Thursday, 28 June 2012

Butterfly orchids and the price of milk

Hardier than their namesakes, the greater butterfly orchids in the meadow were out today, despite the many days of rain.

Two weeks ago they were short, acid green spikes hidden among the grass and pignut. Now the spikes are stretching, and the first lime-lipped white flowers are beginning to open. They are still hard to spot. The meadow grasses are tall, and, drenched with rain, they form an unruly thatch above the heads of the orchids. But once you get your eye in they emerge from the crowd like film stars in a street scene. I counted seven in a small patch no bigger than a picnic rug.

It says in my field guide that they smell of vanilla - another orchid from much more exotic climes. I didn't crouch down to find out. It was very wet, and I suspect I'd need to wait until the flowers were more open, and maybe for the evening. The hooded, cup-shaped upper petals look made for moths. Perhaps I'll try in a week or two. The lower petals are long and thin. More mayflies or plume moths than butterflies, if you ask me.

Greater butterfly orchids aren't especially rare, but they aren't that common either. Like many other grassland species they are always under threat from 'improvement' - grasslands ploughed up, fertilised and resown with coarse monocultures of grazing ryegrass to give us the cheap milk we apparently want. It isn't going to happen in our meadow, but there are still many places where it will. And worse, the same nitrogen fertilisers that turn the fields poster-paint green each spring are leaching like toxic potions into less-intensively managed grasslands, turning the grasses into Incredible Hulks that swamp the more delicate, and specialised wild flowers. As usual, cheapness comes at a price.

* It's the school summer break now in Scotland, so life will be busy with holidays, families and other distractions. I'm aiming to try to keep the blog going on an occasional basis over the next eight weeks, but apologises if things slip. I'll flag up any additions on Twitter. Things should return to normal by the middle of August. Have a good summer.

Friday, 22 June 2012

The sadness of a summer flood

A midsummer flood is a melancholy thing.

We have one now. The river has broken its banks north of the village. A great crescent of water - silvery at a distance, but turbid and scum-fringed up close - has thrust into the field like a hand. Its long, skinny fingers probe between the ridges of the potato haulms. The tubers will be drowning underneath if it doesn't loosen its grip quickly.

Black headed gulls are floating incongruously among the taller docken (I like the Scottish plural). Oystercatchers and curlew stand at the water's edge as if at the seaside. In another low part of the field a pool has appeared across the path. Buttercups are craning their necks to keep their heads above the water, the flowers floating on the surface like leafless waterlilies. But they, and most of the wild plants that fringe the river, will probably survive unscathed. They're adapted to the occasional, short-lived inundation.

But I worry about the sand martins. Their nest holes pock mark the sandy cliffs of the river, the tiny openings disguising a tunnel that can stretch nearly a metre into the bank. It will have taken them up to 10 days to build. At the end will be a chamber smaller than an apple, lined with feathers, leaves and grass. All under water now.

My reference book, Birds of Scotland, says that the first broods mostly fledge mid to late June. It may be that at least some chicks have escaped a watery grave. But it also says that during prolonged cold periods, of the kind we have undoubtedly been experiencing, females delay laying, in which case the young would still be in their nests when the flood came.

When I walked through the field today the chocolate-brown adults were still wheeling above me, catching up insects as they went like tiny vacuum cleaners. I do hope they were feeding themselves, and not gathering food to take back to the nest. That would be very sad. Sand martins are suffering population declines because of drought in their African wintering grounds. It would be ironic indeed if floods were their downfall here.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Dancing in the rain?

I passed a shop this morning that had a little wooden plaque in the window that read ' Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning to dance in the rain.' This seemed particularly fitting as it was pouring down at the time. And on Midsummer's Day too.

But I am hoping to dance in the rain tonight. My daughter and I are going to watch two internationally famous orchestras performing in the open air, beneath the dramatic backdrop of Stirling Castle. Both are made up of people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra's members come from the favelas of Venezuela, while Big Noise's are children from a less-glamorous part of Stirling, know as Raploch. Yet thousands of people are going to watch them; the performance is going to be broadcast live by Radio 4; and there have already be rave reviews of their work. www.makeabignoise.org.uk

These orchestras have achieved what many would have thought was impossible. They inspire people to look beyond the barriers of their birth, life experiences and expectations, and become part of something extraordinary and life-changing. And they are the fruit of three things - vision, determination, and of course, enough money to make them happen.

If all this can be achieved with, and for music, is it not just possible that we could do something similar for the environment? The musicians in these orchestras have certainly learnt to dance through the rain of their own difficult lives. Instead of hoping that the storm of our environmental crisis will pass (which of course it won't), instead of sitting back and saying that it's impossible to change western society's greed and short-termism, could we not find a way to help everyone - from politicians to polluters, consumers to conservationists - to dance to rhythm of the natural world.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Conspiring to perplex?

