliver Rackham’s ‘History of the Countryside’ – the seminal text on the landscape I’ve known all my life. I was lucky enough to hear Dr Rackham speak back in 2014, before his sad passing the following year, and the enthusiasm he brought to the conference is apparent in every page of this otherwise weighty tome. Whilst learning much about how the British landscape came to be, I am treating it as something of a tourist guide to compile a wishlist of exceptional and illustrative locations. One such is Staverton Park and I was pleasantly surprised to find that a Biodiversity Seminar I was attending was just a few miles away, providing the perfect excuse to see for myself! With a quote like this, how could one resist?

“Sometimes a park still has its original trees. The supreme example is Staverton Park (near Woodbridge, Suffolk), a famous and awesome place of Tolkienesque wonder and beauty. The mighty and bizarre shapes of oaks of unknown age rise out of a sea of tall bracken, or else are mysteriously surrounded by rings of yet mightier hollies.”

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One of the mighty old oak trees within Staverton Park.

Staverton is a place which seems to have a special effect on those who visit – from casual walkers to woodland ecologists, you can appreciate it on many levels. Rackham’s account of the site is one amongst many – Peterken wrote extensively on the history and vegetation of the woodland (you can read it for free on the FSC website here) and Nick Sibbett produced a quite extraordinary survey of the individual trees which make up this exceptional arboreal congregation for Natural England. Exploring the crossover between the ecological and the cultural – Sara Maitland includes it as one of the chapters in her Gossip from the Forest – an exploration of the connections between woodland and folklore. It has formed the focus of Guardian Country Diaries and there are some lovely blog posts from the likes of Frames of Reference, Crossways Farm and Down the Forest Path.

Whilst guided walks do occur from time to time, the park is in private ownership but a path meanders through The Thicks to the south and then edges the eastern periphery of the parkland.

From the Woodbridge Road, just before Butley, a footpath takes you into the woods. The finger sign points directly towards a mighty oak – just a flavour of things to come! A short path winds you through the bracken, and past a few more giants, and then you’re into The Thicks! This part of the park was fenced from the remainder in the early 19th century and was left fairly unmanaged. It’s modern name was first recorded some 60 years later in 1881 as the canopy closed to form the dense woodland you can see today.

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One of the might oaks which parts the path in The Thicks, Staverton Park

The path is vague, meandering and dissipating between mighty oaks – in places, they settle contentedly in the middle of the path causing the way to wend around it, whilst in others the oaks loom across your way, making you duck and divert.

But despite the imposing, watching presence of the oaks, this is really the realm of the holly which is the most abundant tree in The Thicks. One of these hollys is thought to be the tallest in Britain at a towering 22.5m high!

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One of the amazing tall holly trees within The Thicks, Staverton Park

Some grow from old coppice stools, sending an array of trunks skywards, whilst others grow twinned with older, larger oaks, the angle of their growth aiming for gaps in the canopy beyond their associates. The ground beneath the living trunks is littered with the bodies of their fallen – branches and boles lie as deadwood across the woodland floor,  providing abundant opportunities for invertebrates which has evolved to rely upon such deadwood which is increasingly hard to find in our modern woodlands.

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One of the holly trees arising from an old coppice stool in The Thicks, Staverton Park

Peterken presents evidence which indicates that the site might have been continuously wooded since the wildwood era. Whilst there is no woodland in the country which is not influenced by human management or exploitation, he argues that this might be closest to the primeval, natural condition than most other woods in lowland Britain. The effect of walking The Thicks is of wandering between ancient beings, but the deviations from natural condition are quickly apparent. The oaks are predominantly pollarded – a historic practise of cutting the trees above browsing height to allow a sustainable harvest of the new growth. This extends their life and facilitates the gnarled, huge boles but is far from a natural occurrence on the scale seen in The Thicks. The ground flora too is surprisingly poor, lacking many of the ancient woodland indicator species. This is presumably a result of the intervening parkland years when the trees were open grown and the land grazed or heath beneath. Then there is the composition of the stand – according to Rackham’s analysis, Suffolk is deep within the limewood province, where small-leaved lime would have been the dominant tree species before the wildwood was cleared. Whilst Peterken makes no assertion that this woodland is akin to the wildwood which was once to be found upon the same soil, it is worth considering how far even a woodland with such an ancient feeling as this is departed from the wildwood we once had.

