Friday, 24 June 2016

"I'm going to pick up my binoculars and walk out the front door - I may be some time"

I tweeted that at 09.00hrs, a few hours after coming to terms with the fact that this country had decided to vote to leave the EU. I can honestly say that I have never been so angry, confused and felt so impotent over a political decision. It was a referendum that did not need to happen, but did so because of petty party political infighting.

I took myself off to Denbigh's Hillside, close to Dorking, to clear my head. I sat down and started to put all of what had happened into some sort of order.

The bare facts are that 51.9% of those who voted opted to Leave, and 48.1% opted to Remain. For such a far reaching decision, it seems almost too narrow a margin to allow any progress to continue. This isn't just a case of the UK coming out of the EU. It has opened up massive chasms between the generations; a deeper fracturing of a fragile United Kingdom; a widening class divide; Northern Ireland and Gibraltar now facing up to being on closed borders; enormous worry for UK passport holders who are living (or working) in the EU (and the same applying to non-UK EU nationals living or working in the UK); cuts to EU funding of science and the arts; removal of environmental protections; possible erosion of workers rights.

The political landscape across Europe might not be all that smooth and easy at the moment, but us leaving the EU does no good at all to the efforts to steady it. There are military threats on its edge that a united Europe would be better placed to keep at bay. The humanitarian crises that surround our region need compassion applied on a broad front, and do not need a major player in the EU family (which we are) walking the other way, pretending not to be a part of it. We will now have an unelected PM. We will now have the most uninspiring set of politicians entrusted to try to sort this mess out. It is a time for leaders, not negligent pupils who have been caught out having not swotted up for their exams.

The youth of this country have been let down by the (largely) comfortably-off over 50s. The statistics say it all: 18-24 year olds voted 75% Remain, 25-49 year olds voted 56% Remain; 50-64 year olds voted 44% Remain and the over 65s voted 39% Remain. So the generation that enjoyed years of full employment, disposable income, golden pensions, affordable home ownership and the chance of early retirement have bestowed upon the youngsters (who have none of the benefits above) even more uncertainties. Thanks Mum, thanks Dad, thanks Nan and thanks Grandad. And why did they decide to play a highly risky game of chance with a future in which they will mostly not be alive to see the consequences of their actions? Just so they could stick two fingers up at Brussels? So that they can have wonky carrots back in the market place? Because of the immigrants? The truth is, we are all, back in time, immigrants. So this game of Russian roulette has been played, with little care (or, it seems, little planning) in the unlikely event that a vote for 'Leave' might actually be carried. It won't happen after all.... will it? I have heard more than one person say that they voted 'Leave' as a protest vote, but didn't think that it would all come to this. Well it has. For every boorish, pub-drunk-like clenched fist of triumph, there are many worried, confused and disenfranchised people, who didn't ask for this. And many that did ask for it, I wouldn't mind betting, are wishing that they didn't.

My troubled mind was soothed by a modest emergence of Marbled Whites. They seemed oblivious to the unrest going on across Europe, as too were the Bee, Pyramidal and Chalk Fragrant Orchids. In fact, I had found a haven away from real life, so was all the angst elsewhere nothing but a bad dream?

Our next PM might well be Boris Johnson, the same man that wants to build London's third airport on the Thames estuary. He won't need to worry about the environmental impact, because without the EU there will be no-one around to stop him. He may well preside over Great Britain turning into Little England. A good friend of mine - 69 years old and a Remain voter - has been in tears this afternoon. He wants to apologise for what his contemporaries have forced upon the younger generations who are, after all, the ones that will have to deal with all the fall-out of this. Maybe it is the beginning of the dying of the old political orders. Youth needs to invent their own and put right this xenophobic, small-minded mess that we have witnessed today.

I need another beer...

I will leave you with the image above. I came across a Second World war pill box on my walk, and thought it apt for today - looking out across the scarp towards the south coast, waiting and watching for the threat of invasion...

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Warm air perfumed

6. Water Mint (Mentha aquatica)

This species is really the twin of my last selection (Ragged Robin). As with that species, it came to my notice by being one of the plants that populated the wet flushes on the shingle at Dungeness. I often smelt it before seeing it, at times in subtle wafts, and at others it could be overpowering, depending on whether or not I had just crushed some leaves underfoot. The flower cannot be described as anything but modest, but is recognisable from a distance, as each neat 'ball' tops another, discretely strewn amidst the vegetation.

