April 25th – First the brimstones, so called because of they are the colour of sulphur, then the odd peacock which has hibernated over winter, then the occasional small tortoiseshell flapping against the window as the sun awakens it from the dark corners of our rooms… these are the first butterflies of spring.
The first bird to declare itself is the chaffinch, whose cascading song was heard in Cattistock in mid-February, followed by the blackbird practising under its breath – and finally in April the first of the summer migrants is heard: the blackcap whose indeterminate, muddled song sounds like a tap left running. And now – they are all at it! Open your window at 5.30am to hear the full dawn chorus.
The swallows came back on the 16th April. Please leave the doors of your stables, sheds and garages open to provide dark cave-like spaces for them to build their small mud nests in – and if you can provide mud too, so much the better; the air around your house and garden will be full of the archetypal sound of summer – their cosy chuckling twitters.
Two days ago the first of the house martins was inspecting one of the many nests under the eaves of Markers in Duck Street. How will the count of this year’s nesting pairs compare with last year?
Cuckoo alert! It is about eight years since I last heard a cuckoo in Cattistock – on Norden Hill, the Cakes’ farm. If anyone hears one anywhere hereabouts please let me know where and when! firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks!
January 2nd – Ian Vine reports: “We have just been out for a walk towards Sandhills, and spotted 4 -6 of what I think were Little Egrets, in the first field going out of the village on the Beech Tree Close side. Neither of us had our phones with us for photographs. Lovely to see though.
December Willows’ Warblings
The most celebrated day in December is the 25th, Christmas Day. Its traditions could, and indeed have, filled books; however before that, the most important day was the solstice on the 22nd. The day when the sun started returning and ancient tribes realised that life was not ending after all, but that gradually, the periods of daylight were getting longer. How they did that is beyond me as it seems perpetually gloomy especially this year as December has seen the least sunshine on record! But rejoice! Everyone did, and a lot of those solstice rituals have been incorporated into Christmas festivities – decorating with evergreens and wreaths being just one of many.
I have been taking advantage of the mild weather by planting more bulbs. One garden centre I visited had 50% off so I loaded my basket with scillas, miniature daffodils and anemone blanda. Then I happened on Dobbies who had all their remaining bulbs at 70% off (plus I get another 10% for being a member) so a hazy mist descended and before I knew it I was loaded down with hundreds more tulips that I am now desperate to plant. Most of the tulips go in pots as my soil is very heavy with clay and can get waterlogged. The bulbs will not mind going in late, although narcissus and daffodils should start rooting in September and will not, perhaps, be quite so good in their first year but will get better thereafter. It is a good idea to soak all these late bulbs in warm water before planting as they have dried out a lot in the hot showrooms. I have some anemone blanda that I have soaked for 3 days and are now plump and ready to root – ten times bigger than the little shrivelled corms in the bag.
I have heard reports of blackcaps being seen on bird tables this week. Increasingly this little bird seems to be staying here for the winter rather than migrating further south. I have yet to see blackcaps in this garden at any time of the year although they are plentiful in the centre of the village gardens. I have not seen the mistle thrushes this year. They used to sit in the holly trees guarding the berries but perhaps food has not been scarce this autumn.
We had a Christmas squirrel on the bird table and a rat on the compost heap. I don’t mind rats so long as they keep themselves to themselves, but they rarely do! This one waited while I threw veggie peelings onto the heap. I expect she was hoping for more exotic Christmas fare, but alas no luck.
I noticed this morning that the hazel bushes had catkins ready to open in the first bit of sun we get and so the cycle will begin all over again. In the forty odd years I have lived here the worst month of winter has been February. The snow has always come that month with really low temperatures, so a lot of bad weather before the spring. How does the old saying go? “The cold strengthens as the daylight lengthens”. Yes indeed it does.
November update and Willows’ Warblings:
Don’t burn that bonfire until you have checked that there is no hedgehog hibernating inside! What they like best is a shelter – possibly a proper hedgehog hibernaculum such as built by Phil Evans for the church hedgehogs; but a big pile of dry leaves in an open garage or shed or log store will suffice. If you find one out and about it may need feeding, and even more a bowl of water; apply to Sheila White in Meadow View for what to do – she is currently the Hedgehog Queen.
