Bulls Cross

Woolly thistle on Bulls Cross
Woolly thistle on Bulls Cross

Well it’s been a disgracefully long time since I managed to sit down and write a post and the reasons for this are twofold. Firstly on the home front I have been embroiled in the all-consuming process of having some major building work done which has meant that most of my evenings have been spent either shifting rock in the back garden, decorating or being too knackered to consider doing anything remotely creative. Secondly, August/September is one of the busiest times of the year at work which leaves considerably less time than usual available for appreciating wildlife. The reason for this level of activity is the recent addition of two new sites to Cotswold Commons and Beechwoods National Nature Reserve (my patch). One of these sites is Juniper Hill, a 9 hectare grassland common in a fairly advanced state of succession to secondary woodland but still supporting some decent areas of high quality limestone grassland. We haven’t yet taken on this site but are managing it ‘in anticipation’ so to speak. The second site is Bulls Cross and this is really where a lot of our time gets spent in August. Consequently I figure that, as I haven’t had time to do much else lately, I may as well write a post about Bulls Cross – a tiny (3 hectare) common consisting of 4 triangles of limestone grassland/secondary woodland intersected by 3 minor roads and bordered by a busy B road on its eastern edge – not least because it represents some of the interesting issues and quandaries that conservation in the 21st century presents. Last year I took a group of NNR managers from around the country to Bulls Cross to talk about some of the management issues we are dealing with on the site. During the visit a non-NNR member of staff asked me (apparently hypothetically) what the point was of including such a tiny poor quality site in the NNR, given the then extraordinarily high resource input required for relatively slim conservation gains. This question has stuck with me so here I would like to take the opportunity to explain exactly why sites like Bulls Cross are so important and why it is vital that organisations such as Natural England take them on.

Bulls Cross is perhaps one of the best known commons in the whole of the Cotswolds thanks to Laurie Lee’s descriptions of it his much-loved book, Cider with Rosie. I was put off reading this book for many years by the twee-sounding title but it is actually a fantastic book and surprisingly dark in places, not least in its description of Bulls Cross. Lee depicts Bulls Cross as a ‘no-man’s crossing… a ‘ragged wildness of wind-bent turves [where] travellers would meet in suspicion, or lie in wait to do violence on each other, to rob or rape or murder.’ Lee states that a hangman’s gibbet once hung here and extensive research by the Sheepscombe History Society suggests that this is indeed likely to have been the case.

Bulls Cross early 1900s. Credit unknown.
Bulls Cross early 1900s. Credit unknown.

A gibbet was a particularly gruesome way of advertising the punishment for some of the more serious crimes of the day such as highway robbery, murder, treason and sheep rustling. It was used to display the bodies of executed criminals in a highly visible place and, for maximum effect, was often located at a well-used crossroads. To this day Bulls Cross is a very busy crossroads and this goes back many hundreds of years to the days when it formed an important intersection of the routes linking Painswick and the older parts of Stroud to one of the main saltways between Berkeley and Birdlip. Another feature that made Bulls Cross an ideal site for a gibbet was the fact that, until sometime around the middle of the last century it was a bare, open patch of grassland that would have been visible from much of the surrounding Painswick Valley. Laurie Lee himself describes it as ‘a curious tundra, a sort of island of nothing set high above the crowded valleys… a baldness among the woods’ and no doubt it was a combination of its open, windswept character along with the fact that it was an important crossroads where travellers of all descriptions would have met, that gave Bulls Cross its reputation as a fearful, haunted place.

Visiting Bulls Cross today, it would be easy to question whether it deserves its lofty status, embedded by Laurie Lee in the annals of our literary history, most likely chosen by the authorities of the day as the place best suited to display criminals to both locals and travellers alike and even depicted in a painting by well-known local artist Charles Gere in the early 20th century. Modern day Bulls Cross is no longer a bare, windswept place of myth and legend. Instead to most people it is a place to pass through on your way to somewhere else, a familiar crossroads with a convenient layby often used for meeting people and starting walks to other parts of the Cotswolds. Where once the whole common was an open grassland in the midst of fields and woodland, today much of it is almost indistinguishable from the surrounding woodland and the remaining patches of grassland are only to be picked out amidst the rapidly encroaching trees and scrub.