You can find it where there is water, whether a damp flush, a village pond or a stream-side bank. I have it growing in my small garden pond, where it is a great attractant to a wide range of bees, flies, wasps and moths. Just sit for an hour and watch the winged procession come and visit. It is easy to plant and will spread across the pond by creeping rhizomes. I look for the spikes each summer and am delighted when I am sure that it will be flowering again - there are a minimum of 15 at the moment.

It reaches so high in my Top 12 by association - the minty whiff transports me back to carefree summers on the shingle, drowsy afternoons when the birding had gone quiet but there was pleasure to be found by meandering through the sallow bushes, dragonflies and damselflies taking flight, insects busy and the warm air perfumed by Mentha aquatica...

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Torn ribbons

7. Ragged Robin (Silene flos-cuculi)

This is another species that buried itself deep into my subconsciousness by being a plant that was with me at the start of my 'Dungeness time'. Back in the mid-70s I could be found regularly helping out with the bird ringing, and as such trudged across the shingle and through the sallow bushes from net-site to net-site day-in, day-out. The wet flushes that were found out on the shingle had their own community of flowers, many not found away from them. These, even to my bird-obsessed mind became little icons, friendly markers appearing by the damp edges.

The coral-pink, deeply-indented petals had got my attention, made me take notice, and encouraged me to find out what it was called. It looked like torn ribbons to me. "Ragged Robin," I was told. I liked that name. And it is a species that still brings a smile to my face whenever I stumble across it. It is not a plant that I see much locally, more's the pity.

Monday, 20 June 2016

The evening perfume

8. Nottingham Catchfly (Silene nutans)

Back in the mid-seventies, when we all wore long hair and flared trousers, my first visits to Dungeness were all about birds. Birds, birds and more birds. But a couple of plants crept into my subconsciousness, by dint of having some more enlightened birders close by who also looked at other life forms that did not necessarily possess feathers. One of these species was Nottingham Catchfly.

I was told that it was rare and that Dungeness most probably held more of it than anywhere else in the UK, and that is all I needed to know to embrace it as a 'worthy' flower. In time I got to know it well, knew where the best populations were and it slowly became an iconic part of my 'Dungeness experience'. - the shingle would have felt bereft without it.

I spent the summer of 1979 at the Bird Observatory. Back then, during late June and July the peninsula used to be vacated by birders, so there were many days when it was just me at the point (warden Nick Riddiford having gone to study seabirds on the Salvage Islands for a few weeks). These few weeks were blessed with fine weather and the company of my botanical friend, the catchfly. It was in fine form. The banks of the moat were full of it, and each evening, in a sinking golden sunlight, I would wander through it, breathing in the sweet scent that was being released to attract night-flying insects and moths (including the stunning White Spot). Instead it had ensnared me.

In 2012 I returned to Dungeness, for the whole month of July. Was it an attempt to relive that wonderful time in 1979? Maybe. As luck would have it, that month saw an amazing flowering across the peninsula, the like of which had not been seen before. Nottingham Catchfly was one of those species that were having a tremendous year - great banks of it, taller and lusher than I have ever seen it. I felt as if it were a personal welcome back to the mid-summer shingle.

Number 8... a bit low really, it should be higher, but when I compiled this list, that's where it ended up. Lists are daft things anyway...

Saturday, 18 June 2016

I wouldn't mind seeing one of these!

Sometimes a fortunate observer (whilst toiling in the field) will find something that will grab your attention. It will grip you by the collar and shake you like a rag doll. It will make you want to see it. It will make you want to give up your right and left arm to do so. What sort of species could make you feel this way? Something like this...

A big, colourful, obvious and very rare beetle. It's called, Calosoma sycophanta. Also known as The Sycophant....

I didn't find it or see it. Graeme Lyons did. He took the picture above that I hope he doesn't mind me using - after all, I'm bigging him up and suggesting that you read his account of the 'find of the decade' by clicking here.

I had spent a most miserable morning on Park Downs, soaked through from my toes up to my thighs via the medium of wet grass, suffering from a mild bout of labyrinthitis, and coming to the conclusion that the orchid meadow that hosted so many Bees and Pyramidals last year is not going to be so well attended in this year. I came home deflated. And then I saw Graeme's posting about his wonderful find. It made me want to put back on my saturated socks, shoes and trousers and get back out into the field. Maybe not for a Sycophant (although I would not grumble if there was one that showed up), but just because this event shows the rewards that are out there.

