Thursday, 11 September 2014

A Visitor From Africa, And Why I Went Back To College At Forty.

I went down to the river today to look for voles. The river was in an agitated state so I wasn't surprised when no voles appeared. I did find some new latrines with fresh poo, which is a good sign, but I also checked an old one which has been in use all summer and that had no signs of any recent use, which may be some cause for concern. I'll only know more by checking again later in the month and then following up next year. The swan family are doing well- all five cygnets have survived their infancy and were gliding elegantly up and down the river with both parents while I was there.

Back at home and Poppy's naughty streak continues. This morning she removed one of L's school shoes from the stairs, hid it in her bed and chewed the back off it. This is particularly annoying because 1) school shoes are not cheap and 2) I have only just had L's feet measured and the shoe shop lady said this pair (already a year old, so doing well) don't need changing yet. Grrrr. If anyone has a good recipe for terrier pie perhaps you could let me have it?

College starts back next week. I'm looking forward to it. It's year two of my three year course, which will probably extend to a fourth year in order to turn it into a full BSc. After that, who knows? I am toying with the idea of doing a PhD (unfinished business from years ago), which would stand me in good stead when it comes to one-upmanship with M at least, who currently beats me by a Masters. 
I like research and I feel this subject area (wildlife and ecology) is one where a PhD might actually be of some real practical applicable benefit. It's a way off yet and life does have a habit of getting in the way of long-term plans, so we'll see. I like to have a focus though, rather than just drift along.

One species that has a fair amount of research already tied to it (including it's own Citizen Science Project in the shape of the Migrant Watch page on the Butterfly Conservation website), is the Hummingbird Hawkmoth. It's valued as an indicator species for Climate Change because it is spreading northward as the temperatures rise. This little moth flies to the UK between April and December from Africa and southern Europe and is often most numerous in August and September. It can hibernate here as an adult and I was reading this morning that there has been a resident breeding colony in the south-west for the last thirty years.

You get years when thousands of HBHMs appear, and other years when there aren't so many. To see a HBHM is said to bring luck- a small swarm was reported flying over the water of the English Channel heading for England from France on D-Day, and in Italy and Malta they are considered a messenger of good tidings.
Last year I saw my first one ever, here in the garden on August 2nd (a sighting which provoked much excitement and chair dancing on the way to get L from school. I was still bouncing about like Tigger and grinning like an idiot when M got back from work several hours later). This year I spotted one way back in March up on Magdalen Hill in Winchester. But although I have been keeping my eyes peeled and checking the Star Jasmine plant in the back garden daily for the last twelve weeks, so far nothing has arrived in our garden.

Then two days ago I was watching the Emperor Dragonfly hunting in the garden (he has taken to doing this in the late afternoon). He was swooping over our Common Darter (who had fallen as asleep in the sun on the tree stump by the wildlife pond), when an unusual movement over the runner beans at the other end of the garden caught my eye. I glanced over, saw a large bee and thought wouldn't that be nice if it turned out to be the hawkmoth? and no sooner had the thought left my head than I realised it was the hawkmoth. 

I watched him for a few seconds before going inside to grab the camera, praying he'd still be there when I returned. He was. So I got lots of pictures, and still had time to enjoy him with my own eyes too. 

They make the most amazing whirring noise (humming I suppose) with their wings as they hover in front of the flower. Their eyes are also very different to other moth eyes. More human, somehow. They are such incredible creatures and I hope I never lose the sense of excitement and thrill that seeing one brings.

Seeing the Hummingbird got me thinking about all the amazing wildlife experiences I've had this year and how lucky I am to have been brought into such close contact with so many wonderful creatures, many of them rare and endangered. I figure I'm very fortunate indeed to have been given the opportunity to catalogue and record these things now, because it is not so ridiculous to think that some of them may well not be here in fifty years time. It's a sobering thought and one I find hard to contemplate, particularly because in most cases it's human beings with their pollution, intensification of management and chemicalisation of the land and environment that has caused this.

I met a man a while ago who said to me: 'I don't care about birds and bees and butterflies. What are they to me? Why should they be so important? What does it matter to me if they all die out?'  

