Re-wetting and slowing the flow on Holne Moor

Went on a long walk yesterday around Holne Moor with one of the owners of the Common, Kevin Cox. It was a glorious day weather-wise and Kevin showed me some of the works that have recently been carried out as part of the Natural Flood Management project based around the Mardle and some of the Upstream Thinking interventions. Some of the works have been carried out by contractors and some have been implemented by the Holne Moor Commoners. Here are a few photographs to give you an indication of what has been carried out.

Willow dams installed in a former tin mining gulley
Willow sticks planted to create small areas of new woodland
Woody dams in a gurt
Timber dams
Looking down upon a re-wetted area of valley mire – I remember standing at that mire a couple of years ago with a couple of Holne Moor Commoners discussing the possibility of re-wetting this mire!
Recently installed dams slowing the flow and re-wetting the mire
This is what valley mires could look like in the future

An uplifting day, augmented by my first ever adder sighting on Dartmoor and a fly past from a male Emperor Moth.

Congratulations to all involved with this project, I know it has not been an easy path to this point but these co-operative works should act as an exemplar demonstration of what can be achieved to all across the moor.

Gorse fire near Jurston

I was just thinking yesterday that I was surprised that Dartmoor hadn’t seen a wildfire in this recent period of tinder dry weather and then last night ……..

So today I decided to go and have a look at the site. Compared to the February fire which I wrote about here this was a gorse fire and was much smaller. It would appear that the fire service were able to access the area as it is by a road and were able to contain it. Good work. I would estimate that this fire covered an area of around 4-5 hectares.

You can clearly see the blackened remains of gorse bushes and purple moor grass – referred to on Dartmoor, after its Latin name, as Molinia. This photograph is looking south towards Hameldown.

The conditions have been very dry in recent weeks and there was a reasonably cold winter from the north last night. Such a combination dries out the vegetation and makes it very vulnerable to combustion.

This is what the vegetation looks like immediately adjacent to the fire site, a mix of European Gorse and Western Gorse, interspersed this the dry lanky white leaves of Molinia. This area also contained quite a lot of heather bushes (Calluna vulgaris). The hill-farmers on Dartmoor describe vegetation like this as a huge ‘fuel load’.

A fire like this occurring in late April is unfortunate as many birds will have started to breed and many less mobile animals such as amphibians and reptiles are not quick enough to escape, I did find a dead frog but nothing else. Dartmoor was lucky last night, this fire could have been much more extensive had it been in an inaccessible location like the last one near Tavy Cleave.

An unfortunate incident but not a disaster in my view, given the rain today, I suspect fresh growth in the fire site will quickly emerge as many of the plants found here are fire resistant. It is also early in the breeding season so perhaps some species can try again.

The cause of this fire remains a mystery, I have seen some speculation that it might have been a portable BBQ as the tell tale scorch marks were found nearby on some short grass, maybe, but it was pretty chilly last night in Exeter, and it would have been even chillier at Jurston Cross – not ideal weather for a BBQ in my opinion!

With the rest of spring and summer ahead of us, more ‘wildfires’ on Dartmoor are a real concern so it is good to see that the DNPA are clearly warning the public of the risks and pointing out that open fires and BBQs on Dartmoor are prohibited ………..

Photo by Charlie Elder

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.