There are fieldfares now clacking in the farmlands, winter visitors from the north. Our garden birds need feeding when it is cold and frosty – their usual diet of insects has died or gone to earth, and it is only the bigger birds such as blackbirds, thrushes and pigeons which can manage to pick berries. The robin is singing his winter song, thoughtful and complicated…
And in Sue Willows’ garden: “I think this autumn has been lovely. It has been so mild that I have been gardening every day and have planted many new shrubs and perennials and dozens of bulbs. As the light goes in the evenings I watch masses of little birds, which I think are wrens, packing into the ivy on the side of the house. I know they roost together for warmth and I am glad we can provide a cosy retreat for them.
“The pheasants up the track signal the end of the day with their sharp rat-tat-tat bedtime call. I know then it is time for me to pack up my tools for the day before it gets completely dark. A pheasant walked up the lane last week and poked his head through the gate. I invited him in to share some chicken feed but he declined. I hope he didn’t, fall foul of the guns that seem to be omni-present around us. Sometimes it is like living in the Wild West!
“The two Celtic feast days, All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day were celebrated at the beginning of the month, remembering departed souls. In Mexico it is known as the Day of the Dead. Martimas, St. Martins’ feast day, is one of the quarter days that was celebrated years ago for hiring fairs and settling debts. It now marks Remembrance Day falling on 11th November.
“A few sharp frosts have made the leaves turn glorious colours. The countryside has never looked so good. It is well worth trying to find some plants for autumn colour for the garden, creating late interest. The mahonias are now carrying their lovely yellow flowers and the perfume stops you in your tracks. The winter viburnums in the garden are full of buds, some bright pink and some flushed white. I have a daphne still in full flower. It is one of the ‘eternal’ series and keeps going whatever the weather. The winter cyclamen, C. Coum, are starting to show their very bright cerise flowers. They will go on for months, as will the hellebores, some of which are already in bloom. The Christmas Rose, helleborus niger, is very sporadic, with most of the plants not flowering till well into the New Year, but sometimes you get one plant that is always in front of the others. Unfortunately they do not seem to be good garden plants and die off very quickly. They do for me anyway. I think they want very specific conditions in order to thrive. They are cheap enough to buy however and today I bought some marvellous plants in flower, with plenty of buds to come over the next few weeks, along with my groceries. As they say, every little helps to brighten these darkest days.”
March update: first the wildlife and then the gardens – scroll down to read Sue’s Willow Warblings
Stop press – there is a new barn owl box in the village! It was both made and installed by Simon Goodall in his barn at West Norden Farm – behind Wallis Farm. Great kudos and respect to Simon who – in the midst of building his own house – found time to build one for the barn owls too. It will no doubt be a dream residence for a pair next spring, if not this one.
Not only that, but two new man-made housemartin nests have gone up in Duck Street – one under the eaves of Nunwell, Richard Winterflood’s house, and one next door at Maria Bailey’s. The installation was most kindly undertaken by Eric and Bradley Damen with their long ladders – and strong knees and nerves.
These nests join Richard’s existing one, the Nelsons’ original two at Vine Cottage, and the two at Markers over the road – all of which had notable success last year. It was heart-warming during the first dismal lockdown to find that the street, at least, was alive with the merry chirps of four or five pairs of housemartins feeding their broods.
Housemartins are some of the most mysterious of our summer migrants; they spend their winters in Africa but no-one knows where. All we know is that they arrive in April to build their nests of mud under the deep eaves of houses – collecting it, tiny beakful by tiny beakful, from the edges of puddles and pools. They smear it on the wall of a house until it sticks and then build up the dome shape from there, making a smooth hole at the top for entry. They use up a lot of strength on their long flight from Africa, so it saves them much time and energy to find nests ready-made, or partially so. Nevertheless they like to customise the ready-made nest with mud improvements, and this is visible on one of Richard’s nests – if you squint up at his eaves you can see the smooth woodcrete adorned with extra mud at the top.
