Saturday, 31 December 2016

Welcome to Volehouse Moor...

Deep in rural Devon, on a lane without a name or number is the little Devon Wildlife Trust reserve named Volehouse Moor.

Volehouse Moor- south side
It's a tranquil sort of place where you'll seldom meet anybody else, because there are other reserves that are so much easier to find. At Volehouse, you can always find a space to park- and there's only enough parking space for two cars!

Volehouse runs across two facing sides of a small valley, divided in the middle by the quietly flowing waters of the river Torridge. The river means you can't get from one side to the other so there are actually two reserves- Volehouse North and Volehouse South.

Together, they cover an area of some 39 hectares, about half of which consists of Culm grassland and half of meadow and woodland.

This is a diary of what happens there during the summer.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Big news: Ladybird spotted!

In my last post I wrote about how worried I was about the lack of ladybirds in North Devon this year.

In fact, I was so puzzled that I contacted the Ladybird census people. (I am not making this up- there really is a ladybird census person and she's called Helen). 

Hi there,

I'm a wildlife photographer based in North Devon and despite actively searching for ladybirds this year, I have failed to find a single specimen. Is 2016 a particularly bad year for ladybirds, and if so, is this a year on year decline or an anomaly? Do you have any idea what is causing the numbers to (apparently) crash like this? 

I hope to hear from you,

Kind regards,

Tim Hearn

This week, to my surprise, I got a reply:


Aug 26 (7 days ago)
to me
Dear Tim

Thank you for your e-mail. We are getting similar reports from other people – numbers do seem to be lower across the UK but we are still receiving lots of records which is great. Ladybird populations are influenced by many factors – temperature and aphid availability are two important factors. Ladybird numbers do fluctuate a lot year on year and so the long-term trends are important to assess – which is why records to the UK ladybird Survey are so important.

Many thanks again, Helen

This was excellent news. Similar reports were coming in from other people- so not only was I correct about the absence of ladybirds, but there were other people out there searching for them! I got quite excited by the thought of all the intrepid ladybird hunters swinging into action across the nation... and by all, I mean at least three.

I can't see that aphid availability is a factor here- there's millions of 'em on account of there being no ladybirds, (and most of those are sunning themselves on the plants in my greenhouse).  Temperature, yes. But the temperature's  been mild. Does this imply that ladybirds require a cold winter, like some butterflies? And do long term increases in temperature and mild winters due to climate change threaten the ladybird's future in the UK? Helen, as a Ladybird scientist type, is pretty noncommittal about these kinds of questions, content merely to say that trends are important to assess.  

Anyway, the very morning after I received Helen's mail I was out for a walk with Rosie when I saw the telltale flash of ladybird red on a nettle. And then another, nearby. Ladybirds, it seems, are like buses. You wait all year and then two come along at once. 

I moved the first ladybird to a dandelion head that was rather more photogenic than the manky old bit of nettle that it was choosing to live on, marking the leaf so I could return her from whence she came after I'd finished with her, and did a quick photo shoot. 

I shall send details and a print of the picture to Helen, partly for being for being so obliging and partly because as she so rightly said, records to the UK Ladybird survey are important. 

I still think that there is some kind of ladybird crisis in progress, and I still believe that pesticides are probably at the bottom of it. 

But if we don't all join in and supply the good guys (or in this case Helen) with data, we'll never be able to prove it.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

When was the last time you saw a ladybird?

When was the last time you saw a ladybird?

I ask because one of the things I wanted to do this year was some photography using ladybirds as subjects. I even planned out some of the shots during the winter. Props and everything.

So it has come as quite a disappointment to me that this year, I haven't seen a single, solitary ladybird. Not one.

Now, this wouldn't normally concern me hugely. They're quite small insects and I suspect that I often just don't notice them.

But the thing is, this year I've been actively looking.  On every walk, I've been keeping my eyes peeled. No 7 spot, no 2 spot, no 12 spot. Not even any Harlequins.

I've looked on window cills in sheds. Normally a rich source of ladybirds, albeit deceased. No ladybirds, living or otherwise.

I've looked on thistles. Nothing.

I've looked on nettles. Nada. Zip.

I've looked everywhere I can think of that there are aphids. Zilch. The aphids are around in numbers- presumably because they aren't getting eaten by any ladybirds.

I asked people. Well, 3 people. All amateur entomologists or nature lovers. One here in Devon, one in the Cotswolds and one near London. They couldn't remember seeing any ladybirds this year either.

One of them suggested that it might be down to the weather. Well, yes, I could understand fewer ladybirds. But none at all?

I contacted the ladybird census people. Yes, there actually is one. To date, I've had no reply. Maybe they've disappeared along with their little charges.

So where are the ladybirds? For once, Google isn't telling. There's nothing about a scarcity of ladybirds this year. There's nothing at all about ladybirds in 2016, as far as I can tell.

Although there are an increasing amount of articles, mostly from the U.S. (where they call them 'Ladybugs') pointing to a link between the use of Neonicitinoids and the death of non-target species such as ladybirds.

Is that it? Are the ladybirds disappearing from right under our noses?

Or am I wrong- have other people seen ladybirds this year? I'd love to be proved wrong, and awake to a long list of comments saying what a twit I am and that I'm just not looking hard enough. I'd love to know that somewhere away from North Devon, all the ladybirds are gathered having a good old laugh at my expense.

I really hope that's the case.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The day of the big butterfly count

I was walking Rosie (and Rosie was walking me) a few days ago. We weren't at Volehouse. Much to Rosie's disgust, the cattle are grazing it at the moment and that means she has to go on a lead, which she hates. So we've been going to a place known as Powler's Piece. It's a nice enough place with several different habitats and a well defined, easy track. I usually take my camera when we go, just in case anything's about.

And on this particular day, what was about was a rather depressing man.

