Ponds, urban ecology and a few doubts

In my last post I wrote about the undoubted benefits of even small ponds in gardens and on allotments. We’re lucky here because our allotments are no more than 50 yards away from the river Avon and we have a number of large ponds almost as close; but that doesn’t in the least seem to lessen the impact of the tiny ponds that I photographed yesterday, and all within yards of our allotment.

As you can easily see, these aren’t all the tidy and expensive preformed fibreglass ponds bought from garden centres and neither are any of them apparently lined with expensive thick butyl. For the most part they’re a hole in the ground lined with builders polythene all apart from the one that’s not a pond at all but a horse trough. The one thing they have in common is that they’re all full of water, most of them have a few plants around them and they’re all teeming with life.

Starting with the horse trough that’s the source for much of our our watering, there’s never an occasion, it seems, when you can’t find at the least, a few water boatmen. The others vary in maturity but even the one that was built this spring by a couple of children raised a crop of tadpoles which they generously shared around all the other ponds. The murkier ones have larvae in them, and all are visited by a variety of dragonflies and damselflies which, when they’re not eating smaller insects are becoming snacks for birds. What the ponds are doing of course is drawing these interesting and beautiful invertebrates into places we can see and enjoy them, and as their natural habitat is eroded, ponds become a matter of survival for some species.

As you will know if you’ve been following the Potwell Inn blog recently, I’ve been reading David Goode’s contribution the the New Naturalist library – “Nature in towns and cities”. A brilliant collection of books for anyone interested in natural history in any case, and this one’s particularly caught my attention because it’s on a subject close to my heart.

When we moved to Bath almost five years ago I wasn’t prepared for the richness of the wildlife to be found here. Having lived and worked in what most people would think of as the countryside, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the natural history of our adopted home. But far from being less diverse, our immediate neighbourhood slowly yielded its secrets. Not just badgers and foxes but otters! Not just buzzards but a peregrine’s nest; and enough unfamiliar plants to keep me perpetually bewildered. On the very first night here we heard a tawny owl; it was strange to say the least. Now we’re almost blasé about bats and we can name the species of gull on the green outside.

And so I’ve been writing enthusiastically about all this wildlife and, if you live near here you really should join the Bath Natural History Society (Bath Nats) because they’re the quickest and easiest way to learn what’s here. If you live anywhere else and don’t fancy moving to Bath, I urge you to investigate and join your local natural history group – it’ll be full of fabulous, knowledgeable and enthusiastic people who just love sharing their interests.

Yesterday after a hot couple of hours on the allotment we wandered along the river to see the peregrines and we got especially lucky because the recently fledged young did a quick flight while we were there. I’ve been to Symonds Yat and not seen a peregrine and yet our son saw one eat its kill on his back doorstep in the middle of Birmingham, and I saw my first less than half a mile from home.

So there’s the good news and here are the doubts. Although it’s a joy to have this diversity outside the door, isn’t it just a bit weird that so many species, being displaced from their normal habitats, are evolving to live here? Isn’t it sad that I’ve learned so much more about plant diversity since we moved to the city? I go on about the rogues and vagabonds but corncockle? vipers bugloss?

The greatest sadness is that when I look for them where the old floras said I’d find them; all too often the habitat is gone. Seabirds can’t find a living in fished out polluted seas and so the canny ones have moved inland to our rubbish tips. Those species that can’t adapt are diminishing rapidly. Invertebrates and plant species that once made the meadows beautiful at this time of the year have been poisoned out of existence. So the take-home point is that however thrilling it is to have the early adapters and early adopters here in the city; they’re in the minority. There’s still every point in cleaning up the rivers and creating inner city wildlife corridors and green spaces. There’s every point in asking gardeners to think about pollinators but it’s not enough.

Grateful for small mercies?

One thought provoking piece in yesterday’s papers made me sit up. There are so many organic and free-range chicken farms setting up on, or near the upper reaches of the river Wye that the accumulating load of excess nitrogen and phosphorous from their droppings is leading to eutrophication of the river – killing it slowly. So even eating organic chicken isn’t going to let us off the hook. It’s intensive farming that’s causing the problems – whatever label you put on it to make it sound like it’s saving the earth.

