Well, it’s near the beginning of 2016 and I haven’t written a blog post for a while, which gives you a big clue about my New Year’s resolution. Yes, it was to get back to blogging regularly about Cornwall’s wildlife and the places I’ve been as I continue to explore this wonderful end of Britain.
In order to ease myself back into it gently, in this my first post of 2016 I’m sharing a few photographic memories of some of my best Cornwall wildlife moments from last year. It serves as a quick catch-up on some of the things I got up to when I should have been blogging.
There were plenty of special moments – finding a rare Western Bee-fly, climbing Godolphin Hill (what an unexpectedly wonderful view!), discovering local woodlands, meeting the improbably but aptly named Swollen-thighed Beetle for the first time (and then seeing them everywhere). The weather wasn’t always great, but there was still plenty to see and do.
I am one of the kinds of people that I get really annoyed by.
Well, there’s an admission. Let’s narrow it down a bit. In the world of nature conservation, one of the most important, but often unsung, activities is recording what you see. And then, even more importantly, sending in those records somewhere central. Somewhere that other people, people who are just as concerned about wildlife as you are, can use and act on them. And I, up to now, have not been one of the country’s best recorders, to put it mildly. Hence, my annoyance with…me.
Quite frankly, I get a bit bored by recording. Writing it down, sending it in – it’s so much more fun just being out in nature enjoying everything. It’s a chore to take notes and tell other people about what I’ve seen.
Well, that’s what I used to think. But I am now a convert to recording and to sharing my sightings. Here’s why.
Number one. A record of a sighting that is not shared is no use whatsoever. And yes, I mean that, no use at all. OK, it may have been thrilling that I found a new site for a particular declining species of insect, and I may feel protective of that site for very good reasons, but if I don’t send that sighting to the relevant people what might happen? (NB. the ‘I’ is rhetorical here – I may be not very good at recording, but I’m not that bad!).
Well, firstly, if the site in question is put up for development in the future, the appointed ecological consultant will ask for records from the local biological records centre which will, of course, have no records of the population of the declining species because the person who found them has failed to submit them. The worst case scenario is that development plans for the site will take no account of what might be important populations of a particular threatened species. That will be, and I’m not mincing my words here, at least partly the fault of the person(s) who failed to record what they’d found. Secondly, any national or local scientific surveys of how a particular species is doing will be incomplete, and that may lead to imperfect or even doomed decisions on future landscape-scale management for that species.
Number two. In these days of intensive farming and lower biodiversity we need to record not only rarer species but, in fact, any species. Today’s common species are tomorrow’s rarities. Go back 50 years and skylarks were abundant. Now, they’re not. If we weren’t recording skylark numbers we’d have no idea of how far they’d declined but, thanks to the BTO’s and RSPB’s excellent recording schemes we can calculate what’s happening. It’s depressing, but at least we know what we’re dealing with.
It’s actually not that hard to record. There are apps, there are simple forms and email addresses. No-one is expected to record everything. Just record the groups of species in which you are interested. Every bit of effort helps. If every single person – man, woman, boy and girl – in the UK was to send in just one or two records a year each, I bet that would significantly increase the number of species records overall.
I am going to make two recording-related commitments for the rest of 2015. Firstly, I will record all species of butterfly (common or rare, adults or caterpillars) that I see and send them to the County Butterfly Recorder. Secondly, given my wildlife garden is in its second year, I will record any wildlife I see there, in my own backyard, and send it to the local records centre. I now have a notebook allocated specifically, with a few records already pencilled in (nothing extraordinary, but common species, as I say, are important to record, too).
At least this means I know my records will be contributing to everyone’s understanding of biodiversity, both nationally and locally, in my own patch in Cornwall.
…and I could list all the ways of recording for various species in Cornwall, but there are various different ones, which is, I guess, what might put some people off. So, if in any doubt, always send to the ERCCIS address above. They share their records with other interested groups in Cornwall, so you know your results will count.
Rare species, common species, all species. We need to know how they’re doing. Keep those records rolling in.
Last weekend I went to visit Bissoe Downs, a little west of Truro, with a group of like-minded people from Cornwall Butterfly Conservation in search of Graylings (the butterflies, not the fish…).
