Brown hares (Focus - March)
Now is the time when we think of Mad March Hares: seeing the animals chasing around in a field, jumping over each other and “boxing”. This behaviour, which is actually not restricted to this month, is all about courtship or partly, the refusal of courtship. Male hares – bucks - are more numerous, so females – does - that are unreceptive to amorous mates may vigorously fight them off. A female leading a potential mate on a chase across a field may be testing his speed so she can select the fastest male to father her offspring. She can produce three or four broods of young a year. These are called leverets and are born fully furred and ready to run. They will keep themselves hidden during the day returning to the doe at sunset for a daily feed and are weaned in a month.
Brown hares are preyed upon by foxes, stoats and buzzards but also subject to poaching and illegal hare coursing. They do not burrow like rabbits but live above ground and so rely on their speed to evade predators and escape to cover. They are the fastest British land mammal and can reach 40 mph at full pelt. Its long back legs provide this speed and results in a distinctive loping gait very different to that of the rabbit which is about half the size and weight. Rabbits have black eyes, very different to those of the hare which are a wonderful amber. Its ears are much longer than the rabbit with distinct black tips. Their fur is golden brown with a white belly. The other hare seen in the mainland UK is the mountain or blue hare which is mainly found on Scottish heather moorlands.
The best time to see Hares is early or late in the day. During the day they may lie up in a depression on the ground called a form. They will sit tight when approached before hurtling off at the last moment, often stopping after a while to look back then loping off at a more sedate pace. If you are lucky enough to spot them before they speed off, you can have a staring match and see how inconspicuous they make themselves, hunkered down with their ears lying along their back.
You are most likely to see them in arable farmland and wide-open grasslands, woodland edges and hedgerows – places which provide shelter. So they benefit from a mixed agricultural landscape rather than one devoted to a single crop. The downs along the Shaston Ridge and the arable fields adjacent are a favourite place to see them and they can be seen in vicinity of Tisbury although dogs running off leads scare them away before most people see them.
Unfortunately, hare’s numbers are estimated to have declined by 80% in the last 100 years. Some are now suffering from rabbit haemorrhagic disease which further threatens them. We are fortunate to still have these beautiful animals in the countryside around us.
by Andrew Graham
Oysters Coppice (Focus - February)
Readers will have seen regular notices in Focus about workdays at Oysters Coppice. With spring approaching, this small but valuable woodland is ready to come into its own. In February and March, the wild daffodils come into bloom. They look wonderful in early spring sunshine, as drifts of their small, pale yellow trumpets nod in the breeze below the hazel catkins. The wild species is probably the flower about which Wordsworth was writing in his famous poem.
Soon after the daffodils come carpets of bluebells one of the beauties of a British woodland in spring. But the wood is full of other plants and wildlife by virtue of being an ancient woodland. This is the term used to describe an English woodland that is shown to have persisted since 1600 which is when maps became fairly reliable. Ancient woodland is rare, covering only 2.5% of the country. A map from around the turn of the 19/20th Century shows a wood with the current outline, and even depicts a footpath through it running along the same line as today.
Having retained woodland cover for so long, ancient woods develop and retain rich communities of plants, animals and fungi not found elsewhere. These are lost when land is cleared for agriculture, and most will not return if a new wood is subsequently replanted on the same site.
The wood is on a gentle north facing slope dropping about 45m from top to bottom. The top (southern) end lies on sandstone but most of the wood lies on mudstone and muddy is what the wood gets in winter when the springs and flushes run with water. Where the ground is drier oaks can grow but much of the wood is dominated by hazel, ash, and the damp-loving alder. It is probably the dampness of the ground combined with the north facing slope that saved the wood from clearance for agriculture. Oysters Coppice is just one of several interconnected ancient woodlands in and around Gutch Common, probably all surviving for similar reasons which, combined, provide a significant area of valuable habitat.
Coppicing is a woodland management system which crops relatively young growth from regrown stools on a regular rotation, while retaining some longer growing standard trees above. Over centuries this would have provided an annual crop of poles for a variety of uses as well as maintaining woodland cover. This provided a relatively consistent environment within the wood, although the amount of sunlight reaching the woodland floor would vary according to how recent an area of the coppice had been cut. Ash, hazel, and alder respond well to coppicing the latter doing well in the wetter parts of the wood. The coppicing is now undertaken by volunteers to let light in and create the temporary clearings which are so beneficial for wildlife.
