Sunday, July 31, 2011

Two Rivers

This is the Arkle Beck above Reeth. Downstream it flows into the river Swale, which is shallow and fast-flowing in summer but has a reputation for rising very rapidly after rain and quickly becoming a  dangerous raging torrent.

The view southwards, across Swaledale, from the beck-side path between Reeth and Langthwaite.

Much of the land around here on the steep valley sides is very rough sheep pasture - where sometimes you find these large puffball toadstools - this might be Lycoperdon utriforme. It's about six inches in diameter and this is an old specimen that's partially disintegrated but still has millions of spores inside.
The most colourful flowers in the pastures at this time of year are the musk thistles Carduus nutans, identifiable by their nodding heads and backward-swept spiny bracts behind the flowers.

Wensleydale, the next Yorkshire dale to the south, and this is the river Ure looking very placid as it flowers through Wensley.
The riverbank footpath that runs westwards from the bridge across the river here has some very fine displays of wild flowers at the moment, including meadowsweet, meadow crane'sbill, yellow loosestrife, giant bellflower, harebells and marjoram.

This is yellow loosestrife Lysimachia vulgaris, leaning over the footpath, almost demanding to be photographed.

The riverside footpath leads out through woodland into pastures and in one we found this magnificent, solitary patch of musk mallow Malva moschata. The whole field was full of dull pasture grasses except for a broad pit in one corner, that might have been excavated for gravel at some point but now acts for a refuge for plants that must have been here before the pasture was 'improved'.

One of the finest patches of musk mallow I've ever seen, at the peak of flowering.

 Musk mallow makes an excellent late-flowering addition to a wild flower garden, that can hold its own amongst showy cultivated plants and doesn't become invasive.

It provides a good supply of pollen and nectar for bees. This one has empty pollen baskets and seemed to be after the nectar, but must have been almost blinded by that dense covering of pollen it's picked up on its head.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Stroll to the End of the Pier

It was a perfect summer afternoon, so we decided to take a stroll to the end of Tynemouth pier and discovered that it was a favourite spot for common terns to take a break and indulge in a bit of preening....

... which is necessary if you spend most of your life diving head-first into the sea every few minutes.

Only a brief respite though, and now they were in tip-tip shape time it was time to get back to work....

.... feeding the juveniles that were parked at intervals all along the pier.

Demanding work...

.. so the parent birds' feet hardly touched the ground ...

... while their were feeding their offspring, which ....

...apart from occasionally staggering to their feet for a stretch, just sunbathed.

This herrring gull had the temerity to land near a chick and the parent bird carried out relentless attacks until the gull was driven off, which is maybe why ....

... this turnstone tip-toed past PDQ, fearful that it would be in for the same treatment.

A small flock of redshanks, driven off the Black Middens rocks at the mouth of the Tyne by the rising tide, landed in the pier briefly....

... but didn't settle for long before the terns drove them off too.

The terns even had a go at this guillemot, swimming innocently by, but it showed them a clean pair of heels.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Slime Mould

 This is the slime mould (myxomycete) Fuligo septica var. flava, that we found on a rotting log at Smardale Gill National Nature Reserve near Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria on Tuesday. These are amazing organisms, that start life as microscopic amoebae that germinate from spores, slither over wet surfaces and ingest bacteria in their path. Ultimately they aggregate to form the slug-like slime mould, that continues to crawl and grow until it's mature - this one has just reached maturity and looks like miniature scrambled egg. What happens next is that it begins to lose water and produce spores that will blow away in the wind and germinate into new wandering amoebae, feeding and on the lookout for other amoebae that they can aggregate with.

This is the same organism, photographed about two hours later and if you double-click to enlarge the images you can see that its structure is already changing, from miniature scrambled egg to miniature yellow Brillo pad .... and soon it'll dry out and release its spores.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


A stinging nettle Urtica dioica, spot-lit in a sun-fleck in the woods beside the River Swale, near Reeth this morning

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Haymaking in Teesdale

Last time we walked past this tree, in January, we were knee-deep in snow but on Monday....