Leaving your vehicle in a small car park (SW 783408), there are various well-made paths you can take. Dodging cyclists and joggers and enjoying the warmth of the day, we headed towards the nine arches of the Carnon Viaduct, which carries the Falmouth−Truro trains, opened in 1933 to replace an earlier mixed masonry and timber construction designed by Brunel. Take a look at the picture at the top of this post: the topless masonry piers below the arches are the remains of the previous viaduct, which once supported a timber frame along which the trains ran, and which are referred to as ‘Brunel’s stumps’ – there are several across Cornwall.
The area around the paths is in fact a previous arsenic mining site. Just up the road, Bissoe Valley Nature Reserve, owned and managed by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, is an excellent example of how these previously mined sites can be restored, providing a haven for wildlife and recreation for us humans. Here, on Bissoe Downs, to either side of the path the land is naturally regenerating, with a succession of heathland scrub and trees such as birch.
Contaminated old metalliferous mining sites can, perhaps surprisingly, be more ecologically rich than you might think. This short report from Cornish Mining World Heritage makes interesting reading. These sites can even provide homes for species that are otherwise nationally rare but are tolerant of heavy metals, such as Cornish Path Moss (Ditrichum cornubicum), now found in only two copper-contaminated locations in Cornwall.
Here at Bissoe, the case in point is that of the Grayling (Hipparchia semele), a butterfly that likes to bask on patches of rocks or dry bare earth, of which there are plenty of the latter on the thin soils of this site. The colouring of the undersides of its wings, which it holds closed when at rest, with hind wings covering the forewings, also camouflages it well in this habitat. You’ll spot it quite quickly in the photograph to the left, but imagine trying to find it in the middle of an entire heathland!
Here it is a bit closer…
This photograph was taken almost directly from above the butterfly, so notice how it has tilted its wings at an angle away from the vertical. The sun was behind me and to the right – perfect for the photograph, and perfect for the Grayling which has exposed as much surface area of its wing as possible to the sunlight. Not only is this good for basking but it also means that this cryptic butterfly casts hardly any shadow – excellent for camouflage. It is not often one gets to see the more orange coloured upper side of its wings.
Graylings have in fact only recently been discovered at this site (by Phillip Harris, a committee member and previous Chairman of Cornwall Butterfly Conservation, as well as all-round expert naturalist). Graylings are now most often found on coastal sites in Cornwall, with only a small handful of inland locations to their name, so this site was an exciting find.
There was a time when Graylings would have been much more widely distributed. I’ve mentioned before on this blog my butterfly book from 1968. There it says that the Grayling is “widely distributed all over the British Isles, usually in dry, exposed places. Colonies may be found on steep granite cliffs above the sea, on rough moorland and commons, stony hillsides and chalk downs” (Mansell, E. and Newman, L.H., 1968. The Complete British Butterflies in Colour. Ebury Press, London).
Today, the picture is very different. Butterfly Conservation’s 2011 report on The State of the UK’s Butterflies cites the Grayling as one of the many British butterflies that have been suffering in terms of both overall population numbers and distribution. A recent paper (Fox et al., 2010) places Graylings as being nationally vulnerable on the basis of their reducing 25-year trends for both population numbers and distribution. This is probably mainly due to the loss of suitable habitat.
The Grayling is the largest of our ‘brown’ butterflies. It exhibits variation between populations across the country, with six subspecies in the UK. The main food plants of its caterpillars are grasses such as Bristle Bent, Red Fescue and Sheep’s Fescue, and the adults like to nectar on plants such as Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Heather and Red Clover. It is a priority species under the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan.
The Grayling, and other butterflies, are of course not just important for their own sake (which they are) but because they are sensitive indicators of climate and habitat change. With annual broods and specific habitat requirements they are often amongst the first species to respond to changes in the environment. If we want to continue to enjoy the sight of butterflies in Cornwall and the wider UK, we all need to take note and support those, such as Butterfly Conservation and its local branch, and the RSPB’s Give Nature a Home campaign, as well as our own Cornwall Wildlife Trust, who are all working to preserve habitats and species.
Did we find Graylings at Bissoe? Actually, yes…well over 30! Which just goes to show there is always hope.