Bulls Cross 2015
Bulls Cross 2015

Bulls Cross is an excellent example of many of the reasons why commoner’s rights are no longer exercised on many of the Cotswold commons. As traffic on the roads intersecting the common increased, close shepherding of animals would have been increasingly necessary. Where once the local lads would have been restricted geographically to life in and around the village and been keen to earn a few extra pence for shepherding the animals, this was less the case as the transport links improved and people became much more mobile in the landscape. With modern employment law, a shepherd in 2015 would probably cost somewhere around £20 000 a year. Furthermore, any assessment of the risks involved in grazing Bulls Cross with only the herding skills of a shepherd to prevent livestock from wandering onto the roads would immediately put a stop to any ideas of free range grazing the site. Not surprisingly therefore, commoners’ rights have not been exercised on Bulls Cross and many other local commons for many decades. Where it is not possible to identify the exact date of the cessation of grazing through historical records, an idea can usually be gained by ageing the mature trees that are found on most of the commons. They are generally a minimum of 40-50 years old which would coincide with the outbreak of myxomatosis in the 1960s when the crash in rabbit populations removed the natural grazers that in many cases had continued the grazing in place of the commoners’ livestock.

Bulls Cross by main road
Bulls Cross by main road

Examination of old photographs of some of the Cotswold Commons suggests that the initial encroachment of trees and scrub is an extremely gradual process, sometimes taking many decades to have any pronounced effect. Eventually though, it seems that sites reach a tipping point when sufficient numbers of mature, seed-bearing trees have developed on and around the grassland. From this point on, scrub encroachment can occur very rapidly and regular removal is then necessary to retain the open grassland and prevent succession to woodland. On Bulls Cross this point is long past and even following several years of winter scrub clearance much of the site is still choked by ash scrub and secondary woodland.

Tarina and Olive on Bulls Cross
Tarina and Olive on Bulls Cross

Two years ago we succeeded in returning cattle to part of Bulls Cross after more than half a century of their absence. This in itself was a major challenge requiring two years of consultation with the local community and the erection of 600m of fencing that was sufficiently robust to prevent tampering or escape of the cattle onto the main road yet completely removable in order to not cause a visual blight on the landscape when the cattle were absent. Last year we extended this to include all 3 of the grassland paddocks and, in spite of the huge amount of staff time involved in erecting and dismantling the fences, it was a great source of joy to see cattle grazing across the site after such a long absence. This year we seem to have finally honed our technique and succeeded in erecting the first paddock in roughly half the time it took last year.

Tobias on Bulls Cross
Tobias on Bulls Cross

So, why include such a marginal, resource hungry site as Bulls Cross in the NNR? Aren’t NNRs supposed to be the best of the best examples of habitats in the country? The simple answer to this is that, if we don’t take it on and manage it, who will? A site with no water, planning consent only for semi-permanent fencing that must be erected and dismantled within a week of the cattle arriving and departing, the high risk presented by the road, the large areas of bramble and recent secondary woodland requiring expensive or time-consuming clearance and the presence of invasive plants such as willowherb, hemp agrimony and non-native oxeye daisy, not to mention the numbers of blood-sucking, relentless clegs that dog your every move during the early summer! Surely it is the responsibility of a relatively well-resourced organisation such as Natural England to take on awkward sites such as Bulls Cross and restore them so that future generations know them not just as part of an endless woodland stretching unbroken across the Cotswold scarp but as the tiny and unique grassland haven that it has the potential to be, dotted with hundreds of wild flowers and bustling with myriad insects, mammals, reptiles and birds.

 
Less than a century ago, roughly 40% of the Cotswolds was covered in species-rich limestone grassland. Today that figure is more like 2% and allowing sites such as Bulls Cross to disappear beneath the trees will gradually decrease this percentage even further. Astonishingly Bulls Cross still supports much of the typical flora and fauna that is found on grassland commons 10 times its size. Duke of Burgundy butterflies still breed here in good numbers in the spring, glow worms and slow worms can still be found across the site, kestrels hunt overhead and hundreds of orchids including lesser butterfly, pyramidal, common spotted, twayblade and white helleborine can be found thriving beneath the rampant bracken and willowherb. Furthermore, Bulls Cross is a strategic stepping stone between other more significant limestone grassland sites such as Swift’s Hill, Sheepscombe and Juniper Hill, providing a crucial link in the network of such sites around the Painswick Valley.

It is also extremely unlikely that any other organisation would be willing or able to take on a site such as Bulls Cross. Surely it is the responsibility of an organisation such as Natural England to take on such sites and put the resources into them to restore them to as close to their former glory as it is possible to get, given that the alternative is to lose them forever.

It is impossible to deny that Bulls Cross has issues and that sometimes I look at it and wonder whether we will ever succeed in restoring it to the grassy tundra of Laurie Lee’s childhood. Yet in spite of the scale of the task ahead, Bulls Cross still has the capacity to surprise and inspire. Whilst putting up the fence a couple of weeks ago we stopped for a well-earned lunch break and as we sat sprawled in the sunshine chatting and enjoying the views across the Painswick Valley, we were surprised to discover that the kestrels overhead, the background thrum of bees and hoverflies, the fabric of wild flowers beneath and around us and the gentle breeze coming up the valley made Bulls Cross an immensely pleasurable place to sit, a conclusion that the busy road, the rampant scrub and even the occasional cleg could do nothing to change.

