Life after Light – Bats along Grantham Canal

It’s very nearly Halloween – what better time to introduce you to the bats which haunt Grantham Canal when darkness falls…

IMG_4159I spent several nights this September cycling along Grantham Canal with an EM3 bat detector connected to a GPS unit, recording the bats in flight between the A1 to the east and Hickling Basin to the west. Bats use echolocation to navigate and hunt and the bat detector converts this ultrasonic sound into something we can hear. The sound emitted by the detector tells you when a bat is there, often which species it is and sometimes even what it is doing.

You might imagine that this is quite a sinister place to be, surrounded by bats on a moonlit night, but there really is nothing to be afraid of! As the detector tapped and pattered away to announce their, I could see bats flying before me in the darkness. But even though I was cycling towards them, they elegantly avoided me every time, never making contact and certainly never tangling in my hair. This is one of the most enduring myths about bats but their fantastic echolocation abilities mean that they can ‘see’ and avoid obstacles on even the darkest of nights.

I recorded at least five species in September, some calls with ‘buzzes’ indicating foraging and some with ‘song flight’ where male soprano pipistrelles emit lower frequency social calls to attract mates. These are just on the edge of human hearing and can be heard without a detector – you may have heard the very high frequency chirrups if you walk outside at dusk in the autumn.

Common Pipistrelle

The Common Pipistrelle is one of the smallest but certainly the commonest bat species in the UK
The Common Pipistrelle is the smallest and the commonest UK species

The common pipistrelle is our most abundant species in the UK, and was encountered throughout the route of the canal, particularly where there are more trees as this species specialises in hunting along ‘edge’ habitat which is typically along hedges, tree lines and other landscape features.

The orange bat symbols in this map indicate the locations where common pipistrelle bats were identified. The A1 which dissects the canal is at the far eastern end with Hickling Basin marking the western extent
The orange bat symbols in this map indicate the locations where common pipistrelle bats were identified. The A1 which dissects the canal is at the far eastern end with Hickling Basin marking the western extent

Soprano Pipistrelle

The soprano pipistrelle is physically similar to the common pipistrelle but a has differences in morphology such as wing veination and face colouring with the much darker face of the common pipistrelle earning it's other name of bandit pipistrelle
The soprano pipistrelle is physically similar to the common pipistrelle but has differences in morphology such as wing veination and face colouring with the much darker face of the common pipistrelle earning it’s other name of bandit pipistrelle

The soprano pipistrelle is very similar morphologically and was not even identified as a separate species until 1992. Now they can be told apart confidently in their hand, and with fair reliability acoustically as the soprano pipistrelle calls at 55 kHz compared with the common pipipstrelle at 45 kHz. In England, the soprano pipistrelle is often found associated with water and so it was no surprise to find them along the canal. An interesting observation however is that there appears to be much more activity to the east, near to larger water bodies. Denton Reservoir lies just beside the canal towards the eastern end and is likely to be an important foraging resource for this species.

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The blue bat symbols in this map indicate the locations where soprano pipistrelle bats were identified. The A1 which dissects the canal is at the far eastern end with Hickling Basin marking the western extent

The vast majority of the recordings related to these two pipistrelle species – the other  bat species were found at much lower frequencies.

The yellow bat symbols in this map indicate the locations where Natterer's bats were identified; black represents whiskered/Brandts; purple represents brown long-eared; and green represents noctule. The A1 which dissects the canal is at the far eastern end with Hickling Basin marking the western extent
The yellow bat symbols in this map indicate the locations where Natterer’s bats were identified; black represents whiskered/Brandts; purple represents brown long-eared; and green represents noctule. The A1 which dissects the canal is at the far eastern end with Hickling Basin marking the western extent

Noctule

The noctule bat is our largest species and tends to fly high and early, often the first bat to appear around sunset and can be seen in the skies as the swifts are still on the wing. Only one noctule was heard during the transects, between Denton and Woolesthorpe and picked up again near Muston. This bat is large and the sky was light meaning I could watch it  flying my way, foraging as it flew to the west. This is a widespread species which favours roosting in trees, but numbers are generally lower than the pipistrelles.

Noctule bat - the largest UK species
Noctule bat – the largest UK species

Brown long-eared bat

Brown long-eared bat is one of our quietest but most charismatic bats. Their large ears make them quite charming to behold, and they are frequently found roosting in barns and other buildings. I only picked up a single instance of this bat, but their very quiet echolocation means they are generally under-recorded.

The brown long-eared bat is named for quite obvious reasons!
The brown long-eared bat is named for quite obvious reasons!

