Saturday, 30 July 2011

In Clover

At last the sun comes out with a vengeance, and I enjoyed the warmth with a long wander around Dungeness mostly looking at my feet but occasionally peering into the sky. OK and often lying procumbent trying to get an arty piccie. [Note is procumbent a word? Blogger doesn't like it. But yes, "Botany: Trailing along the ground but not rooting" So that was what I was doing]

Some of the subjects were old friends like Sheep's-bit and Red Hemp-Nettle,
while others were new finds, like Rough Clover found at Romney,
a charming little plant but sadly without its Subterranean and Suffocated cousins.
Hares'foot Clover was frequent but Strawberry Clover was a great find.
Other Dunge botanical rarities include Knotted Pearlwort, found easily by the ARC pit,
and Jersey Cudweed for which I was well prepared from this paper which reports that the population has grown to thousands. That's as maybe but they were all keeping their heads down today.
The standing water provided a cool relief from the hot sun, but my ID skills of this habitat are close to nil so I just had to enjoy it. Whirligigs were entertaining, while Whitethroats and Willow Warblers called from the surrounding scrub.

I did do some birding (having lugged the unseasonal 'scope around the reserve it would have been foolish not to), and the highlights were a pair of Common Terns bringing fish to a youngster on a raft,
a brief appearance by the Great White Egret, and close views of a male Ruff shedding its breeding plumage from the visitor centre. A Pectoral Sandpiper from the Hanson Hide was a no-show.

Other niceties from the week......
Five Deadly Nightshade plants on St Margaret's cliffs.

Pale flax

Sea Heath beneath Shakespeare Cliff

and a few Chalkhill Blues near the Pines Gardens. Lovely jubbly!

Monday, 25 July 2011

Pinks found

Finally I've tracked them down - it only takes clear directions, large signposts and a couple of hundred white markers to lead me to the colony of Deptford Pinks on the dunes at Sandwich Bay.The problem is that in this habitat they are very short, rarely over 2" tall and are tricky to find in a wide open landscape like this. They are dwarfed by the surrounding hawkweeds, bedstraws and grasses. The stems of the pinks at Farningham Wood were mostly about a foot high which makes them much easier to see.

Kent Wildlife Trust are monitoring them (hence the markers) and have counted about 170 in the main area and another 25 or so in another colony nearby. I don't know the last two years' figures, but I understand they were similar to this year, and less than the peak of 500+ in 2008.
While botanising with my eyes on the ground, my attention was occasionally drawn upwards by calling birds - three young Peregrines were following a parent, begging for food, so the adult locked onto a flock of pigeons for a chase - unsuccessful as they were racing pigeons, and fast and maneuverable.
A whooshing sound made me look up again later, and saw four Spoonbills flying over low - camera in the backpack, of course! By the time I'd got it out, they were heading south.
Back at home, a shock.... a White-letter Hairstreak landed in the garden - my first in the UK and only the second ever. It was a mangy looking creature, but very welcome, adding to the Green Hairstreaks seen in the garden in May. The nearest elm, upon which WLHs feed, is nearly a mile away so far as I'm aware, so it was presumably on dispersal.
Peacock numbers have been low this year, and it was good to see three fresh ones in the warm Sunday sunshine.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Beavers at Ham Fen

Yes, there really are beavers at Ham Fen - possibly about 10 after four were introduced and breeding has been successful for the last three years.
There are European Beavers which became extinct about 1,000 years ago, and which have been introduced with the help of Wildwood, near Canterbury. The intention was to use them to manage the only piece of fenland in Kent, which they do by keeping the waterways clear, coppicing trees and controlling vegetation. And they do it for free, too, like good volunteers.
The warden, Tony Swandale, gave an informative (and quiet) commentary and we were lucky enough to see one swim past us underwater, and then float around in a pool showing its large size - rather like a labrador.
One of the lodges is near the path, and could be seen rather better than the photo might suggest. It's about four feet above the level of the bank.
Understandably the reserve is not open to the public. A video of the initial introduction is here:

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Sunday, 17 July 2011

Welcome and unwelcome weeds

The summer harvest from the allotment is paying back the hard work early in the year. Even the many trips to the distant tap through the long dry spell seem worthwhile as the tasty produce is eaten up.