I am a mediocre birdwatcher. I can recognise most of the common species nowadays, and a few of the rarer ones if they have previously been pointed out to me. I can even detect some by song. But I lack the confidence of the seasoned naturalists. The ability to say, with conviction, on seeing a small grey-green bird 50 metres away, 'oh yes, that's definitely a chiffchaff, not a willow warbler'. On churlish days I sometimes wonder if bravado, rather than brilliance, is behind their abilities. But I know this is not true - experience tells.

But today I enjoyed my own little triumph of identification. Walking back through the sun-speckled, scrubby woodlands south of the village I heard two shrill gossips conversing. They were up in the canopy of gnarly-green hawthorns above my head. First one would prattle on, then the other would interrupt to make a lengthy point to the contrary. I couldn't see them, but my first thought was 'garden warblers'. Long, irregular, fluty song. Could be blackcaps - their song is remarkably similar, but supposed to be shorter, slightly scratchier. As usual, the distinctions are vague and subjective. But I plumped for garden warblers, though tentatively, as usual.  Just as I went to move on a small bird emerged onto an exposed branch not ten feet away. Slubby brown above, creamy below. No hint of a black cap. A garden warbler. Yes!

Sometimes I feel as if both the natural world and the taxonomists conspire to make identifying birds as confusing and perplexing as possible. It's bad for my confidence. Take the 'garden' warbler for instance - one of the least likely birds you'll ever get in your garden. It won't nest if it's disturbed, so gives domestic gardens a wide berth. Unlike the closely related blackcaps, who happily come to bird tables in bad weather, and hang around city parks and leafy suburbs.

And some birds - like chiff-chaffs and willow warblers - look almost identical but have wildly different songs; while others look so different but sing almost the same melody. You couldn't confuse a blackcap with a garden warbler by sight, but they sound amazingly alike. Blackcaps arrive in the UK weeks earlier than garden warblers, they go to different wintering grounds, and yet they choose very similar habitats in the UK, where they both hide among the scrubby trees tormenting mediocre birdwatchers like me with their babble.

But of course, I'm on to them now.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Plus ca change?

It's only five days to go before the Rio +20 Summit. Twitter is awash with comment and speculation, exhortations to politicians and prophesies of doom. The politicians themselves, meanwhile, are peppering their rhetoric with talk of green growth, sustainable prosperity, and similar oxymorons.

So I thought I'd check out the Rio+20 website myself to find out what is actually meant to be happening. Among the polit-speak of compromise and collaboration, commitment and committees, I came across a clip of Ban Ki-Moon, the UN's Secretary General, explaining what he wants - for everyone - in the post-Rio future. They were simple aspirations. Clean air, he said; safe water; enough food for all; a good education: and a decent living. It was inspiring of course, but also strangely familiar.

Then I remembered a favourite quote from Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, written in 1889:

'Throw the lumber over man! Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need - a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you. A cat, a dog, a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.... You will find the boat is easier to pull then..'

I wonder if he's read it?

Thursday, 14 June 2012

A short visit to summer

Butterflies are the exclamation marks of summer. Birds, flowers, even bees, hang around however dreich and understated the June day. But butterflies only emerge to dance over the landscape in the warm sunshine of a summer's day writ large.

Today was such a day. Despite the cool north-easterly winds that ruffled the tops of the village trees, the meadow south of the village was sheltered and friendly as a warm embrace. It's at its apogee right now - a sea of creamy pignut and purple meadow cranesbill, counterpointed by gaudy splashes of yellow rattle, buttercups and gorse. Hidden away among the commoner plants are spikes of greater butterfly orchids, yet to break bud but already looking exotic and haughty.

When I went down at lunchtime scores of tiny, day-flying chimney sweeper moths havered and bobbed just above the heads of the taller plants, their charcoaled wings startling against the pastels of the wild flowers. They are hunting out the pignut on which to lay their eggs, dots of black perching on the broad, white flowerheads like reverse dominoes.

But they were the chorus line. Waiting in the wings were two much more glamorous performers. First I saw the pale, orange-dappled, folded wings of a small butterfly perched in the shallow cup of a meadow cranesbill. When I bent to look more closely my shadow fell across it, and it immediately lifted in a tiny explosion of sky. It was a common blue - though not so common around here. The first I have seen this year, and truly a marker of summer. They lay their eggs on leguminous plants like bird's foot trefoil and clovers - both are common in the meadow. Despite their delicate mien they are fierce defenders of their tiny territories, and will see off all-comers, including some other species of butterflies that show too much interest in their chosen nurseries.