Myotis bats

The myotis bats are considered to be some of the most difficult to identify from sound alone. Daubenton’s bats are the myotis species most frequently associated with water as they specialise in flying low over still waters and taking insects on the wing or from the water’s surface. Natterer’s bat is another myotis species and some of the calls recorded along the canal in September are characteristic of this species. Whiskered and Brandt’s bats are the other two myotis species which are likely to be present in this part of the country. These two bats are very similar to one another and are difficult to separate even in the hand. Some of the calls have the characteristics of one (or both) of these two species. Whilst these species are not commonly associated with aquatic habitats, the canal also boasts hedgerows, copses and grass bank margins which provide great terrestrial habitat as well.

A Daubenton's bat - the myotis species most frequently associated with water. The myotis bats are larger than the pipistrelles but not as big as the noctule.
A Daubenton’s bat – the myotis species most frequently associated with water. The myotis bats are larger than the pipistrelles but not as big as the noctule.

I encountered a whole host of other species whilst cycling along in the afterglow of sunset including barn owls, tawny owls, hares fleeing down the towpath and badgers snuffling in the hedgerows. The canal is stunning in the daytime but at night it comes alive with a whole host of new species – a walk around sunset might reveal creatures which you would not normally be privileged enough  to watch.

Sunset along Grantham Canal

If you are looking to commission bat surveys in the Midlands area, check out Landscape Science Consultancy’s website here!

Wildflowers at Harlaxton Wharf, Grantham Canal

I stopped off at Harlaxton Wharf on a cycle along the canal and got somewhat waylaid identifying the flowers there – for a very small square of land, you will find many species of wildflower! These include many species planted intentionally, using Naturescape seeds and the assistance of the Princes Trust when the Wharf was restored. Others, including some of the more understated species but also some of the most impressive, are centuries-old inhabitants of the Grantham Canal bankside. I have run through a whirlwind description to help you identify the species which are there – I may have missed some so please let me know if you spot anything else whilst waiting for a Canal Boat ride from the Grantham Canal Society – more info about the trips which leave from the Wharf can be found here and details of the renovation works are here. There is also a gallery of photographs of the wildflowers, arranged by colour, to help you with identification.

Sign at Harlaxton Wharf
Sign at Harlaxton Wharf

If you are visiting before July then the big flashy purple flowers from tall grey/green plumes of vegetation are corncockle (Agrostemma githago). Large herbaceous plants with purple flowers after this stage are the more likely to be the later flowering rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium), the plants of which can grow to 2m tall with their purple flowered trumpets topping a tower of lanceolate leaves. If the last description sounds right, bar the size, then the more diminutive broad-leaved willowherb (Epilobium montanum) might be your species – this grows no more than 50cm in height and is altogether more delicate than the big bruiser which is rosebay. The fluted flowers often shade from white to pink as they mature.

Greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) is also growing here – the flowers are almost thistle-like but are plumed with tendrils at the petal tips. The colour is blue with a tinge of purple and the leaves are unlike thistles completely – robust fleshy and smooth green leaves with none of the spikes associated with thistles.

The large familiar yellow flowers growing from a rosette of toothed leaves (dandelion coming from the French: Dents de Lion) are your common or garden dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.). Watch out too for smaller, finer flowered versions – these are autumn hawkbit (Leontodon autumnalis) and they are not in flower until later in the year, as the name suggests.

Common nettle (Urtica dioica) should be known to most – if it stings you then you have your identification. The flowers on this are non-descript to say the least, fine tassles of tiny flowers in a sting-bead. If your ‘nettle’ has flowers then check the colour. There are a number of non-stinging ‘dead’ nettles and two of these are found at the Wharf. Luckily, their colour gives them away – white dead-nettle (Lamium album) is white whilst red dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) is red. There are other differences to tell the apart – the key characteristic is size and stature – if your deadnettle is approaching the structure of a stinging nettle then it is most probably white. Red is much less sturdy, often lower to the ground with finer leaves. There is a third option for a species with nettle-like leaves but no sting and this is hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) – this has spikes of purple flowers which look almost orchid like. The best test here is scent- if there is a powerful unpleasant scent from the crushed leaf (certainly not like anything else I have ever smelt) then this is your species!

Taller flowers of red or white on long flower stalks with soft ovoid leaves are the red campion (Silene dioica) and the white campion (Silene latifolia). Again, there are other campions to choose from – the bladder campion can be seen out in the limestone swards of The Drift or the Viking Way – but only these two species are on the Wharf. Colour is key to ID!

Rounded, softly serrated leaves and a noticeably squared stem identify common figwort (Scrophularia nodosa). The flowers are deep red but tiny – at first glance you might think them buds waiting to burst into an exciting rich flower but closer inspection reveals them to be at the height of their glory.

