Monday, 25 September 2017

Another visit to Borough Hill

Borough Hill, to the immediate east of Daventry, dominates the surrounding landscape and it is not surprising that an Iron Age hill fort existed here. What is surprising is that remains of two of these forts have been unearthed. That same elevated position also made it ideal for the siting of a BBC transmitting station in 1925.
A few traces of these early installations remain but yesterday my daughter Jacqui accompanied Chris and me for a straightforward walk. Bing, Jacqui's newly-acquired puppy, helped with any sniffing problems. 
It was late in the season for much of a floral display on this acid grassland, but Ladies Bedstraw, Galium verum, with its rather straggling, golden-yellow, honey-scented flowers was still plentiful. It was once gathered and used for stuffing bedding. It would eventually be burned and it is suspected that fleas and bed-bugs disliked the experience. The species is a food plant, along with species of Willow Herb, for caterpillars of the Elephant Hawk Moth.
Ladies Bedstraw flowers are honey-scented.  The dried plants smell of
new-mown hay. Borough Hill, Daventry. 24 September, 2017
Yellow is clearly the fashionable colour this season and among the grass were many specimens of Hawk's-beards. These, along with Hawkbits and Cat's-ears, can be tricky but in fact the species present in some quantity was the Beaked Hawk's-beard, Crepis vesicaria.
Beaked Hawk's-beard is distinctive. Borough Hill, Daventry.
24 September, 2017


It is easy to recognise for the outer 'petals' are quite distinctive with their orange-red outer stripes and these can be seen even in a poor photograph.
There are usually a few yellow flowers too on gorse. It grows well on Borough Hill but yesterday its flowers were scarce. What was present however was a specimen of the Gorse Shieldbug, Piezodorus lituratus.
Piezodorus lituratus is one of our largest shieldbugs. Borough Hill, Daventry.
24 September, 2017
It was quite a dark example and it is clearly taking on the brown coloration which will see it through the winter. Although it is most likely to be seen on gorse it may also be seen on broom and, occasionally, laburnum.
Bordering the hill at the north and north-east margins are some fine trees: Sweet Chestnut, Sycamore and Larch are present but none of the trees is a native to Britain. All three are however native to the European mainland and have become well naturalised in some areas. 
Larch is unusual among conifers in being deciduous in habit. It is, to my mind, a very graceful tree and its small cones may persist for several years. Japanese Larch is widely planted but those at Borough Hill were European Larches, Larix decidua.
This European Larch will seen be losing its soft needles.
24 September, 2017
The needles of the larch were still intact but, despite the glorious weather, foliage elsewhere was showing the onset of autumn.
A hawthorn bush had assumed a lovely pinkish colour and, although leaves were yet to fall, that stage was clearly imminent.
A closer look at some of the leaves showed them to be more of a copper-red and the shape of those in the second picture suggested the shrub was Common Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna.
Well, That was yesterday but today is today and the rain is again pouring down. We were lucky on our walk because it has been a pretty miserable September so far.





Friday, 22 September 2017

God bless the hogweed...

...and all who sail in her.
I visited Woodford Halse earlier today for a much-needed tonsorial operation in the form of a Number 4 back and sides.  My return to Daventry was via back roads and, on a whim,  I stopped to examine the Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, still flowering in some profusion at the roadside.
Hogweed is one of the most familiar of our roadside plants. Near Woodford
 Halse, Northants. 22 September, 2017


For entomologists it is an extremely important plant, the broad umbels each acting as a dinner table for insects of several orders. In fact around fifty of the plant's visitors contain the words heraclei or heraclea in their specific epithets [Ref 1]. We take hogweed for granted yet, apart from these attendant insects it is of interest in other ways. For example, in the early years of the 20th Century experiments were conducted to extract sugar from the stems. They were not effective with 40 pounds of stems only yielding about one pound of sugar[Ref 2]. Nevertheless it is a very nutritious plant once fed to pigs, hence the common name, and in winter the young 'spears' may be cooked like broccoli.
Its close relative, the infamous Giant Hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, is well-known for causing photo-dermatitis when handled, making the skin extremely sensitive to light and resulting in damage similar to burns and sometimes causing serious scarring. What is less well-known is that similar, though less severe, damage can result from handling hogweed. As children we would use the hollow stems of this plant as peashooters as an alternative to Cow Parsley. How we got away without damaged lips is a mystery.
A few other plants were in flower including dandelion. It is well known as a diuretic with one of its of names being Piss-in-the-bed (in French Pis-en-lit) but this does not bother its numerous insect visitors such as this bee, delightful in its creamy fur tippet. Bees aren't my field but I suspect it is an Ashy Mining Bee, Andrena cineraria. 



