Who is ruining one of Lydford Gorge’s gate posts?

When I was over at Lydford Gorge on Tuesday this week one of our Rangers – Steve Phillips showed me a gate post in the car park and asked what was responsible for the rather large pile of sawdust that was building up.

Digger wasp postSo here is the post and the pile of sawdust – right by the back entrance into the cafe

Digger wasp post coinI placed a £2 coin to give a sense of scale – that’s rather a lot of sawdust!

Digger waspI then stood around for 5 minutes to wait for the culprit to emerge – eventually I managed to get this photo of this small wasp

Wasps are in an order called the Hymenoptera and there are rather a lot of different species and its not a group that I would consider myself very expert in so I sent the pictures to my friend John Walter who is much more expert with wasps than I am – John is also the author of the excellent must have book The Wildlife of Dartmoor which he co-authored with Norman Baldock – see here for details.

The wasp it turns out is a digger wasp in the genus Ectemnius – from the photo it is not possible to be exact about the species but John reckons it is probably Ectemnius lituratus – see the link here to get an idea about its lifecycle, status, distribution and habitats. The link also contains some much better photos of the wasp than mine above – I only had a compact camera with me – not ideal for macro photography!

 In essence Ectemnius is a solitary wasp – so unlike the ‘wasps’ we are all familiar with which are social wasps i.e. dozens of wasps live in the nest – it lives on its own – one female looks after her brood and catches prey on her own to feed them. She catches little flies which she brings back to feed her larvae in the nest.

The thing that is so striking about this, is how industrious this little wasp is – the animal is small – less than 1/2″ yet is has excavated the rotten post and produced quite a pile of sawdust as well as nipping in and out of the nest all summer long catching prey for her offspring.

For me this little digger wasp story exemplifies what I love about nature – there is always something new to find out,  usually the stories are pretty amazing and show what Herculean efforts animals go to in order to live and prosper on the earth.

We will leave Ectemnius to finish her lifecycle this year but I fear we have a rotten post which will need replacing over the winter!



Blackberries and sloes in July

It is the last day of July and the countryside seems to be filling up with berries. Berries and other natural fruits are important food sources for birds and mammals so it is good to see the annual cycle in full flow.

Dark blackberries in July whilst not exceptional is however rather unusual. We would normally expect to see hedges full of blackberries in September. The old folklore always said never pick blackberries after Michaelmas (11th October) – I can’t see that being a problem this year – they will all have long gone by then.

BlackberryBlackberries turning from green through red and into black

SloeSloes in July

Perhaps even more unusual is the appearance of sloes on our blackthorn trees – we wouldn’t expect to see these until September / October and the sloe gin maker’s advice is never pick sloes until after the first frosts.

I guess these very early fruits are a consequence of the mild winter and the hot spring and summer – maybe it is also another signing our our changing climate. Whatever the causes I fear a bit for our wildlife which relies on these fruits as they prepare for the autumn and winter. What will the redwings and fieldfares eat when they return from the north and what will dormice eat as they prepare for hibernation?

The cinnabar moth – using poisons to survive

In yesterday’s blog I was talking about the grey dagger caterpillar and how it used its bright yellow colours to deter predators from eating it. The predators have associated the colour yellow with poison. In the case of the grey dagger it is exploiting this fact as the caterpillar itself is not poisonous.

However one of our commonest moth – the day flying cinnabar (named as the reddish mineral cinnabar) has a caterpillar which is black and yellow/orange and is indeed poisonous.

Cinnabar caterpillar 1The cinnabar moth caterpillar

Cinnabar caterpillar 2

Most people will have seen cinnabar moths caterpillars as they are common and feed on ragwort. Ragwort contains poisonous alkaloids which most other herbivores avoid – however the cinnabar is able to eat the ragwort without effect. It then incorporates the poison in its own body making it dangerous to predators. These caterpillars are therefore avoided and by association so are other species such as the grey dagger.

Cinnabar 1Here is the adult cinnabar moth – one of our most familiar summer animals.

Grey Dagger – chalk and cheese

Its interesting to speculate why the larvae and adults of various species are so very different. Take this species of moth – the grey dagger. A brightly coloured caterpillar and a rather sombre adult. I can only speculate on the reasons but of course evolution knows the answer!

Grey dagger caterpillar 1The brightly coloured hairy yellow and orange caterpillar of the grey dagger on elm.

Grey dagger caterpillar 2Maybe being hairy makes the caterpillar unappealing to lots of small birds whilst the orange and yellow colours send warning messages of danger?

Grey_dagger cropThe adult is grey with the black streak – the black marking is the ‘dagger’

Grey dagger2Perhaps on a lichen covered tree the grey dagger blends in with its background making it invisible to predators?

Thanks to Steve Brayshaw for sending me a couple of grey dagger adult photos from Northamptonshire.

Aira Force – the Lydford Gorge of the Lake District

I had heard a lot about Aira Force before I visited it – indeed a team from the Lakes visited Lydford Gorge last year because of the similarities and they wanted to compare and contrast. On my visit to the Lakes it was my chance to return the compliment and do the same exercise. Yes they are both rather similar but are also rather different if that makes sense! Being in the Lake District the site gets many more visitors than Lydford Gorge but otherwise very comparable.