"What are you doing"? he said
"Walking the dog. And looking for butterflies to photograph". I replied.
"You won't find any. Not this year. This year's rubbish for butterflies."
"Bloody rubbish".
"I don't know- there are a few around."
"No there aren't. It's bloody rubbish".

The conversation, if it could be called that, rambled on in the same vein. Him telling me how rubbish this year was and me looking over his shoulder at the butterflies that he was telling me weren't there.

The situation was, to quote a phrase, bloody rubbish.

Eventually I got rid of him, much to my relief and Rosie's, and we continued on our walk. But the man had rather spoiled the moment and I didn't do much more photography. Instead, I wondered whether he was right. Were there fewer butterflies than normal this year? The cloud that had hung over him had rather spread to me, so on the spur of the moment I decided to take action by joining in the big butterfly count.

When I got home, as luck would have it, I found that the following day was the final day to take part.

So the following morning, Rosie and I struck out to the same patch where we met Mr Bloody Rubbish, determined to prove him wrong. I must confess that I was more interested in the number of species I could photograph in 15 minutes than the number of individuals- which isn't really in the spirit of the big butterfly count, but there you go. I did actually also keep score, in the interest of submitting to the official count.

The day was sunny with some light cloud scudding across in a light breeze. And this is how it went....

Minute 1- There's a Large White (Pieris brassicae) further down the track but it won't stay still to be photographed. Not an auspicious start. 1

Things get better as a pristine second brood Speckled wood (Pararge aegeria), on patrol down the side of the fir trees, stops and poses at eye level. 2

Minute 2- All the whites are out today. A small white (Pieris rapae) is nectaring while above it, a green veined white (Pieris napi) is on the brambles. Both are occupied enough to allow a quick snap.

Further down the brambles, I spy a Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus). The Gatekeepers have only recently emerged, so I'm hoping he won't be damaged, and he isn't. 5.

Minute 3- More whites, large and small. Still no picture of the large white.

Minute 4- There's a grey butterfly a way away that I can't identify at first. As I get closer it reveals itself to be not grey, but black and white- a marbled white (Melanargia galathea). A good sighting, and my first of the year at this spot.

While I was closing in on it, I noticed a few skippers buzzing around. I return to take a closer look. They're all Small skippers (Thymelicus sylvestris).

No Esssex or Large skippers to be seen. 7.

Minute 5- Aaargh! The sun goes in and immediately the track becomes devoid of butterflies.

Minute 6- The sun is still in, but there's 2 Ringlets (Aphantopus hyperantus). They're faded and a bit tatty on one side, but one shows me his good side obligingly. 8.

Minute 7- Nothing.

Minute 8. Nothing. How big is this cloud?

Minute 9- Sun!!! And I'm back on track, making up for lost time with a Vanessid double header- Peacock (Inachis io) and Painted lady (Vanessa cardui) both second brood and both perfect. 10.

Minute 10- My jaw actually does a comedy drop as two silver-washed fritillaries (Argynnis paphia) float past the end of my nose in a pairing dance. After the other smaller butterflies they look as big as handkerchiefs. I have seen them here before, but only very sporadically. They part for a while and one starts to feed. I can't quite believe my luck.

Minute 11- Nothing new, but another very tatty silver-washed. They're like buses- you don't see one for weeks and then 3 come along at once.

Minute 12- The grass at the side of the track has a few daisies in it, and on one of those I spy a flash of blue. Common blue (Polyommaus icarus), second brood are out. 11.

Minute 13- Still no shot of a Large white. They're around, but very skittish. I spy a Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina). It's late in the season, but it doesn't look in bad nick. I've never had much success with these. They bolt at the slightest movement. Today though, this one sits just long enough for a photo before running for it. 12.

Minute 14- I think I've seen all there is to see in this section, so I'm racing for a side track lined with knapweed and sallow, where I'm reasonably sure I'll find...

Minute 15- ...Brimstone! (Gonepteryx rhamni).

The second brood started emerging last week and right on cue, here's a nice male. And as an added bonus, on the stroke of 15 minutes, I pull the trigger on an elusive Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta). 14.

Time's up.

Now, fourteen species is about 24% of the native species found in the UK. And given that many don't fly in August, and many don't live in Devon, I'd say that for a 15 minute period, that's not too shabby.

At any rate, it makes me think that 2016 isn't as bad for butterflies- at least second brood ones- as is being made out.

So, Mr Misery, here's my answer to you;

You know what you were talking?

That's right- bloody rubbish.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The day I discovered a Dragonfly having lunch.

I'm constantly amazed by the vast extent of my lack of knowledge when it comes to natural history.

For example, I've known about dragonflies all my life. They've always been there. If I was 299,999,948 years older than I currently am, they'd still always have been there. But I didn't know about them. For instance, I'd never considered what they had for lunch.

On a flying visit to Volehouse last week Rosie was off ahead undertaking important spaniel tasks, when she paused and started sniffing interestedly at something in the middle of the track by the entrance.

This is usually a sign that she's found a particularly alluring pile of fox poo to roll in, and since that involves much shampooing and no little displeasure from my wife for permitting dog and poo to connect, I quickened my pace to intercept before the s*** hit the spaniel, as it were.

But this was something else. As I lumbered up to her, she was actually sniffing at a dragonfly sitting motionless on the path.

Golden ringed dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii)

It was a Golden-ringed dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii) but at the time, I couldn't understand why it was just sitting there allowing a Welshie to prod it with her nose. It was a sunny day, so there shouldn't have been a problem with its flight muscles. And yet there it was, as torpid as me with a  Breaking Bad box set.

I knew that when Bees became like this, they needed emergency food. Perhaps this dragonfly was starving, I reasoned.

I rather balked at the thought of trying to catch flies for it. I've seen Rosie try that many, many times; never with any success. And she's much faster than I am.

Whatever the problem, I decided that it couldn't stay there in the middle of the track. It was inevitably going to get squished by something.

