Broad-banded Nomad bee in my garden!

Whenever the sun came out yesterday I was out in my garden in Exeter looking for bees and other wildlife. There were a couple of Nomad bees hawking over my lawn and I managed to get some reasonable photographs of them. Nomad bees are cleptoparasites, they lay their eggs in the nest cells of other bee species and their larvae feed off the host bees pollen stores (and the larvae / egg) meant for their own off-spring.

At first glance I thought it was Nomada flava, the Flavous Nomad Bee but it didn’t look quite right, it looked much more like Nomada signata, the Broad-banded Nomad Bee. I have a list of Devon bees and that suggested that N. signata was now extinct in the county. So I posted the pictures on Twitter, asked the question and tagged in Steven Falk, the bee expert and author of the excellent Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland.

All rather unexpected and exciting! I’ve now checked the National Biodiversity Network and see that the species was recorded from the Cullompton area in 2020. Very possible that this little is undergoing a range expansion, possibly as the result of climate change.

It is / was a pretty scarce species and it parasitises the nests of the common bee Andrena fulva, the Tawny Mining Bee which is a resident in my garden.

In recent years I have started managing my lawn as a mini hay meadow, letting it grow until around September when I then cut it. As a result it has a lot of wild flowers and quite a few bees!

There is Steven’s book if you haven’t seen it and are interested in identifying bees – it is excellent.

Here are a couple of full size images on Nomada signata, the Broad-banded Nomad Bee.

Skylarks with Rosie

I’ve just finished reading the recently published new book by Stephen Moss – ‘Skylarks with Rosie – a Somerset Spring’. It is a very readable and enjoyable book all about his experiences with wildlife during the first lockdown in his home patch in the Somerset Levels.

I have known Stephen (who is a film maker and an author), on and off for nearly 20 years, I first met him when he and Bill Oddie came to Wicken Fen to make a 30 minute documentary on Britain’s oldest nature reserve, which at the time I was the manager of. My most distinct memory of that encounter was demonstrating how to use a ‘pooter’ – a piece on entomological equipment used to capture small insects – you hover a rubber tube over the said insect and then inhale which sucks the creature into a tube where it can be identified before being released. On this occasion, for some inexplicable reason I pooted a number of Red Ants and as a result ended up with a lung full of stinging formic acid – school boy error but made for good TV!

Skylarks with Rosie (Rosie is Stephen’s dog), gives a lovely account of his daily walks and cycle rides around the area where he lives – his patch, in birding speak. He describes the return of migrant birds, gives accounts of their lifestyles, where they have returned from and so much more from an ecological perspective. Whilst this book is about wildlife, particularly birds, it is about so much more and therefore has a much wider appeal.

Whether you are really into wildlife like myself and Stephen or whether you just like the outdoors, this book takes you through so many of the emotions we felt for the 13 weeks last spring – staring on the 23rd March. I focused on moths whilst Stephen focused on birds, but interspersed with all of that was the politics … the mixed messaging … Stay Alert …. Cummings …. Black Lives Matter ….. #bekind …. Marcus Rashford …. etc, Moss covers all of these aspects in a fairly brutal but very fair and accurate way. It brings the memories, both good and bad, flooding back.

He weaves in the biodiversity crisis we face along with the impending climate disaster but there are lots of moments of hope – how so many more people connected with nature during lockdown, how many more young people are showing a concern for nature and environmental matters. I loved this book and perhaps if I hadn’t spent so much time drinking Negronis I might I have penned something similar based on my Devon moth experiences ….. and with hindsight I wish I had ….

Can really recommend this book …. it is not a book for nature nuts … it’s a book for you, if you care about your world, your patch and the future. Perhaps the best thing about reading it now, is that everything from a wildlife perspective that it describes is about to start happening now …. my favourite time of the year …. swallows, cuckoos, warblers, butterflies and sunshine. The main message of the book is … connect with nature, it will make you smile, be happier and be less stressed in these on-going troublesome times. Couldn’t agree more.

And another fabulous Carry Akroyd cover painting!

I guess the only thing that let’s the book down is that it is set in Somerset and not Gloucestershire.

Dartmoor Fire 2

Some impacts of last week’s Dartmoor fire are beginning to emerge. I haven’t been there yet but some academics and fire experts have.

Firstly – this estimate of the extent of the fire was published yesterday

And then these series of images appear on Andy Elliot’s twitter feed. Note the calculation of the area via ground truthing!

I’m looking forward at some point to having a look too, but first indications appear to suggest that the peat and Sphagna have not been detrimentally impacted.

Patrick Laurie and his book Native

I’ve attended a webinar hosted by the National Library of Scotland which featured Patrick Laurie talking about and reading from his recently published book ‘Native – life in a vanishing landscape’

His presentation oozed of his pride about being born and bred in Galloway, portrayed a deep and personal sense of place and of course featured his beloved Riggit Galloway cattle. He discussed how the traditional ways of cattle hill-farming were disappearing under a further onslaught of commercial forestry. He described how he was just trying to live the life that was handed down to by his parents, and their parent before and their parent before that. He made the case for using hill cattle as a conservation grazer and how they could work hand in hand to conserve the curlew and other species.

This quote is one of my favourite pieces of his writing and it was brilliant to hear him read it out. I’ve even used this quote in my PhD!

Sheep and cows used to work beautifully together. The two overlap in a steady rhythm of mutual back-scratching, and one supports the other. Cattle like long grass and sheep prefer it short. Cows do the heavy lifting and sheep follow up with the details. If you can strike the balance, the two will tackle the grass as it comes and keep the land in a choppy, buzzing balance.

