My top ten Cornish wildlife-related moments

So, here I am, almost at the end of 2012. The year started with my permanent move westward to Cornwall, and the year is now close to its end as I sit here, in my lovely Cornish cottage, enjoying a G&T (I am writing this after 6pm, honest) and contemplating how I got here.  It’s been a tough year – bereavement, a change of career, lifelong friends and family now many miles away. But it’s also been an amazing year – new friends,  a new home, a different life, fresh challenges.

If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that change is either good or bad, depending on how you greet it.  I hope I’ve greeted it well – sadness, joy, but absolutely no regrets!

So, having got that self-reflection out of my system, I started to think about my Cornish wildlife highlights of the year.  Looking back over 2012, what do I remember about the things I’ve seen and done, each of which have taken me forward a few steps in learning about how wonderful and amazing our world is? It was quite hard wittling the number down to only a few, but here’s my top ten Cornish wildlife highlights of the year…

1. Great nature-loving people: There are so many people in Cornwall who care about the environment, from academics, to farmers, to conservationists, to ordinary people like you and me.  My first real experience of this was turning up at the Cornwall Butterfly Conservation branch AGM in January (I can’t even remember why I went – I might even have just been bored, and keen to get out for an evening!). I came away having felt welcomed, had loads of fun, and chatted to some wonderful folk who know an amazing amount about butterflies and moths (and plenty of other wildlife-related things). Now, a few months on, I’m the Branch Secretary!

Red-billed Chough flying in Penwith, Cornwall,...
Chough (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2. Choughs: I mentioned choughs a few weeks back as residents of my Cornish Ark.  Recently, I had a meeting with the RSPB down on the Lizard. Walking back to the village car park from Lizard Point Cafe, we spotted two choughs in a field – not only a pair of choughs, but THE pair of choughs, the original two who came back to the Lizard in 2001. That was pretty cool..!

3. Long-headed clover: OK, not everyone is particularly interested in planty things.  But I love them, and the Lizard Peninsula, that planty hotspot, hosts clover species that you can’t find anywhere else in the UK. I headed off to Caerthillion Cove in May last year looking for Long-headed Clover.  Could I find it anywhere? No. Despondent, I plopped myself down on a grassy patch and gazed disconsolately around me…at a slope filled with Long-headed Clover! Stop looking, start seeing – that’s the message I learned there!! I haven’t been back in 2012, but I’m aiming to go on a new hunt in 2013.

Dormouse on hand
Dormouse on hand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4. Dormice: This isn’t a Cornwall story, but I’m justifying it because it could have happened in Cornwall, as we have dormice here. But I had nipped just over the border to Devon with South West Lakes Trust to help with some dormouse monitoring. I’m not sure I will ever ever forget the experience of holding a very fast-asleep dormouse in the cup of my hands, and listening to her actually snoring! I felt both awed and protective in equal measure…

5. Science in the Square: I’ve been working for the University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the Cornwall Campus for the last year, and they are doing tonnes of work to engage with young people.  As part of Falmouth Week 2012, we held a humungous science event in Events Square in Falmouth in August – it rained all day, but we were in a huge marquee with earthquakes, mini-beasts, raptors, mammals etc. Lots of kids there and they were amazing!

Buzzard at Stithians (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Buzzard at Stithians (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

6. A Very-Close-Buzzard: I’ve already mentioned this in a recent post about Stithians Lake, but I was stunned by my very close encounter with a Buzzard. What amazed me most was how unphased this bird, happily sitting in a tree,  was by me – there I was, having turned a corner and surprised both of us, pointing lens-y things at it and generally behaving not like your average dog walker. The buzzard stared, glared, and then soared away.

7. Screechy wildlife noises: In London, I was often woken up in the middle of the night by foxes screeching. In Cornwall,  I’m also often woken up by foxes screeching – a nice reminder that wildlife knows no boundaries. However, the other night it was a barn owl screeching that woke me up – I can’t remember ever hearing that in London!!

8. Pearl-bordered fritillaries: With my new-found friends at Cornwall Butterfly Conservation I went looking for these on Bunny’s Hill, on Bodmin, earlier in 2012.  We found them! These lovely butterflies are endangered, but are hanging on in a few locations.