Even the air we breathe and the water we drink have been taken from us and given to the polluters to destroy for their own profit.

Think about it for a moment. If even two percent of the vertebrates, invertebrates and plant species could be persuaded to live here in green spaces and derelict industrial sites it would only take one inappropriate development to wipe out a species altogether. Much as I treasure urban ecology, it’s never going to be more than a tiny part of the answer.

We need to change the way we live and the way we produce our food, the way we move about, the way we enjoy our leisure time and the way we shop. We cannot let the free market politicians urge us to live within our means when the real means of our lives are being destroyed for profit. They love to talk about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ by which they make the unsupported assertion that land cannot be managed equably without ownership. Even the air we breathe and the water we drink have been taken from us and given to the polluters to destroy for their own profit.

No amount of information boards, nature reserves and feeding stations will make up for the loss of the earth. This is an ethical problem, a religious problem, a problem of vision. The one thing it is not is an economic problem. The economists with their pseudoscientific theories have acted as the heavy artillery of the free market. We see the damage they have done every day and I, for one, am not grateful for very small mercies.

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch

IMG_5042More commonly known locally as Llanfair PG, this photograph is at the seaward edge of the Newborough National Nature Reserve which my mobile tagged as being near to the place with a very long name – actually dreamed up in the 1860’s by an enterprising local wit who thought it would attract visitors to spend their money in the village. The platform tickets on the village railway station probably sold pretty well too.

Back to the photo which is of some dead pines at the edge of the beach, which represent a long ecological story that almost qualifies for ‘shaggy dog’ status.  This is one of the largest natural dune systems in the UK, and an incredibly important site for some rare wildlife. The dune system began in the 14th century after a series of violent storms inundated the coastal farmland. The system was stabilised by marram grass and was soon occupied by a huge population of rabbits (introduced by the Normans) that provided a living to the local people who reputedly culled 100,000 a year for sale until the 1950’s. Back in the day, when they weren’t catching rabbits they were weaving the marram grass into saleable items like seagrass mats. Fishing, pilotage through the Menai Straights, farming – local, sustainable, what’s not to like?

Soon after the war, in 1947, a large part of the area was forested with Scots and Corsican pine in an attempt to keep the ever shifting sands away from the village  and to create employment in the area to meet a supposed national need. Then, in a well meaning but disastrous intervention in 1953, myxomatosis was introduced into the UK (probably illegally) and rapidly killed tens of millions of rabbits including the ones on the warren. The consequence across the UK was a rapid change in vegetation with huge effects on local flora. The forest, however – apart from the seaward edge – thrived, and it’s one of the few places outside Scotland where red squirrels can still be seen. On the seaward side, the part which is now a national nature reserve, is being managed to preserve the conditions once maintained by the rabbits. The photograph at the top is as good an illustration as I’ve ever seen of the unequal match between human ingenuity and the power of the wind and the sea.

When we talk about climate change and farming practices, and their effect on local ecologies, it’s all too easy to talk in generalised terms, but in reality the effects are nuanced and local. Pointing to the disappearance of a plant most people will never have seen doesn’t have the same emotional impact as a massive moorland fire, and it’s all too easy (austerity?) to take the line that its better to lose a few rare species than to hold back ‘progress’ – whatever that means! Sadly we’re often more willing to relinquish what we don’t value – which is precisely why I’m arguing for living with dirty hands and full-on curiosity.

Finding plants is an emotional experience

Saying that something is worth treasuring because it’s satisfying, exciting – even thrilling – seems pretty puny by comparison with The Greater Good, or The National Interest – whatever political lipstick the politicians and agrochemical industrialists put on the pig they’re attempting to foist on us – chlorinated or not. But here are some photos taken yesterday, along with some taken on September 6th 2017 that – I hope – stand for something important.

IMG_5039Just as we were coming down the steep path off Ynys Llanddwyn I found a tiny little spot with its own microclimate tucked into the side of the path, sheltered from the sea and the wind, and I recognised an old friend, or at least I recognised the leaf. The rule for new botanists is that it really does get easier eventually and after a mighty tussle with the identification keys in Rose – “The Wildflower Key” or even worse in Stace’s “New Flora” the plant will be engraved in your memory along with the associated pain of naming it.  In my experience the name will often flee away, but like a familiar face, you’ll know that you know it. In this instance it was doubly complicated in the way that it feels when you meet your neighbour in a completely unexpected place.  This particular neighbour lives on the back steps of our flat and I had to do a quick double take when I spotted it on a sand dune 250 miles away. So its English name is Rue Leaved Saxifrage – Saxifraga tridactylides there’s a bit of a clue in the latin name, and it’s a great survivor in urban Bath because it manages to flower and seed before the official chemical street warfare begins.

