After two decades in agricultural and environmental education, Dr Chris Smith switched to working with the former Nature Conservancy Council and the Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group before setting up his own consultancy practice, ultimately moving from his native Bucks to Somerset’s Quantock Hills.
The anecdotes in Rural Reflections (first aired bimonthly in the Spaxton Community News) relate to escapades in his newly adopted county over the opening years of the new millennium, covering seasonal observations of the natural world from farming and wildlife to weather and celestial happenings, as well as reflections on earlier experiences and wider issues. A possible sequel may emerge if this one doesn’t nose-dive.
a steadying hand for the Millennium oak
Stoking up the bonfire
The new Millennium – the start of it all
If one of life’s great comforts is to gaze into the core of a night-time bonfire, especially when you have coaxed it to life yourself from a meagre tent of damp twigs, then hardly less of a pleasure is to revisit the site the next morning and reflect on the events it helped illuminate. Here I am now, standing by my dormant ashy cone, deceptively quiescent though no doubt still red hot inside, on this grassy slope at Lower Aisholt in the heart of Somerset’s Quantock Hills. I kick a few peripheral twigs and embers back up on to the heap, which gives a promising sparky response. I pile on more sticks and my fire is reborn.
It is a dry, mild winter morning under a grey but bright sky of thin stratus. A dunnock and two great tits are piping away in the hedge and some gentle cronking up above says our ravens are about. The transformer on the nearby H-pole of the domestic overhead power supply hums reassuringly in the quiet morning air, and is plainly unaffected, despite dire warnings, by the date, which is 1.1.00 – January 1st 2000. This is the day regarded by all and sundry as the start of the new Millennium (I am among the vanishingly small minority who believe that this event is still, in fact, a year off) – and it has been the reason for this aforementioned bonfire.
Our fire had been the official Aisholt and Merridge Millennium Beacon. It had been registered as such with the organisation who will make sure we appear in a celebratory booklet. It had been my job to get it all together. A site had been provided by our kind neighbours at Lower Aisholt Farm and a goodly pile of firewood assembled. Somerset Fire Brigade had been duly advised of the event. At the agreed hour, mercifully dry, we had set match to kindling.
In due course, amid much chatter, the fire had reached its glowing climax. Everybody we hoped would come had come. Gigantic barrages from other celebrations were going off all around the horizon like great summer thunderstorms. At twelve, a trio of spectacular rockets lit up our own bit of sky and sent their detonations reverberating around the familiar haunts of Wills Neck, Middle Hill and Great Wood. The bells rang out from tiny Aisholt Church announcing a well-attended Watch Night service.
An hour later we had all gathered at our equally diminutive but much cherished Village Hall for one further ceremony. We had our Millennium Tree to plant. A beautiful two-metre standard English oak obtained from a specialist nursery near Dulverton. We had a good hole prepared in the paddock outside, dressed with well-rotted horse manure, and it didn’t matter a bit that it was now actually starting to rain. Under the glow of an improvised spotlight, the tree was set in place and soil replaced around its roots by our Village Hall Chairman, aided by his grandchildren. A plaque was to be set in the wall to tell passers-by and future generations of our ceremony. Finally it was back into the Hall for more refreshments and some excellent live music provided by yet more neighbours. What extraordinary talent lurks unmarked in these quiet lanes and tucked-away cottages.
As I finally picked my way home by torchlight up through Goods Lane’s latest crop of potholes, washed out anew by our ten inches of December rainfall, I reflected, not for the first time, how reassuring it is to know that the old community spirit survives. Our forebears of 1900 would surely have been proud and pleased.
It’s March 1st 2000, and all the signs of Spring are with us. Lengthening days, gambolling lambs and the first hesitant but cheerful bursts of chaffinch song. Sadly but inevitably the snowdrops are going over. We seem now to be witnessing a real and consistent trend to warmer winters. Both last year and this, I’ve noticed honey- and bumble bees on the snowdrops – something I’d never seen before. I assume they found the pollen and nectar they were seeking.
