Friday 28 February 2014

Week 6, Part 2: Sheepish Explanations of Ecology

This post is all about sheep. It features adorable, springtime lambs; suckling mothers and family gatherings. No, they’re not “wild” but they have their role to play in sustaining the ecosystem of Westbrook Hay. In fact, conservation grazing is used widely, including at the National Nature Reserve, Wicken Fen, in Cambridgeshire. If it’s good enough for one of Britain's most biodiverse habitats, supporting literally thousands of rare and endangered species, then it’s good enough for us.

Essentially, grazing cattle are one tool used for succession management. If you know what that is, you can skip this next bit and just enjoy the cute pictures of sheep. Otherwise, I’ll explain (as only someone with no qualifications in ecology or natural sciences can do!). If you take a strip of barren, lifeless land, over time, eventually, weedy plant species will take root. They require minimal nutrients and are the first step to a developing ecosystem. Where there are plants, invertebrates will inevitably be drawn and, as these live, reproduce and die off, the soil’s nutrients improve and further plant species can move in. There is an inescapable progression to the way in which the land, its habitat and the species it sustains change. Weeds are naturally succeeded by grasses; and grasses by shrubs; shrubs by hedges and finally trees will dominate the landscape. As the habitat changes so will the type and species of organism (flora and/or fauna) which can survive there.

Simplistically, the final stage, or climax, of ecological succession is forestation. Trees are wonderful but woodland is only one type of habitat and you won’t find organisms which thrive in reed beds or grasses or low-growing, open scrub, or any other habitat you can think of which isn’t woodland, in such situations. It is for this reason that succession management is so important. Diversity of habitat leads to a rich diversity of flora and fauna (biodiversity)....and that’s why there are grazing sheep on Westbrook Hay!

Practically, the sheep help to maintain and improve the mixed clay, gravel and flint based soil grassland of the slopes of Dellfield and Preston Hill. As someone more knowledgeable about the site explains, “the sheep keep the coarse and invasive grasses short so that smaller wildflowers have a chance. By rotating the grazing we can help ensure a variety of wildflowers through the spring and summer. In turn, butterflies and day flying moths have a variety of sward lengths for egg laying and wildflowers for nectar. The lovely Small Coppers and Small Heaths, for instance, enjoy the really short grass." Of course, this person was keen to point out that "grasshoppers and crickets need long grass!! So variety is the key" and, hey presto, we’re back at habitat diversity, biodiversity and the central role of succession management, in all its guises. Finally, with all this talk of butterflies, moths, grasshoppers and crickets, I'm reminded that there is a lot to look forward to over the coming weeks as Spring unfolds.

I was going to write about the (Blackface) Norfolk Horn sheep but I’ve run out of steam for this week and will have to leave that one for you to reference if you’re interested. My third and final instalment is short but pretty and I'll upload that over the weekend. Now, for the extravagant array of sheep photographs (that really does sound weird!)

Family Gatherings


Suckling Mothers

Cute Lambs

Ear Nibbling!



Thursday 27 February 2014

Week 6, Part 1: Playing with Light

I should hint at a week of straggly-hair-inducing, wellington-boot-filling, jean-drenching rainfall more often. Instead, there have very definitely been days with more sunshine than cloudbursts. Yesterday morning was glorious and I was fortunate to be able to make the most of it. I’ll admit, though, to being slightly disappointed that I didn’t get to do ingenious things with my shamefully vast collection of supermarket memorabilia (aka plastic bags, ref last week’s post). However, with another 46 weeks to go, I’m sure one of them (at least) will feature me standing in the rain, photographing the Dellfield Oak. In fact, I hope it does as I rather like images which capture the weather.

The more observant amongst you will notice that this post is Part 1, implying there is more to follow. Indeed, I got a little snap happy in the sunshine, and so this week is a bumper three parts. This first instalment is Dellfield and the Oak.

Yesterday’s forecast was for uninterrupted sunshine from sunrise until late morning. However, me and early starts are like east and west...poles apart and never the twain shall meet (nothing like a flimsy reference to Kipling to emphasise the gravity of my position)! So, sunrise was out of the question but I did the best I could to get to Westbrook Hay as early as possible. And, I wasn’t disappointed. The cost to my sanity, and general health and wellbeing, of leaping, oh, ok, crawling out of bed at a ridiculous hour was worth it.

For over an hour, it was a case of catching the right light, playing with shadows and being patient as the sun worked its way around the trees and created the spectacle. At one point a Stock Dove landed on the Oak and, over in the trees in Ryders (the field west of Dellfield), there were at least 50 Redwing whistling away to one another. Whilst I was watching them, a Grey Heron flew overhead. And, the usual Buzzard also appeared, patrolling its territory.

Eventually, I tore myself away from Dellfield and made my way up to Preston Hill. It was at this point that I got completely distracted from hard-core nature spotting by pastures green, fluffy new lambs and nurturing mothers. But, that’s Part 2 and you’ll have to wait until tomorrow at the earliest for that. In the meantime, I hope a taster and yesterday’s Oak and playing with light will suffice.