And that’s a common factor with all the plants that I spotted yesterday – they’ve all learned the art of surviving in a hostile environment. Extreme heat, drought, salt winds and occasional inundation mean nothing to these tough plants which have carved out a niche for themselves on the seashore.

 

These two, on the left, Danish Scurveygrass – Cochliaria danica and on the right, Sea Spurge – Euphorbia paralias, were the ones I stopped to photograph. 2017-09-05 15.44.28Madame sometimes gets restless if I spend too much time rooting around on my hands and knees when we’re suposed to be going for a walk.

Last September I found loads more species I’d never identified in the same reserve, including the extremely priapic looking Round Leaved Wintergreen – Pyrola rotundifolia, one of the rarer plants I’ve spotted in my short life as an extremely amateur field botanist. It was in the red woodland trail through the edge of the woods (mostly Corsican Pine, I think).

2017-09-05 17.00.14Left – Sea Holly – Eryngium maritimum on the same wall as the Red Goosefoot and Spear Leaved Orache below. This is (I’m sure) Red Goosefoot – Chenopodium Rubrum . The only other plant it could be is Saltmarsh Goosefoot – Chenopdium chenopoidesbut checking the current BSBI list it doesn’t apear there or in Ellis’s Welsh Flora whereas Red Goosefoot does in both lists. What was interesting was that it was growing alongside Atriplex prostrata – Spear Leaved Orache on the same wall, which – I don’t know why – seemed a bit strange. Growing in amongst it is Sea Sandwort – Honckenya peploides, a highly specialized environment, I think,  on a sea wall constantly breached by wind and waves.

 

2017-09-05 15.40.45I had no idea what this fungus was until I spotted a smaller one nearby and I recognised it immediately as some kind of Lycoperdon. I had to wait until I got back to base to identify it as a Pestle Puffball – Lycoperdon excipuliforme – which has an astoundingly thick and long stalk, unlike any other puffball I’ve seen. A very striking find.

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Sea Rocket – Cakile maritima

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This is Vipers Bugloss – Echium vulgare again on the island. And that reminds me of one of the reasons, contrary to almost all right-thinking botanists, that I cherish the English names of plants.  Isn’t there something extraordinarily evocative and powerful about colloquial plant names? “Restharrow” for instance.  You can almost see the sweating ploughman trying to extricate the share from the matted remains of the plant. To have discovered all these lovely plants, most of them ‘ordinary’ in my special sense of the word, is to enter a world of poetry and insight.  It’s to immerse yourself in an ancient culture where a knowledge of plants and their properties was not some extracurricular stimulation for retired clergy but essential to life and health. “Hedge Woundwort” for instance – does it have that name because it’s used to treat cuts or because it stinks like a suppurating wound? – trust me, I’ve tried it, and it must be an example of the old ‘doctrine of signatures’ which taught that plants carried a clue about their usefulness as a medicine in their appearance or perhaps, in this instance, smell. 

Llanddwyn Island is very beautiful and full of surprises apart from plants. There are a number of buildings including St Dwynwen’s church. She was a 5th Century saint. there’s a lighthouse, coastguard cottages, several prominent crosses. The present building is a ruin. The best thing about the island apart from the plants are the fabulous views of the mainland across the Menai Staits. Yesterday we could see the remains of the snow at the summit of Snowdon. 

All this, then, in a couple of hours on the reserve, and – as we left – we passed the sad stand of dead Corsican Pine at the edge of the beach. We humans are clever, but not that clever. Ever since the primal forests were cleared for farming, we have tried to alter the balance of nature in our favour. That cluster of dead trees looks like one of the battlefield paintings from the First World War by John Nash, only this time the implacable enemy is not the bomb but the power of the sea and the salt winds. We should learn to be more modest in trying to shape the earth as if we were gods.

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