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The dense holly enclosing the path through The Thicks, Staverton Park.

Walking out of the dark oppressive vegetation of The Thicks, the scene switches. Suddenly the oaks are free from the evergreen accompaniments of the holly and are strewn majestically across the parkland with only bracken beneath. Any one of these trees would make you stop and stare if you stumbled across them, but en masse they form an army, like walking through a coven of witches or a gathering of the ents.

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Walking out into the parkland at Staverton Park is like stumbling across a gathering of ancient beasts

Wandering down the sandy track which etches the line between ancient parkland and modern farmland, birch begins to join the scene, its youthful white bark serving to throw into relief the massive presence of the oaks they grow amongst.

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The mighty bole of an ancient pollarded oak with the fresh white trunks of the birch in the background.

Nick Sibbett’s immense survey numbered the living oaks at 2,899, and more standing dead trees besides!

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One of the standing dead oaks within Staverton Park

Some of the oaks in the park have a Diamater at Breast Height (DBH) of over 7m although many specimens are much smaller than this. The precise age of these oaks isn’t known – there was a myth that the trees were planted in the early 1500’s by the monks of Butley Abbey. Some are indeed over 400 years old but there are a wide range of different aged trees across the park.

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Another of the mighty idiosyncratic oaks within the Staverton Parkland.

My first visit was at dusk, and the second at dawn the next day as the sun rose to the east. My time amongst this ancient assemblage was short lived, but I hope to be back in spring or summer to spend more time in this magical place.

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One of the boundary oaks of Staverton Park at sunrise.

Beech Droves and Gnarled Oaks

I’ve developed a bit of a thing for the Quantock Hills… ever since visiting for the first time last year, I’ve taken every opportunity I can to explore this ancient landscape – usually this means a very early start on a survey in the south-west to factor in some free time when I get there!

One of my favourite places is the Drove Road which is a prehistoric track running across the higher ground, presumed to be an ancient trading route which avoided the wetter lowlands. At one end is the Triscombe Stone accompanied by an information board which has the following to say:

‘[the drove road] is also on a ‘Harepath’ (a Saxon army route) recorded in the 14th century as the “Alferode”. In the year 878 King Alfred may have been familiar with the route during his stay nearby at Athelny, on the Somerset Levels.’

The track is lined with ancient beeches which have been coppiced – their boles much older than their branches – but they encompass the road as though the two have always been together, the arches echoing the holloway which runs beneath.

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If you continue beyond the Drove Road, leaving Crowcombe behind and taking a left along the winding lane towards Nether Stowey, you pass through stunning oak woodland. The gnarled contorted oaks are much older than you might guess from their dwarf stature – the exposed aspect and low nutrients of their habitat slows growth and the result is an eerie, exhilarating woodland – made all the more spectacular by the mist which eddied through the trunks on my last visit.

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This is an ancient landscape, one which is far from intact yet which retains remnants and features which have been lost in much of our modern countryside. The sessile oaks which twist and spiral were coppied for centuries for use for charcoal and in tanning leather. This practise of cutting to the base stimulated fresh growth and allowed the trees to be sustainably harvested by generation after generation – a far cry from the clearfell destruction which you can see at work in the Forestry Commission plantations which have appropriated parts of the nearby Great Wood.

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The ongoing ecological value of these woodlands is incredible – I know from experience that the trees beside the road are packed with bats – and the continuity and history make it culturally important. But you need know little of either to be awed by the impression of entering these spaces. The photograph below is perhaps my favorite – it taps into something primeval which is captured in some of the best literature and still to be appreciated in light and bark and leaf. This is the kind of lane which brings to mind Tolkien’s words:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

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Vancouver – Skunks, Squirrels and Stanley Park

After an amazing 10 days in the wilds – from the mountains of Squamish; the temperate rainforests and pacific beaches of Tofino; and the whales off Victoria – it felt a little strange to be heading to a city to finish. But Vancouver had plenty of wildlife delights to offer us.