View of Painswick Valley from Bulls Cross
View of Painswick Valley from Bulls Cross
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An assortment of Cotswold summer wildlife

Marbled white and five spot burnet on knapweed
Marbled white and five spot burnet on knapweed

Writing this blog has produced a number of unexpected bonuses.  I have always been fascinated by wildlife but writing about it regularly has given me a heightened awareness of the many natural wonders unfurling around me as I go about my day.  It is unlikely that more stuff is happening although it definitely feels that way.  Instead I guess I’m just much more conscious of it because I now think of it in terms of capturing it in some way.

To give you a couple of examples; yesterday whilst stretching on my driveway after a run through the woods, a buzzard flew past carrying a still writhing snake/slow worm.  Whilst I felt sad for the hapless creature being borne away to certain death, not least because it clearly hadn’t been instant, it was still an incredible spectacle to behold and one that I have never seen before. A few weeks previously whilst taking my favourite back lane route to work, I rounded a bend to find a young badger contentedly snuffling about on the road.  When he finally noticed me waiting for him he momentarily debated his best course of action and then spent some time scrabbling in ungainly fashion up the steep bank next to my car.  He was so close I could easily have reached out through the open window and given him a helping hand although I doubt he would have appreciated it.  Such moments are an amazing reminder (if one were needed) of how lucky I am to live and work in the British countryside, a feeling that has been strengthened by this blog by forcing me to register and consider these moments more deeply.

A perhaps less obvious and more mysterious natural spectacle is shown below in this photograph of some burrows that have been puzzling me for some time.

Unidentified burrows, Sheepscombe Common
Unidentified burrows, Sheepscombe Common

Having walked past these several times and pondered the likely nature of their occupants, I finally decided to investigate.  Assuming that the burrows were some sort of pitfall trap, my first approach was to try to entice the occupant out with a blade of grass.  Unfortunately the slightest touch caused the sides of the pitfall trap to collapse completely, no doubt leaving some extra construction work for the still mysterious and now perhaps slightly disgruntled inhabitant.  Next I tried quiet observation.  From a distance I could see a tiny head filling the base of each pitfall trap but as soon as I loomed into view the heads would disappear.  Eventually by stealth I managed to photograph one of the heads although I was still none the wiser, see below.

Unidentified head in pitfall burrow
Unidentified head in pitfall burrow

Seems like good inspiration for a creature straight out of science fiction!  Eventually I noticed a number of tiny wasps flying back and forth between the burrows so I can only assume that they are perhaps a species of digger wasp.  With over 110 species that doesn’t really narrow it down very much so I’m afraid the mystery prevails!

Lizards by gate, Rudge Hill Common
Lizards by gate, Rudge Hill Common

Less mysterious is this lovely group of lizards basking next to one of the main gates onto Rudge Hill Common.  I confess I actually took this photograph last year when I first discovered an adult female and three juveniles.  I was amazed to find that they were completely unbothered by the gate opening and slamming shut just a few inches away and was delighted this year to discover seven individuals next to the same gate.  Below is a picture of one of them.

Common lizard Rudge Hill gate
Common lizard Rudge Hill gate

Continuing the reptilian theme, I managed to find a couple of hours to go out addering last week and, although it is much harder to find reptiles at this time of year given the long grass and higher temperatures, it turned out to be a surprisingly rewarding day.  The first thing I saw was a polecat which blew me away as the closest I have I seen one to the Cotswolds was some years ago in the Cotswold Water Park near Cirencester.  I am pretty sure that it was a polecat rather than a polecat ferret and aim to go back to the area I saw it to try and get a better look. We then went on to find several adders including this beautiful and almost certainly gravid female under Poirot’s usual mat.  I haven’t had time to try to identify her yet but she does look familiar so I think we have probably already given her a name (perhaps a sign that I am spending too much time thinking about adders when briefly glimpsed individuals start to look familiar!).

Gravid female adder under mat
Gravid female adder under mat

From reptiles to moths, at the start of July I ran a moth trapping evening with two colleagues.  We could all be described as a bit geeky about moths but they are definitely super-geeks who set their moth trap most evenings at home and even go on moth holidays.  An evening mothing with the two of them is always extremely enjoyable and it is rare that we manage to tear ourselves away before 2-3am. Part of the reason for this is that you tend to get two peaks of moth activity in the traps, one at about 11pm and another one around 1am, each consisting of different species. Consequently it is always worth sticking around until after the 1am peak to see what turns up. The evening on Juniper Hill was fascinating as always and, although the species list was not that long, 33 species compared to over 60 last year, there were enough interesting species to keep us very happy.