A few steps further on there was the star of the show. A vibrant chequerboard of deep orange and black, the small pearl-bordered fritillary was unmistakable - except that I could not say for sure if it was a small PBF or a PBF. To an untrained eye like mine they are very similar. I plumped for the former as the latter are much less common these days. Like all fritillaries it needs violets on which to lay its eggs, a flower common in the woodlands around our meadow, but which is disappearing fast in southern Britain, as the coppices and hedgerows which are its strongholds are lost because of the short-term economics of the age. Numbers are still holding up well in Scotland, and this one sat still and unperturbed by its southern relatives' plight.

As I headed up the hill back to the village the cold breeze caught me again and I went to put my coat back on. But at least I had seen a few minutes of summer.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Natural enemies

Today I am not feeling as enthusiastic as usual about the natural world. I spent much of this morning in the vegetable patch, resowing rows of carrots and peas that had succumbed to the ravages of nature. A cold, wet spring, followed by a grey, humid June, has meant seeds were slow to germinate, and easy prey to slugs and snails when they did eventually break the surface. Lines of tiny, ferny carrots were reduced to the odd, sad singleton, like lone spruce trees standing weakly in a swathe of felled timber. The peas looked equally miserable, waiting limply for the grim axemen to reduce them to stumps. I blame climate change.

And while my plants were being consumed by molluscs, I was being eaten by midges - the infamous Culcoides impunctatus - all revelling in the blanket of still, sticky air that hung over the village today. They are bad this year. The same wet spring and damp June that put paid to my vegetables has given them just the conditions they thrive in. Try as I might I can't find it in my heart to love this particular form of wildlife. Their bites leave me with large, itchy scarlet lumps that persist for weeks, looking like some mediaeval plague victim.

Even more galling, it seems that these particular midges have few natural predators. Birds, bats, insectivorous plants, all consume a few, but midges are not a key food source for any of our native wildlife, according to a paper written for Scottish Natural Heritage:

'It's likely that in the past when Scotland was mostly forested midge numbers were much lower than they are today. But following the loss of trees the increased water content of the soils provided the opportunity for the midges to proliferate. If this theory is correct it could explain why there are no species which take advantage of the huge number of midges.'

It probably also helped that as the forest came down, cattle, sheep and deer populations rocketed, giving this consummate opportunist ample food sources with which to raise its multitudinous children. A 2m square of damp, sheltered land can apparently support 500,000 midge larvae. It's now estimated that hundreds of millions of pounds of revenue is lost to Scotland each year due to midges - driving away workers and tourists alike.

So it seems that those wishy-washy, wildlife-friendly goals of reforesting the hills, considering reintroducing wolves (which would keep down the deer population), and reducing the level of grazing on our mountains, which conservationists have been banging on about for years, might also reduce the midge problem, and make the country millions of pounds richer.

It would also make me much happier on dreich June mornings.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Dead moles tell no tales

It feels like a monsoon is on its way. The air is warm and humid here, but an insistent breeze is blowing in from the east, arching the newly-leaved trees like palms. Flashes of sun break through the quick-moving clouds, their heat reminding me it really is June, but turn my face to the cold wind and it's soon apparent that summer is still only notional in this neck of the woods.

Nevertheless a girl still needs to get some fresh air, so I went round by the river and up through the Big Field after lunch with a friend. We were near to the black-headed gull colony, where they were spiralling around above their nest-riddled pools. Though far enough away to avoid their tetchy divebombing, we were close enough to draw some verbal abuse as we walked past.

At the kissing gate my companion spotted a small, black lump of fur lying crumpled on the ground. A dead mole - the only kind most of us ever get to see. It was a sorry sight. It's usually velvety, black-coffee dark fur was plastered shiny and tight to its body. Its pink, scrabbly feet pointing soles up and splayed. It was clearly the victim of an attack. A bit of research revealed it was almost certainly a youngster. Adult moles rarely leave the safety of their tunnels, but juveniles are driven out of the nest and into the open by their mothers when they are just over a month old, where they are forced to stay until they can find an empty tunnel system of their own. It's a harsh, dangerous time - the time when buzzards, foxes, weasels and dogs are most likely to find an unexpected snack in their path.

But this one hadn't been eaten - just bitten. Hard by the look of it. My searches had also found that humans find mole meat almost inedible - and a dead mole starts to smell very unpleasant swiftly after death. There was no way of telling what had caught this little gentleman in black velvet - but whatever it was obviously had a discerning palate.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Fighting with flowers

I think wild flowers could be one of the most important weapons in the campaign to get more people to care about the natural world again.

There's the fact that we call wild flowers 'wild'. We don't say 'wild insects', or 'wild birds', in quite the same way. But every time we say 'wild flower', especially when we see one in an urban setting,  it's a small reminder that tiny pieces of wilderness can still be found everywhere.

And we can all name some of them. I'll wager that even the most diehard urbanite can name at least five wild flowers - daisy, dandelion, buttercup, bluebell, cow parsley. It makes all of us naturalists - people who can recognise wild things.