Buttercups come in different shapes and sizes and two can be found here beside the canal – creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) is a very common species which is often found in damper places – a wet flush in a pasture field will often be stained yellow with the flowers. Other species are also common and a second can be found here – bulbous buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) differs in the leaf and structure but the key ID is in the flowers – the sepals (these are the green beneath the flower) are reflexed, that is they are peeled back like a banana and pressed against the stem below. Earlier in the year, you will see buttercup-like flowers but these could well be lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria). The flower petals of this species are more pointed than the very rounded petals of the buttercups and the leaves are round and shiny rather than serrated and dissected like those of the buttercups. For similarity of name rather than similarity of plant, I will also mention the greater celandine (Chelidonium majus). This is no relation to the lesser celandine but shares a name nonetheless. Greater celandine is in the cabbage family and is a much larger, more foliose plant. You get a lot of leaf for your flower!

Spiky plants next: there are three purple-flowered thistle species to be seen. The biggest, boldest thistle with spikes which look as though they have the ability to impale are the spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare) – think of the spikes as spears for an easy way to remember. There are too smaller species which look as though they could just give you a nasty prickling – here the key difference to tell them apart is the presence of spiky leaflets on the main stems – welted thistle (Carduus crispus) has them whilst creeping thistle (Cirsium arvensis) does not. To confuse matters ever so slightly further, there is another similar species you will see which is in fact a sowthistle rather than a thistle – the thistles all have purple flowers whereas the sow thistle has yellow flowers. The prickly sow thistle (Sonchus asper) has spikey leaves which wrap around their stem. A smooth version of this called, appropriately enough, a smooth sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) grows alongside it.

Of very different structure, but on the theme of spikes, are the white-flowered bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.) which rambles along the ground and up through adjacent shrubs and trees. It should be familiar to anybody who has been blackberry-ing. Also instantly recognisable is the rose which grows wild here – the curved thorns and open white-pink flowers should be immediately recognisable to genus. This species is the dog rose (Rosa canina).

The tall, white-flowered umbellifers are another distinctive group – their flowers are in umbels which can be thought of as umbrellas for an easy visual clue. The leaves vary but are generally divided to a greater or lesser extent – lots of ‘empty space’ within the leaf footprint if you will. If the leaves are big and bold, divided into big lobes then you have hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium). Then there is the notorious ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) – if you have it in your garden then you can pick it out of a line-up. The leaves appear directly from the ground very much like the leaves of the elder after which it is named. This will also send up dense heads of white flowers in a compact cluster. If it is neither of these, then next check is the stem – if there are purple dots of blotches then you have the highly toxic hemlock (Conium maculatum) – back away slowly and for goodness sake do not touch or eat. This leaves two other umbellifers which flower at the wharf and the simplest way to differentiate is to ask what time of year it is. Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is a big, brash species which flowers early in the spring and is generally going over by the end of May. This is superseded by the smaller, finer, more delicate hedge parsley (Torilis japonica) which flowers for the remainder of the summer.

Two primrose species are to be found – a line of wild primrose (Primula vulgaris) grow along the bank with their pale yellow, individual flowers which are open and relatively large with wavy, indefinite edges. By contrast the cowslip (Primula veris) has groups of tighter, more enclosed flowers which hang together – a brighter yellow in colour with flecks of orange.

Ivy (Hedera helix) should need no introduction – a creeping plant with glossy green heart-shaped leaves. The flowers in the autumn are a great nectar source – clusters of small black sphered which look something like a tiny bunch of black grapes.

Some of the largest leaves on the Wharf belong to burdock (Arctium lappa) – these are greyish green above and whitish green below. The burdock flowers are fairly insipid but the seeds are a ball of hooks which fall apart to individual hooked seeds when you try to pick them apart when snagged on hair or clothes.

Another species which will stick to you if it has a chance is cleavers (Galium aparine). This has tiny four-petalled white flowers and grows in long strands, often creeping and climbing its way through other vegetation, with little whorls of leaves intermittently up its stem. There are a number of galium species in the UK but this is the most common and the only one which will stick to your jumper with ease!

There are a number of small plants with purple flowers and a more or less creeping characteristic – I will tell you about each in turn. Plants with little deep-purple trumpet-shaped flowers and ivy-shaped leaves – these will be the ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea). If the leaf description sounds right but the flowers do not, then perhaps the delicate trailing ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) is your species – these flowers have three lower petals and two upper with a yellow patch in the centre. If the purple flowers are star-shaped with fine green filigree foliage and red-wine stems then it is probably herb Robert (Geranium robertianum). Finally, if the plant has a more upright character with purple pea-like flowers and tendrils on the ends of the pinnate leaf stems, then this will be the common vetch (Vicia sativa).

A species which stands apart from the others is Lords and Ladies or Arum lily (Arum maculatum). The deep-green, often dark-flecked waxy leaves emerge straight from the ground in the early spring with the pale hooded flower rearing up soon afterwards with the long purple flower spike below. The action is all over by mid-May with the green berries appearing on a low spike, turning to red in the autumn.