So, rather at a loss, I decided to transfer it to a nearby foxglove on the basis that if it actually was short of energy maybe it would break with dragonfly tradition and try some nectar. If not, then at least it would starve to death rather than get stomped on.

And it was as I transferred it that I realised what was going on. Far from starving, it was actually having lunch.

Beneath it, trapped in its jaws and struggling weakly was a bee.

Beneath it, trapped in its jaws, was a bee

I had no idea that a dragonfly would take something as large as a bee. I'd never really thought about dragonfly food at all. I knew from much pond-dipping as a child that their nymphs were fearsome predators. But as far as I was aware, the adults were like many moths, doing all their feeding in the larval stage. (See what I mean about lack of knowledge?)

This one had clearly bitten off more than it could quickly chew, and was struggling to keep its prey under control.  It hadn't been bothered by Rosie because it had quite enough on its plate already.

Now, in the few days since I joined the dragonfly for lunch, I've noticed them more and more. I've become interested.

I've seen a Golden-ringed dragonfly deftly snatch a moth out of the air and eat it on the fly, spitting the wings out as it went.

I've started spotting and identifying different species.

I now understand that the group of them called Hawkers are so called because of the way that they feed.. Obvious, but it's one of those connections that I'd never made before.

In a single chance encounter that morning I learned something that's sparked an interest that will last me a lifetime.

And that's why it's so fantastic to see so many young people blogging so enthusiastically, passionately and knowledgeably on the Local Patch reporters site.

Because youngsters that have an interest in the natural world will never, ever be bored for as long as they live. They'll never need to occupy themselves by sitting listlessly in front of the TV, PC, VG or whatever.

They will always be able to find something in their surroundings to learn about. And that's a wonderful thing for someone to be able to look forward to.

Although, when they're old enough, I would recommend that they do a Breaking Bad box set binge. Because everybody should. Seriously.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

The day of the hornet that was really a moth.

Disheartened by the summer stretching out in front of it, and knowing the abuse it was going to take, my mower had given one last exhausted phut and died. The mower man came and looked at it, sucked his teeth and shook his head. The mower had moved on to pastures new.

So I had to buy a new mower, which was very expensive. Although I was slightly mollified to find that the new machine had- and I am not making this up- a beverage holder. Every man's dream.

Anyway, to keep the new purchase in tip top condition, I decided to build a little house for it to live in. And while I was doing that, I noticed this, sitting on the fence post that I was about to hammer into.


It's a hornet, right?

That's what I thought as I ran away. A nasty incident some years back has left me with a healthy respect for bees and wasps, even singly.

But then curiosity got the better of me and I crept back with a camera for a closer look. And that's when I realised that this wasn't a hornet at all. On closer inspection, this was unmistakably a moth.

Never having come across anything quite like it before, I did some googling and came up with a bit of background.

This is a Lunar Hornet Moth (Sesia bembeciformis) which must surely be one of the all time great Batesian mimics- species that evolve to look like dangerous or distasteful species in order to protect themselves from predation. The Lunar Hornet moth even moves like a hornet when it flies.

Now I know it's a moth, it's all fine.

It's a reasonably common moth but seldom reported because everybody thinks it's a hornet instead of one of the Clearwing family of moths. Thus proving the effectiveness of its cunning disguise.

It emerges in July and the larvae are burrowers, feeding for 2 years internally on the wood of sallow and poplar trees, of which there is a lot in North Devon.

Once I'd realised there was no imminent danger to me, I became quite fearless and rather fascinated with this little moth.

Hopefully, I'll come across it again, perhaps in a more photogenic position than my fencepost. And maybe I'll say to myself 'Why, that's not a hornet- that's a splendid example of Batesian mimicry' and not run away.

But I wouldn't bet on it.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

June 19th- The day I went abroad to find the Silver-studded blues.

I had never actually considered Cornwall to be abroad until I lived in Devon.

Devonians do seem consider Cornwall to be a foreign land, and I suspect the Cornish think the same about them. It's rooted in a rivalry that, as far as I can work out, comes down to the orientation of the crimp on a pasty (Devon is on top, Cornish in a semicircle round the side) and the order in which jam and cream are placed on a scone.

Anyhoo, delicious cultural differences aside, one of the Cornish speciality butterflies is the Silver-studded blue, a small and rather rare insect that hangs around- at its remaining strongholds- in colonies, sometimes many thousands strong. Who knows why? Probably as a form of defence. Maybe each individual thinks that it can call on the rest of the mob for support in the event that any old-school butterfly collector comes calling.

It's a species that I've never actually seen in the wild, despite over 40 years watching butterflies. We all have species like that, wildlife nemeses which for no particular reason simply elude us. Although I've been to places where Silver-studded blue were found, I've never seen one and I've never got around to actively seeking them out. So when I moved to Devon, it was high on my hit list.

Male Silver studded blue (Plebejus argus) 

One of the largest colonies in the country is down near Newquay at Penhale Sands, a sprawling dune complex spread over 6 square miles, some of it owned by the MOD. You often find that MOD land is good for wildlife. Our fauna and flora seems to prefer living in what is, basically, a war zone than amongst the general populace. It's a sad reflection of the human species.

The SSBs that I was seeking would seldom fly more than a half mile from their place of emergence. Indeed, they are reputed to be so reluctant to explore that you could walk past a colony of several hundred on the other side of a dune and never know a thing about it. (This is, I assume, because they live next door to a bunch of rifle-toting military types. Sticking an antenna over their sandy parapet could be the last thing they ever do).

I was at something of a loss to know how to find the colony in such a large hunting ground.

So I delved a little deeper into the web, to try and find a clue as to where the butterflies could actually be found.

And the web introduced me to the Cornwall Butterfly and Moth Society, who were planning a field trip to the very same Penhale Dunes the following day.