Friday 21 February 2014

Week 5/B: Sunny Interlude

The S U N came out and there was more blue sky than fluorescing white cloud today….so….I pushed back a few things in the morning and spent about 40 mins on Bulbourne Moor and Bulbourne Meadow. If nothing else the photos are evidence that it hasn't rained non-stop, all day, every day, for an eternity, although it might feel like it. I fear next week's Oak tree photograph will require waterproofs from head to toe; an umbrella; the ingenious use of plastic bags (for non-waterproof camera) and a third arm.

Snowdrops (Galanthus) & the KD Tower

Bulbourne Meadow Flood

Beautiful Alder Catkins (Alnus glutinous)

Fallen Branches in River Bulbourne

Bulbourne Meadow, River Bulbourne & Bulbourne Moor

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Week 5/A: Oaks, Galls and Snowdrops

Having made this blog public last week, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the almost immediate and terrifying mild sense of stage fright, and the utterly irrational fear that everything in nature would cease to be “there” for me to explore! It came as a relief, although not a surprise, that Nature was still there today.

A mid-week visit this time. The two main aims of today were to photograph the Oak at Dellfield and the Snowdrops I’d seen growing on Bulbourne Moor (across the road from B&Q). I started with the Oak, stepping out of the car to the sound of a lusty Dunnock and a male Chaffinch belting out his song. Both birds obviously getting a head start on Spring-time pursuits.

I opted for a silhouette of the Oak, with the blue sky loosely reflecting the shape of the canopy.

It occurred to me that I'd not included a close-up of the clustered buds of an Oak. So, I headed up to Preston Hill where I knew there were two mature Oaks with low-growing branches. I’ll try to follow these over the coming weeks, as the leaf buds open up.

The hedgerow along the path down to the pond was alive with Blue Tits and Great Tits. They were likely searching for food or potential nesting material, or simply keeping an eye on territory. A Green Woodpecker was calling, but I couldn’t see it, and a Buzzard was making its rounds overhead.

As I walked towards the woods, I came upon a solitary, young Oak. It still had last year’s leaves hanging precariously from it - very surprising given the strength of recent gales.

Growing out of a leaf bud was an Oak Marble Gall, about 2cm in diameter. I could pretend I knew what it was when I found it but, no, curiosity, resulting in a bit of research (rather than the proverbial cat-killing, thankfully!?!) was the answer.

It is in fact the home of the larvae of a gall wasp, or gallfly, so called because of its ability to stimulate these tissue swellings or galls on plants. They are a large group of wasps in the family Cynipinae (order Hymenoptera), whose eggs, once deposited, cleverly create their own home and food source. Each species of gall wasp produces a distinctive gall, with a particular form and in a specific location. The Oak Marble Gall is, not surprisingly, always found on Oaks and always in a leaf bud, and is created by the gall wasp Andricus kollari. It contains a high concentration of tannic acid and for centuries was an ingredient in the manufacture of iron gall ink, used for writing and dying clothes (just in case you needed a random fact to pull out at dinner parties!)

This young Oak tree wasn’t only hosting the Andricus kollari. There were signs of an additional infestation, this time on the dead leaves.

These are Silk Button Galls, created by the gall wasp species Neuroterus numismalis. They are always found on the underside of Oak leaves. Each gall contains one wasp lava and they should begin to emerge from now onwards.

On my way back to the car, I took the opportunity to photograph the flower buds of the Elm tree, showing the progress made in 3 weeks.

Next stop was Bulbourne Moor to photograph the Snowdrops.

As I walked through Two Waters Moor (west), I was amazed to come across Common Daisies (Bellis perennis) in the grass. However, having done a little reading, I discovered that it’s not unusual for this species to produce a few flowers in mild winters. An interesting fact gleaned from Wikipedia:

“Although the 'flower' may appear to consist of a yellow centre with white petals, this is not the case. Each individual "petal" is itself an individual flower, called asterales. In the centre there are also many tiny yellow flowers. The different colours and styles of flower work together in order to attract insects. This type of flower is known as a composite flower.”

Out onto Bulbourne Meadow some flooding still remains and I spied a female Great Spotted Woodpecker, picking bark off a tree trunk, perhaps looking for insects. Unfortunately, a pair of Magpies chased her off before I could get within photographic range.

Finally I came to the Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis). Spring is most definitely taking hold.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Week 4: Between Rain Storms

I was thwarted by the weather and various other constraints on Monday, so, it wasn't until today that I made it to the Oak. After a morning of driving rain, the sky cleared and the sun came out. From the car park, I could hear the usual pair of Mistle Thrushes rattling away to one another. It turned out, they were up in the Oak tree. Unfortunately, by the time I'd reached a good vantage point to photograph them, they had moved on. Over to the east, a pair of Common Buzzards were calling and floated over Dellfield, heading west. So, today's Oak tree photograph - the canopy against the sky...