But among the vegetables, there is a thriving underworld..... of bugs, worms, and of course weeds. I am aware that many of my recent posts have dwelt on the need to get rid of introduced species to benefit the native ones in the wild, but on the allotment and (to a lesser extent) in the garden the reverse applies.
I'm very pleased to report, however, that six healthy plants of Round-leaved Fluellen have appeared unbidden on the plot. I thought the species was declining like many other arable weeds, but "Like Kickxia elatine [Sharp-leaved...], this species has a similar range to that mapped in the 1962 Atlas. Although both species are often thought to be declining, they have never been abundant weeds and the distribution may be more stable than is often supposed..... some Kickxia seeds germinate in late summer and may therefore escape herbicides."

A brief look on the net failed to find the derivation of the name, although the Welsh Llysiau Llywelyn translates as Llywelyn's vegetable, so it may be linked with one of the Welsh princes..... Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, or maybe Gruffydd ap Llywelyn.

This ancient British weed is joined on my patch by a relatively new one, Shaggy Soldier, which - with its relative Galant Soldier - is romping through the market gardens of England after an accidental introduction from Peru.
A plant can distribute about 7500 seeds a year, these can germinate almost immediately and the natural spread of the plant is 10 miles per year! This plant needs hoeing out without delay, or I'll be swamped.
Also on the plot is an imposing specimen of Great Lettuce, approaching six feet tall. Domestic lettuces are apparently derived from Prickly Lettuce Lactuca serriola, and fortunately the spines have been bred out over the centuries.
Not on the allotment but on a nearby field edge is this Dwarf Spurge, the only one I've found so far in the parish:

Friday, 15 July 2011

A fillip of Dittany

Coincidence..... this week two Philips pointed me to a plant that I've been searching for - Dittander. For the past few years I've looked for it in vain around the bleakness of Sandwich Bay, and then within a couple of days of each other Phil Milton and Phil Green (of the WCCP) brought different plants to my attention.

The former is by the garage pools north of Sandwich Bay, and the latter by the railway line at Folkestone Warren. What's more scary is that neither knew I was looking for it! I expect the Pigswill Botany Annual will carry a report this year.

So this begs the question - is the plant spreading? According to Dr Philp's atlas, that could be so.

One of the reasons I had been searching for it was that it figures in Gerard's Herbal, as a remedy against the stinging of serpents, under the nice name of Dittany which I assume is of French rather than Germanic derivation.

Reading Gerard, I noticed that Borage gives a fillip..... Those of our time do use the floures in salades, to exhilerate and make the mind glad... driving away all sadnesse, dulnesse, and melancholy. I'll have some of that!

Another reason for walking aimlessly around Sandwich Bay at the moment is to follow the Open golf. This we did yesterday, and very pleasant it was too. For an introduction to the area (from the air) and to see Kingsdown's rifle range, there's a helpful clip from the BBC: at about the 1:30 minute mark.

And the Royal and Ancient (no, not Tom Watson) provide a guide to the precautions taken to protect wildlife in this fragile habitat.

We saw a hare (and hare's foot clover), and the skylarks, meadow pipits and corn buntings ignored the "Quiet" signs.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

National Trust policies for Kingsdown

Thanks to Rob Sonnen for an interesting talk on the operations of the National Trust in east Kent, and Kingsdown in particular. The Trust owns or manages the Leas along the cliff-edge, Bockhill Farm, Barrow Down and Kingsdown Wood, and as they want to promote the countryside aspects of their work (as well as their stately homes) this kind of area should benefit.
Kingsdown Wood was only added to their portfolio quite recently, and the careful rotational coppicing has opened up parts of the dark wood to the sunshine at last. I had not realised the wood's importance, being possibly the only one in Britain with a concentration of Field Maple. These trees can be found in hedgerows, but there must have been a cottage industry based on them nearby, using their knots, knarls and burrs in fine wooodworking - it provides both turning-wood and birds-eye maple.
It's a slow-growing tree, and they are likely to have been planted around 1600.
The main work of this region's warden is, however, taken up on the chalk downland on the cliff-tops.
It's very pleasing to hear that there are plans to try to recover the otherwise lovely Barrow Mount from the dreaded Tor-grass, which has smothered almost all the other plants, apart from in a couple of depressions (bomb-holes?) which are little botanical oases.

On the Leas there has been one cut, which has brought immediate benefits as far more Knapweed, Scabous, Wild Carrot and even a few Pyramidal Orchids have emerged this year, contrasting with the other uncut areas.