I phoned Lee from the society and booked onto the trip, hoping that the fact that I was coming from Devon wouldn't lead to any unseemly pasty-based friction (or my being detained as a foreign spy).

As I left home the following morning, it was raining hard and since I had a 2 hour drive to find them, I did rather question my sanity. However, as I crossed the border into Cornwall, I regained my sense of adventure and rather enjoyed the journey.

I kept expecting the rain to stop, but as I got closer and closer to my destination, it didn't.

The moors were covered in fog and lorries were putting up great peacock plumes of spray behind them. My windscreen wipers were having trouble keeping up with the water that was being deposited onto them.

When I got to the allotted lay-by,  I met Leon. He turned out to be the County moth recorder for Cornwall and clearly knew his stuff, recording all information in a small hardback notebook that he carries everywhere. A glance inside showed me that he undertakes a butterfly hunting expedition pretty much every day in the season- yesterday he had been up at Aish Tor in Devon, recording sightings of the High Brown Fritillary.

Since it was still raining, I was pretty dubious about seeing anything, but Leon was completely confident. He pointed out that when so many butterflies were concentrated into one area, there was really nowhere for them to hide.

Last week, he told me with a gleam in his eye, at a reserve down the road he'd seen a dozen on a single umbrella of Angelica. And his friend had counted over 80 in a two metre square. He spoke of a time some years ago when the population had got so numerous that they were like confetti when you walked.

'I'll believe it when I see it', I thought with a London ex-pat's cynicism.

We threaded our way through the dunes, pausing only for pyramidal orchids

We threaded our way through the dunes, pausing only for pyramidal orchids. Leon in his waterproofs nattering away happily about the aberrant form of the Grizzled Skipper that is found on the dunes, ab. Taras. Me plodding along behind him, my inappropriate deck shoes emitting a loud squelch with every footstep and my soaking jeans covered in grass seeds and sticking to my shins.

Eventually Leon paused and his eyes narrowed. 'There's one of the little so-and-so's" he said triumphantly.

And there it was indeed. A tiny butterfly, far smaller than I'd expected. Smaller than the Common blue, and with a more purple tinge to the upperside, and black bands evident on the males. I knew immediately that if I ever came across them again I would be able to identify them from the upperside alone.

The identifying clincher, though, is on the underside and it's where they get their name from. In the black spots at the edge of the hindwing are small groups of blue scales, which allegedly look like studs of blue. They're not a constant- some individuals have them very pronounced, others hardly at all and in some they are absent altogether.

The silver studs are a dead giveaway

Females, Leon informed me, though they lack the blue upper side, often have better 'studs'.

Like most blues, the females are brown. Which is just contrary, really.
Silver-studded blues are found in three distinct habitats- the dunes and calcareous grassland sites where the larval food plant is primarily Bird's-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and the adults are on the wing from June to mid July. But they are also found on heathland from July through August, where the larvae feed on Heather (Calluna vulgarise) and gorse (Ulex spp.)

As with many Blues, they have a close relationship with ants; in the case of the SSB, black ants in particular (Lasius niger and Lasius aliens).

Almost as soon as they hatch, the larvae begin to secrete a form of honeydew that the ants respond to. They pick up the larvae and transport them to their chambers within the nest, where they are tended and protected by the ants in exchange for supplies of the secretion. When pupation occurs, it is usually near the ants nest, and the pupa continues to secrete honeydew in exchange for protection until the butterfly emerges. Anecdotal accounts have the ants actually carrying the adult butterflies out of the nest to expand their wings, where they join the others in the colony.

Like most of these things, when you've got your eye in, you start to see them properly and it soon became clear that we were right in the middle of the colony, with hundreds of butterflies visible.

When you get your eye in, you wonder how you ever missed them

'If the weather was half decent', said Leon expansively, 'you'd see thousands'. I immediately determined to come back when the sun was out.

We experimented with shining a torch on them to see if they'd open their wings for us, and amazingly, it worked. Something to bear in mind for cloudy days in the future, as is the simple need for a pair of nail scissors to undertake the occasional bit of pruning before taking photographs. I had one chap with a lovely set of studs that insisted on hiding behind a blade of grass, and I couldn't get rid of it without disturbing him.

That moment when you realise you've forgotten your nail scissors.

Eventually, the discomfort of the rain took its toll. My spectacles were covered in rain and fogged up from my breath behind the back of the camera. I was drenched from head to foot and so much grass seed had stuck to me that if I'd slept on the ground, I'd have woken up in a meadow.

But I'd finally seen the Silver studded blue. And as I drove back across the border from the pouring rain of Cornwall into the pouring rain of Devon, I couldn't help thinking what a nice place Cornwall was.

Awfully wet, though.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

13th June 2016. The day I learned about managing Culm grassland.

It's raining. Great drenching sheets of the stuff, blowing in waves across the garden to the point where, when I look out of the window, I can't see the trees two fields over.

Even Rosie refuses to go out. She looks at me with that slightly questioning look that means 'You seriously expect me to go out in that?' and 'Got any food?' both at once. Although actually,  every look from a Spaniel means 'Got any food?, so there's nothing new there.

On this particular day, though, I can't blame her. So while she goes to sleep on a big cushion next to my desk, I sit down at the computer and decide to take the opportunity to find out a bit more about Culm grassland and the way it's managed at Volehouse.

The first and most surprising thing I learn is that Culm grassland is confined to the area between Dartmoor, Exmoor and the Atlantic coast. It's a unique habitat, that lies on top of the Culm measures that are only found in this tiny area of the UK. It's so special that the main culm basin has been subdivided into its own specific sections- the Holsworthy group and the Teign valley group, AKA the Lower Culm.

Location of Culm grasslands in UK (JNCC)

The Holsworthy group is further subdivided into the upper Bude formation and the Crackington formation, the Bideford formation and the Launcestone formation. I'm not exactly sure where the boundaries lie, so I can't say which camp Volehouse falls into but I'm assuming it must be Bideford . Anyway, it's all part of the Culm measure.