One of the highlights of any trip to Vancouver has to be Stanley Park. Straight across the water from downtown, you can hike the 8km  around the seawall or explore the trails through woodlands, gardens and grassland in the centre. We were hoping to see sea otters and racoons – both of which are common sightings apparently – but we instead settled for the black squirrels which were to be found in abundance. We even found a guilt-free way to feed them – the ground was strewn with conkers, and although they were there for the taking, the squirrels seemed unable to resist one which had been picked up and rolled towards them!

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Black squirrel with a horse chestnut in Stanley Park, Vancouver.

These squirrels are black forms of the invasive eastern gray squirrels – Sciurus carolinensis – the same species which have largely deposed the reds from the UK. The population in Stanley Park is said to have originated from breeding pairs given as a gift from the Mayor of New York in 1909 and released into the Park.

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The progressing shades of autumn shown in the maple leaves in Stanley Park

As with any big city, the feral pigeons were to be found everywhere. These are easily vilified and despised by many city residents, but they are a perfect example of a species whose niche overlaps with the habitats we create for ourselves and which thus thrives alongside us. These birds originated from rock doves which were birds of sea cliffs and mountains – I always wonder whether they would be seen differently if it were puffins who had made the leap into the mainstream.

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A local offering help to a tourist…. or more likely angling for food!

Herons were abundant around the city – as you might expect for a seaside conurbation – and as in other urban environments, they seemed easily at ease with the bustle of passers by and barely registered your presence. We saw them motionless in the waters off Stanley Park; perched on boats in the harbour; or stalking the boardwalks of the marina.

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Grey heron stalking away from a coke machine on the marina in Vancouver

Cormorants were another species which made use of the urban infrastructure in close proximity to the sea to roost between feeding.

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A cormorant having a scratch – this one was perched on Granville Island Bridge

Amazingly, Vancouver is home to some rather impressive mammals such as the coyote. You can see recent sightings on an interactive map which shows their pawprints across the city.

Whilst we didn’t see a coyote, a nice surprise on our last night was a skunk which wandered out across the road and pottered along the sidewalk foraging for morsels. It was only after it had gone that I remembered the cartoon stereotypes from childhood and wondered if I’d been a little blase! This skunk had the swagger of an old hand who’d been around a few years and was fairly unconcerned with a little attention from passers by. We left it ambling off down a side street, disappearing to a white stripe in the darkness between the streetlights.

On our very last day in Canada, we went to see an exhibition of Emily Carr’s paintings before catching our flight home. I’d never come across her work before but her forest pieces were captivating. They are impressionistic without being abstract and give an overwhelming evocation of the life and flow of the BC forests which we had become familiar with over the two weeks. You can read more about the exhibition and find out more about here work here.

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Autumn leaves turning orange in the streets on our last day in Canada.

Victoria: Humpbacks to Hummingbirds

Our final stop on Vancouver Island itself was in Victoria – out on the eastern tip.​

​The highlight of our stay there was the opportunity to see orcas and humpback whales on a trip out into the straights between Victoria and the mountains of the Olympic National Park beyond. We went out on a zodiac and bounced across the waves – not the ideal transport for the seasick ecologist but I soon forgot when we found a pod of orcas moving gracefully through the open seas. The waters around here play host to resident orcas who are present all year round; but this pod was passing through; these are referred to as transient. Interestingly, the two groups have different feeding habits – the resident pods are largely salmon-eaters whilst transient pods tend to eat seals and other marine mammals.

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Members of a transient pod of orcas

After spending 20 minutes watching the orcas, we moved on to watch a pair of humpback whales which were perhaps even more impressive. I know that ‘whales are big’ is about the most basic fact you can learn about them, but I’d never seen one up close before to be able to appreciate just how big they are! They would break the surface to spout at regular intervals of 20-30 seconds and repeat this 5-6 times before arching their backs for a deep dive which results in their tail breaking the surface and following them down to the depths where they would hunt for 5 minutes before returning to the surface for air.

On the way back, we got some great views of the sealions on a small island just off the coast – the smell caught up with you soon afterwards!