There cannot be a scintilla of doubt about the identity of pair of insects I observed mating in the grass nearby. Roesel's Bush-cricket, Metrioptera roeselii was, until the early 20th Century found only in small regions of south-east England but in recent decades it has spread rapidly to become rather common further north and west. The U-shaped creamy border to the thorax is very distinctive. It is sometimes called Rousel's Bush-cricket.

Roesel's Bush-crickets in copula. Near Woodford Halse, Northants.
22 September, 2017
Crickets belong to an order of insects called the Orthoptera. It is a very large order but the only other member I found today was a Meadow Grasshopper, Chorthippus parallelus. With the disappearance of meadows across Britain it is, although still common, far less widespread than it was prior to World War Two.

So, what started off as a brief pause guided by impulse (and the need to eat my packed lunch) turned out to be a very productive stop of an hour or so. Oh dear, yet more incineration of midnight oil beckons as I begin to identify my specimens.




References


1.  Wright, J (2016) A Natural History of the Hedgerow   Profile Books, London.


2. Harley, M (2016) Wonderful Weeds   Papadakis Books



Thursday, 21 September 2017

Harlestone Heath

Harlestone Heath is a tract of land about three miles north-west of Northampton. In my childhood it was always known as Harlestone Firs - and generally speaking still is. Yet it is a misnomer for, although fir trees have been planted since World War II in the form of Douglas Firs, it was, and still is, largely planted with Scots Pine.
Is the name Harlestone Heath any better? Well certainly the area was heathland at the end of Victorian times but sadly the area, owned by the Spencer family, was almost completely planted up with conifers by 1930 and what would have been an extremely important habitat in Northamptonshire was lost. The term Harlestone Heath is now restricted to a small reserve of 2.6 hectares on either side of the Northampton-Rugby railway line.
Wildlife on the reserve has been well recorded over the years so yesterday, when I paid a visit to the area, I restricted myself to the main body of 'the Firs'.
Pines of some maturity reached high into the sky. Birch, Sycamore and Sweet Chestnut were also common.
Scots Pine reached for the sky. Harlestone Firs, Northampton.
20 September, 2017
The pines are being removed piecemeal and much of the land is being replanted with native broadleaf trees. Quite remarkably some of the original heathland plants, whose seeds have apparently been dormant for decades, are re-appearing.
The acid soil is very thin in places and pines, being shallow-rooted, cope well with the conditions but unfortunately so too does bracken, Pteridium aquilinum, and this rampant fern now covers large areas. I suspect that much of the area is underlain by hardpan, an impervious layer consisting of soil particles cemented together by iron oxides and so on. (Lings Wood, to the east of Northampton, is a similar habitat and when, some years ago, I opened up a trench to examine the pedology there, a hardpan was exposed a metre and a half down.) If I am right then this could be the cause of poor drainage with consequent puddles.
Drainage was poor beside some of the rides, but they added to the
biological diversity. Harlestone Firs, Northampton. 20 September, 2017
Around these wet areas I found swathes of Water-pepper, Polygonum hydropiper, with its drooping flower heads and peppery-tasting leaves. It is a member of the rhubarb family  and, like many of its relatives it contains oxalic acid, a chemical with unpleasant side-effects if consumed in large quantities. The juices of this particular species can also cause burning and itching of the skin, especially between the fingers.
Water-pepper was common in wet areas. Harlestone Firs, Northampton.
20 September, 2017
Water-pepper has undistinguished flowers and in truth there were few bright blooms to be seen.
Red Campion was occasional rather than common.
Red Campion, Silene dioica, was doing its best and Rose-bay Willow Herb, with flowers of an almost identical hue, was also brightening the sides of the tracks.
Rose-bay Willow Herb seemed happy with the acid conditions.
A little hogweed was also in flower and, had the sun been brighter, I would have expected it to receive many insect visitors. As it was all I found were Nettle-tap Moths, Anthophila fabriciana, in some abundance. Visually it is an undistinguished insect and is very common. However, elsewhere along the tracks I was kept very busy with numerous insects, mostly two-winged flies such as greenbottles.
The Nettle-tap Moth was common on Hogweed. although its food-plant
is nettle. Harlestone Firs, Northampton. 20 September, 2017
I headed home a little later with a number of these flies. In most cases I can usually narrow each species down to two or three possibilities with a naked-eye examination, but it will take a bit of microscope work to confirm any cursory identification. I must go on to E-bay and order a can of midnight oil for I'll probably be burning some!