Aira Force is located on the banks of Ullswater and like Lydford Gorge was visited by the intrepid Victorians in search of natural wonders. The spirit of place statement for Aira Force says ‘A showcase for the power and beauty of nature, a place to escape the ordinary. Aira Force is much more than an impressive waterfall. Take time to weave your way from the water’s edge to fell top and you’ll also find champion trees, rare wildlife, woodland glades, perfect picnic spots, pebble beaches and beautiful views‘. Well – you wouldn’t have to change many words to make that a valedictory about Lydford Gorge.

Aira Falls 3There are water filled gorges

Aira Falls 5Steps!

Aira Falls 4Pools

Aira Falls 6

And of course a waterfall – not as high as the White Lady Waterfall and nothing like the Devil’s Cauldron but many of its own features to make up for that

Tababus sudeticus 4

And impressive wildlife – like this Giant Dark Horsefly (Tabanus sudectus)

Aira Falls 1The team have also produced a great guide map showing all the options for walking

Aira Falls 2As well as special features and other nearby places to visit

A great morning out – if you are in the Lakes why not compare and contrast with Lydford Gorge for yourself?

I am assuming you have been to Lydford Gorge? N0? Well I recommend you do that too!

Finally I guess if you are from the Lakes you might see things differently? Lydford Gorge is the Aira Force of Dartmoor!

Allan Bank – Grasmere – how refreshing

On our recent trip ‘up north’ we dropped in at Allan Bank in Grasmere. Now I am well aware that sharing one’s holiday photos is fraught with disaster …. but bear with me on this one there is a point to it!

Allan Bank 6The view from Allan Bank down to Grasmere

This National Trust property is littered with history – building a new house and blocking someone’s view, the home to one of our greatest poets and his literary friends, the spiritual home to the NT itself and the opening up of the place after a nearly catastrophic fire.

Allan Bank was built in 1805-08 by John Crump and by doing so he ‘ruined’ the view for William Wordsworth who lived just down the road in Dove Cottage. Wordsworth called the house as it was built ‘a temple of abomination’! In 1808 the Wordsworths moved into Allan Bank and by all accounts he warmed a little to the building. Wordsworth lived there for many years hosted other 17th century luminaries such as Coleridge and De Quincy.

Later in its history Canon Rawnsley moved in and in 1895 formed the National Trust with Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter – part of their reason for this was the proposed sale of an island in Grasmere. upon his death Rawnsley bequeathed Allan Bank to the National Trust. His wife Eleanor  lived there until 1951. The house then became a family home providing no access to the public but in 2010 the NT carried out a major building project to upgrade the roof and the wiring only for this to be unravelled by an extensive fire in 2011 (I remember hearing about this on the news at the time).

In 2012 the Trust opened Allan Bank to the public for the first time and it was done in a way that was very un-Trust-like – ‘it is warm and homely despite being left with the bare bones showing’. You can read a fuller account of the Allan Bank story on the Grasmere Village blog here.

Allan Bank 2Approaching the property through the tunnel

Allan Bank 3The billiard room looks like a chapel and is now home to ‘50 Things to do before yo are 11 3/4!

Allan Bank 1Evidence of the 2011 fire has not been hidden away. Had the Trust decided not to re-open the property until all the damage had been completely repaired it may never have opened!

Allan Bank 4A room for typing and writing – bring on the next Wordsworth. Each room has a theme.

Allan Bank 5The Heaton Cooper art room (my favourite Lake District artist)- a place to paint while you visit. See here for a blog showing visitor’s contributions

Allan Bank 9Allan Bank is also home to the Hopkinson and Chorley Mountaineering library.

Allan Bank 8Glorious views

Allan Bank 10Rawnsley reluctantly poses for a photo!

Allan Bank 7How novel – and yes I did see a red squirrel

Allan Bank 11So where does Allan Bank go next? – you tell us

I can really recommend Allan Bank as a place to visit if you are ever up in the Lake District – it is a unique experience and one I don’t think you will be disappointed by. Recommend it too if you work for the Trust as well – lots to learn from here.


Beasts from the North

During my trip to the Scottish Highlands and the Lake District I managed to take some photos of some insects I have never seen before.

Tababus sudeticus 4

This is the dark giant horsefly Tabanus sudeticus – a female nearly an inch long! Fortunately it prefers the blood of cattle and horses to people. Saw one individual at Castle Urquart on Loch Ness and this one was taken on the National Trust property Aira Falls beside Ullswater.

Tababus sudeticus 1Substantially bigger than the horseflies (normally Tabanus bromius and autumnalis) that I have seen before

Tabanus sudeticusIt has been recorded in Devon and on Dartmoor but I have never seen it.

You might also be interested in Matthew Oates’ article on biting flies – see here!

Trichius fasciata 1Second up is a beetle – one of the chafers Trichius fasciatus – known also as the bee beetle or bee chafer. Its one of those animals you see in the books because it is so spectacular – finally I have seen one in the wild. Saw it at Loch Achilty, north west of Inverness in the Highlands. A Forestry Commission site.

Trichius fasciata 4A really striking beetle with long brown hairs on the thorax.

Trichius fasciatusOnly really recorded in the UK in the Highlands and Wales.

Tachina grossa 4

Finally another fly and another big species – its called Tachina grossa – or the yellow faced fly. It is very striking and large – nearly 3/4 inch long.

Tachina grossa 1The female lays here eggs on the larvae of other insect larvae – often an oak eggar moth – which the hatched maggots then devour and kill!

Tachina grossaA more cosmopolitan species – again on Devon and Dartmoor – one to look out for – unmistakable.