Adder
Adder (Photo credit: wildlifewanderer)

9. Adders: Nosing about at Loe Bar earlier in the year, I caught sight of an adder – probably several seconds after she caught sight of me. She slithered away into the undergrowth, but I watched her and there was a moment – only a few seconds – when we were eyeballing each other. A bit like my buzzard, there is something both uncanny and empowering about meeting a wild creature’s eye.

10. Last but not least: So, two years ago, the view from my office was the London smog. Now, it’s this. Need I say more?

Predannack Downs on the Lizard (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Predannack Downs on the Lizard (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

Long-headed Clover, Caerthillian, Lizard

I’ve been mulling over my time in Cornwall in 2012, and came across this photo of Long-headed Clover, which I tracked down on the Lizard earlier this year. I’m writing a blog post about my top Cornish wildlife highlights of the year, so I reckon this gorgeous plant must be included!!

Marine Conservation Zones: the picture for Cornwall

Yesterday, DEFRA published its consultation document on the Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) it proposes to designate in 2013 under the UK’s Marine and Coastal Access Act.  The proposals have caused an angry reaction from conservation organisations – including the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and Marine Conservation Society – because, of the 127 sites recommended, only 31 are being put forward for designation in 2013. Others could be put forward in future years, but there is no clear commitment to do so, and the question being asked is ‘Why the delay?’: of the 59 of the recommended sites considered to be at the most risk, under half are being proposed for designation in 2013.

There has already been extensive consultation for over a year with local communities on the impact of MCZs – recommended MCZs in the South West were reported in 2011, following consultation under the ‘Finding Sanctuary‘ project, which considered socio-economic as well as environmental impacts –  and there is no obvious reason why DEFRA shouldn’t now be consulting on the lot. Each site was proposed on the basis it contains important and/or endangered habitats and supports species we need to protect.

What does this mean for Cornwall? What is in and out for 2013? Well, it takes a bit of ploughing through the unwieldy consultation document and annexes on the DEFRA site, but I’ve managed it (have a go here if you like!), with plenty of help from the much more accessible Wildlife Trusts‘ pages.

The South West as a whole has proportionally done a little better than other regions. Of the 45 sites recommended, 15 of these are now being proposed for designation in 2013 (so one-third compared to the one-quarter nationally). These are:

Deeper sea zones: East of Haig Fras, South West Deeps, The Canyons

Cornish coastal zones: Padstow Bay and Surrounds, The Manacles, Upper Fowey and Pont Pill, Whitsand and Looe Bay, Tamar Estuary sites

Isles of Scilly: Isles of Scilly Sites

Other South West coastal sites: Lundy (already designated), Skeeries Bank and Surround, Torbay, Chesil Beach and Stennis Ledges, South Dorset, Poole Rocks.

These are all incredibly valuable sites, and great that they’re in for the current consultation. But which of the other original recommendations for Cornwall are missing? Here’s a few examples, with thanks to the Wildlife Trusts‘ webpages for the information.

Land’s End is out – one of the best UK areas for the critically endangered balearic shearwater.

Fura-bucho do Mediterrâneo // Pardela das Bale...
Balearic Shearwater (Photo credit: jvverde)

Swanpool is out – the only known natural location in the UK for an endangered filter-feeding bryozoan – the trembling sea mat.

Mount’s Bay is out – with its rich population of dolphins, basking sharks, porpoises, as well as seagrass beds, stalked jellyfish and crayfish.

Newquay and the Gannel is out – there you’ll find the protected pink sea fan and European eels.

Pink sea fan
Pink sea fan (Photo credit: CameliaTWU)

Hartland Point to Tintagel is out – noted for porbeagle sharks, mussel beds and reef-building honeycomb worms.

English: Porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus)
English: Porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Via the Wildlife Trusts, you can sign up to befriend your local proposed Marine Conservation Zone – or all of them! They’ll then send you information and ideas on how to support the campaign to get all of them designated. Or on 26th February 2013, the Marine Conservation Society and Sealife are organising a march to Westminster to campaign for MCZs – register your interest in taking part here.

You can expect me to be returning to this topic as the consultation progresses.