I thought it was a good question. Why does it matter if all the wild things die out and the countryside becomes simply a still and silent place in which to grow food for people? Of course the simple answer is that without bees and birds and butterflies no food will grow. Life on this planet is so infinitely connected that you can't damage or effect one thing without everything else feeling it, somewhere along the line. It's like a ripple. So that's the answer for the self-centred: damage wildlife and you're ultimately damaging yourself. For the rest of us, hopefully, wild creatures and places bring so much more than self-interest and the key to our own survival. They are a joy to behold; they lift your spirits; they make you smile and feel warm inside, and contact with them can, often, bring a spiritual element to a world that sometimes feels like its been drained of that sprinkling of magic.

That's why I chose to return to college at forty, and am studying Ecology: to enable me to help protect and save our wild things, because they are in trouble. They don't have voices or representation in Parliament, so they are reliant on those of us who do and who care about them to look after and further their interests, enshrining that in law when possible, and taking care of them in our own immediate environments as a back-up when it's not.

Here's a list of what I've been lucky enough to see this summer, as well as some info on their current welfare. This makes sobering reading when you see it all together like this:

1. Purple Emperor. Seen at home early July 2014. Judged to be possibly under-recorded, an elusive butterfly listed as 'near-threatened' on the GB Red List. Suffered major decline throughout its range in the southern UK during the 20th C, but seems to be undergoing a modest expansion. Future survival dependent on sensitive management of ancient woodland and the retention of willows near oaks.

2. Brown Hairstreak. Seen on Broughton Down early Sept 2014. One of the rarest species of butterfly in the UK, now restricted to a handful of sites only, mainly in the south. UK BAP (UK Biodiversity Action Plan) Priority listing, GB Red List Status 'vulnerable'. Hedgerow destruction and modern management practices have led to the serious decline of this butterfly. Annual hedge-trimming by mechanical flailes destroys their eggs.

3. Adonis Blue. Seen at Broughton Down, early Sept 2014. A GB Red List near threatened species that has declined throughout its range due to the loss of short-grazed turf. Reliant on Horseshoe Vetch, the foodplant of the larvae.

4. Small Blue. Seen on surveys earlier this year. UK BAP Priority listed, GB Red List near threatened. This butterfly is declining in most areas and is in serious trouble. It has special requirements of shelter and abundant kidney vetch and habitat loss during the past century has led to its extinction in many places around the UK.

5. Chalkhill Blue. Seen at MHD, Broughton and Stockbridge Downs. GB Red List near threatened. Ploughing and grassland 'improvement' has led to the loss of many colonies. Now survives in a limited number of strong holds in the south of the UK.

6. Balsam Carpet Moth. Rare and nationally scarce.

7. Longhorn Beetle Prionus coriarius. Seen at home August 2014. Rare.

8. Hedgehog. Seen at home last week. Numbers are in serious decline. UK BAP Priority species. Habitat loss and chemical sprays used in gardens and fields have contributed to their decline.

9. Water Voles. Seen on the Test through the summer. 90% population loss in the last ninety-five years. American mink which can enter their burrows, river bank management techniques, water pollution and habitat loss have all contributed to their decline. UK BAP Priority species. Full protection under the 1981 Wildlife Act.

10. Grass Snake. Seen at home this summer. Populations suspected to be in sharp decline (as with all UK snakes). UK BAP Priority species. Habitat loss considered most responsible for the decline. Illegal to sell them.

11. Common Toad. Seen at home this summer. UK BAP Priority species. 

12. Dingy Skipper & Grizzled Skipper Butterflies. UK BAP Priority, GB Red List vulnerable. Both are declining, the Dingy seriously so.

13. White Admiral. UK BAP Priority, GB Red List vulnerable. The overall population is in decline. Serious threat caused by deer browsing on the foodplant (honeysuckle).

14. Striped Lychnis Moth. Larvae seen at MHD. Listed as nationally scarce. Confined to southern UK in a total of 80 sites, but many of these are not yielding results now.

15. Common Shrew. Seen in the garden this week. Although widespread, it is illegal to trap a shrew (in a live mammal trap) without a license because they need to be constantly eating and die very quickly without food.

16. House Sparrows. There were none here when we moved in eight years ago. Now we have a colony. BAP listed priority species, showing significant decline across the country. Once familiar and widespread.