.. they'd recently cut the hay and it was lying in the sun, drying out. This picture was taken from almost the same point as the one above, but six months later. The aroma of new-mown hay is one of the great scents of summer in Teesdale.
Once it has been cut it needs to be turned, to speed up the drying process before...


Haymaking requires hard work, coupled with judgement and luck, picking a dry spell that will last long enough to get the job done. This week (so far) there's been sunshine and little rain in Teesdale ..... good haymaking weather.


We came across this sunbathing blackbird yesterday at Smardale Gill NNR in Cumbria, where it was in a trance-like state with wings and tail fanned out. This is the moment when it realised we were there and struggled to its feet, brain still befuddled by the heat, wings drooping, feathers still fluffed out. If I'd wanted to I could have reached out and grabbed it. There must be a serious purpose for birds sunbathing like this, as it leaves them very vulnerable to predators. Using the sun's heat and UV to reduce feather parasite load is supposed to be the reason why they do it.

This young rabbit was vulnerable too, apparently believing that it was covered in a furry invisibility cloak as it peered at us through the grasses without making any effort to run.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

To dye for...

This rather attractive plant is wild mignonette Reseda lutea, a close relative of the cultivated and fragrant mignonette R.odorata that used to be a common feature of cottage gardens but seems to be rarely grown these days. Wild mignonette’s flowers are a magnet for bees, which makes it a good plant for a wildlife garden, but its coarser and much larger cousin dyers rocket Reseda luteola, which I found growing beside it on some waste ground on the Durham coast, is in many ways more interesting.

Unlike mignonette, dyer’s rocket, also known as weld, contains a flavonoid compound called luteolin which is a bright yellow dye that has been used in the past for colouring cotton and wool. According to the Roman writer Pliny it was the preferred dye for clothes of fashionable ladies and was used to colour wedding garments and the robes of vestel virgins.

The 18th. century botanist William Withering wrote an enthusiastic account of the plant’s properties as a source of yellow dye. In his day it was also known as yellow-weed or dyer’s luteola. “This plant affords a most beautiful yellow dye for cotton, woollen, mohair, silk and linen, and is constantly used by the dyers for that purpose”, he wrote in his Botanical Arrangement of 1776. “Blue cloths dipped in a decoction of it become green. The yellow colour of the plant called Dutch Pink, is got from this plant. The tinging quality resides in the stems and roots, and it is cultivated in sandy soils, rich soils making the stalk hollow and not so good”. Nearly a century later Dutch Pink paint was still used by watercolourists, mentioned by C. Pierpoint Johnson when he wrote about the virtues of dyer's rocket in his Useful Plants of Great Britain: A Treatise, published in 1863. He observed that “it is now much grown in Essex, and in some districts of Yorkshire, being sown in April or May, and pulled up when nearly out of flower and dried in the sun". He observed that the dye was particularly concentrated in the seed but was “always liable to fade in sunlight”. Given the plant's attraction for bees, a field of dyer's rocket must have positively hummed with these insects. Being a biennial, the species would have taken two years to produce a usable crop. These day's it's a common plant of waste ground, often around habitation, so I wonder how much of its distribution is natural and how much is a legacy of past cultivation? In his book Weeds and Aliens, published in 1961, Sir Edward Salisbury mentions that the plant commonly sets as many as 76,000 seeds and that these may have prolonged dormancy. He quotes a letter to the Times in 1931 claiming that dyer's rocket seeds germinated after the Roman vallum at Cirencester was excavated by archaeologists, leading him to posit that "these arose from seed over 1800 years old is therefore not incredible" - though surely unlikely, although it is very tempting to speculate that these might have been progeny of plants grown by the Romans to provide yellow dye for wedding dresses. 