I do believe the naming is important - though I realise this is controversial. Some would say it's elitist, exclusive. You don't have to know something's name to find it interesting, beautiful, worth saving. But if plants were people, the first thing you'd do if you wanted to get to know them better would be to find out their names. We know the names of all our friends. And plantlife, in fact wildlife in general, definitely needs friends.

So when I was reading something wildflower-writer Sarah Raven wrote recently, describing how her father had taught her how to 'botanise at 30mph' while driving along in the family car, I had an idea.  For many people, road verges, rail embankments, car parks and kerbsides are some of the key places they see wild flowers. Wouldn't it be great if, in addition to the brain-addling GPS and smartphone apps, they had WFI (Wild Flower Identification) apps, which could point out and name the wild flowers along the route? Or perhaps rail companies could place ID guides in each carriage, showing all the flowers to be seen on the journey?

If people got to know their local wild flowers better, learnt their names, knew when they flowered, it would be a breakthrough. No-one could stand by and see a friend disappear.

Monday, 4 June 2012

A tale of escape

The other morning I found Guilli, our large ginger tom cat, hunched protectively over something I couldn't quite see. He tried to growl menacingly when I bent to look at what he had cornered, but - ever the paper tiger - reluctantly stepped back without a fight to let me view his prize. It was a small, pale brown, ochre-streaked reptile - minus its tail. A common lizard. The first I'd seen in the garden for years. Its dark eyes blinked slowly at me as I picked it up, showing none of the shivering terror, or the pounding heart beat, that I feel through my hands when I  rescue a vole or bird from a cat's clutches.

This is the time of year when it's easiest to catch them in the open. It's still cold enough at night to necessitate a long sunbathe first thing to warm them enough to get moving. I counted dozens one sunny morning recently. They were basking on the dark slats of the Flanders Moss NNR boardwalk, legs splayed, yellow stripes along their backs painting the classic lizardy 'S' curve on the edges of the path.

Common lizards are at the edge of their range in Scotland - the most northerly reptiles in the world. It’s for this reason that the females incubate their eggs inside their bodies to keep them warmer – their scientific species name, vivipara, means ‘live young’, which isn't strictly correct. They hibernate from autumn to spring, when there is not enough warmth in the sun, or enough food, to energise them. Lizards are of course predators themselves, preying on insects, spiders, snails or earthworms, which they stun by mercilessly shaking them in their jaws before eating them whole.

I found a small gap in the dry stone wall of our garden and tucked the lizard well back, out of sight, to recover. Guilli may, or may not, have bitten off its tail. Common lizards have a neat trick of sacrificing their nether regions in order to escape from attackers. Its tail will grow back with time - although it probably won't be as smart or as long as the original. It's a small price to pay for your life.

Friday, 1 June 2012

The scents of love

1 June - the first day of the summer months. In honour of the day the sun broke through the thick, porridgy clouds that brought yesterday's dreichness, turning the woods steamy and close for my lunchtime walk today. The air hummed with insects feeding on the wildflowers brought out in a rush by last week's heatwave. Bumblebees, hoverflies, craneflies, day-flying moths, they were all drunk with the perfume that the bluebells, violets, hawthorn and the rest were pumping out to attract them. The woods smelt like a bordello.

But in a green, sun-filled glade a single, male green-veined white butterfly was zig-zagging between the newly-opened meadow cranesbills, feeding on their nectar. Probably building up his strength for the coming courtships he undoubtedly plans. He seemed almost oblivious of me, skirting close by me as he moved between the flowers, so that I could see the dark lined underwings clearly. They remind me of a sketch of a butterfly that's flown off the page before the artist had time to colour it in.

But colour isn't that important to green-veined whites. They have a much more potent way of attracting their lovers. Taking a leaf out of the flowers' book, the male hunts out the female, and when he finds one he flies over her, sprinkling her with a 'love dust' (as Thomas and Lewington describe it in Butterflies of Britain and Ireland) which makes him irresistible. The scent is apparently so strong that even humans can detect the lemon verbena perfume it gives off. The female makes a semblance of resistance, often flying off, but then lands and folds her wings - a signal to the male that she's smitten. In a final twist the male, while he's mating with her, smears her with an ANTI-aphrodisiac smell, to put off other suitors. T and L don't say what that smells of - I'd love to know.

In a way it's strange that the butterflies should choose the scent of lemon verbena, as their favoured food plants for the caterpillars are crucifers. Once fertilised the female will go in search of plants like garlic mustard or ladies smock on which to lay her eggs. But unlike her cousins the small and large whites she's never developed a taste for cultivars. Our cabbages and sprouts are safe. But if you do catch one in the garden laying its eggs on your honesty, please give it a sniff and let me know.