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Steller sealions seen on the way back to harbour in Victoria

I had made some assumptions about the ethics of whale watching, in that it must be OK to be sanctioned, but after returning to dty land, I did a little research on the potential impacts upon these species. From the work I do in the UK with bats, I know that a species which relies upon echolocation for navigation and hunting will change their behaviour in response to noise – this is seen through avoidance behaviour or changes in hunting or foraging tactics. It turns out that there is evidence that whale watching can have a similar impact upon whales.

The sites I found which deal with this issue didn’t really give me a satisfactory final answer. Partly this is because these trips occur worldwide, with different regulatory regimes and some wildly different ideas of appropriate practise. And partly because the research simply isn’t there to assess the significance of an impact – the mechanism is understood and an impact demonstrated in some circumstances but the real impact of this growing industry may only become apparent in the long term.

The whale watching tours leaving from Victoria do follow a strict code of practise, and the various boats we saw watching the orcas observed these well. This would significantly reduce the impact in comparison to unregulated tours, but whether it is enough is still questionable. It was an amazing experience, but I would think twice before going out again. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society express concerns over trips from Vancouver Island to visit the resident population as, by definition, they are much more likely to suffer from the repeated visits from boats on a daily basis whereas the transient pods are likely to receive much more short-term disturbance.

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Humpback whales spouting off Victoria, BC with the mountains of Olympic Park in the background.

One unexpected reminder of home was walking through the streets at dusk and hearing the trees alive with song. We had watched starlings descending into the city as the day drew to a close and there, in the middle of Government Street amongst the lights and cars, was an evening roost! A free concert for all those who passed by.

The other creature I was really hoping to see was a hummingbird. Victoria gets a number of species through the summer, but their reliance on the seasonal resource of nectar means that most migrate for the winter to seek food. With such a fast wingbeat, their energy expenditure means that they can’t go too long without a sugary refill! We were too late for most, but one exception is Anna’s hummingbird – these have the northernmost year-round range of any hummingbird and are regularly counted in Christmas bird lists for the city. On the last day, I read a tip which suggested listening for the male singing from the top of a tree. I had been sitting a few moments listening to what I assumed was some sort of machinery in the street outside our apartment, before realising that this series of buzzes, chips and whistles was the bird I was hoping to see! Looking for all the world like a pair of outsized bumblebees, a pair were skittering around the top of a street-tree, settling briefly before buzzing onwards and out of sight.

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Anna’s Hummingbird settled in a street tree in Victoria, BC.

The final stop was a few days in Vancouver itself before heading back home – final post coming soon!

Tofino – Beaches, Big Trees and Bears

After leaving Cathedral Grove, we made for Tofino out on the western coast in the Pacific Rim National Park. The town is situated at the tip of a peninsula amongst a cluster of islands and inlets.

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Rather than three trees – this photograph is actually taken in the space between three leaders which arise from a single bole.

The temperate rainforests along this stretch of the coast are stunning – we walked the steps and boardwalks through the luscious greenery admiring the towering trees above and their tiny delicate lichen analogues below. The parallels with the temperate rainforests in the UK – such as those found in Wales – are apparent through their determination to green every available space – as you can see in the image of the wooden boardwalk below!

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Boardwalk covered with mosses and ferns

One day we walked through the forest to reach Schooner Cove – one of the stretches of pristine sandy beaches which line the Pacific – and another, we walked the length of MacKenzie Beach watching surfers learning the waves whilst sandpipers foraged along the shoreline.

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Sandpipers and sanderlings feeding along the shoreline in MacKenzie Beach

The beaches around Vancouver Island were almost all headed up with bleached-white driftwood – presumably pulled clear to lie well above the strandline. These are no mere branches – the timber at the top is often entire trees. Where these piles were well established, they provided nice little ecological niches, with plants establishing within the hollows and small birds foraging in amongst the cavities their huge trunks crated.

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Driftwood piled artistically with a crow sat at the apex – corvids were frequently to be seen foraging for morsels along the shore

Whilst we saw plenty of the grey squirrels, sadly all to familiar in the UK now, we also saw some much smaller species too, such as this one which popped up to see us at Long Beach. There are two similar species – Douglas and American Red squirrels – which are tricky to tell apart to the unfamiliar eye. Fortunately their distributions are rather different – Douglas squirrel is not found on Vancouver Island.

