A winter treasure: Three-lobed Crowfoot and the Grochall Track

The more traditional way to visit Kynance Cove on The Lizard is to park in the National Trust car park, walk down the footpath to the cove itself and enjoy the shimmering sea and serpentine followed by a cup of tea and slice of cake in the cafe. Then follows the steep but short slog back up the hill to the car.

Kynance Cove
Kynance Cove

It will be spring or summer, and on a sunny day there will be many other people at this understandably popular spot. You might take a walk along the cliff top, either north towards Soapy Cove or south towards Caerthillian and Lizard Point. You will be rewarded by the wonderful flora of The Lizard all along the tops of the cliffs, from the Thrift that is everywhere to sweet-scented Chamomile to the rarer clovers that The Lizard is rightly renowned for.

The warmer months are, however, not my favourite time of year to make a trip to Kynance, and neither is this route the way I prefer to arrive there. I like to make the journey in winter, or early spring, starting from further east, taking a route across the Lizard Downs. The footpath is called by many the Grochall Track, though it does not call it that on the OS map, and it starts next to Kynance Garage petrol station at Mile End. It is not the most enticing of entryways, and on a dull winter day even less so.

The gate onto the Grochall track
The gate through to the Lizard Downs National Nature Reserve

Bear with it, though. Two or three minutes along a hedge-bound path and you arrive at a gate announcing you have arrived at the Lizard Downs. Enter, and find a wonderful world. The track heads pretty much straight south-west. To the north lies a small-holding (marked Grochall on the OS map), now managed for conservation and owned by the National Trust since 2009. Walking westwards you find yourself on the National Nature Reserve, managed by the local Natural England team. In summer, when there has been enough sunshine, the track itself will be largely dry, its pale buff-coloured soil firm beneath your feet. There will be the beautiful Cornish Heath blooming in later summer, pink flowers of Common Centaury and, if you keep your eyes peeled, its tiny cousin Yellow Centaury, opening its petals to the warmth of the sun. Around you the Downs stretch out, coconut-scented gorse, heathers and grasses, in an expanse of green. Summer is a nice time to go, I admit.

It is a bit bleak, though, even in summer. Not many folk walk this way, away from the cliffs and coast. You cannot even see the sea until you get a mile or so further west. In winter, though, it takes on a bleakness at quite another level. A brisk, cool and bright day is great, but I much prefer it when it is vaguely misty and mizzly. The path is clear enough that it is impossible to get lost, but with your eyes cast downwards and your collar up, dim shapes hover at the edge of sight and the world contracts around you. The ubiquitous Purple Moor-grass takes on a whole new purpose: its knobbly clumps serve as stepping stones as you stomp and splash along what is now a path of sticky mud and puddles.

It is wonderful. Rather than lifting up your eyes to seek the horizon and the first sight of the sea, with Kynance the end goal, you are focussed on the ground, and so you notice things closer to your feet. Early frogspawn, for example, or the fine filaments of stoneworts in the puddles. And it will also be impossible to miss the winter treasure of my title: Three-lobed Crowfoot.

28/2/11 R. tripartitus, Lizard Downs
Three-lobed Crowfoot, Lizard Downs

It hardly looks like anything in the cold winter months, compared to some of the showier plants with which it shares the Downs. When I was studying at Tremough, I spent many weeks, in both winter and summer, surveying for Crowfoot on the west side of The Lizard, including the Grochall Track. Despite saying a few sentences ago that it is hard to miss, you do need to get your eye in. At first, I would stop at every puddle along the track looking for the plant hopefully: separating out its delicate small leaves from other vegetation could sometimes take several minutes. Eventually, though, the distinctive crowfoot shape imprinted itself firmly into my brain and I would find it quickly and with ease. As I closed my eyes at the end of a day surveying, lying pleasantly exhausted in bed, I would see crowfoot leaves floating before me.

“It grows into your soul like a favourite song”

I came to love it. I love the sight of a few of its leaves lying on the surface of a puddle as if they have been placed there, hidden in full sight for the weary traveller to find. I love it when you find a place where it has exploded, carpeting a shallow pool with exuberant abundance. I love the shape of it: the graceful smooth notches in the leaves creating the three-lobed form, the fairy-like gentle green colour. An unpretentious little plant, it grows into your soul like a favourite song.

Then, in the earliest days of spring, it blossoms. Tiny, white, yellow-centred flowers held on stiff little stalks above the leaves. I remember the first time I saw its flowers, after weeks of searching for and counting the leaves. My amazement was out of all proportion to its diminutive petals. Maybe I was brain-fuddled by all the surveying, but I think it was rather that it was so precious to see this brave flower, holding out in the still cold depths of the downlands.