Small yellow flowers on a substantial plant could be wood avens (Geum urbanum) – these leave a strange seed something like a strawberry after the flower has been fertilised and the flower lost. Nipplewort (Lapsana communis) is a taller species with a number of yellow flowers present in a very diffuse ‘head’. The flowers on the former have five distinct petals whilst the latter is a composite flower – it is a member of the daisy family – and has a larger number of yellow florets which somewhat crowd into one. If your plant is much lower to the ground, with red-flecked yellow pea-like flowers and clover-like leaves, then it will be bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). A final yellow-flowered possibility is the low, fleshy groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) whose flowers look perpetually as though they are just about to emerge – a bud waiting to burst. It never will – the flower rivals figwort for the disappointment following from bud to flower.

Clover-like flowers and clover-like (three-leafed) leaves growing close to the ground or sometimes bubbling and swelling into a mound is the white clover (Trifolium repens). This is a creeping plant and will rarely be found with individual flowers and leaves. A discreet, compact little plant with a flower spike of tiny white flowers to only 10cm high and leaves like lines of diminishing green coins laid out along the stem will be wavy bitter-cress (Cardamine flexuosa). A creeping, clambering plant with as much green sepal as white petal on the flower will be common chickweed (Stellaria media). A much more upright plant will be garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) – rub the leaves and release the faint smell to confirm the ID but be warned that this does not confer the taste to food it is used in cooking, unlike wild garlic which is found up in Belvoir Woods and out east at Belton House amongst others.

Multiple blue flowers with small, soft, green leaves like the ears of some small creature? Water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides). And no, despite the name, this will be growing on the banks of the Wharf rather than in the canal itself.

Two poppy species are flowering here; the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) has flowers which are an insipid but delicate shade of purple with grey-green foliage. The more familiar common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) can also be seen – these are the archetypal poppy with the deep red leaves and the black centre.

The old childhood adage said that where there are nettles to sting, there is dock to relieve. I never found this to be true but there are two species of dock to be seen. The big, bold, cumbersome species is broadleaf dock (Rumex obtusifolius). A smaller species with long, narrow pointed leaves and red veins is the wood dock (Rumex sanguineus).

Even amongst the gravel beside the water there are species which find a home. The tiny pearlwort (Sagina procumbens) holds tiny (really tiny) green pearl-like flowers aloft from fine-leaved foliage which ambles and spreads from the base. The whole plant is usually only a few centimetres in any direction. A bigger jumble of fennel-leaves with yellow and white flowers is the pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea) – again a crush of
the leaves and a sniff should reveal the truth of the name.

I have left until last the most effusive and the most unimpressive flowers – I will deal with the latter first. The fat hen (Chenopodium album) flower is a mealy, beady insipid-red affair which you would struggle to even notice. The leaves always remind me a little of dinosaur footprints – this is a plant which will generally pass everybody by although it does make good eating! By contrast, the ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) – like the garden variety but blown up to gigantic proportions with crinkle-cut leaves and a big yellow centre is fairly unmistakable.

Red-eared Terrapin in Grantham Canal

I had something of a surprise when out walking along the Grantham Canal at the weekend. A friend posted a cracking photograph of a mink on twitter (and now on her blog which you can read here) which was seen along the stretch between Harlaxton and Denton. This is a non-native species and can cause serious damage to the ecosystem through their predation on native species of fish, birds and water vole. However, it is argued that, as these are all food sources for the native otter, the non-native mink is filling a currently vacant ecological niche for a semi-aquatic carnivorous mammal in our waterways. Whilst the grey squirrel competed with the native red in a similar way to the detriment of the reds, there is good evidence to suggest that the re-colonisation of a watercourse by otters will lead to the displacement of the smaller mink and so the native species would win out in the end. Whilst we wait, and hope, for otter to continue their spread through our native watercourses, the mink could be seen as its understudy. They can however cause serious problems in some locations, especially where they prey upon the eggs of sensitive bird species, and eradication programmes are in place in a number of locations to remove them. I have only once seen a mink along the canal, on the stretch by Woolesthorpe some years ago, and was keen to see another.

I was scanning the edge of the canal as we walked along and was taken aback to see a completely different non-native species instead – a red-eared terrapin (Trechemys scripta elegans) basking out of the water on a log! This individual was around 30-40cm which is adult sized. These reptiles, originally from the Americas, were popular pets in the 1980’s and 1990’s following the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on childrens’ TV. They tended to out-grow their confinements and many of the more irresponsible owners simply released them into the wild. They can live for several decades and so this specimen could have been in the canal for a long period of time. The sale of these species does continue however so it could be a more recent arrival.

