Saturday, 30 July 2016

Hemingway's Green Hills

I have just read Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa. I avoided it before, and I was wrong to do it, thinking that the subject matter would be at odds with my own views about trophy hunting and pointless, unsustainable, unnecessary slaughter; wrong because, although his and my views are indeed at odds, there are others in his memoir whose concerns he records that do chime with my own strong opinions about the killing. He is also pragmatic and honest about his own shortcomings as a hunter and a man.

It is a masterpiece of boiled-down no-nonsense prose, written in his distinctive, economic style which I admire and love. The thing that has moved me to write this, though, is that towards the end there's a stunning environmental message which describes very well the impacts of unsustainable agriculture and globalisation. I wasn't expecting it; it struck me hard and I had to read it three or four times over to enjoy his simple eloquence. It could be a metaphor for any unsustainable activity. The passage places him in the avant garde of those early American environmental writers. This was written in 1935:
"A continent ages quickly once we come. The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys, cuts down the trees, drains the water, so that the water supply is altered, and in a short time the soil, once the sod is turned under, is cropped out, and the next it starts to blow away as it has blown away in every old country and as I had seen it start to blow in Canada. The earth gets tired of being exploited. A country wears out quickly unless man puts back in it all his residue and that of all his beasts. When he quits using beasts and uses machines the earth defeats him quickly. The machine can't reproduce, nor does it fertilize the soil, and it eats what he cannot raise. A country was made to be as we found it."
This message is as relevant now as it was back then. Hemingway wrote this fourteen years before Aldo Leopold published his classic work of ethical environmentalism A Sand County Almanac, but he must have been influenced by somebody - maybe John Muir or Franklin D. Roosevelt - before he went hunting! 
Hemingway's warning went unheeded and his main quarry in the book, the Kudu, has suffered population decline as a result of over-hunting and habitat loss to farming. It is now on the low-risk register of the IUCN's Red List of endangered species. But the number of farms is doing well, however tired or cropped-out the earth is.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Butterflies and moths seen at Newhaven's Castle Hill LNR in mid-July

Week 16 of the 2016 transect-walking season

Rosebay Willowherb
It was my turn again this week to survey Castle Hill LNR for butterflies and moths - and the weather, for the first time this year, was perfect. Good weather allows for a more accurate picture of which species are present at the site and also their relative numbers. I saw a total of 34 species and over a thousand individuals (1013 in total). These included four species which had not previously been recorded at the reserve (one of these - the Dun-bar - flew into my car as I arrived!).
Despite the cliff-bottom slumps being used as a camp site, outdoor latrine, waste disposal area and bonfire and barbeque site, I was pleased to see that our small colony of Crescent Plume moths has survived another year.
If the weather remains good, the next few weeks should produce similar numbers, with Common blue numbers increasing through August. With such an abundance of insects and flowers in bloom, this is the best time of the year to visit the nature reserve. Enjoy it while it lasts!
Here's the list in full:

Moths (18 species)
Six-spot Burnet (Zygaena filipendulae)  72
Ginger Button (Acleris aspersana)  1
Pale Lettuce Bell (Eucosma conterminana)  1
Orange-spot Piercer (Pammene aurana)  1 - first site record
Satin Grass-veneer (Crambus perlella)  1 - first site record
Straw Grass-veneer (Agriphila straminella)  3
Little Grass-veneer (Platytes cerussella)  3
Straw-barred Pearl (Pyrausta despicata) 1
Twin-barred Knot-horn (Homoeosoma sinuella)  1
Crescent Plume (Marasmarcha lunaedactyla)  4
Oak Eggar (Lasiocampa quercus)  1
Shaded Broad-bar (Scotopteryx chenopodiata)  1
Green Pug (Pasiphila rectangulata)  1
Cinnabar (Tyria jacobaeae)  2
Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba)  1
Dun-bar (Cosmia trapezina)  1 - first site record
Cloaked Minor (Mesoligia furuncula)  1 - first site record
Silver Y (Autographa gamma)  15
Butterflies (16 species)
Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola)  55
Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)  16
Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus)  1
Large White (Pieris brassicae)  17
Small White (Pieris rapae)  69
Green-veined White (Pieris napi)  77
Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)  6
Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)  129
Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus)  200
Marbled White (Melanargia galathea)  292
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)  22
Peacock (Aglais io)  1
Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)  7
Comma (Polygonia c-album)  5
Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas)  1
Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)  4
Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) growing on the cliff-bottom slumps
Rough mixed grasses and flowers by Barrow Head
Agrimony reaching up by Barrow Head