Earlier this month, I went to visit Bunny’s Hill, near Cardinham and Bodmin, with Cornwall Butterfly Conservation (CBC). A beautiful spot in so many ways, our main reason for being there was to see if we could find Pearl-bordered Fritillaries (Boloria euphrosyne).
Sadly, we didn’t: the unseasonal cold weather and blustery conditions had presumably delayed the butterflies’ emergence.
It made me think back to 2012 when we made the same trip on the same weekend (and my first ever field trip with my new friends in CBC). Here’s what I wrote in my notebook from that earlier trip:
We were lucky to see a few Pearl-bordered Fritillaries on this, the first warm day of May (and the first warm day since March!). The males fly a little before females and, newly-emerged, they were pristine and beautiful. We found them feeding on nectar from bugle flowers – maybe they like blue, as Common Violet is the only foodplant of their caterpillars. They are also choosy, as Heath Violets won’t do at all..! The silver spots on the underside of their wings were gorgeous: photographs cannot do justice to the iridescence.
I obviously enjoyed the day! I also very much enjoyed Bunny’s Hill this year, even without the butterflies, but it just goes to show what a difference a year can make for wildlife. Natural fluctuations in the weather can obviously affect the timing of emergence and cause short-term population setbacks, and wildlife has survived that for thousands of years. However, these natural variations are increasingly becoming the ‘last straw’ when they overlie habitat loss, pressure from human populations and agricultural intensification (link here to Butterfly Conservation’s recent report on the state of our British butterflies, and here to the equivalent report for moths).
The Pearl-bordered Fritillary is a rare species nationally, and found on only a handful of sites in Cornwall. It is a butterfly traditionally associated with coppiced woodland, of which there is now precious little left, and sites like Bunny’s Hill, with its open bracken-y habitats, perhaps provide an alternative. The good news is that much habitat management work has and continues to be undertaken at Bunny’s Hill by CBC in conjunction with the owners, and this has helped maintain the Pearl-bordered Fritillary population since it was discovered there for the first time by CBC co-founder, Lee Slaughter, on 14th May 1998 – an exciting day he will never forget!
Bunny’s Hill is a delightful spot to visit. The Gorse was in full and glorious, coconut-scented bloom, and the views across the landscape were inspiring, even on a windy and chilly day. Looking at my species lists for the two visits, in 2012 and 2013, there is an amazing amount of wildlife to see if you pay attention. Last year, as well as the Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, we also spotted Brimstones, a Green-veined White and a Green Longhorn moth. This year we saw my favourite caterpillar – the Drinker Moth.
What else can you see? Well, you might find the wonderful Bloody-nosed Beetle, which exudes a foul-tasting red liquid from its mouth when threatened. We found nuts nibbled by Dormice and Wood Mice, and this year we even fleetingly saw a Badger, unusually out in the daytime. Plants include Tormentil, Wood Anemone, Wood Sage, Lousewort and Betony (the last of which, together with the Violets and Bluebells also found there, is an ancient woodland indicator species). We also saw Adder’s-tongue Fern, an indicator of ancient meadow. And, of course, Cornish Bladderseed. This rare umbellifer (a plant of the Carrot family) is only found on a small number of locations in Cornwall and Buckinghamshire, but there is plenty at Bunny’s Hill. It flowers later in the year, in July and August, but its leaves have a delicate beauty underfoot.
Some of Bunny’s Hill is accessible to the public via footpaths. If you would like to visit and experience it for yourself, the grid reference is SX117675: at the fork in the road, turn left, with further parking 50 yards up the track.
I have a lovely butterfly book, inherited from my parents, dating back to 1968. The colour illustrations are detailed and painstakingly drawn; the text simple and hopeful. Why hopeful? I think because the words the author uses pre-date some of the more recent significant changes we have seen in our landscape, particularly those affecting wildlife, and there is very little about habitat deterioration or reducing species numbers. The book makes you feel that, at the right time of year and in the right place, you could walk out the door on a sunny day and see every single butterfly species you might expect to see.