Monday, 18 September 2017

Ashby St Ledgers - with postscript

For some time I have been intending to visit Ashby St Ledgers and take a look at the church. Today I finally got around to it and it turned out to be a trip of considerable interest.
The village is extremely attractive and I failed to see a single ugly building. The church is doubtless of great interest to the enthusiast but to me it just seemed typical of the area: pleasant but, externally, with nothing to get excited about.
The church at Ashby St Ledgers, Northamptonshire.
18 September, 2017
It is dedicated to a French Bishop, Leodegarius (Ledger) and to St Mary and dates back to pre-Norman times, although the earliest parts of the present church date from the 1100's [Ref 1]. Attractive though the church may be, the churchyard rather lacks interest in terms of flora and is no longer used as a graveyard so the habitats that tombstones and memorials often bring are absent.
The main compensations were a large bank of ivy plus the views obtained of the Manor House. The latter is famous for being the location at which the Gunpowder Plot was hatched. Guido (Guy) Fawkes, Robert Catesby and others met in the Gatehouse of the manor in 1605. The rest, as the say, is history. Like the church the manor is built of Marlstone Rock, described as 'a warm brown ferruginous limestone with a seams of dark limonite...' [Ref 2] and there are outcrops of this rock barely a kilometre away.  
The Manor House at Ashby St Ledgers, seen from the churchyard
18 September, 2017
The ivy was in flower and being visited by a multitude of insects. I spent most of my time at this point recording wasps, hoverflies, greenbottles and blowflies. A hornet called in briefly but would not deign to be photographed, unlike a Red Admiral butterfly almost flaunting itself in front of the camera.
A Red Admiral butterfly feeding at ivy flowers. Ashby St Ledgers.
18 September, 2017

The ivy was scrambling up a wall, on top of which grew a fern which I took to be Common Polypody, Polypodium vulgare, its sori bright orange-yellow. It was these rather large, vivid ochreous structures which gave me pause for thought and a little research revealed the following under the description of Polypodium interjectum: 'Rare. Occurs in a few places mainly on walls...A few new sites have recently been discovered [including] Ashby St Ledgers...' [Ref 3]. So, I have little doubt that I was looking at this unusual species, known as Intermediate Polypody.


Intermediate Polypody in the churchyard at Ashby St Ledgers.
18 September, 2017
The only other point of interest for me was an oak tree in a corner of the churchyard. It was quite a young tree, perhaps three metres tall, and yet it was already hosting the galls of at least four wasp species: Andricus quercuscalicis, Andricus kollari,  Neuroterus quercusbaccarum and Andricus numismalis - known respectively as the Knopper Gall, the Oak Marble Gall, the Common Spangle Gall and the Silk Button Gall.
Silk Button Galls on the underside of an oak leaf.
Ashby St Ledgers. 18 September, 2017
What will this tree be burdened with twenty years hence - or indeed what would I find on giving the tree a more careful examination?

Now to take a close look at the insects I found.


Postscript


Among the galls on the oak tree I had hoped to find an example of the Ramshorn Gall, again caused by a wasp, Andricus aries. However the very next day, no more that 200 metres from home, I found several specimens of this very distinctive and appropriately-named structure.

 
Andricus aries has caused this Ramshorn Gall on oak.
Christchurch Drive, Daventry. 19 September, 2017






References

1. Anon (2005) Look at Ashby St Ledgers  Bessacar Publications, Rugby

2. Sutherland, D.S. (2003) Northamptonshire Stone  Dovecote Press


3. Gent, G and R. Wilson (2012) The Flora of Northamptonshire and the Soke of  Peterborough.  Robert Wilson Designs








Saturday, 16 September 2017

Fat Hen

When Chris and I took on our allotment we found it was infested with Fat Hen, Chenopodium album. The 'album' part of the name presumably refers to the white mealy coating on the underside of the leaves. We have pulled out dozens, perhaps hundreds, of plants and our hoe has dealt with many more. In fact (said he smugly) I had to go to a neighbouring allotment for a photograph. Even so, it will have seeded profusely, an average plant being able to produce about 3000 seeds, so there will be many more to deal with.
The inflorescence of Fat Hen. Drayton Allotments, Daventry.
16 September, 2017