There is a circular path around the wood which volunteers also maintain. While visitors are welcome at any time, the owners, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, ask visitors to keep their dogs on leads and not to stray off the path. In so doing they can minimise disturbance to the wildlife communities that have taken centuries to develop.
by Andrew Graham
Wintering wildfowl (Focus - January)
We are fortunate to have a range of lakes and pond in the vicinity of Tisbury. These make popular destinations for walks, are great places to look for birds and at this time of year attract increased number of wildfowl which overwinter there awaiting a new breeding season.
Fonthill Lake is the largest and close to a score of waterbirds may be seen there in winter. We are all familiar with the Mute Swans, Mallard, Coots, Grey Heron and Tufted Duck which may be seen all the year round. But it is only in the winter months that the Goosanders arrive. These are quite large diving ducks of the sawbill family (so called because of the serrations on their bills used for catching fish). The male is a very handsome black and white bird with a glossy dark green head which contrasts with its bright red bill. They appear to be quite gregarious so if there are any present, they are generally all in a group rather than scattered across the lake like the swans for example. Their numbers are increasing throughout the country so we might be seeing growing numbers at Fonthill in winters to come.
Another handsome bird is the Mandarin. Although the female of this neat little duck is largely brown and grey with a distinct white eye stripe, the male is much more striking with multicoloured plumage. It has a red bill, broad white eye stripe, orange ruff like feathers on the side of its neck, more orange sail-like feathers sticking up above its back and patches of purple and dark green elsewhere. If you catch a view of one in bright sunshine it looks terribly exotic. It was introduced from China (hence the name) and has naturalised after escaping from private collections. It likes lakes and ponds with lots of overhanging vegetation and can sometimes be seen sitting on branches above the water.
We are becoming used to seeing Little Egrets (a small white heron with bright yellow feet and a black bill) on local lakes, ponds and watercourses so it is surprising to think that they only started colonising the UK in the late 1990s. Far less frequent but occasionally to be seen in the Nadder Valley and its waterbodies is the Great White Egret, another relatively recent colonist. It is possible to confuse these two Egrets when apart, but the Great White is much larger – the size of a Heron – and has black feet and a longer, yellow, dagger-like bill. A third species, the Cattle Egret, has also expanded its range across Europe, and first bred in the UK on the Somerset Levels in 2008. Who knows how long it will be before they are seen around here?
In contrast to the Goosander, some other duck species favour salt water and winter off our coasts. However, when there is a particularly bad storm some of these might be driven inland and can turn up anywhere, so it is always worth having a close look at the wildfowl around us in winter especially after really bad weather.
by Andrew Graham
Robins (Focus - December)
One of the joys of a still December’s day is the plaintive winter song of the robin ringing out across the garden or woodland. This is softer and lest assertively sung than in spring and summer but may be heard at any time of day especially dawn and dusk. Both male and female sing as they hold separate territories during winter: the male defends the breeding territory, while the female of the pair moves a short distance away to hold an area with good feeding opportunities.
A small, neat bird, the robin is a relative of the chats, redstarts, and flycatchers. It is common throughout the country, and resident across the whole of the British Isles mainland but for the mountaintops of the highlands.
It must be one of the few birds which everyone will recognises, with its distinctive orange-red breast the colour of which also extends up to the bird’s “face” around the bill and eyes. This very visible plumage is used in display when birds are defending territory. The bird thrusts out its breast and fluffs up its feathers to make the show of red as prominent as possible. You may see two birds facing off against each other seeing which can display most impressively before a chase ensues. The red breast provokes such a strong response that they sometimes attack their own reflection in a window. However, as male and female have the same plumage, the red breast has no courtship role. In the languages of several continental countries the bird’s name also refers to the red breast and British colonists took the term robin with them so that birds with red breasts in both north America and Australia are referred to as robins, even though they are not from related families.
We take for granted that robins are quite comfortable near humans and will hop around us looking for food items disturbed by our gardening. This appears result from people’s longstanding affection for and protection of the bird in this country. In contrast, on the continent where some huntsmen have a propensity to shoot anything that moves – including robins – they are considerably more wary.