Turn instead to Butterfly Conservation’s most recent report on The State of the UK’s Butterflies (2011), and the picture is of course very different. Numbers of butterflies are reducing, with 75% of species showing a trend of a ten-year decrease, either in population numbers or distribution, with declining habitats suggested as a main cause. It’s a depressing picture, especially if butterflies have always been for you, like me, a joyful sight from spring through to autumn. Being very sensitive to environmental change, the problems we see in butterfly numbers are an indicator of all the wider issues adversely impacting our wildlife.
So, in the face of this, it is heartwarming and encouraging, and hopeful, when a species starts to make a comeback. And this time, it’s a Cornwall success story. The White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album) has not been seen this side of the Tamar for over 20 years, but it’s back! It even made the local news.
The great news was announced at the Annual General Meeting of the Cornwall Branch of Butterfly Conservation (BC) last weekend (16th March). Cornwall BC had been looking into a re-introduction of the species, working together with national BC and two White-letter Hairstreak experts, Liz Goodyear and Andrew Middleton, who came down to Cornwall in February to do a survey for the butterfly (or rather, for its eggs) – a pre-requisite for a re-introduction scheme. And, hey presto, they found eggs! Just three, at two different sites in south-east Cornwall, but firm evidence the butterfly is here, and breeding.
How did it get here? There are some colonies across the Tamar in Devon, so they may possibly have arrived from there. Or it is not impossible that they have been clinging on in Cornwall, in very small numbers, but unfound, even though experts have been looking over the years – this is a fairly cryptic species.
As well as suffering from some of the same issues as other butterfly species, the White-letter Hairstreak has had one specific, but very major, problem. The one and only food plant of its caterpillars is elm trees and, of course, elm trees in the UK suffered devastation in the 1960s and 1970s from the beetle-carried Dutch Elm disease. And that meant all the species associated with elms, like the White-letters, also suffered badly.
Not only did they reduce in numbers along with the elms, but White-letter Hairstreaks are a small butterfly, with a wingspan of about 3.5 cm, they are mainly brown (although their underwing patterning is lovely up close, with orange edges and the white banding that gives them their name), and they live mainly, and often in small colonies, in the tops of their host trees. This is why they are spectacular not so much for their looks as for being difficult to find.
The adults are flying from the end of June through to August, feeding on honeydew in the tops of the elms. The best chance (still not good) of seeing their pretty pirouetting flight from the ground is early in the day or in late afternoon when they sometimes come down to nectar on flowers, in particular their favourite privet and bramble. My 1968 book suggests standing under a host elm and looking up, to catch sight of the fully-grown caterpillars silhouetted against the leaves – definitely written when they were more numerous!
The eggs are laid singly, usually at the scar marking the join between old and new growth of the twig. They look a bit like flying saucers, and you’d have to be an expert to spot them with the naked eye. The caterpillars emerge between late-March and June, a timing that coincides with the emergence of the elm flowerbuds on which they feed before moving to the leaves. They pupate, attached by a single silk girdle, between May and July, and adults can be seen from June.
Nationally, there is some evidence that White-letter Hairstreaks have been increasing, though it is difficult to separate actual increase from increased recording effort [UPDATE 26/3/2013 – see note at end of this post]. They remain nonetheless a priority species under the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan, and this is why it is so special to find them back here in Cornwall. Here’s hoping they go on to make a good recovery.
Cornwall Butterfly Conservation members will be surveying elms for White-letters later in the summer. If you’d like to help with the search, contact them via their website here – they’d love to have as many people involved in this exciting project as possible.
UPDATE: The day after I published this post, Butterfly Conservation released (on 26/3/2013) the 2012 figures – see this link to the report in the Guardian. After the terrible summer we had last year, butterflies have fared extremely badly, including White-letter Hairstreaks which are now down by some 70%. This is a sobering thought after its rediscovery in Cornwall, and bad news for all our butterflies. Let’s hope for a better summer this year. And see the Cornwall Butterfly Conservation page (link below) for advice on how you can help butterflies.
Butterfly Conservation 2011. The State of the UK’s Butterflies, 2011. Butterfly Conservation, Lulworth, Dorset.
Mansell E, Newman LH 1968. The Complete British Butterflies in Colour. Ebury Press, London.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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?