Three-lobed Water Crowfoot in flower
Three-lobed Water Crowfoot in flower

Three-lobed Crowfoot is a national rarity. Its range has reduced considerably over the last few decades. It is still found in western Pembrokeshire, the New Forest, and on some sites in Devon and West Cornwall, but The Lizard remains one of its last strongholds. It is one of a few plants growing on the trackways that benefit from a low-level of disturbance, something that once would have been provided by the horse-drawn carts carrying serpentine from The Lizard’s quarries to the serpentine craft workshops (the Grochall track was one of these routes, before the toll road – now the main vehicular access to Kynance – was created in the 1930s). Disturbance reduces competition from other plants, so in order to conserve the Crowfoot, conservation managers now need to recreate similar levels of human activity, either by using grazing stock or by driving vehicles up and down the tracks – a fun thing to do, but with a serious point to it.

When I walk the Grochall Track in winter or early spring, arriving at Kynance is almost incidental. Sometimes I walk down the switchback path at the northern side of the cove, in order to feel the sand beneath my feet and admire the serpentine rocks. More often, though, I find a sheltered place to sit at the top of the cliffs and eat a sandwich, looking down on Kynance and Asparagus Island, at peace with the view and reflecting on the tranquillity of the Downs. Then I pick up my rucksack and head back along the Grochall Track, looking for more Crowfoot.

Kynance Cove

 

Getting to the Grochall track:

Travelling south through The Lizard down the A3083, at Mile End you will see Kynance Garage on your right (SW700145). Turn left immediately opposite and there is a small area on the left where you can park. Cross the A3083, taking care to avoid cars which shoot up and down the road here, and you will see the footpath starting to the left of the garage. The track (which is clearly marked on Ordnance survey maps) heads straight from here, bearing south-west until you reach the cliffs and sea and the road switchbacking down to the cove (SW685134). If you have left the car at Mile End, you will need to walk back the same way, unless you take the National Trust access (toll) road back to the A3083 and then walk north along the main road until you get back to Mile End. I would not recommend it, however – the A3083, although seldom chock-a-block full of traffic, is a straight and fast road. There is nothing to complain about in enjoying the Grochall Track twice – and it is safer.

Related walk:

I blogged before about a walk starting on the Grochall Track, but which then turns north before you get to Kynance and visits Lower Predannack and Kynance Gate prehistoric village. It was a summer walk, and I wouldn’t recommend it in winter (or summer) unless you have a good map and possibly even a compass if you are unfamiliar with The Lizard, as the paths away from the Grochall Track are not always as clear. In winter, if you think the Grochall Track is muddy, some of the other tracks leading away from it are spectacularly boggy. Sturdy walking boots are essential, and it is amazing how disorientating just a bit of mist can be. 

Find out more:

Bates, Robin and Scolding, Bill, 2002. Wild Flowers of The Lizard.  Cornwall Council, Truro (a great and accessible little book that will fit in your rucksack, written by two local experts, with good photos and available from most bookshops and gift shops in the area).

Find out more about Three-lobed Crowfoot on the Discovering the Natural Lizard website here, or on the Plantlife website here.

For anyone that wants to find out more about how low-level disturbance is of practical use in conserving Three-lobed Crowfoot and some of the other Lizard rarities, here is a link to the one scientific paper I have to my name, which explains the positive outcome of conservation work at nearby Windmill Farm. I may be the lead author (it came out of my university project study), but my co-authors are infinitely more knowledgeable: Scott A, Maclean IMD, Byfield A, Pay AR and Wilson RJ, 2012. Artificial disturbance promotes recovery of rare Mediterranean temporary pond plant species on the Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall, England. Conservation Evidence, 9, 79-86

Back to blogging…

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.

 

Clockwise from top left, the photographs are:

The view from Godolphin Hill, between Helston and Penzance.

Water falling at Kennall Vale, a Cornwall Wildlife Trust-owned reserve near Ponsanooth.

Sunset at Godrevy.

The Western Bee-fly, which is like a mini Golden Snitch, and which I found on a beautiful sunny day at Poltesco on The Lizard. Here’s a link to a column I wrote about it.

Lesser Celandine lightening up a hedgerow on a lane near where I live.

The Swollen-thighed Beetle. What a wonderful insect it is!

Kiefferia pericarpiicola gall growing on Wild Carrot.

Kehelland Apple Day – lots of Cornish varieties of scrumptious apples, music and plenty of good fun.

Two Shield Bugs having a romantic moment in my garden.