Juniper Hill at sunset
Juniper Hill at sunset

Highlights were an unbelievable number of drinker moths -so cute and furry and happy to sit on the end of your finger that it is all but impossible not to want one as a pet – and, just as we were checking the traps for the last time, two spectacular privet hawkmoths, one of which is pictured below.

Privet hawkmoth
Privet hawkmoth

 

An assortment of orchids

June is the month when orchids take centre stage in the Cotswolds with 15 species in Cotswold Commons and Beechwoods NNR alone.  Below are some pics of just a few of these taken whilst out and about over the last couple of weeks.

Bee on common spotted orchid 2
Bumblebee on common spotted orchid

 

Pyramidal orchid
Pyramidal orchid
Musk orchid
Musk orchid
Epipactis phyllanthes
Epipactis phyllanthes

I call this orchid the green-flowered helleborine but I was told today that the name has been changed to pendulous-flowered, hence I think I’ll just use the Latin to save confusion!  Not a very exciting orchid to look at this one but quite exciting to find as it does not occur very widely and before it popped up in 2008 hadn’t been recorded within the NNR.  It has now been joined by its tiny buddy, the musk orchid, another species that wasn’t in the records for the site but magically appeared last year in the way that orchids do.  It is likely that both of these orchids once made a regular appearance on the common but disappeared during the years in which grazing was abandoned and the site became neglected.  Their reappearance therefore is an encouraging endorsement of the grazing and scrub management taking place on the site.

Birds nest orchid, Buckholt Wood
Birds nest orchid, Buckholt Wood
Bee orchids
Bee orchids

Bee orchids in particular appear to be having a fantastic year in the Cotswolds and I have certainly found more than in previous years.  Bee orchids are a classic example of the tendency of many orchids to appear sporadically when the conditions are right.  Many orchids can lie dormant for years if not decades, only pushing up an energy sapping flower spike when conditions are absolutely perfect and bee orchids epitomise this habit.  I have rarely found them in the same place twice although there tend to be areas in which they are more likely to be found which provide a good place to start looking.

There is a much rarer variant of the bee orchid called the wasp orchid and this seems to share the same habit of keeping its fans waiting, sometimes for years at a time.  I have known about its presence on one of our sites since I started my job nearly 8 years ago but never managed to find it.  Last year someone ‘kindly’ (and a little bit smugly) sent me a photograph of it with directions of where to find it and I still failed utterly.  However, a couple of weeks ago fate smiled on me and I somehow managed to walk straight to it, finding not just one wasp orchid but three!

Wasp orchid
Wasp orchid

Conveniently they were growing near to a number of bee orchids so it was great to be able to compare the two, see pics below.  Apologies if I come across as smug but I really am, come on… 8 years I’ve been looking for this thing and it really was a stunner!

Wasp orchid closeup
Wasp orchid closeup
Bee orchid closeup
Bee orchid closeup

 

Beetles with enormous thighs and other Cotswold summer wildlife

Painswick Valley from Rudge Hill
Painswick Valley from Rudge Hill

As my last post didn’t really seem the place for some nice pics of wildlife I seem to have accumulated rather a lot from the last few weeks so I thought I’d share some of them with you.  A couple of weeks ago I spent the day on Blackmoor Reserve in Somerset looking at reptile habitat and the day produced some unexpected bonuses.  The first of these was herb Paris, a plant that I have always wanted to see but somehow never come across before.

Herb Paris Velvet Bottom
Herb Paris

Soon after this we spotted a black oil beetle in the middle of the path.  This wouldn’t have meant much to me before Buglife launched a campaign to survey oil beetles and start to address their drastic declines.  However, I have been looking out for these fascinating insects on my sites for the last year or two and never been lucky enough to find one.  Then last autumn I learned that rugged oil beetle had been recorded on one of my sites and that some follow-up surveying was required.  Unfortunately rugged oil-beetles happen to be active at night on winter evenings and I am ashamed to say that the prospect of searching 20 hectares of grassland, woodland and scrub in the dark for a small black beetle defeated me in 2014 and I never made it up to the site to have a look.  However, in 2015 I am determined to be less lame and get out there and do some serious searching.  This new-found determination is not least a consequence of finding this black oil beetle in Somerset, a far more sensible species that is active in the daytime during the spring!