But March winds can come from the Arctic and April showers fall as snow, and we could yet have what is known as a blackthorn winter. That’s when the frothy white blossom of our familiar thorny hedgerow shrub gets caught by a wintry snap, pollinating insects lie low, and the promise of a bumper crop of blue-bloomed sloes – and perhaps too a vintage brew of sloe gin – is thereby jeopardised.
Something to look out for in the woods and older hedgerows at this time of year is moschatel. From its attractive carpets of low-growing foliage it sends up flowering shoots bearing small green flowers which in warm weather give off a faint smell of musk – hence the name. The flowers are arranged in groups of five. Four are borne laterally at right angles to each other, giving rise to the old country name of town-hall clock – with a fifth on top pointing straight up to the sky.
Moschatel or town-hall clock
Moschatel is one of those plants regarded as a good indicator of ancient woodland, so if you should stoop to observe it at close quarter, there’s a good chance someone was doing just the same 200 years ago at the same spot – in March 1800. Perhaps even earlier. I wonder if our descendants will still be doing the same thing in another two centuries?
After one of those murky mornings which have characterised early May of this year, the sun broke through around noon, and as the temperature rose, so I saw my first orange-tip butterfly of the season. Actually only the male has the orange wing-tips, those of the female are black, but both sexes have the distinctive green-mottled underside of the hindwings. I added it to the tally of sightings on the farm I was surveying – near Totnes in Devon as it happened – though I saw some more when I got home.
It is always satisfying, if orange-tips are about, to look for their eggs. These are tiny ovoid structures, also orange, laid on the flower-heads of one or other of the favoured larval food-plants, typically garlic mustard or else lady’s smock. The first of these grows along hedgerows (hence it’s alterative name of Jack-by-the-hedge), the latter (otherwise known as cuckoo-flower or milkmaids) in meadows, especially if these lie a bit damp. In gardens, honesty may be chosen, and on farmland, hedge mustard.
The eggs hatch into tiny caterpillars, yellowish at first but soon turning grey-green, with a white stripe along each side. They are easy to find, though go quietly as they sometimes drop off if they sense the ground shake. When fully grown they do this anyway, pupating on the ground amongst grassy litter, where they wait out the autumn and winter before emerging as the next generation of adult butterflies the following spring. It’s easy to forget these are there on a foggy November day, so don’t be too enthusiastic about tidying up the hedge bottoms.
Male orange tip on ground ivy flowers
Caterpillar on garlic mustard
Talking of tidying up, I’ve just cut back the grass on my roadside bank for the first time this year, using a grass hook. I’ve been trying to avoid the last of this year’s spectacular display of primroses, although most must have seeded themselves by now. I don’t want the long grass to smother the cowslips and germander speedwells which come next. I endeavour to explain this to passers-by, as they glance askance at my handiwork.
It is July 5th, and in sitting down to draft this next set of Nature Notes, how can I write of anything else than our Great Storm in the early hours of the 4th? While not denying that we’ve had our fair share of such events over the past year or two, I don’t think I have ever experienced so potent, intense and unrelenting an onslaught.
The first main bout, which started around 3a.m, had been bad enough, and there was a feeling of real relief when the main cell of activity – quite a tangible entity, banging away like artillery high up in the sky just to the south for nearly two hours – started to move away. A cool breeze sprang out of the north, blowing my curtains inwards, but this didn’t last long. The battle was to resume. It started raining again and then back came the great monster with even greater potency, the thunder getting louder and louder and both this and the lightning more and more continuous, until for what must have been a full 40-50 minutes the detonations merged into one incessant, deafening barrage, like monstrous surf breaking. It was staggering. Exhausting. Humbling.
Night-time thunderstorm, Higher Merridge
When the clamour did finally cease, around 6a.m., the first thing I heard in the merciful silence was the reassuring sound of a song thrush singing, followed by a swallow, then the blackbirds and sparrows, with our resident skylark from Trotts 7-Acre field the last to join in the delayed dawn chorus. Not surprisingly, we had lost our electricity, so my neighbour Stephanie boiled us some hot water on her Calor gas ring for a restorative cup of tea. We checked the milk first, though. My mother always used to say that thunder turned milk sour, and indeed the scientific world has recently proved her right, for the intense ultrasonic (or is it infrasonic?) vibrations set up by the thunder can, and do, affect the molecular structure of the milk proteins. So there. Good old Mum.
