Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The unsung beauty of dung

Fresh cow dung is wonderful stuff.  Gooey, smelly and, perhaps surprisingly, a hive of activity.

The meadow at Flitwick Moor has heaps of the cow-pats courtesy of these guys and girls.
I've never taken time out to sit and stare at a cow-pat before. Today I did. Fascinating. Little beetles, which looked a bit like water beetles, were zapping in and out of holes in the pats like whippets mainlining on caffeine.

I tried hard to get some decent shots of these beetles, but they were just too fast for me. These are the best shots I could get.
I am pretty sure these beetles are Sphaeridium scarabaeoides; a terrestrial water beetle. A very similar species is Sphaeridium lunatum. Their ecology is essentially the same. They are about 6mm long, shiny black with a goldie bottom and red patches on their elytra. Pretty smart looking apart from being a bit streaked with poo.

S.scarabaeoides live exclusively on cow-pats (Otronen & Hanski, 1983), and they like 'em fresh. The adult beetles are coprophagous; they eat dung. They live on, eat and have sex in fresh, wet cow-pats. To them a sloppy wet cow-pat is like The Dorchester. 

S.scarabaeoides larvae are carnivores; they predate fly larvae in dung (and eat each other when maggots are in short supply (Sowig, 1997)). Here are some tiny flies laying eggs on the cow-pat and a green bottle-type fly, possibly Orthellia cornicina, whose larvae also live in dung.
Heaps of invertebrates utilise cow-pats as a habitat. As cow-pats are ephemeral habitats these creatures can locate fresh pats very rapidly (Otronen & Hanski, 1983) and their larvae develop very fast (Sowig, 1997). These beetles and flies are the first colonists of cow-pats. Adult beetles start arriving within 2 hours of cow-pat deposition and it's not unusual to find over 50 adults on/in a pat (Otronen and Hanski, 1983).
Cow-pats themselves are wonderful to study because they are tiny habitat islands distributed randomly within pasture; the surrounding pasture is not suitable for these specialised beetles. How they find pats and colonise them fascinates ecologists.

Anthelmintics (Ivermectin/Avermectin) are broad-spectrum anti-parasitics, introduced in the 1980s to treat cattle. Drug residues persist in faeces and are thus a threat to invertebrates that live in dung, reducing their density and diversity (Vickery, et al., 2001, Beaumont, 2005). If there are less insects in dung, then this also potentially reduces the food available to foraging birds (Vickery, et al., 2001).

Dung insects like these little beetles are vital in meadow and pasture ecosystems (Webb, 2004). They are the invertebrate equivalent of Tudor gong farmers (nightsoil collectors); a dirty job, but absolutely vital to the healthy functioning of communities. 

I also took a photo of a fly I didn't identify at the time.
From reading Stand and Stare blog, I think this may possibly be a noon fly (Mesembrina meridiana), another dung laying species.

Beaumont D  (2005) Avermectins and dung Insects. Conservation Science Review, Number 43. RSPB. PDF available here.
Otronen M and Hanski I (1983) Movement patterns in Sphaeridium: differences between
species, sexes, and feeding and breeding individuals. Journal of Animal Ecology, Volume 52, pages 663-80. Available here.
Sowig P (1997) Predation among Sphaeridium larvae: the role of starvation and size differences (Coleoptera Hydrophilidae). Ethology Ecology & Evolution, Volume 9, pages 241-51. Available here.
Vickery JA, Tallowin JR, Feber RE, et al., (2001) The potential value of managed cereal field margins as foraging habitats for farmland birds in the UK. Agricultural Ecosytems and Environment, Volume 89, pages 41–52. Available here.
Webb L (2004) The Dung Beetles (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae and Hydrophilidae) of Ayrshire, Scotland. Bulletin of the Amateur Entomologists’ Society, Volume 63. Available here.

There were some common lizards hanging about in the meadow too. I only managed to catch one on the camera, from a distance.
I must acknowledge the considerable help I received from my 5 year old niece when writing this blog entry at 6am this morning.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


The sun came out on Friday morning. It was quite a shock to see blue sky, so I headed off to Potton Wood to make the most of it. By the time I'd got there it was already clouding over and the wind was picking up. Sigh.
 Cockayne Hatley Church over the wheat fields
Before heading into the woods I took a stroll around the wheat fields near Cockayne Hatley to see if any interesting arable weeds had managed to avoid the herbicide on the field margins. 

That proved a forlorn hope, but whilst trying unsuccessfully to photograph butterflies feeding on bramble flowers I noticed this tiny (body about 6mm long) spider on an elder leaf. 
Pretty distinctive little creature, which I found easily enough on Google when I got home. It's a comb-footed spider Enoplognatha ovata. Also called the 'candy stripe' spider, much easier to say than Enoplog...thingy. It's in the family Theridiidae, which consists of spiders who are 3D web-builders (clearly these are IT literate arachnids) and according to Wikipedia have a 'comb of serrated bristles' on their hind legs.