According to Wikipedia, Culm measure is the name given to a particular geological strata that stems from the Carboniferous period, 300 million years ago.  It's called Culm because it gives rise in certain areas (notably around Bideford, Barnstaple and Hartland) to soft, sooty deposits of coal, known in the local dialect as 'culm', which itself probably derives from the Welsh word 'cwlwm' meaning 'knot', on account of the folding pattern of the beds in which this soft coal is found.

As a lover of trivia, this stuff is meat and drink to me and it's still chucking it down, so I push on.

It seems that the Culm measures also consist of shale, sandstone, slate, limestone and chert.


Yes, I thought that, too. It's a 'fine-grained, silica-rich microcrystalline sedimentary rock that may contain small fossils'. Is there no question that Wikipedia can't help with?

It's on top of all this culm and, er, chert that Culm grassland forms. It's a species-rich habitat, characterised by moor grass and rush pasture- hence it's other name 'Rhos pasture'. It's a heavy, acidic soil, poorly draining, which has been used mostly for grazing historically, as it's too difficult to use it for anything else. Thus, most culm grassland remained unimproved in the past, used only for grazing small numbers of cows.

Culm grassland

Changes and advances in agricultural practice, though, have made changing the character of the land far more viable. The culm grassland has gradually been lost to modern farming techniques and increased pressure upon the farming industry to deliver ever-increasing yields, resulting in overgrazing and the draining of the Culm fields.

About 92% of our Culm grassland has vanished forever in the last 100 years, with 48% vanishing between 1984 and 1991 alone. There are now only about 4000 acres left. Fortunately, before all was lost, attempts were made to preserve it, notably by Devon Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation and Natural England, all of whom have spearheaded conservation projects and continue to fight hard to preserve it.

I look outside, and it's still tipping down. Rosie is flat out, draped upside down across her cushion and snoring like a small furry engine.

I come to the conclusion that, armed with my newfound knowledge of culm and chert, it's time to stop suckling on the trivia teat that is Wiki and try to gain some knowledge from an actual, live person. I decide to try and speak to the manager of the culm grassland at Volehouse Moor.

At the Devon Wildlife Trust office, a very nice lady answers the phone and gives me the number of Steve, who looks after Volehouse.

As I listen to Steve's phone ringing. I realise that I haven't really thought this through, and that I should have prepared all kinds of interesting and insightful questions for him. All I can think of at the moment is 'why don't the cow's hooves squash all the Marsh fritillary larvae'?

As it happens, I needn't have worried. Steve is a softly spoken chap who is very easy to talk to. I forget that I forgot to prepare any questions, and we just chat away.

My opening gambit is to ask him how long he's looked after Volehouse. He tells me that he's been involved in the management of Volehouse and other nearby reserves since the early nineties. I tell him about my Marsh Fritillary count and he says that he did his own count a couple of days later. We compare totals- he had fortysomething in 45 minutes and I had 87 in 70 minutes so it's reasonably consistent.

Back in 1998/9, he says,when he and his colleague reserve manager Gary Pilkington did a count, they found just 2 butterflies. I find this extraordinary, and a testament to the success of their conservation plan. Steve is obviously quietly proud of the figures, but is at pains to point out that as a result of Volehouse being a nature reserve, he has the luxury of being able to manage the land as he wishes, without having to deliver a profit on it.

Coming from a farming family himself, he understands the pressures on farmers and is of the opinion that the shift towards larger 'superfarms' can be a positive thing for conservation because they are more likely to be able to spare pockets of land to put aside for more wildlife-friendly use.
With less land, the need to use every square metre increases. Viewed through this lens, Culm doesn't really pull its weight, so it's just as well that there are organisations willing to fight its corner.

I ask how a typical year managing Volehouse would work and Steve maps out his annual routine for me. He says that there are really two pillars to managing culm- grazing and swaling (burning)

The grazing is essential to prevent the build up of dead leaf litter, which smothers new plant growth. The Marsh fritillary, in particular, depends on high concentrations of devils-bit scabious for its larvae. This is one of the plants that can be smothered if grazing doesn't happen.

Without good management, many plants would be lost

Overgrazing, however, is as bad as undergrazing, says Steve, since the cows will eat their way through too much of the plant life. He makes the point that each area needs to be managed on its own merits, and it is this approach which he believes has led to the spectacular resurgence of the Marsh fritillary at Volehouse. He says that he puts his cattle on in mid June "whichever week has the 18th in it" although they're a bit early this year due to the mild winter and early spring.

The main thing, he says, is to only put a small number on, and not to introduce them until after the wildflowers have set seed. As a farmer, he'd want more cattle on the land and to put them on earlier, but cows tend to selectively graze out the orchids. Once again, he appreciates having the luxury of being able to manage the land for the wildlife, not in spite of it. He'll take the cattle off again in autumn.

Grazing at Volehouse is delayed until after the wildflowers have set seed

Swaling (controlled burning) is also vital to the survival of species on the culm grassland. It's another method of removing dead leaf litter and 'thatch' (the dead grass that sits on top of the tussocks) and the resultant bare earth is a perfect germination ground for seedlings. It's also the best way to stop the encroachment of scrub. Willow in particular can quickly take over a site if left unchecked. Ideally, culm grassland works best for wildlife with about 10% scrub cover.

Obviously, you can't just go around setting light to entire reserves willy-nilly and the swaling process is carefully managed by Steve, using a  3 year cyclical system of compartments, some fields being burned annually and half of the other fields being swaled every other year. The fields are cut in the winter and burned in February or March, which Steve says works better as the cut grass is more desiccated by then. Cutting cyclically ensures that there are always a variety of climates to suit the broadest range of wildlife. The meadows aren't swaled at all, relying purely on grazing to keep the thatch and scrub at bay.