17. Cuckoo. BAP Priority listed. Numbers are declining here even over the eight years I've been listening to them. 

18. Many of the moths I've seen this year are also BAP listed and on the GB threatened registers. Too many of them to note, individually infact. 

Last term we looked at extinctions. It's a horribly sobering topic to study. An enormous percentage of the wild things on this planet right now are at risk from extinction in our lifetimes unless we do something to prevent it happening. There have been five mass extinctions in the history of the planet, caused by climate change and impact from debris from space. The sixth, called the Holocene, is not predicted to be a sudden loss as per the others, it will be the kind of trickling, handful here, handful there disappearance of species that we are have already begun to see, and it is being caused by human activity. The Large Blue butterfly, the Large Tortoiseshell, The Mazarine Blue- these are all butterfly species that have become extinct in the UK over the last hundred years. It's not just butterflies of course, and it's not just in the UK.

The way to help is to grow more flowers, to use fewer chemicals, to leave longer patches of grass and 'weeds' (dock, bramble, nettle, thistles) year round in your garden so the beetles, flies, bees, moths and butterflies, who need it to breed and survive, have somewhere to be safe. You could start keeping records of what visits your garden, or take part in citizen science projects, donating data to them to enable scientists to access vast amounts of information they couldn't possibly get hold of otherwise. You can raise your own awareness of what is living in your environment and find out what you can do to help it. Start a blog- take pictures and write stories, spread the word, encourage other people, get interested. Because this is not a problem that will be solved by Governments. It's going to be down to you and I, all the everyday, normal people in the world, to make the changes that will pull our wild things back from the brink of an extinction that they don't deserve.

Sorry, small soap box moment there. I've been thinking about writing this post for days and it wouldn't go away, so here it is. I know many of you know all of this and do your bit already, so please forgive any egg sucking elements of this post :-) And for those of you are kind enough to check in regularly and would like to do more for the wild things but are stuck for ideas, please know that anything from the list above will make a significant difference: you will have had a positive impact on creatures who increasingly rely on our goodwill and understanding for their survival.
CT x



  1. Hey CT great, thought provoking post me dear. I need to read it in more depth as rushing off to the grind at the mo. By the way I love the pictures of the Humming Bird Moth..stunning.

    1. Thank you, John. I feel so strongly about all of this. It is an inspiring thing, the belief that normal people have the ability to turn things around and save wild creatures that otherwise will be lost forever.

    2. A sobering post CT and not a subject to be taken lightly. I am trying to make the garden in my present abode a place to encourage wildlife. At first I thought that its such a tiny area what difference could it possibly make...but if more people could be encouraged to garden with wildlife in mind then perhaps a difference can be made. I hung bird feeders the other week and was rewarded with three sparrows which now number about eight regular visitors... as well as a Dunnock that appears late ish afternoon without regular that Bear takes no notice of him at all now.
      I still feel that I'm battling against most of humanity though but take comfort that when mother nature decides she's had enough we'll be ousted and the rebuilding will begin in earnest.

    3. You've hit the nail on the head- if everyone did even just a tiny bit (grow more flowers, hang bird feeders, leave a weedy patch or some long grasses) the additional support provided to wildlife would be huge.
      We've looked at wildlife corridors on the course; essentially, they are networks linking valuable pieces of habitat. Gardens could so easily be wildlife corridors, and if a whole row of houses began to garden for wildlife the benefit would be more than the sum of the individual parts because of the way the corridors operate. Road verges can be corridors, so if we could persuade councils to mow them less that would help wildlife. Many woodland managers are opening up rides through their woods which helps link bits and pieces of woodland that are otherwise scattered across the landscape. All of that helps.
      I think what you are doing is spot on and it will be making a difference- your bird visitors are telling you that.
      Blogging is such a great way to keep in touch with friends who are helping wildlife, even if we sometimes feel isolated in that endeavour our blogs prove we're not really :-)

  2. The world would be a even sorrier place if it weren't for passionate folk like you. We'll done for standing by you convictions and actually doing something! I haven't heard the Cuckoo for a couple of years now, sadly. Good luck with year 2!!

    1. Thank you, Rabbit Quilter.So many people have tales to tell of species that were once common, visible and audible and are now slowly fading away. We can change that, I know we can. We just all need to pull together.