These little spiders are apparently quite common and come in 3 colour variations, of which I saw 2 on my walk. The red stripe one above, an red abdomen variety and a green one. I am pretty sure this is the greeny colour variation below.

The thing that amazed me about this wee spider was the huge waspy head next to it, which dwarfed it in size. It must make an efficient web to catch and subdue a wasp. 
Then, just as I was heading back to the road I found another candy stripe spider tucking into a whole bee. This one had set up camp on a bristly oxtongue (Picris echioides).
Clearly size isn't everything and this spider is undefeated by larger prey.

Cockayne Hatley church is only a few minutes walk from Potton Wood so I decided to take a turn about the church yard.

St John's church dates from the 13th century. For such a small parish church it is surprising to find a couple of very interesting memorials in the churchyard. The most imposing, is the gravestone of William Ernest Henley (1849–1903), the Victorian poet, who wrote the immortal words;

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

On the other side of the monument to Henley and his wife, is an inscription for their daughter Margaret (1888-1894). 
A few years ago we went to a second-hand booksale in the church and we were told that Henley was friends with JM Barrie, of Peter Pan fame. Oddly enough I bought a copy of Peter Pan at that same book-sale. Now, little Margaret Henley used to call JM Barrie her fwendy-wendy. Legend has it, that this is where Barrie got the name Wendy, which he used in Peter Pan. Henley, who'd had his left leg amputated below the knee due to tuberculosis as a teenager, was also a friend of Robert Louis Stephenson. Stephenson's letters indicate that Henley was the model on which he based the character Long John Silver.

The other notable memorial is to 4 men from the crew of a B24 Liberator bomber KN736 which crashed into Potton Wood on 18th September 1945. 
The British and Australian crew were on a training flight, along with a Scottish terrier called Bitsa. The plane crashed into Potton Wood (the whole story is here). Bitsa played a key role in the rescue; her barking alerted rescuers to the position of one the injured men, who had managed, somehow, to get to a field just outside the woods. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Moss Club

I like little things. Stuff I need to get down on my hands and knees to see.

This is me on holiday having fun, looking at little stuff.

Some special small stuff I found on my recent trip up North are plants that I've only seen before when I've been on fells and mountain tops.

Let me introduce you to, if you are not already acquainted with, special small stuff called clubmosses, or if you want to impress, Lycopods or Lycophytes.

These are little plants which look like mosses but aren't. Calling them mosses isn't very helpful. They are often lumped in with ferns, but actually they are more fern allies than relatives. To preserve my sanity I won't even try to go into their taxonomy or classification. Top people are still debating the issue. But that aside, they are actually jolly interesting. OK, not colourful but they have history, long, long history. And that gives then kudos over the gaudier angiosperms in my book (apologies to those mountain pansies, no offence was meant).

Clubmosses are believed to be similar to some of the earliest plants which colonised the land, over 400 million years ago. They are the diminutive relics of huge plants which dominated the land during the Carboniferous. The giant (100 foot tall) Lepidodendron 'tree' was a clubmoss and is found fossilised in coal deposits.

Clubmosses have simple leaves, microphylls, which only have a single vein, and they produce spores. I reacquainted myself with 4 species of clubmoss, recently in Teesdale.

Lesser clubmoss Selaginella selaginoides
Grows on lime and likes it damp. I found this clubmoss in Teesdale on sugar limestone; sites like Cronkley and Widdybank Fells. The picture below was taken at Widdybank (you can see Cow Green reservoir in the background). If you can see in my photo, the leaves have teensy teeth.

Fir clubmoss Huperzia selago
This is a distinctive clubmoss; very stiff and robust. Blamey et al, (2003) call it stout. Its leaves are untoothed. It prefers dry areas on mountains and heaths. 

Alpine clubmoss Diphasiastrum alpinum
This clubmoss is bluey-green in colour. It forms dapper little rosettes. It's quite distinctive with adpressed (which means 'lying close against') leaves. One can surmise from its name, that it lives in upland areas.

Below is a picture of the strobili or cones of apline clubmoss. These cones look like clubs, which is where clubmosses get their name. 

Stagshorn clubmoss
Lycopodium clavatum
This one is a creeper. It can spread along the ground for up to a metre or so. Again I think quite distinctive. There are strobili in the picture below, not yet ripe.
The leaves have a long white hairy bit on the end. 
Stagshorn clubmoss is not only a jazzy little plant, it has another claim to fame as the ingredient in the flammable Lycopodium powder. This was used for flash photography, fireworks and powders for fingerprints. It is now sold for use by magicians to create a quick-burning flashy flame (the powder is sometimes called Dragon's Breath). It's also apparently used as the dusting on condoms and to stabilize ice cream. Hmm.
Great little plants.