Scorpion fly (Panorpa communis) One of the many insects thriving in the microhabitats of Volehouse

I point out to Steve that the increase in the number of Marsh fritillary at Volehouse is in direct contradiction to the European-wide trend as one of the butterflies in most serious decline. Does he manage the reserve purely for the fritillaries, as the star species at Volehouse?

Marsh fritillaries on well managed Culm (and unsquashed by cattle)

He pauses, considering. 'I wouldn't say I manage it for them', he says, 'but I do manage it with them in mind'. I ask if he believes that the phasing out of traditional methods of farm management like swaling have led to this decline in numbers. He puts a different, more positive spin on his answer, saying that he believes the numbers of aurinia on his reserves have increased so dramatically because he is free to manage the land in a fashion  that optimises conditions for them.

Our conversation is coming to a natural close, and we arrange for me to accompany him to Volehouse in the autumn to help him count the larval webs of the fritillaries after the cattle are taken off.

And it's then that I seize the chance to ask my big question.

'So, Steve' I say 'How come the larval webs don't get trodden on by the cows'?

He considers.

"I expect they do'. he replies. 'But not all of them. Otherwise there wouldn't be any fritillaries, would there'?

I can't really think of a response to logic like that, so I thank him and end our chat.

I've learned a lot about culm this morning.

It's still bloody raining, though.

Devon Wildlife Trust, North Devon Nature improvement area website
Butterfly Conservation 'Reconnecting the culm' leaflet
JNCC defra SAC site
Devon county council- 'Rhos pasture'

Many thanks to Steve Threlkeld at DWT

Monday, 13 June 2016

June 11th 2016- The day with the orchids.

Since the butterfly count, I haven't been down to the left side field. On that day it was buzzing with Marsh fritillaries displaying all aspects of behaviours but I didn't want to stop my count to spend time there.

Today, however, this is where I'm heading. Because on the 31st it was here that I noticed that the first orchids had begun to flower.

Southern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa)

They're southern marsh orchids- not uncommon but very attractive, and they mark a distinct transition in the reserve. The early flowers in the meadows tend towards yellow- dandelions, buttercups, hawkweeds and the like, whereas from June onwards the pinks and purples appear- the orchids, thistles and ragged robin. There are many exceptions, and I'm not aware of there being any reason for it- it's just something that I've noticed. I like the purples. They give a summery, exotic feel to things just at the time when the yellow of the buttercups can become a bit overwhelming. 

Southern marsh orchid (detail)

And as I approach the spot where I saw the orchids blooming, I see that I'm not the only one to welcome their arrival. A pair of Marsh fritillaries are nectaring on one of the paler orchids. The sexes of the Marsh fritillary are not difficult to tell apart- as long as you have a pair in front of you! The females (40-50mm) are usually about a centimetre bigger across the wingspan than the males (30-42mm), which as I say, is easy to tell when you have both to compare, but trickier when the butterfly you wish to sex is careering at full tilt across the tussocks on his (or her) own. The difference in colour of the wings that you can see in the photo is just due to age or individual variation and is not indicative of sex.

Marsh Fritillaries on orchid

I watch the happy couple for a while as they refuel, and then notice another specimen, a male this time, on a spike nearby. I wait and then attempt to click the shutter as he flies. For once I am rewarded with a flight shot that is in sharp focus. This is the great advantage of modern cameras- only a few years ago, a shot like this would have been challenging, if not impossible, in the field without a flash and tripod. In the digital age, though, we have almost infinite control over ISO and shutter speed and the ability to clean up noise on pictures so completely that with luck and good reflexes, anyone can get decent flight shots.

Marsh fritillary taking flight and unusually in focus!

The sharp focus bit doesn't often happen, though, so I am feeling rather pleased with myself as I start to head for home. And then I see a 'chain' start to happen a few yards away. This is a territorial behaviour I've been wanting to capture on camera for a while and flushed with success at the previous shot, I go for it, focusing on infinity, twisting the telephoto on my camera to 200mm at the same time as trying to centre my viewfinder on 4 butterflies flying at full speed in a completely unpredictable pattern. Any photographer will know that the chances of getting off a useable shot were pretty much zero. And yet, improbably, when I look at the pictures later on, there it is. A bit of sharpening and cropping and it's just about good enough to post here.

A 'chain' of Marsh fritillaries
So all in all, it's been a good day, and a great reminder that in nature study there's always something exciting to be gained if you persevere.

I drive home smiling.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

June 7th 2016- Painted ladies. The perfect antidote to a London trip.

I've been in London. This is partly good and partly bad. Good, because it gives me a chance to see the parentals, catch up with who's doing what in my place of teenagehood and, very importantly, to have a curry without having to drive 10 miles to pick it up.

Bad because the air isn't nice, there are too many people and it isn't Devon. It is, to be exact, four and a half hours of tedious motorway driving away. Two hundred and thirty miles that feels more like a million from the leafy single track lanes that I've come to love so much.

So it's with an understandable spring in my step that I walk Rosie (who as a Springer Spaniel is required to always have a spring in her step) down through the top meadow at Volehouse. No pausing for hide and seek today- there are things to be seen.

There is a charm of Goldfinches moving around the top meadow, eating the seeds off the dock, I think, or maybe one of the grasses. They don't come near enough to see properly, and I'm not hanging around when there are fritillaries to be reintroduced to.

But we never make it to the Fritillaries. Our thoughts and attentions are captured by some new faces that have arrived at Volehouse during our enforced absence.

The Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui) have arrived in force from their annual migration and 4 of them are flying strongly across the meadow stopping to feed on what's around. It's mostly campion, cow parsley and the last few cuckoo flowers.

Painted lady (Vanessa cardui)

They look a little faded and have a few nicks in their wings, unlike the magnificent specimens that will emerge in August.