A walk round Stithians Lake

At the edge of Stithians Lake (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
At the edge of Stithians Lake (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

So far in this blog, I’ve focussed on discovering and sharing places new to me in Cornwall, but I thought it was high time to turn my attention closer to home.  Stithians Reservoir is a 15 minute walk from my front door, and I’m a conservation volunteer there, so I spend a fair number of hours walking round the lake, spotting wildlife and helping out with management tasks. Familiarity, however, far from breeding contempt, makes me love it all the more, and there’s always something new to find.

The Reservoir is owned by South West Water, but is managed for conservation and recreation by the fantastic team at South West Lakes Trust, who look after a number of reservoirs across Devon and Cornwall. Check out their website here to find out more. If you’re a watersports lover and live in the area, you probably know the lake really well, as do the many dog owners who enjoy walking with their pets beside the water, but there’s a lot of wildlife there, too! Here’s some examples.

Buzzard at Stithians (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Buzzard at Stithians (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

Earlier this year, I turned a corner and came eyeball to eyeball with this buzzard! It won the ‘staring-out’ contest, posed for the photo, and then glided off across the fields.  It’s unusual not to see a buzzard on a Stithians walk, but I’ve never been as close as I was this time.

The lake is in fact well known for birdlife, including many wintering water birds as well as residents.  The Cornwall Bird Watching and Preservation Society manage two areas on the reserve – under the watchful eye of their Stithians Warden, my chum Simon, – and there’s a public hide near the Watersports centre (opposite the Golden Lion Pub) if you want to see what you can spot.

Burnet moth (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Burnet moth (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

In the summer, you’ll find a lot of butterflies and day-flying moths (maybe not this summer – it was pretty dreadful – but here’s hoping for more sun next year!). Burnet moths were two-a-penny for much of the summer, brightening up the grasses with their vivid colours.  Did you know their colouring is a warning to would-be predators? Burnet moths – both the five-spot and six-spot variety – contain cyanide, so are poisonous.

The butterfly species I saw most of this year was the plain and simple but rather fetching Ringlet, but I did also spot this very nice Gatekeeper, posing sweetly for me!

Gatekeeper Butterfly, Stithians Lake (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Gatekeeper Butterfly, Stithians Lake (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Common Valerian: Stithians Lake (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Common Valerian: Stithians Lake (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

In the spring and summer, the areas around the lake are brimming with wildflowers. Even today, in December, some Red Campion was still flowering. Common Valerian (pictured) was beautiful back in July. It’s a constant battle, though, to keep the bracken and bramble cut back.  We need a mix of habitats round the lake. Some thick scrub is good – for ground-nesting birds in the spring and summer, cover for other birds as well as for reptiles and amphibians and small mammals – but we also need more open areas where wildflowers can thrive, providing nectar for bees, butterflies and other insects.   The conservation team have been doing a bit of ‘scrub-bashing’ this year, so we’re hoping to get lots of wildflowers (and butterflies etc.) next year!

DSCF0558_edited-1

You can walk pretty much all the way round the lake (it’s about 5 miles: it took me 2.5 hours this morning, dawdling a bit, though, taking photos), apart from one section where you have to detour for maybe half a mile onto the main road. This time of year, wear your wellies, though – the path is very muddy in places. The best place to start from is the Angling and Watersports Centre at the northwest corner of the lake (TR16 6NW). There’s also a cycle path, and you can even hire a bike there – details here.

If you time it right, you can end up at the Golden Lion, not far from the Watersports Centre. A good lunch, a pint in hand, and the mud and chill are soon forgotten!!

DSCF0534_edited-1

Devichoys Wood

…or why dead wood can be a good thing…

Entrance to Devichoys Wood (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Entrance to Devichoys Wood (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

Yesterday started off here in Cornwall as a perfect autumn day: the sun was shining, the garden was coated with frost and the air was crisp.  So I decided to head off to a local area of ancient woodland – Devichoys Nature Reserve – owned and managed by Cornwall Wildlife Trust.