And this, picture below, is where I found the last 3 species of clubmoss (that is, all except lesser clubmoss). Not exactly Kew Gardens. An abandoned quarry between Weardale and Teesdale. A brilliant site to go plant hunting.
BTW I contacted the very nice Vice-County Recorder for Teesdale about the club-mosses at the quarry and he said that the stagshorn clubmoss was a new record for the site. Happiness.

Further Information
A simple diagram showing a clubmoss lifecycle is here.
Someone using Lycopodium Powder or Dragon's Breath can be seen here on You Tube (it's OK it's an educational video!)
More info on Lycopodium power from the Natural History Museum website here.

This was one time when Blamey, Fitter and Fitter trumped my beloved Rose (see below). Blamey et al., include a basic (very basic) guide to grasses, rushes, sedges, ferns, horsetails and clubmosses in their Wildflower Guide. It is invaluable if you don't want to carry much in the field. (So drat that it is still out of print and when I checked today was £100 second-hand on Amazon!!)

Blamey M, Fitter R and Fitter A (2003) Wildflowers of Britain & Ireland. A&C Black.

Rose F (2006) The Wild Flower Key. Warne

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What a fiasco!

Yellow crucifers give me hives; not literally but mentally. It's lucky I have someone to identify them for me, then point me in exactly the right direction to find them. Well, that's meant to be my foolproof plan.

My local plant identification consultant informed me (in person and via most annoying text messages) that bastard cabbage (Rapistrum rugosum) was growing on a roadside near Beeston. I get directions. I go to find it. I fail.

I check location again with consultant. Go to site again. Miss it again. Meh.

Today, finally, finally, on this miserable grey July day, I found my quarry.

How did I miss it? 5 feet tall and drooping over the road?
The yellow flowers are singularly unhelpful in identifying this plant (or any yellow crucifer in fact).

You need to look at the fruits, which in this case are striking; flask-shaped, globular and ribbed.

The fruit is shaped like a mini Chianti bottle. A traditional straw-enclosed Chianti bottle is called a fiasco.
A fiasco (Picture from Wikipedia here)
The Beeston plant is most probably Rapistrum rugosum ssp linnaeanum. Bastard cabbage was introduced to the UK from the Mediterranean in 1739, is increasing its range and can be invasive. It is also found in bird seed mixes.

If I was an insect, I might have found this plant a wee bit faster. The cabbage family, despite having what we see as rather insignificant white or yellow flowers, are actually using sophisticated UV nectar or pollen guides on their petals to attract pollinators (Horovitz and Cohen, 1972, Sasaki and Takahashi, 2002). There are some photos of black mustard (Brassica nigra) flowers under UV light here.

[I've edited this post to add the photo below and some text about harlequin ladybirds].

There were a number of the unwelcome alien harlequin ladybirds (Harmonia axyridis) on the vegetation down the lane, including this one on the bastard cabbage.

Harlequins come in a number of colour variations. I believe this is Harmonia axyridis succinea

Another plant with much bigger Chianti bottle fruits is yellow water lily (Nuphar lutea). This one was out on the lake at Witley Court in Worcestershire. 

Further information
Horovitz A and Cohen Y (1972) Ultraviolet reflectance characteristics in flowers of CrucifersAmerican Journal of Botany. volume 59, Issues 7, Pages 706-13. Only first page available here
Sasaki K and Takahashi T (2002) A flavonoid from Brassica rapa flower as the UV-absorbing nectar guide. Phytochemistry. Volume 61, Issue 3, Pages 339-343. Abstract available here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Burgers, butterflies, blooms, berries and bugs

Saturday was a wet day here. Very wet. It didn't look like the best day for a BBQ.

But, finally the clouds cleared. The rain stopped. The sun came out. Yay! The Beeston Wildlife Group annual BBQ at Cos Lodge was on. I grabbed my sausages and off I went.

To work up an appetite we all went for a stroll round the wildlife areas on the farm first. Our mini-excursion was led by Roger and Poppy Cope.

We explored the meadow where an extremely tatty marbled white was resting on lesser knapweed (Centaurea nemoralis). It was jolly windy so this is the best shot I could get.
Green-fingered Poppy has managed to grow mistletoe (Viscum album) on her apple trees. The new green berries were ripening on the female plants. Mistletoe is dioecious; has separate male and female plants.
Field scabious (Knautia arvensis) and lady's bedstraw (Galium verum) were putting on quite a show in Peter's field.
The gusty wind was most vexing. Close-ups were impossible. 
There are a couple of information panels which remind walkers that these areas have been set aside as nature reserves. 