Black oil beetle Velvet Bottom
Black oil beetle

Back in the Cotswolds, the orchids are generally a bit later than usual but the butterfly orchids are already putting on a fantastic show.  We have greater and lesser butterfly orchids on the NNR, the key difference being that the pollinia in the lesser are parallel to one another whereas in the greater they are divergent. You do need to be a bit nerdy and get quite personal with these plants to tell the difference but once you’ve looked at a few of each you can get it nailed.  The one in the picture is a greater butterfly orchid, with a close-up in which you can just about see the pollinia looking slightly splayed.

Greater butterfly orchid
Greater butterfly orchid, Rudge Hill
Greater butterfly orchid closeup
Greater butterfly orchid closeup

On closer inspection I noticed that one of the orchids had an occupant, just visible in the top pic and shown better below. My brain struggles to retain Latin names these days but weirdly this beetle is one of the few whose name I can remember. I think it has stuck because the beetle itself is so distinctive, having such enormous thighs. I realise that there is bound to be a proper entymological term for beetle thighs but I’m afraid I don’t know what it is so thighs will have to do.

Oedemera nobilis
Oedemera nobilis
Oedemera nobilis showing thunder thighs
Oedemera nobilis showing thunder thighs

Having just done a quick search to check my spelling I see that this beetle does actually have several English names so I can’t quite imagine what made me succeed in committing the Latin to memory. Anyway, meet the false oil-beetle, swollen-thigh beetle, or thick-legged flower beetle, it’s a mystery how they come up with some of these names!

Common blue male on Rudge Hill
Common blue male on Rudge Hill

Onto some other insects now, namely butterflies.  Things seem to be generally fairly quiet on the butterfly front and I’m not quite sure why that is.  It may be that I haven’t managed to get out in great conditions or just that they are having a bit of a slow start like much of our other wildlife this spring.  Still, there are plenty of common blues about on the Cotswold grasslands and, perhaps because they are one of the commoner species of blue the beauty of these dapper little butterflies may sometimes go unappreciated.  I was pleased therefore to get a good look at the one below last week on Juniper Hill during an overcast spell when he was opening his wings to capture as much warmth as possible.

Common blue male Juniper Hill
Common blue male Juniper Hill
Common blue male Juniper Hill
Common blue male Juniper Hill

Juniper Hill is a lovely little site that was suffering from many years with a lack of management until some 4 years ago when we managed to get some grazing animals on it and started clearing back some of the scrub.  The site is just starting to turn a corner with all sorts of wild flowers popping up in places previously just dominated by tor grass so it’s a joy to walk across the common at the moment and see how effective the management is being, especially with the beautiful sound of a tree pipit singing away from the top of one of the many whitebeams whilst blackcaps bubble away noisily in the woods below. Pictured below are a couple of the floral highlights.

Sainfoin on Juniper Hill
Sainfoin on Juniper Hill
Birds-foot trefoil
Birds-foot trefoil
Bladder campion on Juniper Hill
Bladder campion on Juniper Hill

 

 

An Appreciation of Ash

Somehow I have been lucky enough to miss out on two of the most catastrophic epidemics to hit our countryside in recent times. I grew up with some awareness of Dutch elm disease but in truth it never really meant anything very real to me. As a child trees fell into several main categories with the main ones being those good for climbing, those good for constructing aerial walkways, treehouses and zip wires and those for finding shiny conkers underneath to be satisfyingly pocketed for no reason whatsoever than the pure joy of the look and feel of them (the sight of a rich mahogany conker gleaming enticingly from within a newly split green husk is still something I find irresistible to this day!). By the time I was old enough to start to take an interest in trees as part of the British countryside most of the elms had gone so, unlike my parents’ generation, I never suffered the personal tragedy of watching old friends disappear one by one from the landscape. Then in 2001 when foot and mouth struck the UK I was mercifully spared the horror that gripped the country as I happened to be living in Venezuela at the time. By the time I got back the worst was over and all that remained were a few closed footpaths and a lot fewer animals in the countryside.

Sadly I fear that I will not be spared the next tragedy currently sweeping across the land. I am talking of Chalara fraxinea, more correctly termed Hymenoscyphus fraxineus but more commonly known as ash dieback disease. I spent two days this week on a training workshop to discuss the implications of ash dieback disease on National Nature Reserves and, although there were some slivers of positivity to be gleaned from the two days, overall I came home pretty depressed.

