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.
In my last post, I talked about the two species of seahorses – Short-snouted and Spiny seahorses – we can find around our shores, including here in Cornwall. This cryptic creature is hard to find, but I like to think of it, nestling among the seagrass and seaweed in its salty water world, safe from human disturbance in a world set apart from the hustle and bustle of life on land.
If only that were true. The reach of us humans has extended everywhere across this globe, from the upper levels of the atmosphere to the bottom of the oceans in far-flung places. So, it has certainly reached our local seas. Seahorses, as fish highly sensitive to environmental disturbance and change, are a good ‘barometer’ of wider adverse impacts. Dredging and anchorages, when not managed sensitively, can destroy the seagrass beds and other habitats they rely on; and, like many mobile sea creatures, and in the same way as we are seeing on the crowded land, they suffer from a loss of connectivity between habitats and breeding sites.
Cornwall is a maritime county. Cornish people work on the sea, enjoy surfing on it, walking along the strand or cliffs, swimming in the water (in summer!), spotting basking sharks and dolphins, rockpooling, and much much more. We need to protect our seas – they are part of our heritage, livelihoods and culture – but it’s not all serious: there are plenty of things that are fun to get involved with, but which also help in preserving our shores and seas. Here are a few to think about.
1. Cornwall Wildlife Trust organises lots of different activities under its Living Seas banner: click here to link to their site for more information. You can, for example (and these are just a taster):
Become a ‘Your Shore‘ volunteer – working with a great bunch of people in partnership with CWT and your local VMCA (Voluntary Marine Conservation Area)
Get trained and help in recording marine sightings, and get involved in some fun events with Seaquest SouthWest. (I’m hoping to spot my first basking shark this year!)
If you’re a recreational diver, trained to a level of BSAC Sports Diver or PADI Rescue Diver, then you could get involved in Seasearch, and help in marine surveys.
Go rock pooling! CWT are organising a half-term rockpool ramble at West Looe on 16 February at 2pm. Check out their other events for some great and informative days out.
2. You could join The Seahorse Trust. You can adopt a seahorse though the Trust, as well.Have a look at their great website for lots of information about seahorses and the threats they are facing. It is both packed with facts and links to survey and scientific work as well as great photos.
3. Are you a surfer? Surfers Against Sewage is a national charity, but it started its life in Cornwall with a group of surfers and beach-lovers in St. Agnes and Porthtowan. They have plenty of ways to get involved: check out their Facebook page.
4. Other local organisations, such as the RSPB and National Trust will have marine-related volunteering opportunities. You could become a Hayle Estuary Litter Picker with the RSPB – it may not sound immediately inviting! – but done in a crowd it can be great fun meeting like-minded people and doing your bit to keep beaches clean for wildlife and us to enjoy.
5. You could resolve to learn about a particular marine species, or group of species. I really enjoyed learning more about seahorses – basking sharks are next on my list! Then join or help out an organisation that campaigns for them, such as The Seahorse Trust, or Marine Conservation Society.
6. Make sure you only eat responsibly and sustainably sourced fish – this supports local fishing businesses, as well as being ethical and tastier.
7. Respond to the DEFRA consultation on Marine Conservation Zones (check out my post from a few weeks ago – and here’s the link again). There are lots of different people and interests involved, and it is very important the outcome is sustainable for the local economy as well as wildlife, so the solutions are not straightforward. Many nature organisations are however disappointed with the Government’s position and, whatever your views, the consultation is a good opportunity to make them known. Or write to your MP.
Well, that’s a few ideas, and there will be lots I have missed out. If you have any ideas you’d like to share, please leave a comment here or on the What’s Wild in Cornwall Facebook page, and spread the word!
The ocean is mysterious. Poets and writers have been inspired, baffled and entranced by it, from Masefield’s following the ‘call of the running tide’ to Longfellow’s own yearning for the ‘secret of the sea’ to Arnold’s reflections on the slow cadences of ‘the grating roar of pebbles’ at Dover Beach. Cornwall itself has a maritime culture, with its long coastline, ocean-influenced climate and fishing history, and the myths and legends of the sea that fill its folklore and storytelling.
It is hard not to romanticise the oceans. Whether looking out from land to the horizon enthralled by its ebb and flow and constancy, or diving through its surface as a guest in another world, the oceans are a separate place. This apparent ‘otherness’ can make the country beneath the waves appear untouched and unsullied.
Sadly, as most will be aware, this is far, too far, from the truth. Anthropogenic impacts are hitting the seas as much as they are the continents. A walk along the high tide mark on many beaches here in Cornwall reveals the grimy washed-up debris of non-degradeable plastic rubbish; globally, oil spills and pollution have far-reaching impacts; climate change is affecting the chemistry of seawater; over-fishing is depleting fish stocks unsustainably; shipping noise is interfering with cetacean communications; and dredging and anchorages, if not managed sensitively, can destroy the habitats essential to sea creatures and sea plants.
Conservation management of the oceans around the shores of the Cornwall (and elsewhere) is therefore important and urgent. Read my summary of the impact of the Government’s consultation on marine conservation zones in Cornwall here. Nature bodies such as the Cornwall Wildlife Trust are working hard to improve things. Just like terrestrial conservation, there has to be a balance achieved between preserving ecosystems and nature, and ensuring that communities are able to live and work sustainably: a mutually beneficial partnership between people and nature is of special importance in Cornwall – England’s poorest county economically, but perhaps one of its more important in terms of nature.
For the next couple of weeks, I am going to focus on conservation of the seas round our beautiful Cornish coastline.
In my next post, I’m going to take a look at one of the most iconic and cryptic of our ocean species, the seahorse, in particular the two species of our own shores – the Spiny Seahorse and Short-snouted Seahorse (regular readers of this blog will recall the latter was one of the species that made it into my Cornish Ark). We all know about the impact of the global trade in seahorses for Chinese medicine – but our own seahorses are also endangered due to habitat loss. They are also a fascinating creature – I’ve been really enjoying finding out more about them!
In the following week, I’ll take a look at some of the things we can all do to work for our seas and coastline round Cornwall, and the various organisations and charities that are working hard to preserve our fragile maritime ecosystems.
Lastly, What’s Wild in Cornwall is now on Facebook. Do visit and like the page! I’ll be using the Facebook page to post links and extra information I find relevant to each of my blog posts.
And for the poetry lovers among you, I was (of course) quoting from:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
And what’s been nibbling this one?
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!
And so is this fungus!
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.
I’ve been heard to express doubt about whether wildlife NGOs work together often enough. Acting in partnership gives not only strength in numbers and clout, but means that people and organisations, both at local and national levels, get to share views, good practice and ideas.
So I’m always glad when I’m forced to eat my words on this point.
Nationally, it’s also good to see the NGOs speaking out together on issues. The RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and Institute of European Environmental Policy have recently written to the Prime Minister urging him to push for wise spending on environmental policies. They’ve told him the key is not more expenditure, but in a time of economic austerity, to target it in the most effective way, to improve the environment for all EU citizens. It’s very powerful when wildlife NGOs and an independent policy thinktank speak out together – let’s hope Mr. Cameron listens.
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!