The birds are quite short lived, many fledglings fail to make it through their first winter because, in common with all small birds, robins will lose body weight very quickly in extended chilly weather. This is when garden feeding can be critical for their survival.
Even those that survive usually only live on for a couple of years. So, although we may regularly see robins in our garden, over the years they are likely to be a sequence of different birds rather than the same ones. They are sedentary, rather than migratory, so vacant territories will likely be filled by locally bred birds, perhaps the offspring of the previous territory holder.
by Andrew Graham
Doves and pigeons (Focus - November)
There is not much difference between doves and pigeons, as they are all related in the same bird family. We seem to refer to the smaller more delicate looking species as doves and apply the term pigeon to larger woodpigeons and feral pigeons.
All feral pigeons descend from escaped domesticated Rock Doves, now relatively scarce in the UK and only found on the coasts of north and west Scotland. Also increasingly scarce is the Turtle Dove, whose populations have plunged in recent years because of habitat loss and agricultural changes. This is a great shame as it has an attractive purring call and the plumage of its wings, which resembles the pattern of a turtle shell, is quite beautiful. In contrast, the Collared Dove only colonised the UK in the 1950’s but is now common. It is easily identified by the dark collar of plumage on its neck and seems just as comfortable in towns and villages as in the countryside, often visiting gardens and nesting around houses. The other native dove, the Stock Dove, is rarely seen in urban areas favouring instead open country with trees in which it can find nesting cavities. The parkland with aged trees in the vicinity of Wardour Castle always seems a good place to see them. They are smaller than Woodpigeons, have a glossy green band on the back of their neck and partial dark bars on their wings. In flight they look generally blue grey.
The larger Woodpigeon has a distinctive white patch on its neck, a pink breast and white wing bars which are very visible in flight. It is a familiar bird of gardens, parks woodland and farmland. Due to its monotonous call and its willingness to trample over everything in search of food, it is unpopular with gardeners, as well as a occasional agricultural pest. The noise of the males’ clashing wings battling during courtship rituals, often punctuates a summer’s day. The clatter of wings as a Woodpigeon takes off also gives warning to other wildlife of our approach, when out trying to observe wildlife undetected. In the right conditions, they can breed throughout the year, but little effort goes into nest building. It is usually a flimsy affair made of a few sticks, and users of Tisbury station will probably have noticed the unimpressive efforts made on the underside of the roof, much of which ends up on the platform. Depending on the weather, and food availability on the continent, there can be significant movements of Woodpigeons into this country in winter. At such times, massive flocks can be seen crossing the skies, an impressive sight.
by Andrew Graham
Much has been said about the need to plant more trees to help to lock up carbon to help address climate change. So, it is particularly upsetting to see recently planted trees that have died during our dry summer and others weakened by the drought shedding their leaves early. This stress is in addition to the natural diseases with which they must contend as a matter of course.
Unfortunately, there are also diseases which, in our global economy, were imported from abroad accidentally. One such is the fungus that causes Ash Dieback. This was first identified in the UK in 2012 although there is evidence that it has been present in Europe for 30 years. It originates in Asia where it does little damage to the local ash species, but our ash - Fraxinus excelsior - has no natural defences to it.
Ash is a common species and makes up around 12% of Britain’s broadleaved woodland so its loss will have a significant impact on the landscape. It is estimated that up to 80% of the trees will be killed, although as we are still the early stages of the epidemic, it is hard to judge. Whatever the losses, there will be an impact on those species of wildlife which rely upon ash.
The disease can affect trees of all ages although young ones, and those growing in woodlands with high proportions of ash, seem to succumb most quickly. Trees growing in open locations such as streets or in hedgerows seem less susceptible and there appears to be a level of resistance in some trees which, although infected, survive.