On my way to Westbrook Hay, I'd noticed one of the Little Egrets was in its usual spot on the Bulbourne River. I decided to make the most of the hiatus in the incessant rain and walk down to take a closer look. The floods had inevitably grown on Snoxall's Moor and there were plenty of gulls enjoying them. One of the Lesser Black-backed Gulls had just found what turned out to be a particularly long worm, requiring a number of good tugs to release it from the earth. Its mate looked on with envy!

Walking through Station Moor, a Sparrowhawk swooped in low from the south, over the river and into a hedge full of little birds. A mass exodus ensued but the Sparrowhawk didn't emerge. It could well have been tucking in to something.

Over on Harding's Moor, on the south side of the River Bulbourne, there were in fact two Little Egrets. However, as I crossed Station Road, a sudden spat over fishing rights (maybe) led to one of the birds heading off east, down the river. Thankfully, the other bird hung on and I spent a good 20 minutes watching it fish in the shallows. With its eyes honed on the water, it would carefully lift one (bright yellow!) foot, waggle it around over the surface of the riverbed and see what emerged. It caught at least 2 little fish whilst I was there. (To enlarge the photographs, just click on them)
    Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), fishing
    Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), taking a stroll

Walking back along London Road, the pattern in the bricks under the A41 bridge caught my eye. Ok, they're not "wild" or "alive" but I'm sure I can make some tenuous link to the many and varied patterns found in nature and the idea that the aesthetics of man-made structures only echo those. Mmm…ok, maybe not.

When I arrived back at Westbrook Hay, at about 15:30, I was surprised to find that the sun wasn't the only celestial body in view. Surely a shot of the Moon through my chosen Oak, and cradled by my chosen branch, is ample compensation for the inclusion of the brickwork photograph!

Ok, 3 facts about the Moon (not something I imagined I'd include in this blog when it was first conceived, I'll admit!)
  1. It's approximately 250,000 miles (384,400 km) from the Earth. Practically speaking, it would take about 130 days to travel by car; 13 hours by rocket, or 1.52 seconds at the speed of light, should you so desire.
  2. Its diameter is 2000 miles (3, 476km). The surface of the Moon is about the same area as the continent of Africa.
  3. Its surface temperature varies between -233 and 123 degrees celcius.
For more interesting facts about the Moon, take a look at the NASA website.

Monday 3 February 2014

Week 3: Life Around The Oak

A grey, overcast morning. I decided to take a closer look at the life immediately on and around the Oak. Westbrook Hay is a popular place for dog walking, walking and running. One chap was successfully combing all 3, I think. Obviously, the Oak does not exist in splendid isolation and is in fact home to and supported by all manner of organisms, seen and unseen. A couple of the more conspicuous connections are the two plants sprouting near its base. The 3 species no doubt share a complex root system, involving a mutualistic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. Although commonplace, I still find this plant-fungus relationship amazing:

Above ground, the plant does all the hard work in terms of capturing the sun’s energy via photosynthesis, converting it into useful carbohydrates. Below ground, the roots of the plant are infected with a fungus which has the superb ability to seek out water and to absorb high levels of nutrients from the soil. The fungi feeds on the plant’s carbohydrates. The plant feeds on the nutrients and water secured by the fungi. Both gain and thrive as a result. Beautiful!

A is an Elder, which is largely dead and home to interesting fungus and lichen, two of which I photographed, below.

    Common Orange Lichen (Xanthoria parietina)
    Jelly Ear (Auricularia aricula-judae)

Knowing very little nothing about these species, I discovered that the Common Orange lichen is highly tolerant of nitrogen rich environments, especially where ammonia is present, and thus, it is common on trees and buildings near farm land: the slope above Dellfield is home to grazing sheep. As for the Jelly Ear fungus, it is predominantly, although not exclusively, found on Elder. A useful fact to know if you want to identify the (dead) wood it's inhabiting. Unfortunately, the specimens I found were past their best, dried up and crusty. It does look rather different when it's fresh. Wikipedia has all sorts of wonderful tidbits about the origin of its name and how the fungus was used in folk medicine.

The second plant, B, is a Hawthorn, with its long spines and bright red berries. Around its roots and those of the Oak, are the remnants of last year's fallen acorns (with a bit of sheep's wool thrown in for good measure). To my surprise and delight, an additional life supported by the tree came in the guise of a small mammal, darting from the base of the Hawthorn, into its home under the main Oak trunk. I suspect it was a little Wood Mouse, nibbling on the acorns. Unfortunately, s/he was far too quick for my eyes or camera!

Overhead, a Red Kite was calling and, in nearby trees, a couple of Mistle Thrushes were rattling away.

Finally, a shot of the "chosen" branch of the oak, backlit by the densely cloudy sky. I'm not sure yet whether the idea to photograph a single branch weekly was a good one or not. I'll see how it develops.