Red eared terrpin in British canal - Grantham Canal, Lincolnshire, UK

The terrapins feed on aquatic invertebrates and amphibians and so, like the mink, are a cause for concern in British waterways. Whilst the mink is quite able to breed and spread throughout the UK, there is less concern about the terrapins at present – they require around 100 days of >27 degrees or 60 days of >30 degrees for the eggs to successfully hatch and the young to develop which is rarely achieved in a British summer. This puts the terrapin into a different category to the mink – whilst they are not desirable, they are at least naturally controlled by the climate and they should not increase under their own steam. This means that there is not currently a requirement to control them in the wild; rather better controls on the sale of these species should ensure that they do not continue to be a problem once the individuals at large have died out naturally. That said, increased temperatures as a result of climate change could see this whole situation change! A juvenile was spotted Regent’s Canal in London last year and this caused concern that they might have found conditions warm enough to breed in our unusually hot summer.

The individual spotted in Grantham canal may even be the only one present – if no others were released alongside it. There is a record of an European Pond Turtle in the canal from 2006 which may be a misidentification of the same individual I saw, or it could be that this non-native species is also present along the waterway.

Next time you are walking along the canal, keep an eye and you might just spot something unexpected!

Harlaxton to Woolesthorpe – a 9 mile walk via woods, water and Vikings

For something a little bit different, I thought I would share a walk which is one of my favourites in the area. It starts from the village of Harlaxton to the west of Grantham and takes you out across farmland, through woods, around Denton Reservoir, follows the canal for a while as well as a taking in stretch of the ancient track – the Viking Way. Best of all, the mid-way point of the walk has a choice of two different pubs where you can stop for lunch!

The walk is 9.3 miles in total and can be shortened in a few places if you consult an OS map. This includes cutting up the Viking Way to avoid the village of Woolesthorpe (and both of its pubs!) and starting in Denton rather than Harlaxton.

The numbers on the instructions relate to the map. I have also put in italics a few points of interest along the way.

Harlaxton to Woolesthorpe Walk Map
Harlaxton to Woolesthorpe Walk Map

I hope you enjoy this walk and that all the instructions are clear – let me know if you try the route out and anything interesting you see along the way!

Point 1

Start the walk in Harlaxton village – there is a layby where you can park opposite the medieval monument and phone box which are just beside the village shop. To reach the starting point from the A607, turn left into the main village (if you are coming from Grantham) and follow the road round until you find this location.

To begin the walk, head back up towards the A607 on the High Street.

As you pass the shop, you can see a field on the left-hand side which is an old orchard often grazed by a diminutive pony. There are often interesting wildflowers such as greater celendine to be seen along this edge in the summer months, as well as spring flowers such as forget-me-not earlier in the year.

Point 2

When you reach the A607, turn left and walk west for a few minutes until you reach the see a wide layby on the opposite side of the road. At the nearest end of this, you will see a metal gate and a footpath sign pointing you north along a track signed Peashill Lane. Take this track, being careful to close the gate properly behind you, continue past a farmstead and follow a rough track down a gentle slope.

There are a number of old ash trees lining this track as well as interesting wildflowers with the purple flowers of common vetch and black knapweed on the verge mingling with more arable weeds such as pineapple mayweed and field poppies on the edge of the crops.

When the footpath forks to the left or the right, take the right to do a slight kink but continue down towards the canal in the same direction as previously.

Point 3

On reaching the canal, turn left through a gate and head diagonally across to the opposite corner of the field where you will find a gate allowing you onto a wooden footbridge over a ditch.

This field is a great spot to see fieldfares and redwings which migrate into the country in the winter time and can be seen from around October onwards. They forage in the open countryside and will quickly strip the remaining red and purple berries from hawthorn and blackthorn.

Point 4

Having passed over the ditch, continue straight ahead to the right of the hedgerow before you until you pass over a stream and up a set of steps to reach Denton Reservoir.

Denton Reservoir is one of the best spots for waterfowl in the area – many species such as mallards, great crested grebes, coots and moorhens can be seen all year round but are joined by large numbers of tufted ducks and pochard during the winter. You might also spot cormorants and herons on this waterbody.

The reservoir is favoured by anglers and you might be lucky enough to spot species including pike and perch if you keep an eye on the water as you walk around.

At night, this is a great spot for bats with Daubenton’s and soprano pipistrelle foraging across the water. They can be best seen during a visit around half an hour after sunset on any warm evening between May and September. The much larger noctule bat flies high over the hedgerows and field edges which run around the perimeter of the reservoir, hunting insects on high rather than taking those which arise from the water.

Walk to the right around the edge of the reservoir, taking care as there are no rails or fences, until you reach a path which drops down to your right in a gentle slope to bring you to a little brook which leaves the reservoir here.

Point 5

Take this path down and then follow the brook away from the reservoir until you reach a point where the path turns left or right. Take the path to the left. Quite quickly, when the woods end on your right hand side, turn right along the boundary between the trees and the field.

Walk along the woodland edge for the length of a field, then pass into the next. Here, cross the field diagonally along a well trodden path until you reach a small carpark area and a bridge which passes over Grantham Canal.