In 2012 when the papers first filled up with talk of ash dieback myself and particularly my partner were fairly dismissive. Comparisons with Dutch elm disease seemed invalid as genetically speaking ash is far more diverse than elm in this country so it seemed likely that, whilst we might lose a small proportion of susceptible trees, generally ash should be fairly well-equipped to resist the new disease. Furthermore, the press loves a bad news story and over recent years we have been reportedly due to lose all our horse chestnuts, our alders, our oaks, our junipers and probably many others that I have forgotten. Now I appreciate that none of these trees are by any means out of the woods, so to speak, but in most cases the initial predictions of rapid decimation of the countryside seem mercifully unlikely to come true. Added to this my partner had just returned from a week in Denmark spent entirely talking to foresters in a country where they had reportedly lost 80% of their ash trees and yet at no point did anybody mention ash dieback disease as an issue. It appeared that ash dieback was most likely to be a problem in monocultural ash plantations with little genetic diversity but did not present a significant threat to the British countryside.

Since my initial scepticism in 2012, the more that I have read about ash dieback, the more I have had the uncomfortable feeling that for once the dire predictions of the media may have hit the mark. First-hand reports brought last week from continental Europe and parts of the UK where ash-dieback have already hit seem to confirm this. Extensive surveys in Europe have failed to find any evidence of ash trees showing resistance (i.e. not susceptible to ash dieback disease) and only around 1-5% appear to be significantly tolerant. Those that are appear to be only the most healthy prime specimens and any trees that are already stressed or growing in sub-optimal conditions appear to be very unlikely to be able to tolerate the disease. The staggering implications of this are that, at best, the UK seems likely to lose a significant proportion of its ash trees and, at worst, we could lose nearly all of them. If this wasn’t bad enough, in some ways ash dieback disease has the potential to be even worse than Dutch elm disease. This is because Dutch elm disease doesn’t affect trees until they reach a certain age or size meaning that there are still plenty of elm trees in the British countryside and in many cases these manage to reach a sufficient size to produce seed before succumbing to the disease. Added to this, a very small number of elm trees actually appear to be resistant to the disease and survive to maturity. These factors mean that not only are there still plenty of elms around but also it is possible to picture a future where large elms are once again a prominent feature of the British countryside. Ash dieback on the other hand appears to be most devastating amongst young pole-stage ash trees. This has obvious and serious implications for the future of the species in this country, particularly if many of the mature seed trees also succumb to the disease.

I did mention something about a glimmer of positivity earlier in this post – what of this? Amidst all the gloom there are indeed some reasons to be positive. If we are to lose many of our ash trees then we need to rethink our woodland management. Resilience is the word of the moment and this is what we need to begin to build into our woodlands. This means encouraging a greater diversity of our native species such as lime, beech, oak, field maple, hornbeam and how about elm? Perhaps we all gave up on elm too quickly. Maybe it is time that we cared for our elms a bit better and made life easier for them in our woodlands. Much of the woodland wildlife that has been declining in recent decades has been suffering from a lack of open space caused by the decline in traditional practices such as coppicing and ride management. Perhaps the gaps left by ash trees will benefit some of these plants and creatures and make them once more a familiar sight. Perhaps the solace to be derived from the demise of many of our ash trees might be the return of woodlands bursting with wildlife once thought to have disappeared.

In spite of these slight rays of hope, it is not really surprising that the drive home from the tree health workshop was something of a sad one. That evening my partner and I went for a ride on our motorbike and as we slipped through the valleys and plateaus of the south Cotswolds in the soft evening light I felt a deep sorrow at the loss that was to come. Ash is such an intrinsic part of the Gloucestershire landscape that it is all but impossible to imagine it not being there. As we rode though I was struck by the complete futility of my sadness. Ash dieback will come to the Cotswolds and it seems inevitable that it will change the landscape, at least for the course of my lifetime. Trees that I know and love may slip slowly away and certainly we will have to readdress the way that we manage both our grasslands and woodlands. My feeling sad will not change this and for now, ash dieback is not in the Cotswolds. For now, ash trees burst from hedgerows and woodlands across every hill and along every valley. They stand alone and venerable in fields, crowd for attention in woodland glades and give gentle shade in garden corners. From tiny saplings to ancient veterans, ash is prolific and healthy and should be celebrated in the here and now. Sorrow will inevitably come but today we should be celebrating this wonderful tree for its smooth grey bark, its light dappled shade, its slightly untidy crown, its gnarled and hollowed old age and the myriad plants and animals it supports. To this end I feel that we should have an Ash Appreciation Day, a day to celebrate everything about ash and all that it has given us. For now every day I spend out in the Cotswold countryside will be Ash Appreciation Day. For now, I shall savour the familiar sight, sense and touch of these beautiful trees and save the sadness for another day.

One of my favourite ash trees above Stroud
One of my favourite ash trees above Stroud

As I don’t seem to be finding time to write a new post but have managed to take a few pics over the past few weeks, here is a quick summary of Cotswold wildlife during the month of May in pictoral form!