  3. Hey CT,

    A really thought provoking post. I adore your hbm pictures. I have seen two this year. One in the garden and one in the Stennack car park. Not quick enough to take pictures, but I hopped about too. We do our little bit here in the garden. We have seen some lovely things too. Last weekend we were at plot no10. It was early evening, and a barn owl flew over the plot. It was the most wonderful thing I have seen. Oh and two Choughs hassling a Kestrel at Cape Cornwall a couple of weeks ago. That was pretty special too. The NT lady logged it for Chough Watch. We also had a oak bush cricket in our bathroom on Sunday. Bit bizarre, I agree, and the subject of many fnarr jokes on fb.
    Leanne xx

    1. You did well to see the cricket- resident of ancient woodlands from what I've read. Crickets seem particularly drawn to bathrooms, we get the same thing here. No idea why :-)
      LOVELY about the barn owl- magical creatures. I always feel blessed when I see them. And MARVELLOUS about your HBHM. Did you log it with Butterfly Conservation? Here's the link if not:
      You'll see from the map there have been hundreds logged this year, which is fantastic. So glad you enjoyed the post xx

  4. Thank you for this post, it has really made me think about how I can help our local wildlife. I share a large allotment plot with my mother, much of it is weedy at the moment! We're trying to clear the weeds but I'll shall definitely keep a good patch of it wild and surround it with flowers. I have noticed a few insects there such as shield bugs and beetles, quite a few cinnabar moth caterpillars on the ragwort and also a small frog very briefly!
    I am very inspired to blog about the wildlife we have or can attract to the plot, thank you!

    1. That's brilliant Sara! We left some grasses around the pond (which only went in last summer) long this year and within a fortnight Skipper butterflies were laying eggs in them. Skippers in particular need long grasses year round. I had never seen them in our garden before. It happens very quickly once the habitat is right- you put it in place and the wild things will do the rest.
      PLEASE blog about your experiences- I'd love to read what you find and observe and I'm sure many other people will feel inspired to make a few small changes as well. That's all it takes- if we all link up on this we can make such a difference to the wild things. xx

  5. I have never seen a butterfly moth and really enjoyed your excellant photos and information. I am impressed with you reaching out to further your knowledge and career. It is so sad that humanity continues to kill off our staples of life. I have a small garden and pond and am always growing flowers etc to attract butterflys, birds, bees etc. I love your posts. Have a wonderful day :)

    1. Thank you :-) It's so nice to hear what everyone has/ does in their gardens, they are such a fantastic resource for the wild things we share this planet with. Have a lovely weekend.

  6. Oh wow, lucky you to get one on camera, your images are brilliant too. I did see one here in our rental garden but we were rushing out and I just wasn't able to go back and get the camera. That's only my second one in my lifetime.
    As you know I love wildlife and will continue to promote and stand up for wildlife no matter what people say. I am given a hard time about the herring gulls and their chicks, from the haters out there!
    I often wonder what must be in peoples hearts and minds to hate (or be indifferent to) nature.

    1. That's great that you saw one in the new garden- have you recorded it with Butterfly conservation? They've got a dedicated page for HBHM sightings. The link is on my reply to Leanne's comment above :-)
      It gives me great hope to know that there are plenty of us out there who care about the wild creatures and stand up for them.

  7. Fantastic pictures of the HB Hawkmoth and I'm so pleased you had one in your garden!
    The rest of your post is thought provoking and well written - and it especially brings it home seeing species with the name Common on lists of creatures that are now endangered or declining. Good luck with year 2 of your course. :-)

    1. It was great to see him- I had given up hope this year!
      You're absolutely right about the common species being under threat- it's a sobering thought. Time to do something....

  8. The HB Hawkmoth looks huge, your images are fantastic.You have managed to see some many different species over the summer. I hope that our grandchildren will still be able to admire them. You are so right if everyone takes small steps it can make such a difference. Many years ago we ran a Friends of the Earth local group and saw for ourselves how small steps could bring about change. Sarah x

    1. Thank you Sarah. I think we need to get past the sense that only Governments can effect change- I firmly believe everyday, regular, normal people like you and me have the power in their fingertips to save our wild things xx


Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x