The Chenopodiums are often referred to as goosefoots (Greek: chen goose, podos foot) and this refers to the shape of the leaves. In fact the leaves of Fat Hen are not noticeably goose-foot-like and really it is an extremely dull-looking plant with insignificant flowers. Presumably poultry would eagerly feed on it but more importantly, and what makes it interesting, is that it was an important food of early man.
Its edible qualities are not surprising as it is closely related to beetroot and even closer to spinach and qualifies as a 'poor man's pot herb'. (Another relative, quinoa,  Chenopodium quinoa, is increasing in importance and 2013 was declared by the United Nations as The International Year of the Quinoa.)
The big question: is it a British native? Most floras seem to assume that it is, yet it is described in the most recent flora of Northamptonshire [Ref 1] as, 'An annual of disturbed, nutrient-rich, waste and cultivated ground'. Where, prior to the introduction of agriculture, were there such habitats? We could imagine it thriving in the trampled and dung-enriched mud left by groups of the now-extinct Aurochs, Bos primigenius, or other grazing or browsing animals. Perhaps, but I suspect it was a crop impurity in those precious bags of seed brought to Britain by Neolithic farmers, in which case it should be classed as an archaeophyte.
Certainly Fat Hen has been in northern Europe for a long time and was one of the plants whose remains were discovered in the stomach of Tollund Man, a corpse found in a Danish bog and dated from the 4th century B.C. Seamus Heaney wrote of him in his evocative poem, The Tollund Man:


                       Some day I will go to Aarhus
                       To see his peat-brown head.
                       The mild pods of his eye-lids,
                       His pointed skin cap.


                       In the flat country near by
                       Where they dug him out,
                       His last gruel of winter seeds
                       Caked in his stomach...


Tollund Man perhaps consumed Fat Hen seeds as part of a ritual meal but they are often used in other parts of the world and analysis shows that, like quinoa, they are highly nutritious.
Some examples of  Fat Hen are easily overlooked. Drayton Allotments,
Daventry. 16 September, 2017



But enough of these paeans of praise: for gardeners and allotment holders it is a weed. The chances of me having an egg and fat hen sandwich are on a par with me saying to my wife, in a trembling voice, 'Chris, you remember that lottery ticket we bought...'




Reference


Gent, G and R. Wilson (2012) The Flora of Northamptonshire and the Soke of        Peterborough. Botanical Society of the British Isles

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Of Aileen and other things

Storm Aileen swept through last night but, other than a broken pot, we were spared and our journey to Byfield later in the morning was uneventful.
A broken pot was our only damage from storm Aileen.
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 13 September, 2017
In yesterday's blog I spoke of the yellow-flowered Common Toadflax and today two other, much commoner, toadflaxes were in bloom in the village. Everyone knows Purple Toadflax, Linaria purpurea, as it is a long-established garden escapee originally from southern Italy. Linarias, along with the related Foxglove, are toxic, with the latter plant dangerously so.

Purple Toadflax is toxic to livestock but, as people are unlikely to go around munching it, the plant does not present a problem. It is much visited by bees and other pollinators and is the food-plant for the caterpillar of the Toadflax Brocade Moth, Calophasia lunula.
The slender spikes of Purple Toadflax are familiar everywhere.
Byfield, Northants. 13 September, 2017


Also present was Ivy-leaved Toadflax, Cymbalaria muralis, otherwise known as Kenilworth Ivy and Oxford Weed, reflecting its abundance on the walls at these two localities. It is closely related to Linaria species and was once known as Linaria cymbalaria.
Ivy-leaved Toadflax breaks up plain walls as here in Byfield.
13 September, 2017
In Byfield, as elsewhere, it can form thick mats of growth on walls (muralis of course, means 'of walls') but, although the habit differs from that of other toadflaxes, the flower shape is more or less identical.
The flowers of Ivy-leaved Toadflax only differ in detail from Purple
Toadflax. Byfield. 13 September, 2017
Meteorologically autumn began on the first of this month but, despite that and storm Aileen, flowers were abundant. Very frequent around Byfield is Orange Hawkweed, Pilosella aurantiaca. Although not native to Britain, this native of the Carpathians has been around for long enough to have picked up a number of common names of which 'Fox and Cubs' seems to be the most widespread. 'Devil's Paintbrush' and 'Grim the Collier' are regionally common. A number of gardens have it present as a weed and  I covet it but sowing seed has so far failed as a strategy. I'll try yet again as it is not only of a striking colour but is good for attracting insects.