With a few more cuts in a marbled pattern we can hope that the finer tapestry of Thyme, Marjoram, Trefoil, Harebells, Fairy Flax and Quaking Grass will gradually return from their footholds on the very edge of the cliff. There are certainly plenty of bees at the moment.

My unpaid researcher has found a fascinating account of a botanical walk from Deal to Folkestone in 1861 recounted in The Phytologist on pages 253 to 261. Many of the plants are still here and perhaps surprisingly some of the current "modern pests" like Red Valerian were already well-established. A notable loss is, however, Burnt Tip Orchid, perhaps crowded out as Tor-grass moved in. Or maybe their habitat was built on.

Elsewhere, two pleasing finds at Dungeness were Red Hemp-nettle coming into flower (and what a lovely one it is) and Sheeps-bit.... both very rare and both very small.
If I had realised what the Sheeps-bit was when I found it, I would have worked harder on the pictures, but as it was I only realised on the way home - Eureka!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Open petals

Not long now till the Open at Sandwich, but nobody's given me a complimentary VIP ticket yet. There must be a few going spare, now that Tiger's not going to play.
The tees, greens and fairways are being manicured and the TV gantries are up but there are still some rough areas holding interesting plants, including some fading Lizard Orchids.

Just off one of the buggy tracks is a dried-up pond which astonishes anyone looking over the rushes with a carpet of Bog Pimpernel - the strawberries-and-cream glow is entrancing.

Off the fairway, in their usual dell, are Marsh Helleborines.....
.... in one bloom of which sat a striking fly, one of the "picture-winged" ones which make those gooseberry-like galls on Creeping Thistles.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Dodging the dodgy geezers

Time to have another look for the ailing population of Deptford Pinks at Sandwich Bay, so we embarked upon another long walk through the temporary buildings of the Open Golf course, and along the sandy beach. It being a sunny Sunday, we were not alone, as a stream of lone males (strangely all well-tanned) made their way in the same direction - with botany not uppermost in their minds.
Peace and freedom to all...... but it does make a long beach seem remarkably small.
No pinks were found (again) but I didn't miss the opportunity to pick a little Sea Rocket to spice up the summer salads. It's bitter alone, but gives an interesting zest when chopped into lettuce leaves.
Sea-holly is looking good at the moment, and a hopper chose some as a spiny perch.

In another age, this would be called Sea-holly Broomrape (Orobanche amethystea, a Mediterranean race) and have a photo in the best flora guides. It would be described as being very rare, and be cherished by those who find it. Now, however, its status has been revised to Common Broomrape..... for insomniacs, read more at

The sands give way to shingle as you walk south, and Sea-holly gives way to Yellow Horned Poppies. I had been instructed to check out five plants with red-orange flowers, to see if they are the Red species (Glaucium corniculatum) or just variants of the Yellow (G. flavum).
Using the most obvious characteristics as a guide (are the seed-pods hairy or warty?) I hereby pronounce......
..... that they are warty, and therefore the plants are likely to be just variants of the Yellow species.

Sunday, 3 July 2011


Napchester is on the Roman Road between Dover and Richborough, and was a resting place, hence the name (geddit?). A report of a calling quail there on Bird-guides yesterday had me driving over the downs earlyish this morning, and I was overjoyed to eventually hear it in a wheat-field. It's a first for me, and an emotive sound of the cornfields. No sighting of course, but most enjoyable, especially since it was heard from one of the best roadside verges in the area.

The wayside is frothing with bedstraws, scabious, knapweeds and other downland plants, attracting butterflies in profusion. There was even a painted lady flitting between the flowers.

The songs of common whitethroats, corn buntings, skylarks and meadow pipits added to the occasional call of the quail, and a buzzard soared overhead. Francesca Greenoak's "All the Birds of the Air" records some local names for quail from its three-syllable call: Wet-my-feet, Wet-my-lip and Quick-me-dick are quoted. Listen closely and the last (from Oxfordshire) seems closest.

Betony - lovely.

Basil-thyme, tucked away in the vegetation, with kidney vetch giving scale.

And last but not least, a group of four rough poppy plants, a rare species living between the verge and the crops.

While writing about Bird-guides, I saw that a golden eagle had been reported at Paddock Wood. Coincidentally we saw four Eagles (not golden but definitely silver-haired) at Paddock Wood on Friday evening, and Joe Walsh can still play that guitar!