Graeme is an avid field worker. He has earned this moment in the sun. He will have others. But to find such stuff you need to be out there looking, not sitting at home feeling sorry for yourself.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Number 9: Botanical pom-pom

9. Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria)

Chalk downland is a favourite habitat of mine, no doubt influenced by the fact that I am surrounded by it. There are certain plants that grow there which are joyous representatives - Wild Thyme, Fairy Flax, Marjoram, Dropwort, Horseshoe Vetch and, in my opinion, best of the lot, Kidney Vetch.

It has the 'yellow and orange' petal colouration that could remind you of Bird's-foot Trefoil (that would undoubtably be found close by), but unlike that plant the flower heads are like pom-poms, all snuggled down on a bed of white fluffy hair. It is the product of a natural history craft fair! Although often found in discrete patches, sometimes it can dominate the short turf, such as that witnessed on Banstead Downs last summer (above). If you do find a lot of it, be on the look-out for the Small Blue butterfly, that uses Kidney Vetch as its foodplant.

Apparently it takes the 'Kidney' part of its name from the shape of its flowerhead. Pom-pom Vetch seems more apt to me...

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Number 10: A local rarity

10. Ground-pine (Ajuga chamaepitys)

Barry Banson, a fellow birder and long-time botanist, had often tried to encourage me to take up 'looking at the green stuff' without success. He would often mention a place called Fames Rough, and would point out that it was very close to where I lived, and that I really should go along and try and seek out two of the rare species that were present - Cut-leaved Germander and Ground-pine. In fact, I did accompany Barry to that very place in 1981, but we didn't find either of them (not that I would have known what I was looking at anyway).

Fast forward to 1998. Barry's badgering over the years had paid off, and I was at the start of my immersion into all things botanical. I was still very green behind the ears and was gently finding my way into the process of trying to identify the bewildering array of species that appeared wherever I looked (pavement cracks, flower beds, roadside verges, footpath edges). Fames Rough beckoned, and that meant Ground-pine! The field guides depicted a strange, but obvious plant, one that even I could manage. On 28th June I travelled the short distance to Chipstead Bottom, and, after a period of confusion as to whether or not I was actually at Fames Rough, bumped into a couple who were out looking at the flowers. They sent me in the right direction. Fames Rough was a long, narrow clearing, bordered by wood and copse. Ground-pine was a small plant. Needles and haystacks sprang to mind.

To cut a long story short, I found a few plants. Once my eye was in, and I realised that I needed to look for disturbed ground to increase my chances of success, I found a few more. It was a modest plant, quite small, shy of flower and unassuming. You could look away from an individual plant that was at your feet, look back, and not see it! But close up... well, it had a great deal of character. Strange, wiry, hairy leaves. Small isolated yellow flowers. I was instantly smitten!

Each year I return to Fames Rough to check on Ground-pine. No two years are the same. Sometimes it goes missing - you see, it has a few problems (which is why it is only found at only c10 sites in the UK, mainly on the chalk in Surrey and Kent). This species really needs constant disturbance - it cannot compete with the coarse plants and grasses which will colonise and smother its preferred habitat. Loss of grazing, fewer field margins and the use of herbicides and fertilisers are all other nails in its coffin. Thanks to the Downlands Project, the Fames Rough Ground-pine population is helped by the 'ploughing' of a small strip (on a not quite annual basis). This not only clears the surface vegetation but also brings up the buried seed bank. Fortunately, Ground-pine seed is long-lived. This work is necessary to maintain this rare species. The few rabbits present do not produce enough disturbance to help it much. And this is how 'my' Ground-pine plants survive.

Sometimes this plant will pop up unexpectedly and surprise a lucky botanist. It happened to me on 22nd June 2004. I was walking along the chalk scarp west of Colley Hill (underneath Juniper Hill) and came across an area that had been totally cleared of scrub the year before. I could see some Hound's-tongue further up the slope so walked towards it (I do like Hound's-tongue). But before I got there I was staggered to be confronted by not one, not two, but 20 big, healthy, flowering Ground-pine (see top image). They were spread across several metres. This really was a once in a lifetime find. I returned the following year and could find none. The vegetation had smothered them. However, the seed is still there, lying buried, waiting to be liberated once more...

I have a fondness for Ground-pine that verges on having a personal connection with it. This is down to it being a local speciality, having been one of the first rarities that I saw and also because of that tremendous encounter on Juniper Hill. Even if I live to 100, I will return to Fames Rough each year in the hope that it will still be there, and if it is, I will quietly celebrate its continued survival.