A Silver-studded Blue butterfly, photographed on a wonderful day with Cornwall Butterfly Conservation near Godrevy.

Here’s hoping for plenty more special moments in 2016.

A short walk in Penrose

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Well, it’s still cold, but the sun came out for a time here in Cornwall over Easter weekend. Of course, this is the weekend I get a streaming cold and cough palaver, and have no energy to go anywhere!

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Never mind – I had to go into Helston for some medicine, so rather than going back to crawl under my duvet at home straight away, I decided to go for a short walk through part of Penrose, near Helston. This is one of my favourite places in Cornwall, but normally I park in the National Trust car park about half way down the road to Porthleven, and make my way through the Penrose Estate down towards the sea (see my first ever post here on this blog about the wonderful Loe Bar!). But today I was only up for a short stroll, so I parked opposite the Boating Lake and had a wander through the Penrose Amenity Area.

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After a more open grassy area by the side of the Cober the way takes you into wet willow woodland, full of the signs of spring. There are so many small winding paths, I found myself meandering about happily without getting very far at all, as I kept doubling back on myself, attracted by this flower or those steps or that clump of fungi, or meeting and greeting friendly dogs and their owners. The runny nose and sore throat was almost forgotten!

Stitchwort with its delicately divided petals
Stitchwort with its delicately divided petals
Looking like its own name - navelwort.
Looking like its own name – navelwort.
One of the many winding paths...
One of the many winding paths…

How nice it was to find a bit of nature ‘on the doorstep’. There may not have been the sweeping views of the Lizard or the North Coast, but sometimes you just need something a bit more close to home and comforting…

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Rolling waves, baffling birds and a surfing seal…an afternoon at Polly Joke

DSCF0657_edited-1Just five miles from Newquay. Enjoyed by surfers and dog walkers and those wanting an uncrowded beach walk. Worth a visit. No toilets or cafe. That’s the kind of information you get if you do an internet search for Polly Joke.

To say that this is underestimating the call and stark beauty of this small Cornish beach is itself an understatement. I visited a couple of weeks ago with two good friends, one of whom had been visiting the beach since a child, and the other for many years, whereas for me it was my first time. And yet for each of us there were new things to find, fresh wonders to experience, a sense of apartness from the stresses of everyday life.

Polly Joke
Land around Polly Joke (Photo credit: NickDeluxe)

We parked in the small National Trust car park nearby (turn off the road at the sign for Treago Farm), or you can park at West Pentire, a mile away. The National Trust owns the land around the bay, Cubert Common, which definitely sounds worth a ‘spring flower’ explore. But for now, on a brisk early-year day, you should go through the gate and head down the river valley towards the beach.

Polly Joke is derived from Porth Joke. A Google search turns up that ‘Joke’ either means ‘chough’ or, and perhaps more likely, that the name comes from the old Cornish words for Jackdaw Cove – Pol-Lejouack. We didn’t see either of these corvids – choughs (not likely!) or jackdaws (more possible) – but we saw plenty else.

You do in fact have to look hard. Isn’t it amazing how many creatures have adapted to merge into the background as much as possible. You have to be pretty alert and able to look beyond the “obvious” to see what is really lying there before your eyes. Literally lying there, in the case of one immature seal. Or rock. Until it hmmphed and lifted its back flippers to us. Definitely a seal.

Seal masquerading as a rock (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Seal masquerading as a rock (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)

We also had to work hard to spot this bird hacking away at mussels on a rock. None of us being experienced birders, we only sorted later that it was a Turnstone. Can you spot it?

Turnstone attacking mussels (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Turnstone attacking mussels (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

And what about the surfing seal of the title of this post? Ecological ‘received wisdom’ is that animals do nothing energetic that isn’t focussed on survival gain. And yet we do find animals doing things for no obvious reason. For quite a while we watched an adult seal surfing, seeking out the decent waves, riding them into shore, and then repeating the show over and over again. One of us had in fact been there the day before, surfing alongside (probably) the same seal. It was hard to believe the seal was doing this for any reason other than sheer delighted fun.

Kestrel: Polly Joke (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Kestrel: Polly Joke (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

We ourselves had a bit of fun with a kestrel, that swooped over our heads and then hid itself in the cliff side. Poised with cameras, we waited for it to take off again, dreaming of an amazing in-flight shot. Not to be! It took off before we were ready, but we still enjoyed the drama and grace as it soared away. Here’s a rather fuzzy shot of it watching us from the cliffs.