Hemp Agrimony on the north slope - an excellent nectar source for butterflies
Buddleia above Bickerstaff's Bend - a good nectar source for moths at twilight

Alfriston Clergy House: a sanctuary of stability

After two hours spent at the beach this morning, I was ready by midday to beat a retreat. The temperature was passing 30°C - the hottest day of the year so far. The advice was to drink lots of water and stay in the shade and to close blinds to help keep your home cooler. Alternatively, sometimes it is cooler still to leave the house and sit beneath a tree. That was all the encouragement I needed.

I have been nursing a bruised rib - the result of an accident involving a metal five-barred gate and a reluctant dog. The pain is blossoming with each day, so my plans for some 'epic' walking this week have been painfully deferred. Just as well, perhaps, given the heatwave that most of us are enjoying. A gentler pastime was required and my preferred choice of venue today was The Clergy House at Alfriston, where I intended to lose myself in a book in the shade for a couple of hours. "Have you visited us before?", asked the helpful guide. "Yes." "Ah, well you know what you're doing then!" I did; I had a couple of books under my arm and no intention to enter the cool of the 14th-century hall and instead headed for the cool of the garden.

I chose a shaded spot between a hawthorn and grey willow and by a stream edge which forms the back border of the property. A blue-green screen of Phragmites reeds and blue sky was all I could see when seated on the ground. There were no distractions and I intended to absorb myself within one or both of my books. The water was a hive of activity: whirligig beetles and fish fry meandered on and just below the still surface while a banded demoiselle - a beautiful emerald female - and blue-tailed damselflies danced just above it, resting for a moment on the reed stems. As I settled a large fly alighted on my leg (my body heat no doubt a glowing beacon). The fly looked like a picture-wing fly on steroids and I recognised it as one of the deerflies - members of the horsefly family. The part of me that likes to know everything there is to know nearly persuaded me to allow the deerfly to rest long enough to photograph it for identification later, but common sense won over before the fly gorged upon my blood. Although their fearsome reputation is well-earned, they are nonetheless beautiful, striking flies, and particularly so their eyes. It got the message and disappeared, presumably to some unfortunate livestock nearby.

A moorhen broke the silence with an explosive shriek, made me start, revealing its presence amongst the reeds just a few feet before me. A female mallard, the subject of the moorhen's scorn, hurriedly exited the reeds. A Cetti's warbler echoed the alarm a few moments later with its overloud aquatic gurgle, while a gentler reed warbler sang amongst the reeds somewhere unseen. This was the peaceful oasis I had hoped for. Two or three red admirals patrolled energetically above me while a skipper, meadow browns and various whites skimmed and floated back and forth. A mixed group of long-tailed, blue and great tits moved its way through the grey willow, one long-tailed tit venturing to within an arm's length of me, fearless, while inspecting one of the lower branches. I could hear some greenfinches in the canopy above and, above all I heard the cries of swifts as they scythed through the unbroken big blue, and then swallows too at a lower altitude. The air was almost still and carried the scents of subtly stagnant water and straw and intermittent sounds from the middle distance: occasional drones of light aircraft passing overhead, a farm vehicle being manoeuvred (a harvester?) and the bellicose boasts of distant woodpigeons. These sounds swelled and fell away, rose again and receded to leave just the hush of the reeds in the slightest air. All was well and I imagined how the protective embrace of the National Trust ensured this soundscape from day to day, year to year, and was thankful for this tiny pinprick of biodiversity. I laid back on the grass, in the shade of the hawthorn, and dozed.