We weren’t to be let off the hook yet, though. There was more to come as the sun climbed dimly into the hazy overcast and, rapidly warming up the saturated air, was to set off further storms. Later that morning, out at last after the many weeks’ confinement demanded by foot-and-mouth constraints, I was belatedly surveying a wood near Chewton Mendip, when, sure enough, it started thundering again not far off. But where I was, it was just magnificently warm and steamy, bringing out all the butterflies and hoverflies I was hoping to see, though inevitably an army of hungry horse-flies too. Although I’d missed out on the bluebells and milkmaids, the woodland rides by now were festooned with creamy-white flowers of wood vetch – quite a rarity – and the wild strawberries were already setting fruit, sweet and succulent from the refreshing rain.
While my neighbours George and Stephanie were away recently, I was walking their two black Labrador pups round their field which always has the skylarks in – Trotts 7-Acres. The pups were walking one behind the other through the grass, with me following. Suddenly the front one (Mica) stopped dead, the rear one (Teal) who had been looking the other way, bumped into Mica’s rear end, and I fell over them both. Sadly there was no-one to witness this magic comic moment. The cause? A poppy. A single red corn poppy. Mica had been taken by it and decided to stop and sniff it. It was a scene straight out of a Disney film.
In fact, more poppies have now appeared and as many as twenty or thirty of the gorgeous scarlet flowers can be seen at any one time, seemingly so delicate yet so amazingly tough as their petals flutter and flap in the breeze. Corn poppies are not normally a component of permanent pasture. As their name suggests, they are really cornfield weeds – “arable annuals”. The tiny seeds must have lain dormant in the soil since the last time the ground had been ploughed, for a cereal or pea crop perhaps, or even just to re-seed a ley. Poppies may have been a curse to the struggling farmer of earlier times before effective herbicides were available, yet they can be a truly glorious and spectacular sight en masse. I once saw a white poppy while working near Stonehenge but couldn’t find it again when I went back to collect some seed, although the chance that those might have produced anything but the usual red-flowered plants would have been vanishingly small.
But why had the Trotts poppies cropped up in 2001? A simple answer. There were two horses here and with the continuing deluges earlier in the spring, their hooves had inevitably churned up the soil in places, and the effect in those patches had been exactly the same as ploughing. The sward is closing over again now so they probably won’t be seen in 2002, but if the ground is ever disturbed again, they could well reappear, even up to 80 years or more in the future.
Corn poppies in an organic wheat crop amidst Wiltshire’s rolling Marlborough Downs
Another kind of poppy occurs in the hedgerows and banks around Higher Merridge, though not everyone realises it’s a poppy – if they notice it at all. This is the greater celandine Chelidonium majus. Like the unrelated lesser celandine, it has yellow flowers, though there the similarity ends, for these are indeed small poppy-like flowers produced on robust plants whose attractive foliage would grace any garden herbaceous border. And there’s another interesting thing about greater celandine. Break a leaf and you’ll see the sap is orange. It is reputed to cure warts, and when I told one of my students this many years ago on a field course, he tried it and swore it worked!
Queen Camel! What amazing place names there are in this wonderful county. I am walking round a muddy wheat field on a farm at the northern end of this quaintly named parish, in its flat South Somerset setting amidst the headwater streams and ditches of the gentle River Cary. A flock of fieldfares has just flown out of the farm’s small copse (we are here to consider extending it), calling their distinctive “chuck-chuck” cry as they cross the high milky grey hemisphere of sky above our heads. These are winter migrants, here to escape the harsher conditions of their home territory, probably Scandinavia, to which they will return in a few weeks as things warm up again.
I am in the company of the farmer who works this land, and we notice that there are, in addition, numerous blackbirds feeding in the hedges. In fact, by carefully adjusting his trimming regime, Theo has allowed his hedges to grow up and set their haws and sloes and rose-hips for this very purpose, and the fieldfares will have been feeding here too. It seems quite likely that, while some of the blackbirds are bound to be local birds, or at least British, many are themselves probably migrants. Blackbirds with German or Swedish accents maybe.