Carpet of fallen oak leaves (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Carpet of fallen oak leaves (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

There is very little that can beat a woodland for an autumn walk – the colours, the leafless branches twisting darkly against the sky, wood pigeons dashing from tree to tree or bright robins perching close by hoping you’ll kick up something interesting to eat, rime-coated leaves, the roar of cars and lorries…oh, yes, Devichoys runs along the main A39 between Falmouth and Truro, and the traffic noise is constant.  At first I thought I’d find it distracting, but I was surprised how quickly I shut it out (possibly a skill gained from living in London!), and focussed instead on the stillness and delicate noises of the woods.

Tree branches twisting in Devichoys Wood: beneath the gold-covered slopes beyond lies the A39! (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Tree branches twisting in Devichoys Wood: at the foot of the gold-covered slopes beyond lies the A39! (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)

Devichoys is a 40-acre site of ancient woodland. This does not mean it is a relic of wildwood or primeval forest – ancient woodland means a wood that is generally at least 400 years old and with a predominance of natural not human-planted trees, but which nonetheless bears the hallmarks of traditional sustainable management, such as coppicing. Look at a plantation of oaks, with their straight trunks and almost uniform shapes and height, and then look at the crooked, weaving branches of the sessile oaks (Quercus petraea), clearly of different ages, that dominate Devichoys Wood. Very little ancient woodland like this remains in Cornwall – much was felled to fuel the tin mining industry – so fragments like this are beautiful to find.

Coppiced oak, Devichoys Wood
Coppiced oak, Devichoys Wood (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

As you walk round the circular track in Devichoys you can spot the familiar signs of coppicing everywhere – several stems growing from one central ‘stool’ where the tree has been cut – making use of the natural ability of the tree to regenerate and provide a continuous source of wood.  The very informative sign at the entrance to the reserve told me that coppicing stopped here about 60 years ago, but that the Wildlife Trust has now restarted it as a conservation practice.

We are used to thinking of human impact on the environment as bad for wildlife, but in fact these traditional and low-impact management practices are beneficial, by creating a varied structure and open spaces to suit different species. The Trust is also creating ‘rides’ through the wood – clear avenues where the trees have been cut to create lighter areas. I’ll definitely be visiting in the summer to enjoy the colours of the wildflowers and butterflies that will be thriving there! These spaces can also be good for some bat species that like a varied environment.

Bat boxes - a sign that conservationists are present, as well as bats! (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Bat boxes – a sign that conservationists are present, as well as bats! (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)

There is plenty to see in the late autumn, though. I started my walk early, so the frost was still decorating the leaves and acorns, catching the low sun.

Look at this rime-covered acorn:

Rime-covered acorn (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Rime-covered acorn (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

And what’s been nibbling this one?

Nibbled acorn (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Nibbled acorn (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Felled wood, left to decay, and quickly covered in growth (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Felled wood, left to decay, and quickly covered in growth (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

In case you were beginning to wonder about the subtitle of this post – the management of the wood also incorporates leaving plenty of dead wood lying around, and I loved seeing all the different shapes of fallen and felled logs and branches.  Why is dead wood so good? Well, it is of course part of the cycle of nature for plants to decay and return their nutrients to the earth. And in the meantime it provides a home for mosses, lichens, fungi and invertebrates.

These lichens are enjoying the dead wood!

Lichens like dead wood! (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Lichens like dead wood! (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)

And so is this fungus!

Fungus enjoying dead wood! (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Fungus likes dead wood! (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)

I spent a lovely, muddy, crisp two hours in Devichoys Wood, spotting lovely old trees of hazel, holly, beech (which hold their browny-gold autumn leaves through much of the winter) as well as the gnarled oaks and the bramble (still trying to flower!).

I even managed to get lost (not a surprise to anyone familiar with my sense of direction), and found myself at the edge of the wood, admiring the trees curving away around a field edge. It always gives me a thrill to approach a wood, to wonder what I’ll find under its branches, but it is even more entrancing to stand beneath the trees, looking outward, wrapped in its peace and privacy.

For more about Devichoys Wood and how to get there – it is off the A39 close to Perranaworthal and about 3 miles north of Penryn –  see the Cornwall Wildlife Trust‘s website. Be warned – parking is limited.

To find out more about ancient woodland, I don’t think you can do better than Oliver Rackham‘s Woodlands, published in Collins New Naturalist Library series.

Cut wood, Devichoys Wood