Duke on Rudge Hill Common
Duke of Burgundy on Rudge Hill Common
Duke probably male on Rudge Hill
Duke probably male on Rudge Hill
Duke on Rudge Hill Common
Duke on Rudge Hill Common
Early purple orchid with cowslips in background
Early purple orchid with cowslips in background

These are all photos of wildlife I saw during my butterfly transect a couple of weeks ago.  Dukes seem to be having a good year with plenty of nice lush cowslips benefiting from the mix of sunshine and showers we are having at the moment.  Below is a picture of a froghopper imaginatively named the ‘red and black froghopper’ that I also took on the same day.

Red and black froghopper on cowslip
Red and black froghopper on cowslip

 

Ramsons
Ramsons in Ruscombe woods
Cows enjoying the view over Stroud, taken during my morning walk with the dog
Cows enjoying the view over Stroud, taken during my morning walk with the dog
Female adder possibly Taj last photographed as a juvenile in 2013
Female adder possibly Taj last photographed as a juvenile in 2013

The picture above is of a female adder with whom I shared a lovely moment last week.  I went out to try to get some pics for the photo ID project and wasn’t having much luck until I saw a very snake-like tail disappearing into some dry leaf litter.  I could hear the snake continuing to move around in the leaves so I decided to sit down quietly and see if it reappeared.  Sure enough a few minutes later a head popped up a couple of feet away from my boot and surveyed me curiously with plenty of tongue-flicking to try and work out whether I presented a threat.  She clearly decided I wasn’t because she then came out into the open and curled up next to me on the bank to bask in the spring sunshine.  Whilst on the one hand I was absolutely delighted to be sharing such a magical moment with a wild adder clearly so relaxed in my presence, on the other it presented me with a rather uncomfortable dilemma.  How long was I going to have to sit there for before I could move without disturbing the adder?  While I deliberated on this I managed to sneak a quick photo which, having looked at since, I think is of a young female called Taj who was first photographed in 2013 as a juvenile.  Luckily my dilemma was solved after about 10 minutes when a rabbit bustling about in a nearby bramble patch sent Taj swiftly back under cover.  I didn’t see any more adders that morning but I had a big smile on my face for the rest of the day!

Tag having a break from all the transect walking
Tag having a break among the cowslips during our butterfly transect

 

The zen, frustration and joy of wildlife watching

Two weeks ago I spent an evening with some colleagues on the Lower Mill Estate in the Cotswold Water Park. It was the probably the most inclement day we have had all year with torrential downpours interspersed with the occasional sunny spell whilst all the time the wind howled through the treetops chasing showers of blossom down to the sodden earth. All day I peered out at the weather with the familiar regret that comes from, in more optimistic times, offering to take a group of excited colleagues in search of rare and unusual wildlife that requires calm and still conditions to stand a chance of spotting. Accustomed to the magical unpredictability of wildlife watching, I arrived at the pub for our pre-excursion dinner armed with a cake tin containing one of my most prized possessions, the skull of a European beaver. As I handed it round with coffee I tried unsuccessfully to take the edge off the eager air of anticipation with the solemn prediction that the skull would in all likelihood be the only glimpse of a beaver anyone was likely to have that evening. My plan failed and even as we passed the first wind-whipped lake en-route to the beaver lake, I sensed that hopes were high. However, by the time we had navigated through the woodland and finally settled down in a sheltered spot among last year’s dry reeds on the lake edge, I felt a bit more optimistic and considered our chances of seeing a beaver at somewhere around 50:50.

I was lucky enough to start working at the Lower Mill Estate right at the beginning of the beaver project in 2005 when the beavers had just arrived in quarantine. During the years I worked there I spent many evenings in the company of hopeful would-be beaver watchers and, in spite of the fact that the beavers have 20 hectares of water and woodland to disappear into, we saw beavers far more often than not. However, I had forgotten two main things about beaver watching. Firstly how immensely pleasurable it is to sit quietly on the lake edge at sunset and simply watch nature going about its business. Sit on a grassy hilltop on the Cotswold escarpment at this time of day and there is a good chance that you will very little except perhaps the occasional crow and maybe a blackbird berating you for your unwelcome presence. Sit by a lake on a May evening and it is a very different story, everywhere you look nature is in overdrive. Overhead mixed flocks of sand martins, house martins and swallows swooped back and forth hoovering up insects under the darkening clouds that threatened rain but miraculously took it elsewhere. Across the lake dozens of swans fed peacefully on the shallow bottom with such regularity that often all you could see were swans’ tails pointing at the sky. At one point in the gathering gloom a mallard made a break across the lake with a raft of tiny ducklings sticking to her like glue. Knowing the size of the pike in the black weedy water beneath I watched her progress nervously and was immensely relieved when she finally returned from her mystifying and perilous excursion to the relative safety of the shore. As dusk crept over the lake the swallows and martins were replaced with the occasional daubenton’s bat skimming the water’s surface in search of insect prey around the nest of a pair of great crested grebes. The nest was located perhaps 20 feet into the lake directly opposite the enormous lodge that the beavers have built in recent years. Although the lodge was out of sight of our viewpoint, it stood to reason that this was the most likely point of emergence for any beavers.