I recalled a couple of news stories I had heard  in recent days on the radio which reported that the world's biodiversity had been found to have entered an unsafe level of decline and that June 2016 was the fourteenth month in succession that global temperatures have risen to a new record high. The usual warnings were given about climate change, global warming, rising sea levels, the loss of pollinating insects and the threat that ecosystems are becoming unable to support human populations. There is a serious concern that many people hear, watch or read these headlines without much thought about what this means in practise. It could mean not only hunger but starvation and thirst, not only illness but death, not only the collapse of economies but the collapse of societies, conflict for resources, riots, warfare, displacement, famine, disease, and ultimately silence. People cannot be blamed if the reality beyond the headlines cannot be grasped: we are consumers who have been failed by successive governments and exploited by big business, hell bent on reaping the fruit of their neoliberal endeavours without considering the costs to the environment and to successive generations. The public feel misrepresented, abused and lied to. We have become cynical and have lost faith that our leaders will work in the long-term interests of the environment and all who rely on healthy and functioning ecosystems. We feel powerless, disenfranchised and resentful. We have been spoon-fed summer movie blockbusters in which natural disasters have destroyed swathes of the Earth. Has this contributed to a numbness felt to the threat of Armageddon? In an age of instant gratification, global climate change occurs at too slow a pace or on too distant a shore for us to notice it. Do we literally have to wait until our feet get wet or until our stomachs cramp with hunger or until our doctors tell us there is no longer a cure before we demand of our politicians that action is taken or make personal changes to our consumption? I fear that this will be the threshold for change, but it will by then already be too late. Some island states will already have been claimed by rising sea levels, their populations made environmental refugees and immigrants shifted elsewhere (but not here!).

Some things need rescuing: the Clergy House in 1893, prior to its acquisition
The National Trust's full name is the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest of Natural Beauty. It was established in 1895 and the Alfriston Clergy House was its first acquisition, in 1896. It is a tiny property and this is a tiny dot amongst the 985 square miles of land holdings within its property. Other significant land owners in the United Kingdom include the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Defence, various pension funds, utility companies, the Crown Estate, the RSPB, the various Wildlife Trusts and, in Scotland, the Scottish National Trust, the Duke of Buccleuch and Quensberry Estates and the Duke of Atholl's Trusts. Most but not all of these land owners engage in large-scale conservation and protection of their properties. This amounted to 9533 square miles in 2010, which is about ten percent of the UK's total land area of 94060 square miles. Only 6 percent of the entire UK falls within the greater protection of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Most of these and other 'benevolent' land ownerships are tiny pockets - islands of biodiversity - and, however rich they may be in biodiversity (and not all SSSIs are), they are too small and too fragmented and management strategies are not always successful or properly funded. Land uses between these ‘islands’ prevent the formation of green corridors which might link the dots together and allow the safe migration and genetic mixing of species. Fragmented populations and genetic bottle-necks are much less resilient to shocks and stressors - stressors which include unseasonably warm winters and extreme rainfall, early plant flowering seasons and droughts, changes in land use and even neglect of habitats and scrub growth.

Newhaven is a microcosm of this effect: for all its industry and commerce, the town has a relative wealth of 'open spaces' and wildlife reserves, including the 'three peaks' of Castle Hill, Meeching Down and Bollen's Bush, where rare examples of chalk heath exist, and others such as the Valley Ponds, Riverside Park, Drove Park, and the manicured Hugget's Green, a field at Bay Vue Road, Avis Field the cemetery and churchyards, and the recreation grounds at Fort Road, Lewes Road and South Heighton. These are not linked by green corridors. Areas of open land which might be used to create green corridors, such as that between Court Farm Road and the Newhaven Academy (Tideway School), are earmarked for development. Even the metalled surface of a road is an insurmountable obstacle to many species such as plants, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals. The result is a series of fragmented 'island' communities which are less resilient to those environmental stressors listed above. 

In 1920, following restoration - little has changed in 100 years
When properties such as the beautiful, serene, little oasis at Alfriston are visited, often at times of stunning weather, one can be fooled into believing that the climate change deniers are right and that our wildlife is not in peril. But how many cuckoos were heard from the garden of the Clergy House this year when compared with that of one hundred years ago? Back then, did the trill of the turtle dove add another layer to the soundscape? How long since it was last heard here? Or the plop of the water vole? Things disappear very quietly and often without notice. It seems such a good idea to build over that piece of rough ground to relieve the need for more roads or parking or houses; but with the loss of those plants was also a field full of crickets, moths, flies and other insects which fed the spiders and voles and bats and birds. Those and other species were displaced and plunged into conflict with other populations for ever dwindling resources. We do not see or hear this happening; we don't see their decline; some of us don't understand; many do not care. As a society we will not realise the peril of this situation until we are engaged in the same conflict amongst ourselves - and by then we will also starve, fight and die. I feel there is no guarantee that even then we will see the error of our unsustainable ways and put things right. It's just not in our nature, collectively, to do so. Vested interest may yet see our demise. 