The fox surrounded by its cubs.  Pilosella aurantiaca on a grass verge in
Byfield, Northants. 13 September, 2017
Speaking of insects - as I always am - ivy has now been in bloom for about ten days and was being much visited by honey bees and hoverflies.
A Red Admiral butterfly feeds on ivy nectar. Byfield, Northants.
13 September, 2017
A coy Red Admiral was reluctant to spread its wings but on a sheet of warm canvas (covering a boat) Small Tortoiseshell butterflies were soaking up the sun.
The Red Admiral's nymphalid cousin, the Small Tortoiseshell, spreads its
wings to catch the sun. Byfield,. 13 September, 2017
Another of the stinkbugs, this time a Green Shieldbug, Palomena prasina, was also enjoying the warm conditions. It was safe on elm foliage in its green colours but, even if it was seen by a hungry bird (and they are always hungry), the foul smell released when the insect is alarmed would be a powerful deterrent.
Palomena prasina on an elm leaf. Byfield. 13 September, 2017
So, another day with no great excitement but pleasant enough. Refreshments at the Byfield Coffee Club and a natter with friends rounded off an enjoyable morning.












Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Sauntering into Daventry

I sauntered into Daventry earlier yesterday, appreciating the lovely sunshine. (I was tempted to use the word 'traipsed' as my walking is not quite as brisk as in days of yore, but this would have implied a modicum of reluctance.) No, I sauntered. My sauntering skills are a source of great pride and, call me immodest, but I like to think that, were it an Olympic event, I could find myself in Team GB. Perhaps I should apply for funding. 'The Gold Medal for the 100 metres Saunter goes to Tony White'. It has a nice ring to it; a certain je ne sais quoi...
Daventry is quite a green, leafy town and the area through which I walked is particularly so, and there was much to see. The last time I came this way I noticed a beech hedge bearing some leaves with a curious border. This is the work of a mite Acalitus stenapsis, and I encounter it only occasionally.
The mite, Aculitis stenapsis, forms a neat edging to beech leaves.
Daventry, 27 April, 2017






Yesterday my eye was instead caught by a hawthorn hedge where a Red Admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta, was, like me enjoying the sunny conditions. At one time it would have been seen regularly on Michaelmas Daisies at this time of the year only to perish, failing to over-winter. Now it regularly survives and over the last dozen or so years its status has changed from being a migrant to being a resident species, although migration still occurs on a considerable scale.
Soaking up the sun. Red Admiral on hawthorn.
Daventry, 12 September, 2017

On the same bush, but keeping to a shadier spot, was a Hawthorn Shieldbug, Acanthosoma haemorroidale. I have remarked elsewhere that it is by no means confined to hawthorn but the shrub is a popular choice. This insect, along with its relatives, is known as a stinkbug because of the smelly fluid released when alarmed. The fluid is released from glands just behind the head and has a rather almond-like smell - an odour generally associated with cyanide.
Smart but smelly. Hawthorn Shieldbug on hawthorn.
Daventry. 12 September, 2017






A hollyhock, Alcea rosea, sprawled across the footpath. This well-known garden plant, probably of west Asian origin, is popular with pollinating insects but today it was a caterpillar that caught my attention. There were several specimens, each concealed beneath a tent-like web on the leaves.
  A caterpillar is obscured by a neat web...
I teased one out for a better photograph and, once revealed, it became obvious that it was a Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui. Its main food plants are nettles and thistles but members of the Mallow family such as hollyhock are perfectly acceptable.
...which is removed, revealed the the larva of a Painted Lady.
Daventry. 12 September, 2017
So a rather ordinary walk turned out to reveal a number of interesting features and a few minutes later I arrived in Daventry where a patch of waste ground had been sown with a wild flower mix. There were poppies and cornflowers but most striking were plants of the Common Toadflax, Linaria vulgaris. Old names included Pig's Chops, Devil's Head and Lion's Mouth, all alluding to the way the flower will gape like a mouth when squeezed sideways. The young plants look very like flax plants, apparently causing problems when the plant appeared as a weed in a crop of flax.
Yellow Toadflax helped to brighten up a patch of waste ground.
Daventry. 12 September, 2017
The bright yellow flowers suggested, in accordance with the doctrine of signatures, that it could be used for the treatment of jaundice but your G.P. is unlikely to prescribe extract of toadflax - hopefully, for it is in the same family, the Scrophulariaceae, as Foxgloves, all parts of which are very toxic.