Like me, you may have enjoyed watching David Attenborough last night (Friday 9 November) on the BBC talking about which 10 endangered species he would save by taking on to his ‘Ark’. I was both entranced by the charismatic (and in some cases, very cute!) species he chose, but also saddened to be reminded about the threats facing them – all are at some danger of extinction, all because of us humans.
It got me thinking about what species from Cornwall I would want to save in my own Ark. So here is my list (of 8 rather than 10) – not all are unique to Cornwall, but all can be found here (for now) and are loved members of our Cornish countryside. It’s also a list based on my own knowledge and interests – what species would you choose?
1. Cornish Chough: No apologies for the Cornish prefix – although making a comeback elsewhere across Britain, this is an iconic bird of Cornwall. Absent from Cornish shores for three decades, a breeding pair first reappeared on the Lizard in 2001 (they’re still there! – choughs pair for life). The population has been growing since and choughs can now be found all around the Cornwall coast, in no small part due to the amazing army of volunteers organised by the RSPB who help each year in nest monitoring and guarding. A conservation success story – fingers crossed for the chough!
2. Hedgehog: Hedgehogs are in trouble across the UK. A report The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2011found that numbers have decreased by 25% in just 10 years – and that’s a conservative estimate. More research is needed into why, but loss of habitat is doubtless one reason. I’d like to see more hedgehogs in Cornwall, so they are in my Ark.
3. Basking sharks: I’ve yet to see a basking shark on the Cornish coast, though I’ve been trying – I fell over and hurt my knee on the coastal path last year when spending more time gazing oceanwards than at where my feet were going! Like the Choughs, these plankton-feeding majestic creatures are on the increase, due to their comparatively recent protection from commercial hunting, as shown by recent research. They’re in my Ark to make sure the success continues – I’m not sure how I’m going to fit a pair in, though!
4. Marsh Fritillary Butterfly: This is one of our most endangered butterfly species. It’s hanging on in a few locations in Cornwall, thanks to the work of various wildlife charities, including the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Butterfly Conservation (plus the dedicated volunteers of its Cornwall branch). I’ll need some Devil’s Bit Scabious in my Ark as well, of course – the food plant of its caterpillar.
5. White-clawed crayfish: This is another seriously endangered species – our only native freshwater crayfish – at threat from being outcompeted by the introduced non-native American Signal Crayfish, which also carries a fungal infection fatal to our home-grown species. Buglife and the Environment Agency have been leading on conservation efforts for this small but beautiful creature, including a release in Cornwall, so here’s hoping for success.
6. Skylark: A lovely bird, and we do still see it in Cornwall but, like all farmland birds, it has been seriously declining. I was once walking a little-used heathland path in the Cornish spring and accidentally disturbed a skylark who was nesting, hidden away right at the path’s edge – I retreated and watched to make sure she made it back safe and sound, but skylarks are in my Ark as an apology to her, and because I would hate to lose the sight and song of this bird from our Cornish countryside. Read the chapter ‘Hope for farmland birds’ in Mark Avery’s excellent book Fighting for Birds for a balanced and insightful account of efforts to save this and other farmland birds.
7. Short-snouted Seahorse: Some people are surprised to learn there are seahorses round the British Coast, but there they are, nestling beneath the waves. Mostly they are found in the warmer south-west British waters, including Cornwall. All are at risk – partly due to disturbance to the eelgrass and seagrass beds they need for their habitat – and the Short-snouted Seahorse is the rarest. Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Living Sea’s programme works to protect the places they live, as does The Seahorse Trust. Possibly my favourite fish, they are welcome in my Ark!
8. Pigmy Rush: In a departure from Ark-ish tradition, I am including a plant on my Cornish Ark. Pigmy Rush is an endangered plant, found in Europe, but in the UK only found on the Lizard in Cornwall. It is one of the smallest rushes, and colonises bare ground so likes land that is a little bit disturbed. Thanks to conservation management efforts, it has done well over the last year or so, including at Windmill Farm where artificial disturbance has been successful. You need to get up close and personal to appreciate its pink-flushed beauty, but it’s worth the effort!
Discover Cornwalls best trails. With over 250 miles of continuous coast path, areas of outstanding natural beauty, prehistoric burial sites and abandoned mine trails, Cornwall is a great place to go trail running, hiking or walking. Get out there and enjoy the experience!