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American Red squirrel along Long Beach, Tofino

In the late summer/early autumn, the black bears frequently spend time along the shore, foraging under rocks and boulders for crabs and other rockpool treats. We had hoped to join a kayaking trip out to see the bears, but the organisers said it was too late as the bears were heading back inland to follow the salmon runs. However another outfit just around the corner was still running trips – sadly not by kayak – so we hopped on and went out to watch them! The tour leader was very experienced and spotted the ‘right kind’ of black blob at a great distance when it was merely a spec on the shoreline. On closer approach, he cut the engine and idled slowly and silently close enough for us to watch the bears without disturbing them.

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Black bear foraging along the shoreline in Tofino

Watching the bears overturn the boulders as though they were simply pebbles to be pushed out of their way allows you to appreciate quite how powerful these creatures really are. Whilst we never saw another wild bear on our travels, it was great to be able to observe this natural behaviour without needing to worry too much about our exit strategy!

​On our last day, we took a kayaking trip out around Clayoquot Sound, including a walk around the Big Tree Trail on Meares Island. The staggering trees include cedars which are between 1,000 and 1,500 years old. These spectacular beings came scarily close to destruction in 1984 when MacMillan Bloedel prepared to log the island. The Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Council declared the entire Island a Tribal Park and successfully gained an injunction against the company which has allowed these treasures to be preserved to this day. The arrogance of the proposal to log the island hit me quite strongly – after standing for 1,000 years or more, why should this generation and this company decide that these ancient trees were theirs to take? Much more chilling is to think of the vast expanses of forest which didn’t escape this fate.

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The cloud hanging over the wooded islands around Clayoquot Sound, Tofino
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The view from the kayak on a beautiful Sunday morning.

Next stop – Victoria out on the eastern tip of Vancouver Island!

 

Vancouver Island – Sea-mist in Nanaimo

After Squamish, we headed out to Horseshoe Bay and caught the late afternoon ferry across to Vancouver Island – landing in Nanaimo just as darkness fell.

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Our first sunset views of Vancouver Island on the ferry from the mainland
We stayed just up the coast a little from the town itself, and woke the next morning to see the sea concealed with an inversion lit by blue skies and sunshine above.

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The mist beginning to clear over the ocean between Lantzville and Vancouver as the morning wore on
We hastily corrected our plans and headed out to Moorecroft Park in Nanoose to make the most of the surreal scenery. Here we walked down to the silent shoreline and watched hawks, vultures and cormorants whilst the mist rolled down the wooded hillside to reach the sea.

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Mist rolling down from Vancouver Island to reach the sea in Moorecroft Park, Nanoose.

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Mist rolling down from Vancouver Island to reach the sea in Moorecroft Park, Nanoose.

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Trees barely visible through the mist at Moorecroft Park, Nanoose.

Turkey vulture beside the shoreline in Moorecroft Park, Nanoose
We spent the afternoon walking around Protection Island, watching seals in the harbour from the Floating Pub, before heading inland the next day to Cathedral Grove.

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The view up amongst the giants of Cathedral Grove
Sadly, the main draw of Cathedral Grove is that it is one of the few remaining stands of the old growth forest which is otherwise now largely lost. Here, the largest trees are 800 years old, measuring 9m in circumference and towering to a colossal 75m. This habit is markedly different to the growth patterns of old broadleaf trees in the UK – I recently climbed some 35m high black poplars but this is easily the highest I’ve ever been in the canopies. Our broadleaf trees grow oldest when they are coppiced or pollarded and never reach these heights – for example the Bowthorpe Oak – thought to be over 1000 years old, has a circumference of 13m but stands barely 15m high.

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Dipping into the edge of Lake Cameron
As well as admiring the trees themselves, there were the decorations of bryophytes draped over the branches and hanging down in straggled strands – the most appropriately named being the Witches Hair lichen.

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Trailing bryophytes amongst the lower branches of the confers in Cathedral Grove.
Next stop – heading out to admire the rainforests and the Pacific Ocean in Tofino!