Back by the bank of the stream, the alarm call of the moorhen brings me back awake with a start. National Trust properties are special places of stability and good management. They hold in trust many historic and natural places. It is hard to imagine that the scene at the Clergy House has encountered much in the way of change during the past century, other than the decline in the soundscape of horses and carts and the rise of mechanisation. Most of the creatures are still present, but some have declined and some have disappeared, mostly unnoticed. The reed warbler twitches through to the front of the reeds and reveals itself. Above me a parent great tit is calling insistently to her fledglings and, after a minute or two of concern, they assemble and fly off together, safer in their family group. The hush of the reeds is the one constant. It is as though they are trying to bring something important to our attention.


Biodiversity falls below 'safe levels' globally, Imperial College London, 14th July 2016.

Hottest ever June marks 14th month of record-breaking temperatures, The Guardian, 20th July 2016 

Sunday, 17 July 2016

My Daucus Downs

Daucus carota - Wild Carrot growing near Poverty Bottom, Newhaven

The sun and the growing year are each at their zenith. There are flowers blooming everywhere! The iconic downland flower, Round-headed Rampion - the Pride of Sussex - shall be spattering purple the bostal banksides for weeks to come; but my own iconic flower, long held of those summer holidays of my youth, which stretch farther back into distant memory with each passing year, is Daucus carota, the Wild Carrot. 

A blood-red floret at the umbel's hub
Wild Carrot is a quintessential summer species of rough, unimproved chalk and coastal grassland. Often a flower of edges - clifftops and field margins - it rises to prominence beneath the hot, brooding and, to my memory, often overcast July sky. Characteristic pink budding inflorescences spread unfurling fingers into wide, round, white, gently savoury umbels which, along with their billeted soldier beetles, nod in agreement with coastal breezes while Marbled White and Meadow Brown butterflies roll around in the air above. Look closely at the hub of the umbel for the blood-red floret: its purpose is to act as a bulls-eye to attract pollinating insects.  

Wild carrot is a symbol of that moment during each high summer when the world pauses and takes stock, catches its breath, ahead of the tumult of the harvest. A William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) poem, Queen Anne's Lace, epitomises with eloquence the flower and its growing habits:

Her body is not so white as
anemony petals nor so smooth—nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand’s span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—
or nothing.
William Carlos Williams, “Queen-Anne’s Lace” from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I, 1909-1939, edited by Christopher MacGowan. Copyright 1938, 1944, 1945 by William Carlos Williams. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Today, while walking across a downland crest between South Heighton and Firle, a multitude of white and pink umbels catch my attention as I pass between fields of ripening wheat. The field to my right has no headland, yet a strip of Daucus, parallel to the path, stands upright, courageous, in a challenge to the monotony of man-made monoculture. Further inspection reveals that the whole wheat field is peppered with wild carrot. It is as though nature has reached up in wonderful, profane defiance of the regimented seed to show that humans do not hold full dominion over wildlife, despite the best efforts of some. Yes, the downland dome which rises above Seahaven and cut to the west and east by the rivers Ouse and Cuckmere is, save for a few uneconomic enclaves outside the reach of intensive agriculture, a managed world shaped and subdued by farming and in which wildlife is reduced to subculture and the periphery; but how pleasing it is to find disorder amongst order with these acts of floral and invertebratal disobedience (whoever claimed that these creatures lack a backbone?!).

Walking on, Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns tumble out of the thigh-high jumble before me. Each step is worth a handful of butterflies. Red Admirals hang around at every corner. All the time that there are flowers, butterflies will delight and dance. But the harvest gathers more than just economic fruit: today, the wildness of wild carrot endures, the downs are daucus; but soon the harvest shall render the downland fields into late-summer deserts. The change never ceases to shock me.