Local woodland managers have already been clearing ash trees and doubtless we will continue to see this in the years ahead. Those of us old enough to recall the dramatic change to the landscape caused by Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970’s will fear the long-term effect of Ash Dieback but will draw some comfort from the way that other species started to fill the gaps left when the elms were gone. But we must hope that further diseases do not erupt to thwart plans to increase our woodland cover as part of the essential work to lock up more carbon.
by Andrew Graham
Brambles (Focus - September)
Late summer is the time to gather blackberries. In doing so, we do something humans have done for thousands of years; archaeologists have found their remains in the stomach of a neolithic man. Given the right conditions, bushes can fruit prolifically and as long as you can get close enough without getting caught in the thorns, it is possible to collect enough for immediate consumption as well as bottling or freezing for future use. Blackberries have numerous health benefits being high in fibre and full of vitamins like C and K as well as manganese and antioxidants. Vitamin K helps your blood to clot which is useful given the number of scratches you might suffer while picking them.
We generally use the term bramble to refer to a tangled, prickly shrub, usually the plant Rubus fruticosus. Brambles grow abundantly throughout the British Isles coping with almost any environment and are particularly hardy plants. Bushes have long, thorny, arching shoots which root easily, and this helps them to spread forming dense clumps in neglected areas. In this respect they can be an important pioneer species. Dense clumps can supply shelter for young trees, allowing them to establish free from browsing by animals. Eventually, as shade from the tree’s spreading canopy increases, the bramble will die back as it cannot flourish in deep shade.
The young foliage is eaten by deer and there is concern that increased deer numbers are reducing the amount of bramble in some woodlands to the detriment of those species of birds that rely on such understorey scrub for nesting.
In mid-summer the bushes are clothed in abundant pink or white flowers, and these are particularly attractive to butterflies, bees and hoverflies. As well as humans, wildlife enjoys the berries including foxes, badgers and small birds all of which will distribute the seeds in their droppings. In late summer one can often see Red Admiral butterflies feeding on the sugars of overripe berries on a sunlit bush. All in all, although it can be a pest if it gets into our gardens, the lowly bramble is a very important for conservation and wildlife. Enjoy the fruits while you can; after Old Michaelmas Day – 29 September – the devil is reputed to have spat on blackberries so should be avoided. You have been warned…
by Andrew Graham
Willowherbs (Focus - August)
One feature of midsummer are the bright pink flowers of the willowherbs. More than ten species of this family – the Epilobiums – are found in this country and at least three will be commonly found hereabouts. All have spear-shaped leaves and flowers with four notched petals. Although the individual flowers are quite simple what makes the plants striking is the number of blooms held on each flower spike.
The most notable in this respect is the Rosebay willowherb. This is a tall, patch-forming plant with conical masses of flowers which, when in bloom supplies splashes of magenta pink in the countryside. They are found in dense stands in any open space such as woodland clearings, roadside verges and waste ground. It is a very successful coloniser and spread vigorously as a result of the two World Wars when cleared forests and bomb and fire sites provided ideal conditions for the plant to flourish. Indeed, the plant got the nicknames Fireweed and Bombweed as a result.
It is able to achieve this colonisation by virtue of its seeds which are tiny and fitted with a silky plume of hairs which act as a sail to catch the wind. As the long, red, seed pods, each filled with hundreds of seeds, split open, so the seeds are wafted away on the slightest breeze. As each plant can produce tens of thousands of seeds, a stand beside a road or railway, will send out a blizzard of seeds on the slipstream of passing cars and trains. These feather-light seeds can then travel for miles on the breeze.
Apparently, Rosebay willowherb has ninety times more vitamin A and four times more vitamin C than oranges and some wild food enthusiasts eat very young shoots and claim it tastes like asparagus. In Russia the plant was fermented to make herbal tea which gained the nickname “Ivan Chai” in Britain.
The tallest willowherb found in Britain is the Great willowherb. It prefers damper ground alongside rivers and ditches and is softly hairy. It has fewer flowers than its Rosebay cousin but they just as brightly coloured. Its seeds are just as numerous and easily dispersed.
A smaller, common willowherb is the Broad-Leaved which has much smaller paler pink flowers but again generates a profusion of seeds.