The plant itself seems to have an affinity with the sun and in Dye Plants and Dyeing by John and Margaret Cannon (2002) there is an intriguing mention of the way in which the inflorescence tips bend towards the sun (as they are doing in the picture here) and follow it on its passage across the sky. So what happens when darkness falls - do they bend back to point westwards in anticipation of sunrise? Apparently not. They mention that the great botanist and taxonomist Linnaeus was curious to find out what happened too and went to look at the plant at midnight, when he found that all the inflorescences pointed northwards. He was working in sub-Arctic regions and it seems from their account that in the high latitudes up there, in the land of the midnight sun, the infloresecence tips just followed the sun during its continued 24 hr. passage around the sky in summer and didn't 'unwind' and return to point westward - although it isn't absolutely clear from their account that this was the case.

John and Margaret Cannon (2002) Dye Plants and Dyeing. A&C Black, in association with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

C. Pierpoint Johnson (1863) The Useful Plants of Great Britain: A Treatise. Published by Robert Hardwickw, 192, Picadilly, London.
Sir Edward Salisbury (1961) Weeds and Aliens. Collins New Naturalist no. 43.
William Withering (1776) Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables Naturally Growing in Great Britain.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Carnivorous Plants 2: Round-leaved Sundew

On the hillside above Tunstall reservoir in Weardale there's a patch of ground that's always wet, even during a drought, where a spring trickles out of the ground. It's home to a collection of bog plants that include tiny round-leaved sundew Drosera rotundifolia which grows amongst the Sphagnum moss shoots. You need to get down on your hands and knees to examine these plants, whose leaves protrude from the Sphagnum like bejewelled, beckoning hands tempting small insects to make the fatal mistake of landing on their glistening tentacles. It's well worth suffering wet knees to appreciate their sinister beauty.
You can find more on larger, more exotic sundew species by clicking here.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Visionary Project....

Today's Guardian Country Diary describes a visit to Low Burnhall farm in Durham, now the site of a Woodland Trust major re-foresting scheme and the subject of an earlier blog post about its wonderful display of wild flowers. The photograph above of the farm was taken in spring about five years ago and the one below ..... 

... was taken from more or less the same spot in late June this year, although with a different focal length lens. The Woodland Trust is in the process of planting 94,000 native trees on this site (including rare black poplars) and the first stage has been to re-seed most of the agriucltural land with grasses and plant up the fields bordering the main road as wild flower meadows.

This year the floral display has been mainly confined to annuals like cornflower, corn poppy and corn chamomile that were sown last autumn, but these meadows also include biennials like viper's bugloss and perennial wild flowers that will make a big impact in future years. The wild flower meadows will be maintained in perpetuity, even after mature woodland develops behind them. Signs in the gateways welcome visitors and although it's the wild flowers that will tempt most people to follow the paths mown through the grasses there are quite a lot of other interesting features too.
The arable weeds like field pansy Viola arvensis that grew amongst the wheat and oilseed rape crops are still there but now the crops are replaced by grasses that support a large population of breeding butterflies like....

... this ringlet.
One of the paths through the grassland leads to this grassy bank between high hedges and rough grassland ...

... where betony...

... and lady's bedstraw are just coming into flower.

The fine old hedges are being extended with new plantings.

The eastern edge of the farm is bordered by the River Wear - with sand martin colonies in its banks and also kingfishers.

Looking northwards you can just make out one of the paths mown through the grassland curving up the distant slope (double-click for a larger image) - visitors are encouraged to wander freely over the site and if you climb to the top of the distant hill there are excellent views to the south.

The River Browney joins the River Wear near the southern boundary, with steep banks that are covered in....
...a dense canopy of butterbur leaves

... and with water crowfoot flowering in the river.
One bank of the River Browney is covered in a fragment of oak wood with some magnificent old trees. This part of the site must look very much like it would have appeared to the first neolithic farmers who arrived here to clear the forest, graze their animals and plant crops over five millennia ago.
Now that deforestation process is being reversed. The site includes important fragments of ancient semi-natural woodland and the new planting, which has already begin with the help of volunteers and schoolchildren, will link these up with a new public-access woodland that will develop over the course of the next century. It will be well worth visiting regularly during the early stages to document progress in this visionary project.

It will be a decade before the woodland grows sufficiently to be recognisable as such and in the meantime most people will probably visit to see the spectacular wild flower display in early summer - and all the bees and butterflies that this attracts.