Point 6

Cross over this bridge and then turn left to follow the tow-path of Grantham Canal as it winds through the landscape.

Grantham Canal
Grantham Canal

The canal is an excellent way to ‘reveal’ the landscape it passes through. It was built to be as flat as possible, to minimise the need for locks, cuttings or embankments. With this in mind, the meandering route and wide loops which the canal takes reveal quite subtle undulations in the landscape, as well as more prominent landforms. As you leave the bridge, you will notice a wide loop which the canal takes around a field and, looking back, you notice the way that this farmland rises up.

You will pass under 3 more bridges as you proceed. The first is the road bridge for Casthorpe Road which links Denton and Sedgebrook. The second is an old canal bridge similar to the first which you can take left to follow the Viking Way up Brewers Grave – this route will take you all the way to Oakham to the left or Hull to the right. The third is a small footbridge which takes a footpath up to the road between Denton and Woolesthorpe.

The hedgerows which flank the towpath to the right provide a feast of blackberries and sloes in the autumn. There are also hawthorn berries which are also edible although not entirely pleasant in my experience!

If you look to the water, you can often spot shoals of juvenile fish including roach and dace as well as their larger parents further out into the channel.

Dragonflies and damselflies are to be found in abundance along here in the summer right through to September. The dragonflies are usually much more substantial, and hold their wings out flat when at rest, as though they were soaking up the sun. Damselflies, often an iridescent blue, hold their wings together, as though they were making themselves as unobtrusive as possible.

Walk along the canal until you pass the locks and reach another bridge, just before the pub.

Point 7

Cross the bridge just before the Rutland Arms (or the Dirty Duck depending on your preference).

The pub does good standard pub food and offers a range of ales and other drinks for refreshment – a stop on one of their canal-side picnic benches is often a welcome rest at this point. This pub can get very busy, especially on nice days, so bear in mind that there is also another pub at Point 8.

Then follow the track away from the canal up to the road where you will turn left towards the main village of Woolesthorpe. There is a pavement along this section. Cross and continue in the same direction when you reach a crossroads and turn left when you reach Worthington Lane.

Point 8

Walk up Worthington Lane until you come to a second pub called The Chequers.

The Chequers offers a slightly more refined fare than the Rutland Arms – think ciabatta rather than sandwich! They also do a good range of drinks and there is a large beer garden at the back which is always a pleasant place to sit for an hour or two.

If you walk past the frontage of the pub, you will see a very optimistic cricket pitch ahead of you – walk down the right-hand side of this until you reach a stile. Cross the stile and head up the hill, keeping the woodland on your left hand side.

This is a steep section but offers fantastic views back across Woolesthorpe and out across the Vale of Belvoir. You can see just how flat the land is all the way out to the Trent to the east. Straight ahead, you can see Belvoir Castle on the top of the hill.

View from the top of Woolesthorpe Hill
View from the top of Woolesthorpe Hill

Point 9

When you reach a stile on your left hand side, go through it and follow the footpath past an area of recently cleared woodland. When you reach the road, turn right and follow it to a bend. This section does not have a pavement and cars can travel quite fast along it so walking on the wide grass verge is recommended! Luckily the walk only takes a minute or two.

Point 10

When you reach an s-bend in the road, you will see a house on your right and ornamental gates which lead into the Belvoir Estate. On your left is a track which takes you down to the canal – this is where the bridge we encountered along the canal would bring you to. Instead, we want to take the track to the right which takes you away from the canal and through an area of young woodland. This is the Viking Way.

The track winds along between arable fields, bordered by hedgerows with sweet chestnut trees as standards all along. If you like chestnuts, it is well worth bringing a bag along to fill if you are planning a walk along here in late September or early October.

The ease of walking along here does vary, depending largely on whether the various 4×4’s or trail bikes have been obeying the signs and keeping off. The restrictions on them vary but they are often permitted to use the route at certain times of the year when the disturbance and damage they cause can be enough to make it tough going for much of the rest of the year.

Point 11

The track will soon reach a railway bridge and a row of houses will appear just afterwards on the right hand side. Cross over the bridge and turn immediately left to drop down the bank and follow the path of the old railway to the left.

You will pass a damp pine plantation to the left where woodpeckers can often be heard drumming on the trees or cackling their cry. On the right hand side soon after, you will pass a lake where you might be lucky enough to spot a heron stalking the shallows.

On the approach to a second bridge, where we leave this section, you will see a lot of young ash trees lining the sides of the old railway line and forming a light canopy over the track. Ash is a relatively quick growing species and often colonises abandoned locations such as this. Walking along this section, take a moment to consider how different the landscape would be if ash were to go the way of English Elm as a result of Ash Dieback disease.