Without needing to name the species, it is quite easy to spot willowherb seedlings when they crop up in our flowerbeds. By virtue of their extremely successful seed dispersal mechanism, they do this even though the nearest mature plants may be miles away. Fortunately, they are easy to pull up when young, but you need to do so quickly as the creeping root structure means it can spread rapidly and out compete other plants.
by Andrew Graham
July is the best time of year to see butterflies in the UK as, given warm, sunny conditions, so many species may be on the wing. One great spot in the village is the Community Field behind the Nadder Centre. The herb-rich, unimproved grassland is ideal for the family of butterflies known as browns. Rather confusingly, this includes the Marbled White, as well as the Meadow Brown, Ringlet, all of which can be found here in profusion. Another two browns, the Speckled Wood and Small Heath, may also be seen. The varied flowers supply ample sources of nectar and there is no shortage of the grasses, on which the brown butterflies lay their eggs and their caterpillars feed. The Meadow Browns and Ringlets flutter around in and amongst the grass and flower stems, and can be tricky to separate until they rest and you can get a good look at them. In contrast, stronger flyers, such as Red Admirals, Peacocks and Painted Ladies shoot around above the plants dipping down when they need to nectar or think they see a mate.
In the right conditions, you don’t have to go far to see butterflies. If you have a garden with butterfly-friendly flowers, it’s possible you might see as many as a dozen of the commoner species. If you are unsure how to identify them, then there is a helpful chart available from Butterfly Conservation, the wildlife charity that does what it says on the tin. The chart shows 17 of the commoner butterflies and 3 common or striking day-flying moths which might be mistaken for butterflies.
It is provided as part of the Big Butterfly Count (www.bigbutterflycount.butterfly-conservation.org), which takes place for a fortnight from 15th July and is open to anyone with an interest in wildlife. All it involves is picking a spot and spending 15 minutes counting the butterflies and moths you can see. Most people do this in their garden, but you can select another sunny location if you wish. You can do as many counts as you like and even if you don’t see any butterflies, you need to report it as this too is important data. There is also a free app that you can download on which to submit your results and it has more help with identification and distribution maps.
The data you collect is used by butterfly specialists to learn more about butterfly populations and habits and to assess where conservation efforts are most important. Last year, more than 150,000 records were submitted, making it the world’s biggest butterfly survey. Why not join this growing band of “citizen scientists” to help the conservation of these wonderful insects?
by Andrew Graham
Wiltshire is a stronghold of one of our less well-known butterflies – the Duke of Burgundy. It used to be known as the Duke of Burgundy Fritillary because its pretty orange and deep brown chequered markings resembled those of our other Fritillary butterflies. However, as it is actually from a different family – the metalmarks – the name has now been shortened to avoid confusion.
In the past, the Duke was primarily found in woodlands, where it fed on Primroses growing in dappled sunlight of coppice woodland. However, changes in forest management caused most woodland colonies to die out. It is largely restricted to the chalk and limestone areas of southern England, with scrub, gullies, or slopes to provide shelter, although isolated colonies are also found in the southern Lake District and North York Moors.
It flies from late April into June and hereabouts colonies can be found along the northern side of the Shaston Ridge, parallel with but to the south of the A30. Here it favours the base of the slopes where the soil is deeper and moister. This, and less exposure to the sun prevents the leaves of the cowslips, on which its caterpillars feed, from drying out too quickly. The damage the caterpillars do to the leaves as they feed is very distinctive and can provide evidence of breeding even if no adults are seen.
The Duke is often overlooked as it is a tiny butterfly and can be confused with skippers or small day-flying moths that may be found in the same habitat at the same time of year. They are fast-flying and rarely visit flowers. What sets the Duke apart, is the habit of the very territorial males spending much of their time on prominent perches on the edge of bushes or atop grass tussocks. From there they keep a look out for passing females which are pursued ardently. The male will also sally out aggressively to inspect any approaching insect, and if it is another male, they often do battle, spiralling rapidly upwards in a dogfight. The victor returns to their perch. If you disturb one, the males will often return to the same perch or very nearby, so you just have to be patient and wait for it to come back. These locations, sometimes called leks, seem to be favoured every year by newly emerged butterflies which identify the same locations to defend against all-comers. The females are less conspicuous, flying low over the ground, looking for suitable plants on which to lay their eggs. These flights may take them away from where they emerged, helping to establish new colonies if the right habitat can be found.
An unusual feature of the Duke is that it exhibits sexual dimorphism, in that the male and the female are distinctly different. As we know, most insects have six fully functioning legs, but the male Duke only has four.
by Andrew Graham
Photo: Avocets (Izzy Fry)
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