The Painted lady has, until very recently, been a bit of a mystery. It was the Oompa Loompa of the butterfly world. Because like the Trump-hued workers at Mr Wonka's factory, nobody ever saw them come out. They were observed arriving in Britain every year from Africa, sometimes in huge numbers, and pushing right on up to the Arctic circle (a journey quite a lot further than the famous Monarch migration of North America).

But it wasn't until 2012 that anybody knew what happened to them after that. It was generally assumed that they simply died off, because unlike their cousin the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) nobody had ever seen them leave to go back south.

And yet, down in Africa, huge numbers would suddenly appear every winter, as if by migration.

Opinion was divided as to how the Painted ladies were pulling off this Dynamo-esque stunt.  The dying-off theory didn't bear close inspection because it would require huge numbers to stay at home in Africa each year to replenish numbers for the next year's migration. And that didn't appear to be the case.

Then some bright sparks decided to use radar to track them, in conjunction with observations from the public. 60,000 of them.

Painted lady- high flier

What they found was that the butterflies were returning south, but at a height previously believed to be too rarified to make sense- over 1000m over our heads, only coming down when the wind direction was favourable. Using these winds, they could reach speeds of 30 mph with a strong breeze at their abdomen. In fact, they were averaging a height of 500m.

To put that into a very non-scientific but quite visual perspective, a 747 usually cruises at around 10,000 m.

So while that's 10x higher than a Painted lady, a Jumbo Jet is a lot more than 10 times the size (the clue's in the word 'Jumbo'). And the Jumbo looks tiny when you see it up in the sky. So we can all be entirely forgiven for overlooking a butterfly cruising along at 1000m

With more and more observers joining in, the scientists discovered that 11 million were making their way northwards, but 26 million were making their way back south. Far from dying off after the long journey north, they were bolstering their numbers and undertaking the second half one of the most epic journeys of any animal on the planet. One which would take 6 generations of butterflies to return to whence their great great great great grandparents had set out from the previous year.

Back on the ground at Volehouse, I look at the Painted lady with its slightly faded and nicked wings, and I think about its long, arduous journey and I feel slightly embarrassed. Because suddenly, a four and a half hour trip up the motorway cocooned in a comfy, air-conditioned, stereo-equipped car doesn't seem like much of a hardship at all.

Don't you just hate it when that happens?

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

May 31st 2016- The day of the Butterfly Conservation survey

I've been asked by Butterfly Conservation if I will do a timed survey of the Marsh Fritillaries at Volehouse Moor. It's a species of most concern in Britain and Europe due to its worrying decline over the last few decades, and so monitoring the remaining populations is really important if we are going  to reverse the trend. I'm happy to oblige, and secretly rather proud that they've asked me to be responsible for it.

Jenny at BC sends me through all the forms and the guidelines for the timed count that I'll be undertaking. I'm determined to count the best, most accurate count that any counter has ever counted.

The guidelines are interesting. The survey should be undertaken as near as possible to peak flight period which is about now. If this is achievable, only one count is needed per year.  The methods used for entering data into the database take account of single specimens counted twice (no need for that in my case, I think smugly to myself) I wonder how they work that out. Do they just assume a percentage of dupes? I wonder how many?

It should take place between 10.45am and 15.45pm. I decide that I wouldn't bet on seeing many Marsh Frit after 3pm, so I'm going to do mine at what I reckon is the peak flight hour- between 11am and 12.01pm (I say 12.01 because I can never remember whether 12.00 mid-day counts as am or pm).

Weather should be warm and bright (unusually for a bank holiday in North Devon, it is) with at least 60% sunshine. Wind no more than 5 on the Beaufort scale. Check.

Recordings should be made at a slow, steady pace (My natural pace, in other words), walking in a zigzag pattern across the entire flight area in a fixed time period. This is interesting because it means that I won't walk the top 2 meadows, which have no Marsh Frit. Basically, I will be trying to determine the extent of the flight area, which I know from experience is the 3rd field and the fields either side of it, and then the two fields that lead down to the river. The Marsh Fritillary decrease in frequency as you progress down the slope until by the time you get to the river, there are none flying that I've ever seen. Perhaps today will be the exception, though. I shall look diligently, I promise myself.

With all conditions met, I embark on my quest for the Marsh Frits at 10.45am exactly. I am well chuffed to have started off at exactly the officially approved start time, although the lackadaisical part of me knows that I could actually have started a sloppy 2 minutes earlier and it would have made no difference. This is important scientific work though, so I start precisely and within the guidelines. No Fossey or Goodall could have been more rigorous in their methodology.

I am slightly concerned at the ambiguity of the term 'zig zag' though. Does it mean a classic 45 degree angle or a more determined 22.5 degrees? Without a protractor it's hard to be accurate anyway, so I ask myself the question 'What would Attenborough do' ? I feel the answer from Sir David would probably tell me to get on with it and stop being a buffoon, so I do.

For 70 minutes I comb the fields of Volehouse with my eagle eyes, zigzagging frantically at an angle that I guess to be about 34 degrees (I decided to split the difference), walking at a pace so slow and steady that you  could set a metronome by it, and counting the fritillaries off with a clicker I've bought for the occasion in case I lose track and have to start again. No expense spared, I can tell you.

And the fritillaries seem to know that I'm trying to help their conservation, because they come out in droves. I zigzag across previously unexplored hotspots, and see behaviours that I've never seen. I note males sitting high up on tree leaves, seemingly guarding territory. I see a courtship ritual that I've never noticed before, where the participants circle each other and rub flanks. It seems almost as stylised as that of the Wood White (Leptidea sinapis). I wonder at the number of adults who just sit on grass stalks, not feeding, not apparently guarding territory and not even warming up. What's that all about? Are they just resting?