Caves at Polly Joke (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Cave at Polly Joke (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

The beach itself is sandy, full of shells and small stones. Caves beckon, and ripples in the sand lead you on towards the northern Cornish sea.  I studied geology a few years ago, and one of the things I loved best was to find evidence of old beaches in the geological record – shell lines in rock faces, ripples preserved in rocks, cross-bedding reflecting the ebb and flow of tides. DSCF0660_edited-1

Here at Polly Joke those sand ripples are here and now – no different in form from those we can examine in rocks from millennia ago. We cannot escape our connection with the past – we are part of it, and it has structured our very being. Do not ever think we are separate from nature. It was then, it is now, and it is our future. We are as much a part of it as is the seal, the turnstone, the kestrel, the sea and the sand.

At Polly Joke, or Porth Joke, the Bay of the Jackdaw, or wherever, we are called to remember that.

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Protecting our Cornish seas – things we can 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.

Polly Joke beach (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Polly Joke beach (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

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.

Coverack harbour (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Coverack harbour (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

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)
English: Basking Shark Dursey Sound
Basking Shark (Photo credit: Wikipedia) 
  • 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.

Surfing at St Ives (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Surfing at St Ives (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

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!

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Working together for nature

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.

Coverack Harbour on the east coast of the Lizard. Photo credit: Amanda Scott

A great example where I’m proved wrong in Cornwall is the “Linking the Lizard” project. Part of Cornwall Wildlife Trust‘s Living Landscapes initiative, the Trust is working in partnership with the National Farmers Union, Natural England, the National Trust, and Cornwall Area of Outstanding National Beauty to deliver changes across the landscape that will benefit both wildlife and those who live and work there on the land and sea by supporting sustainable business, agriculture and tourism. Wildlife will gain from those involved being able to work across boundaries to link habitats and species. I’ll be watching the project develop with interest!

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.

Around St. Agnes in the rain

Yesterday, I should have been staying at home doing some work, but the sun was shining, and what’s a person to do!

View from St. Agnes Beacon (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)

I decided to explore somewhere new but not too far, so I threw my walking boots in the car and headed off to St. Agnes on the north coast.  First I negotiated the one-way system in the village, stopped off at a local shop for crisps and chocolate, and then drove to near St. Agnes Head, parked, pulled on several layers of clothing and set off on the South West Coast Path.

English: Tubby's Head & Chapel Porth Walking t...
Tubby’s Head & Chapel Porth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The view was stunning, the sea a beautiful greeney-blue, and the path stony but level-ish. I quickly arrived at the intriguingly named Tubby’s Head, and sat for a few moments on a bench, in the seat of which there was fixed a small brass plaque: “June Claydon, Resting in Peace by the Sea, July 1992“. I wondered who June was.  I thought of her, maybe sitting on this bench in this same spot, doing pretty much the same as me, gazing out to sea and enjoying the crisp air on her skin. It is wonderful how you can be touched by the life of someone you know nothing about, simply because you occupy the same space, maybe feeling similar things, albeit in a different time.

Towanroath Mine Engine House, nr. St. Agnes, Cornwall (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)

You may already have noticed a discrepancy between the heading of this post and my reference to the sun in the opening paragraph. Well, by this, paragraph 4, the discrepancy disappears. Yes, from this point it started to drizzle, though it fortunately never became a downpour! Never mind, I continued on to admire the industrial archaeology of the Wheal Coates Tin Mine and Towanroath mine engine house, and then on to join the dog walkers and their happy dogs on Chapel Porth Beach.

After this I turned inland up Chapel Coombe, walking through woods on a muddy path alongside a stream. The sea was forgotten, and I was in a world of trees, farmland and  woodland birds until, emerging on to an upward track, I finally reached the top of St. Agnes Beacon. What a view! Wet and cold, but still…The heathland here is an important habitat, looked after by the National Trust. I was a little late in the year for the full heather display, but some Bell Heather was still flowering, its purple contrasting with the vibrant yellow gorse. A bird of prey hovered – what did it see? A vole or mouse (prey)? A pile of stones on top of the hill, meaningless to it? A wet human (not particularly interesting to your average raptor!)?

English: Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) The tip ...
Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After this, the weather was getting the better of me, so I headed back to the coast, enjoying the (very distant!) sun shining through breaks in the clouds lighting up the horizon, and then walked along the cliffs and back to my car.

As I drove home, I thought again about June Claydon. I’d like to think that, when my time comes, Cornwall will be enough my home, and enough people will think well of me, that there will be a bench here for me, too.

You can find a similar walk to mine, plus others, at The St. Agnes Forum Website.

And I’d love to hear from anyone who knows who June Claydon was.