Friday, 30 December 2016

Review of 2016 - mostly arable

This year, so eventful politically, was spent quietly in the south of England, and almost all in east Kent. The Border Agency was only troubled once, by a day-trip to France (it rained).

The review of the year is therefore rather less exciting than previous ones, especially since much of the time was spent trudging around arable fields looking for weeds. But that kept us happy!

I'll list the general highlights, then a review of the arable weeds for those who have made it that far:

  • Best birds - easy! In a year where I added nothing to my spreadsheet (life, UK, Kent, garden etc) the lucky sight of a dozen red kites feeding over the windmill field at Upper Walmer is the clear winner.
    I had taken a day off in May as it was sunny, and as we drove past the mill we saw them wheeling and diving over the newly-cut hay, taking the mice, voles, rabbits and other victims of the mowing.  This flock were reported elsewhere in the area that day, but no similar sightings were made during the year so we really were in the right place at the right time.
  • Second best bird - nicknamed Hengist, a male sparrowhawk that staked out the garden and took a few of our specially-fattened sparrows and (regrettably) one of the pair of collared doves. It was instructive to see the two "eyes" on the back of his head.

  • Best mammal - a hedgehog at Tilmanstone - my first for years!
  • Best reptile - adders at Samphire Hoe.
  • Best bugs - also at the sun trap of Samphire Hoe, were shield bugs and a number of other bugs that enjoy a lengthy season basking in the sunlight reflected by the cliffs and the sea.

  • Best butterfly - a couple of dozy graylings that posed for photos in Wareham forest. Finding this species is usually difficult and time-consuming so these two were a real pleasure.

  • Best moth - n/a

  • Best views - the Dorset coast from Tyneham - stunning!  This is helped, of course, by the immensely varied geology of the area which gave hours of interest.

  • Best habitats - also in Dorset, I was taken aback by the heaths around Wareham which are extensive, unspoilt and beautiful.  I could have spent weeks just pottering around, with the favourite spot being Wareham forest with sundews, Dartford warblers and graylings amongst others.

  • Best reserve - Broadham Down near Chilham, a new one to me, that we stumbled upon while out exploring. A fine place that deserves more visits.

Commendation for Kimmeridge Bay, with an underwater reserve that can be explored with a snorkel.

  • Best general plants - a tie between oblong-leaved sundew and bog gentian, both on the lovely heaths around Wareham, Dorset. The latter took some finding, but eventually a swathe of hundreds was found.

  • Best orchids - I've not been a great fan of lady orchids (must be spoilt) but the show this year at Bonsai Bank was superb.  

  • Best arable weed - but first let me tell you a story.........
In an attempt to "give something back" I signed up to survey local sites for both birds and plants with BTO and NPMS respectively.

The bird survey was desperately dull as it covered green concrete farmland, and there's only so much interest you can generate with skylark territories. As it is next to a large new housing development, however, it will be interesting to follow the trends in the next few years.

After this, the prospect of surveying further farmland was not attractive, especially as it was on the prairies of east Kent with barely a hedgerow in sight. But wait! A little research on the Plantlife site shows that this area is a species hotspot of European importance, as shown below.
So why is this? The first survey gave us corn parsley (an early favourite for best plant as it was a first for me), venus' looking-glass and other unusual species.

These finds inspired an obsession with arable weeds and the stewardship schemes that are intended to help their survival. I was surprised what could be found when a little space was allowed by the farmer, and of course appalled at the dreadful practices that generally prevented any diversity. I must admit that I despair for the future.

But back to the Best arable weed:
  1. Weasel-snout - not going to say where it is in east Kent, but there's plenty of plants there so with some sensitive management it should thrive (and maybe even spread);
  2. Shepherd's needle - just one small site, and it seemed to have been attacked by spreading oil over it - can't believe it! It should have set seed by then, though, and we'll see whether it returns next year.

  3. Corn spurrey- a real star plant, once very common but now it takes some finding.
  4. Corn parsley - just a nice plant, putting other umbellifers to shame.
  5. Poppies - lots of rough poppies and a few pricklies - always a joy.

So that was 2016. Predictions for 2017 will so fraught with uncertainty that it is difficult to be optimistic, and New Year's Eve parties may be morbid affairs. Perhaps we will be able to tackle the challenges positively, but I see threats to so much that we hold dear.

As Dave Allen might have said:  May your MP go with you.