60 minutes later, I've covered the fields and the butterflies are thinning out. I'm halfway down the last field, and my count is 86 fritillaries. I think that it's all over, since I've never seen one this far down towards the river before, and then, just as reach the end of my session, at 70 minutes, as I turn to leave, I see one final specimen fluttering weakly along. Lucky number 87.  I take a commemorative photograph to mark the occasion, and have a long drink. It's tepid. I'm gutted not to have made the ton, but 87 is a lot more than I expected. It's hot. I'm sunburned. But the fritillaries of Volehouse Moor can consider themselves well and truly counted.

Lucky number 87

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

26th May 2016- The day with different butterflies.

While the Marsh fritillaries always steal the show at Volehouse due to their numbers and comparative rarity, it's not a bad place for butterflies generally. As I walk down the track to the top meadow, there's generally a couple of Speckled wood keeping pace with me. Today, I have a more unusual chaperone- a Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta). It doesn't want to stop, though- after circling me a few times, and buzzing Rosie (which she hates, sneezing at it with great indignation) it flies vigorously off over the fence and across the meadow.

As Rosie pushes her way past me into the meadow, keen to investigate the new smells that have accumulated since our last visit, she flushes a small orange moth from the grass. It immediately drops down again, allowing closer inspection.

It's not a moth at all. It's the Small Heath butterfly (Coenonympha pamphilus), which, like so many of our native butterflies, is in steep decline. When I was growing up, most grassy meadows would reveal a dozen Small Heath within a few metres. Nowadays, this isn't the case. It's numbers have dropped by a disturbing 52% in the long term and I would now class it as an unusual sighting- something I would never have dreamed possible as a boy.

Small Heath butterfly (Coenonympha pamphilus)

I move on down the path that my visits are slowly forming through the lengthening grass towards the second meadow, spying Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines) and Small white (Pieris rapae) in the distance.

The male Marsh fritillaries are still chasing each other around the tussocks in the culm grassland field, but today Rosie and I are headed to the river, and we don't stop.

In the cool of the woodland, the dappled sunlight is perfect for a different selection of plants. There's a carpet of Pink purslane (Claytonia sibirica) covering the ground in one area, while only 20 yards away, there's none.

Pink purslane (Claytonia sibirica)

Instead, there's Alliara petiolata- garlic mustard (or, if you prefer, Jack-by-the-hedge) in profusion, with a white butterfly moving from flower to flower. I expect it to be a female Orange tip laying eggs, as the larvae feed principally on this plant, but a closer look reveals a Green-veined white (Pieris napi) nectaring from the tiny white flowers.

Green-veined white (Pieris napi) on garlic mustard

It floats ahead of us as we walk, and eventually settles long enough to get a good view of the underwings that give rise to its common name.

Green-veined white

As we push out of the woods, back into the sunlight, we startle a roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) which bolts away showing us its white rump patch- there are deer in reasonable numbers on Volehouse, but they only show themselves every so often.

Further up the field, a buzzard (Buteo buteo) drops like a stone out of the sky and lands on something in the next field. There's a lot of squawking and honking, but since buzzard don't take large birds, I assume that it's an alarm call from some of the local pheasants.

Rosie is intrigued by the commotion but is gently persuaded not to investigate further. I notice that while I've been rolling on the ground trying to photograph the green-veined white, she's been rolling in something too. Something left by a fox, judging by the smell coming off her.

I drive home with the windows open.

Rosie is delighted to find evidence of fox

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

21st May 2016- Sun, Butterflies and Damselflies.

After the disappointments of May 18th, it was a few days before the sun shone again but on the 21st, we awoke to blue skies once more. 

What a difference a few days make! The buttercups in the top meadow have sprung up to their full height and seemingly multiplied too, as the field is a mass of yellow blooms, waving gently in a light breeze. Perfect weather for fritillaries, and Rosie enjoys it, too. We squeeze in a quick game of hide and seek before getting down to business. 

Rosie enjoying the warm weather

Down at the 3rd field, where on the 17th there had been only a single lone Marsh fritillary, numbers are now starting to build. The previous summer had been a bumper year for them, so I'm hoping that numbers will be up, despite the wet winter (and the cows in the field, the hooves of which always seem to me to be a grave threat to webs of hibernating larvae). This early in the season, it's hard to tell about numbers. But what I'm seeing looks encouraging.

Marsh fritillary keeping a wary eye out for photographers

I count 40 or so in the two hours I'm there, which is about equal with the same time last year. They're always a challenge to see, even though they don't travel far from their place of emergence. They have an uncanny ability to fly a short distance and then just disappear, only appearing again when they fly up as you approach the place where you last saw them settle, and whizzing off to settle elsewhere, where the process starts again!

Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia) portrait

These are also displaying territorial behaviour, with the males chasing each other in chains of up to four, following each other fast and low over the tussock and then vertically up into the sky until the threat is nullified and the chain falls apart, its protagonists falling back to earth and resuming business as usual. I hope to photograph this behaviour at some point in the future, but it won't be an easy thing to capture, as the flight is extremely quick and unpredictable to follow.

Further down towards the river at the Hemlock patch, the damselflies are still gathering in the midday sun, but now the appearance of males amongst them leads me to believe that there are no Banded Demoiselle there, and they are all Beautiful Demoiselle. Interesting, since the Wildlife Trust specifically mention Banded Demoiselle in their literature for Volehouse. 

Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) female

The male Beautiful Demoiselle has dark wings and lacks the characteristic dark band across them that makes the Banded Demoiselle so striking.

Male Beautiful demoiselle

All too soon, it's time to get out of the heat and head back to the car. Rosie is by now eager to get back home and scampers ahead, sighing deeply in expressive resignation when I stop to photograph a Speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria) that is patrolling the track.

Speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria)

It's a good butterfly; common but always nice to see as it flits from leaf to leaf. This one is kind enough to stay at ground level and allow close approach while Rosie flops down in a weary huff, waiting for her erratic companion to stop messing around and get her back to the car for a long drink.

Which I then do, and which she dribbles all over the back seat of the car.