The conversation leads on to how these birds navigate and we get to talking about their ability to detect and use magnetism – something I have spoken of before. An article in a recent issue of British Wildlife describes how work in Germany has established that robins detect the alignment of the Earth’s magnetic field – its declination – through their right eye! Seemingly birds are not bothered by the polarity of the field, although with a magnetic reversal due, it is hard to imagine that they won’t become disorientated. Perhaps if it changes only gradually (as seems quite likely), they might be able to adjust.
At this point in our dialogue, my host pauses and looks up at the sky again. “Do you know…?”, he says, “…one night last autumn – no, it must have been the autumn before – I saw a remarkable sight”. I think I know what he’s going to say. And sure enough, here was someone else in England who’d actually witnessed that spectacular display of the aurora borealis that I’d hauled out my neighbours at Merridge to watch back in October 2001.
A wonderfully camouflaged toad in my garden
One of the warning signs at nearby Hawkridge Reservoir
It’s the spring equinox already, with the primroses at their peak, interspersed in our gardens by plants with flowers in varying shades of pink, known locally as the Quantock Plums-and-Custard mix. The effect must have arisen through decades of crossing with horticultural Polyanthus varieties, though our true native populations of the wider countryside appear to have remained unsullied. Primroses seed themselves in exceptional abundance here, where climatic conditions must be perfect for them.
Frogs and toads are on the move again – the latter especially heading for their stronghold at Hawkridge Reservoir, where nocturnal volunteers from Somerset Environmental Records Centre (SERC) help slow the traffic to try and minimise the casualties when these single-minded amphibians try to cross the road. The County Council has also put up warning signs which hinge open for display at this peak period.
This business of bogs versus marshes, mentioned in passing last time. What’s the difference and does it matter? Both terms describe places where you can get your feet wet, and even get stuck in. But they are distinct ecologically, particularly in terms of their so-called soil reaction, or pH. Thus, marshes tend to be “sweet” and neutral to alkaline, while bogs are “sour” and acid, often associated with peat. We have some nice bits of marshy ground in Spaxton parish, alongside the Durborough and Holwell streams, for example, with contrasting boggy areas further up on Aisholt Common and Will’s Neck. With all other things being equal, as the water deepens a marsh can turn into a swamp, while a more extensive and serious form of bog becomes a mire – familiar enough to us all from the grim Grimpen Mire in Sherlock Holmes’ great Dartmoor adventure, the Hound of the Baskervilles.
I’ve had to bone up a bit on all this recently, having been asked by West Berkshire Council to take on an assignment at Snelsmore Common, near Newbury. This remarkable area, which was long ago recognised by the former Nature Conservancy as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), includes, in addition to both dry and wet heath habitats, a classic valley mire, home to some distinctive plant communities and to rare dragonflies, hoverflies and other specialist fauna for which these conditions are crucial.
The Snelsmore Common mire showing a fine display of bog asphodel, with a border of cotton-grass (strictly a sedge) beyond; the inset shows the crowded pink flowers of bog pimpernel, with a 2p coin for a scale.
When the construction of the A34 Newbury By-Pass was being considered, one of the main worries was that the intended route for the road would clip off a corner of the SSSI. And there were fears that, even if the road missed the Common itself, the intervening strip might dry out, jeopardising the subtle pattern of impeded drainage caused by a bowl of impervious clays overlying the chalk beneath, which had lain undisturbed since the end of the last Ice Age. This could so easily be destroyed in just one wrong move by a roaring bulldozer or earth-scraper. So, precautionary measures were taken and sophisticated hydrological monitoring devices set in place. My job was to look out for any effects in the longer term on the respective plant communities.
So far, the main mire, and the smaller one which feeds into it, look fine, with Sphagnum mosses, cotton-sedge, the scarce bog pimpernel and fly-devouring sundew plants, and with a spectacular display this year of golden yellow bog asphodel. Dragonflies seen included the rare keeled skimmer. There is the inevitable incursion of birch scrub, but clearing this has always been a priority in routine conservation management here and will continue to be so.