Remove the cows, and the sheep are restricted. They don’t have the clout to punch into thick grass, and they are shut out of the bracken. They focus their attention on the easy and accessible and hammer these into a billiard table. There is nothing left for a curlew’s eggs. Other places are harder to reach, and they grow rank and tall without any grazing. The grass stands above your head, and then it’s too rank for a curlew to land. The place falls oddly still.

.I really recommend you read this book if you are interested in our uplands and how farming with cattle can make conservation happen.

The Dartmoor Fire – an inevitable event

I’m sitting in Exeter, I’m nowhere near Dartmoor, I’m not really sure where the fire actually is, I don’t how it started, but am I surprised? Ok, yes, I’m surprised it was last night, because I thought Dartmoor was covered in snow, but apparently it is not, however this was an event which has been waiting to happen for many years.

There are those who will tell you that Dartmoor is overgrazed and as a result there is little wildlife left, some even described it as sheep-wrecked. Without doubt in the 1980s and 1990s grazing pressures from sheep and cattle did get out of hand, far too many animals overgrazing the vegetation, reducing the abundance of heather, poaching the peat, generally making a mess – all driven by Government-funded subsidies – the so-called headage payments, where the more animals you pastured on the Commons, the more money you received as a hill-farmer.

Well, that era had to be ended and from 1995 schemes, initially the Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme (ESA), were brought in to reduce the grazing pressure and limit the frequency and extent of swaling (moorland burning) activities. I haven’t spoken to a Dartmoor hill-farmer who said everything in the 80s and 90s was fine and nothing needed to change. However, the specific farming prescriptions that were introduced with the ESA, whilst popular with conservationists, were very contested and unpopular with Dartmoor’s hill-farmers. Cattle and sheep numbers were cut by 50% and more in some cases, cattle were prohibited from over-wintering on the Commons and swaling areas were reduced to 2ha in extent. These changes were well intentioned and plausible at the time but led to a series of unintended consequences.

The reduction in stock numbers led to a reduction in the grazing pressure, however the banning of the over-winter of cattle changed the nature of hill-farming on Dartmoor – sheds had to be built to house the cattle from the end of October, which meant that the hardy moorland cattle became soft and after that when bad weather rolled in, they left their lears early (their ancestral places on their Common) and headed for their Home farms. The economics for hill-farmers of keeping hill cattle collapsed as costs increased and as a result cattle numbers reduced further still.

Then in 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease massively impacted Dartmoor and many herds were culled and a season’s grazing was missed. This allowed the vegetation to really get away, in particular a grass known as Purple Moor Grass, also known by its Latin name as Molinia. This species will be well known to Dartmoor’s high moor walkers as it forms large tussocks, sometimes referred to as ‘babies’ heads’ which is extremely difficult and arduous to walk through. Today there are very extensive (thousands of hectares) of un-grazed or undergrazed Molinia. I call it the Molinia jungle and it seems to me that each year it expands in its extent.

Molinia is a palatable grass between May and July for cattle, after that it doesn’t get eaten and the sheep hate it and avoid areas dominated by it. The cattle, particularly Galloways have attracted an additional payment (as a rare breed) and hill-farmers have favoured cattle over ponies and as a result pony numbers have declined significantly. Finally, Dartmoor is subject to high levels of atmospheric pollution from nitrogen compounds (because it rains a lot) and that combined with climate change has favoured the growth of Molinia. In other drier areas, the same combination of factors has led to an increase in the abundance of gorse. 

All the hill-farmers I have spoken to talk about the ‘fuel load’ on the moor and by that they mean the dead Molinia leaves and the tall straggly gorse. When the Molinia and the gorse are dry, they become very flammable. The time when hill-farmers prefer to swale (a legal activity which burns gorse on peats which are less than 40cm deep) is when there are cold dry winds from the east, such conditions allow the gorse to be effectively burnt off and thus provide new fresh areas of palatable grasses for their livestock.

The Molinia jungle tends to grow on peat which is greater than 40cm in depth and here swaling is quite rightly no longer permitted as burning on deep peats can easily damage the Sphagnum mosses. The situation is further complicated by the fact that over the centuries much of Dartmoor’s blanket bog has been drained, for peat cutting for example, and as a result it is no longer hydrologically functional and has converted itself into wet heath rather than blanket bog, this is the place where the Molinia flourishes and expands making the Molinia jungle grow in extent.

Last night a series of weather conditions combined: a strong, cold, dry wind from the east / south east, very low temperatures which froze the peat surface, the wet conditions of the moor were eliminated by the ice and the cold wind dried out the Molinia and the gorse, the perfect conditions for a large fire. I have no idea how the fire was started but it is unlikely it was a spontaneous event! Interesting to note that last week under similar conditions a Cornwall Wildlife Trust nature reserve went up in flames and last night there were also moorland fires on Bodmin Moor and on Exmoor.

With such a fuel load on Dartmoor, it was an ‘accident’ waiting to happen. With the parlous nature of hill-farm economics, the reduction of stock numbers, particularly cattle and ponies, it is difficult to see how this fire will be the last. And to those who suggest that re-wilding is the answer, the Molinia jungle is what 25 years of re-wilding on Dartmoor’s wet heaths looks like. Given time (decades) the degraded deep peat soils will hopefully recover and additional funding will be made available to re-wet areas, but that option is eye-wateringly expensive on Dartmoor as around 50% of the costs are required to remove unexploded military ordnance …… they are no easy, cheap or quick fixes.

My hope is that as the ground was frozen this was a surface burn and as a result the peat is largely unaffected. Hopefully one day I will get a chance to go and have a look.