View across the fields to Denton Church
View across the fields to Denton Church

Point 12

When you reach another bridge, take the track which brings you up to the right of it, just before the bridge itself, and come back out onto the road. Turn right and follow the road down and into the village of Denton. Again, we are on a stretch of road with no pavement and potentially fast cars so do be careful for a few hundred metres until you reach the pavements which carry you safely through the village.

As you enter the village, just beside the Denton sign, there is a patch of butterbur on the left hand side. The great wide leaves and tall flower spikes look rather prehistoric and are very noticeable in May when they are in flower. This is a species often associated with wet habitats and the stream which passes just beside these plants explains their position here.

As you pass through the village, you will see the village hall on the right hand side. This is one of the buildings from the WWI encampment at Belton Estate during the war when a machine gun training ground was located there.

The road will bend left, then shortly right to head uphill towards the A607. Walk along until you see a footpath sign indicating you to turn off to the left.

Point 13

Follow the footpath down a narrow jitty between two hedgerows and out into a field. Walk ahead and slightly right to cross a stream at the bottom of the field where there is a bridge to the right of dense willow. There are often cows in this field so be sure to keep dogs on leads.

As you enter the field, take a look to the left where you can see an impressive old oak in a private field behind the houses as well as a beech on the field boundary.

After crossing the stream, head back uphill to a stile which opens onto a track.

Point 14

Turn right along the track for about 20m, then leave it again over a stile to your left. Follow the path diagonally across the field to reach a gap in the hedgerow at the far corner.

If you look to your left as you walk, you can see the canal which you just walked and another nice view out across the Vale of Belvoir.

View from the A607 - the ladybird balloon is a familar sight on nice summer's evening across the Vale of Belvoir
View from the A607 – the ladybird balloon is a familar sight on nice summer’s evening across the Vale of Belvoir

Go through the gap, (carefully!) cross the A607 and go straight over the stile into the field opposite. Then take the track diagonally to your left to cut off the corner of the field and reach a gate which will bring you back into the village of Harlaxton. Walk through the two gates and then continue along the road which the footpath becomes.

Point 15

When you meet another road at a T-junction, instead cross over and go through a gate into the field. Cross this field along the footpath and go through two more gates to bring you out into the churchyard of Harlaxton Church.

Walk across the front of the 13th Centuary church (look out for the gargoyles as you go) towards a large copper beech.

This is recorded in the Woodland Trust register of coronation trees which were planted to mark the coronation of the queen in 1963.

To the left of the beech is a small carpark and, just to the left of this, a track which leads you down the side and brings you back out opposite the monument at the start of your walk.

Weeds in Harlaxton (the tyranny of the Best Kept Village inspectorate)

The most recent issue of the Harlaxton Voice, the monthly newsletter for the village of Harlaxton a couple of miles to the west of Grantham, outlined the issues raised by the ‘Best Kept Village’ inspectors in 2012. Amongst their criticisms (although they were overall very impressed with the village), was the number of weeds. Many people may agree but I would offer a different view; I would hope that the village does not take this complaint too much to heart.

Harlaxton Monument; aubretia growing along the kerb edge, dandelions and daisys in the grass along with planted daffodils. Which are the weeds?
Harlaxton Monument; aubretia growing along the kerb edge, dandelions and daisys in the grass along with planted daffodils. Which are the weeds?

I took a walk around the Harlaxton between the rain showers today for a quick survey of the unauthorised village vegetation. There are garden escapee’s; valarian growing in the walls, forget-me-nots forgetting to keep within the beds they were planted in, yellow corydalis and the beautiful and characteristic aubretia which bubbles and tumbles down the walls as you drive through. I would suspect that the committee would approve of these plants, they look sufficiently ornamental and their establishment within the village adds to its character.

Forget-me-nots (garden escapes)

Then there are the colourful flowering species which may split opinions a little further; dandelions imitating the sporadic sun in the otherwise dismal tarmac, broad-leaf willow herb, purple-flowered violets, buttercup-yellow lesser celandines, yarrow, herb-robert and purple toad-flax. These all take foothold in tiny patches of soil where you would never expect a planted seed to grow; they live against the odds where little else could. My personal favourite is the exquisite creeping toadflax which creeps out of the gaps in the walls and trails down, a native accompaniment to the bolder aubretia.

Dandelion growing in a crack in the pavement - a splash of sunshine with surprisingly few friends!
Dandelion growing in a crack in the pavement – a splash of sunshine with surprisingly few friends!
Delicate bittercress flowers growing at the base of a wall
Delicate bittercress flowers growing at the base of a wall

Finally are those which would be sprayed off by most without a second thought; spear thistle, common chickweed, groundsel, cleavers, bittercress and ivy-leaved speedwell. These do flower but generally they are so small and unappealing to the casual observer that they would be dismissed as scrubby vegetation. But look a little closer and these too are beautiful plants.