Daucus carota - Wild Carrot growing near Blackcap Farm, Firle

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Butterflies and moths at Castle Hill LNR - early July

Transect walk season, week 14

We have reached the halfway point in the survey season and numbers remain disappointingly low, despite mostly clear skies during this week's walk. A Beaufort Force six breeze - possibly the strongest I have attempted to survey in - was blowing in off the Channel today, which made for challenging conditions. The wind was gusting to 38mph at times, according to the Met Office website! This and a modest temperature of 17°C conspired to keep many of the insects grounded and only three dishevelled, windblown individuals were seen along the exposed clifftop areas, each one sheltering in a lee of the undulant ground.

As expected, Meadow Brown and Marbled White are now the dominant species, but Large Skipper remains active in the scrubby areas and second brood Small Tortoiseshell and Comma butterflies are emerging. Amongst the moths, the first record at the nature reserve of White Plume Moth was made and a stunning Emperor Moth caterpillar was found munching on a bramble leaf.

Amongst the most conspicuous flowers currently in bloom is Dropwort, a patch of which can be found near to the pond, which itself has half-refilled with water following the heavy rainfall last week.

The open glade areas on the lower, north-facing slope are brimming with flowering grasses and the parasitic flower yellow rattle, which is helping to increase the diversity of flora in these areas. This plant takes some of its nourishment from other vigorous plants, mainly grasses, by tapping into the roots and therefore restricting their growth, enabling many less vigorous species, which would otherwise be out-competed, to gain a foothold. Each year the glade areas develop greater diversity because of plants like yellow rattle, which moves around the glades year on year in pursuit of those vigorous species. Only a few years ago these glades were dominated by willowherb species, but the subsequent diversity in plant species allows colonisation by insects, including butterflies, and this was seen last year with the appearance of numerous Small and Essex Skippers in these areas. There is hope that last winter's bizarre weather has not damaged these tentative colonies and that they will emerge in the coming months. It could take decades before we achieve the restoration of top quality low-nutrient grassland here, but the results of the past several years are encouraging. As always, thanks is given to the Council Rangers who manage the reserve and the various work groups who visit the reserve and manage the habitats there.

Other highlights seen during the walk were few, but a first site record of the common Tortoise Shieldbug was made near the caravans along the west clifftop and a diversion was made to observe a spear thistle alive with insects: thousands of black-fly aphids being predated by Seven-spot Ladybirds and a half-dozen of the impressive parasitic ichneumonid wasp Ichneumon sarcitorius. At first sight I thought these wasps were feeding on the black-fly, but closer scrutiny revealed that they were tapping into the thistle stem, presumably to take a drink. Other neighbouring thistles were absent of insects, so why this one? Does the gregarious nature of the aphids tend towards the mass colonisation of single plants? Are some individual plants more attractive than others? Are the aphids a keystone species which subsequently attracts other insects onto the plant? A transect walk properly made in observance of transect-walking rules does not allow for such distractions, so later observation of the wasps' behaviour may reveal further insights. It is both fascinating and delightful to see so much activity on a single plant - and in the midst of a force six wind!

Emperor Moth (Saturnia pavonia) larva on bramble
Tortoise Shieldbug (Eurygaster testudinaria)

Week 14 results: 11 butterfly and moth species, 36 individuals.

Butterflies (7 species)
57.009  Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus)  10
59.003  Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)  1
59.010  Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)  23
59.012  Marbled White (Melanargia galathea)  10
59.023  Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)  2
59.027  Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)  2
59.031  Comma (Polygonia c-album)  1

Moths (5 species)1083  Marbled Orchard Tortrix (Hedya nubiferana)  1
1398  Rush Veneer (Nomophila noctuella)  1
1513  White Plume Moth (Pterophorus pentadactyla)  1 - first record at CHLNR
1643  Emperor Moth (Saturnia pavonia)  1 larva feeding on bramble

2441  Silver Y (Autographa gamma)  1

Other highlights
539  Tortoise Shieldbug (Eurygaster testudinaria)  1

1835  an ichneumon (parasitic) wasp (Ichneumon sarcitorius)  6

Here are a couple of further images of the Emperor Moth larva. It is about midway through its development and will pass through several developmental levels known as instars until mid- to late-August, at which time it will spin up a ginger-coloured cocoon and overwinter on the foodplant above ground level. It will then emerge as an adult next April or May and produce next year's offspring.