This then is the zen of wildlife watching. Sitting quietly in the dusk as day slips into night you are silent alongside your companions, each with their own mix of contemplation, hope and an element of helplessness in thrall to the will of a wild animal. Gradually, as the light fades, hope steals away with it leaving you with the dawning realisation that your chosen quarry is not going to play ball and you are going to go home unrewarded for your efforts. As it happened on this particular evening, once the light had drained from the landscape and the inky black water only faintly reflected the last remnants of grey in the sky, I did finally see the two familiar humps of a beaver gliding out from the lodge behind its tell-tale bow wave but even as I whispered excitedly to my companions I was all too aware that everyone else’s binoculars had long since thrown in the towel. This is the other side of wildlife watching, frustration. Frustration is a well-known emotion for almost anyone who has ever set themselves the task of seeing an elusive species. What I have found surprising has been the discovery that the frustration is an inseparable part of the magic of eventually seeing an animal that one has sought for some time.

I first began to suspect this many years ago when I took a city-dwelling ex-boyfriend to a badger watching evening run by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. Previous badger watching experiences had prepared me for an uncomfortable few hours sitting in silence getting eaten alive by midges with an outside chance at the end of it of seeing a distant badger. However this one was run by a guy who had fed the badgers peanuts at the same time every evening for 20 years. All that was missing was a bag of popcorn as we sat down comfortably behind a bank to be rewarded minutes later by the sight of perhaps a dozen badgers emerging on schedule for their nutty evening snack. The views of badgers that evening were incredible and the predictability and proximity of their appearance was almost certainly a blessing for my ex who had previously thought that badgers had long legs and hunted rabbits so would probably not have endured a long evening of silence and blood sacrifice to tiny biting insects. However, for me it felt like something of a hollow victory. Somehow I didn’t feel as though I had worked for the amazing views of the badgers and I was surprised to find the whole thing rather unsatisfying as a result.

As a child my favourite and much-watched film was Tarka the Otter and for many years I dreamt of seeing an otter in the wild. During the years I worked on wetlands this was always a tempting possibility in a world where otters were always maddeningly close and yet tantalisingly out of reach. A footprint on a muddy bank that appeared while I was looking the other way. A colleague on the CB radio two fields away delightedly describing in hushed tones the otter trotting along the ditch in front of her. The many hundreds of hours spent in places frequented by otters and littered with otter signs but the otters themselves invisible. Then finally, one afternoon while sitting on a track in a parked truck I caught sight of that well-known yet never seen shape slinking across the track 100 yards in front of me and disappearing instantly into the reeds. Not really up there with most people’s top wildlife experiences but for me it was a moment of pure disbelieving joy, the reward for all the years of fruitless searching and one that I treasure among my most cherished wildlife memories. A couple of years later a colleague and I visited a hide at Shapwick Heath in Somerset where we had been told that we would have a 50:50 chance of seeing an otter. My initial scepticism at this statement evaporated when we entered the hide and found some people in there grinning from ear to ear and listening intently to the sound of an otter eating something underneath the hide. Minutes later the otter emerged into the lake in front of us, soon to be joined by a companion, and we sat there spellbound for an hour watching the pair feeding and playing in the wintry afternoon sun. As we replayed the experience on the way home, I was again surprised to notice a sense of the same slight emptiness that had accompanied the badger watching. It had been too easy. A 20 minute stroll and a comfortable seat hardly felt like an appropriate amount of effort for such an unbelievable and memorable experience. I have since been amazed to discover that the fleeting glimpse on the track is far more precious and real to me than the almost fantastical otter extravaganza in the Somerset lake.

This to me is the wonder and magic of wildlife watching, the zen, the frustration and the eventual joy if all your efforts are rewarded. As I sat by the beaver lake peering out into the gathering darkness with the increasing realisation that the beaver skull would indeed be all that my colleagues would see of a beaver that evening, I took some comfort in the thought that when we return later in the year, should we be lucky enough to see a beaver, the joy will be all the more poignant for the disappointment they were now feeling.