Weeds are defined as plants in the wrong place but the wrong place depends upon the viewpoint of the observer. There is no reason why our pavement edges should be sprayed clean of those opportunistic plants which have found a way to take a temporary root, add splashes of green to the tarmac and provide nectar sources for pollinators such as butterflies and bees. The inspection committee were pleased with the ‘tended beds’ – small squares of soil with specimen plants placed in the centre which I personally find rather dull. Are the daisy’s in the grass considered weeds? Some would say yes, some would say no. Weeds are a matter of aesthetics and I would hope that the village does not pander too much to the view of the itinerant inspectors who will not be visiting again for another year. I would say that the right place for our native wildflowers is wherever they can survive in our otherwise often too inert landscape but I suspect this is a minority viewpoint.

The Best Kapt Village Inspectors' ideal?

The Best Kept Village Inspectors’ ideal?

February Hibernation Survey at Harlaxton

Last Sunday was one of those beautiful days when everybody feels spring is just around the corner. The garden was filled with birdsong and sunshine, neighbours decided it was finally time to venture out and sweep those autumn leaves, daffodil bulbs bulged yellow at their tips where flowers are just waiting to appear.

What better day to descend into a sealed up tunnel, feeling the temperature drop steadily on a headlamp-lit thermometer, to search for hibernating bats!? Along with another member of the Lincolnshire Bat Group, we gallantly left the sunlight behind to see what we could find.

Entering the tunnels

In the past we have come across hibernating barbastelle bats, a rare species in the UK and here, at almost the northerly limit of their range, but sadly this time they were absent from the deep cracks which staircase down the brickwork where the tunnel curves.

Several years ago the Bat Group put up boxes in the tunnel, to provide a greater range of roosting opportunities and in here we did find some bats – two boxes had brown long-eared bats sleeping soundly inside, their long ears tucked behind their wings with only the tragus – the fleshy projection within the ears – apparent.

Hibernating brown long-eared bat

Only one of these bats was present during the January survey which means that some time in the last month, the other has flown and found this as a new place to enter torpor. This is not uncommon, bats will rouse during warmer winter weather and will often feed briefly before returning to their torpid state.
Along with the bats were around 60-70 peacock butterflies, all with their wings tightly closed and apparently oblivious to our torchlight as we passed by, careful not to disturb them. Many had damaged pieces of wing from last year – the first butterflies of the year are often tattered old veteran tortoiseshells, peacocks and brimstones.

Hibernating peacock butterflies

A number of herald moths were also present, including the pair pictured below who appeared to be hibernating upon a spiders web! I would love to hear any feedback on this interpretation – I do not think they have fallen prey to the spider as this same pair were present last September when I checked the boxes were ready for the winter and are apparently still alive and well! They will take flight when the weather warms, sometime between March and May.

Hibernating herald moths

If you are interested in joining the local bat group, visit their webpage for details – there are events throughout the year that you can take part in. For details of your local group if you are outside of Lincolnshire, the BCT webpage has all the info.

Things to do in February Number 1 – Goosanders at Harlaxton

Goosanders (Mergus merganser) are an impressive looking diving duck whose summer habitat is upland rivers usually found further north than Grantham. Like the waxwings and the short-eared owls featured in January’s posts, this is another winter visitor to the area and makes a welcome addition to the local fauna at this otherwise dull time of year. Whilst goosanders do move from their upland habitats in the winter, it is likely that this small flock have moved further, many migrate from the colder climates of Scandinavia.

For the last few years, there has been a small flock which arrive at the relatively peaceful lake on the drive to Harlaxton Manor – a private drive which the University of Evansville kindly allow access for walkers. I have sadly failed, repeatedly, to get a good photograph of them because they are absent, or at the wrong end, or the light is awful or the battery dies, so please do excuse the rather poor quality below. They show strong sexual dimorphism, that is the males and females look different. In this image, the white birds are the males whilst the more dowdy bird with the brown head is the female.

Goosanders on Harlaxton Manor lake - two males to the right and one to the left with a single female in between
Goosanders on Harlaxton Manor lake – two males to the right and one to the left with a single female in between

If the photograph was better, you might be able to see the serrated bill which is used for catching and gripping the fish they prey upon – this is a definitive characteristic of the ‘sawbill’ family to which they belong.

I counted ten on the lake today – 7 males and 3 females. The lake can be accessed either by walking down the main drive (around the edge of the grand gates) and down towards the manor, or walking from the village of Harlaxton (see location map below). They can be a little shy and tend to stay away from the bridge but a pair of binoculars should reward you with a good view!

For more information in goosanders, the RSPB website is always a good start!

Location of Harlaxton Manor Lake - access from the village of Harlaxton (to the left) or the A607 (at the top)
Location of Harlaxton Manor Lake – access from the village of Harlaxton (to the left) or the A607 (at the top)