This rolled up birch leaf is, I am guessing, the handiwork of a birch leaf roller (Deporaus betulae). 
The clever little female beetle cuts and rolls up leaves in which she deposits an egg. There are photos of the adult beetle here. I'll have to pop back and see if I can find some adults.

No trek round the farm would be complete without a visit to check on Beeston's most famous, if very small, residents. We found some firebugs (Pyrrhocoris apterus) flaunting their stuff at a field edge on their favourite plants; mallow (Malva sylvestris).

The bug's markings look like a sad clown face with a tear on each cheek. I just love 'em.
We then walked to John's Copse, marvelling at the signs of the advancing year along the path; hazel nuts, ash keys and rowan berries. Time goes so quick.
Past the green-man carving, in memory of Roger's brother John. 
The lemon-yellow flowers of common or yellow toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) brightened up a field edge.  
The plant is also called butter and eggs. Which reminds me. It was time for sausages and burgers.

It was clearly hard work lighting and supervising the BBQ.

The weather stayed dry, although it was chilly later on. The conversation ranged widely. A few bats put in an appearance. The moth-trap was set. The nets were readied for the morning's bird-ringing. 

As always, an enjoyable evening was had by all.

Teesdalian Botanophilia: Part Four

Phew. This is the follow-on from Part Three of my Teesdale trip in June and will be the last of my excursion reports from Teesdale.

Having been up on the high fells for 2 days, we decided to spend a day in the dale exploring the River Tees. The walk from Bowlees carpark (Grid Ref. NY907282, off the B7277 just 3 miles or so north of Middleton) along the Tees from Low Force to High Force is spectacular: foaming torrents and tiered cataracts. This is a fine stretch of river.
We started from Bowlees carpark, where both the Durham Wildlife Trust visitor centre (sadly) and the council-run toilets (annoyingly) were closed. Hmmm. Not a good start.

But even before we reached the river, the flowers in the hay meadows on either side of the path, had cheered me up considerably.
Clover, buttercup, plantain, stitchwort, self-heal, hay rattle (Rhinanthus minor)....
......and eye bright (Euphrasia agg.) brightened up a cloudy day.
The path took us straight to the river and Low Force waterfall. A good spot for kayaking I should think (just checked You Tube and yes it is pretty good). 
At Low Force waterfall I found the old wound healing herb, goldenrod (Solidaga virgaurea) nestling on rocky ledges. (Not to be confused with the invasive alien Canadian goldenrod (Solidaga canadensis)).
Solidago is from the Latin soldare 'to make whole'. 
Also on the rock ledges by the falls was mountain everlasting (Antennaria dioica).(Excuse the photos.)
The specific name dioica indicates that the species is dioecious; namely it has male and female flowers on separate plants. Dioecious is derived from the Greek for 'separate houses'. The flowers above are male and those below are female (and quite past their best). 
The Wynch Bridge, a suspension bridge over the Tees, was built in 1830 to replace an older bridge which collapsed killing a haymaker who was drowned.
Rather than head straight up river to High Force, we decided to walk a circular route which took us past more of those delightful Teesdale hay meadows. 
If you don't like pansies look away now. I admit a slight penchant, a partiality for mountain pansies. We came across a pansy-meadow just before we reached to High Force. The pansies were growing in colour-coordinated-clones. 
It's so hard to choose a favourite colour.....but I think I like the one in the middle of the top row best.
You only find them up north. Simply stunning.

High Force is way bigger than Low Force (this one's not for kayaking!). Here the Tees plunges 70 feet over the resistant rocks of the Whinsill on its journey to the sea.
You can stand right above the falls and look down them. Quite a vertiginous experience.

On the valley sides are ancient native juniper woodlands. Under the old trees by the path I found wood sorrel and three-nerved sandwort.
We turned at High Force and headed back to the car down the riverbank.

It may be common in gardens but shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa) is actually a native species and only grows truly wild in a few places in England; the banks of the Tees between High Force and Low Force, is one such place.
We found shrubby cinquefoil growing on some of the rocky islands along this stretch of the river. 
The banks of the Tees were teeming with wildflowers including this common bistort (Persicaria bistorta).... 
...and alpine bistort (Polygonum viviparum).
Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable week was had in Upper Teesdale. It definitely gets a 
It was beautiful, quiet, there were few tourists and we were generally lucky with the weather, especially considering the dreary weather we've had since we've been back home. It actually started raining the day we left. I am already planning a revisit, perhaps at a different time of year.

BTW I have 3 more shorter posts to write about some things I found whilst exploring this area. So watch this space.

John Gerard (1597) Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes. Online here.