We have temporarily stuffed up the holes with paper to stop the sparrows colonising them (as they have already done at Markers, alas!) before the housemartins get here. The very second the housemartins arrive Bradley has volunteered to go up the ladder again and un-stuff them!
Some of these man-made nests were provided by the Dorset Owl and Bird Box Society. This is a non-profit group of volunteers based in and around Cattistock; it aims to help declining or endangered bird species in our area by providing them with nesting and roosting places. http://www.dobbsoc.co.uk/
If anyone has nice deep eaves on their house, or a V-shaped gable end, and would like housemartin nests of their own, please get in touch with me, Merrily on 01300 320064/ 077993 77661 or email email@example.com Or would you be prepared to host a sparrow terrace? This is a row of three or four little boxes, and would provide an alternative to their having to use the housemartin nests!
Likewise do contact us if you have tall trees and would like owl boxes, or nests for tree-hole nesting species, such as woodpecker or treecreeper. Or if you don’t have a suitable house or trees but would like to help fund a box elsewhere, that would be much appreciated! http://www.dobbsoc.co.uk/
March 1st. St. David’s Day. Patron Saint of Wales, national emblem: the leek. Apparently when Norman Hartnell was designing the coronation robes he thought that leeks were far too vulgar and wanted daffodils instead. But he was overruled by HRH and the leek is there with roses, shamrocks and thistles. But daffodils are everywhere now. We veer towards the smaller, paler varieties and have increasing amounts of the wild daffs which look happier in a more informal situation. If you find your daffodils are not flowering this year it is because of the hot dry spring months last year. The bulbs need a lot of moisture to swell to flowering size as they die down and lack of rain at this stage can seriously affect them. To ensure good reflowering watering with some soluble fertilizer will always pay off. The wild daffodils planted for the millennium along the main thoroughfare of Cattistock have never thrived because they are in the wrong situation. High on a bank where it is too dry, I wonder if they should be moved?
Our hazel hedges are hung with long golden catkins. See if you can spot the tiny red female flowers on the same twig. It is these when fertilized by the pollen from the catkins that swell into hazelnuts, which in our garden are always taken by squirrels before really ready. This week, digging out the compost heap I found a great cache of peanuts taken from the bird feeders and hidden a few inches down in the compost!
The first frogspawn has been laid about a week later than usual. I hope for more to come as there are four to five visible frogs in the pond.
During the last few days the lovely pulmonarias have come into bloom. They come in pink, blue, white and almost red with leaves that range from all green to all silver with a wide range in-between. Today they are buzzing with bumblebees. All sorts of scillas are out as are the little iris reticulata. I am trying these again as I have read that to succeed you must plant them under the edge of a conifer but where they will get sun all day. They need hot, dry summer months in order to flower again. We shall see! I also have a big clump of pink violets in flower. I don’t know what variety, as over the years I have bought so many from Groves Nursery. Clive Groves is probably the most experienced violet grower in the country and has written widely on the cultivation of these plants. But they are very difficult to keep going so it is perhaps best to stick with the wild violet, viola odorata, which likes our soil. I used to pick bunches of violets up our track from Christmas onwards but now the increase in traffic has eroded the edges where these plants thrived and it is rare to see any now. There were acres of violets grown for the flower trade, a lot of them near here but now the plants suffer from viruses and bugs that make them almost impossible to grow. They are very susceptible to air pollution and as the metropolis grew the violet farms around London were the victims of coal smoke in the air.
The chickens are starting to lay again with the daylight lengthening. The first egg was so tiny I’m still not sure what to do with it. This month we gain four minutes of daylight each day, that’s two hours by the end of the month, plus the clocks go forward on the 28th.
Saw the first butterfly. A peacock that had obviously overwintered. It went from crocus to crocus getting much needed food from the wide-open blooms. I was so glad we had some early flowers to offer much needed sustenance. Usually the first butterfly to be seen in spring is the Brimstone, which gave butterflies their name. Butter fly(ing). Saw this idea for a bumble bee house this week. Fill an old teapot with some soft bedding, seal the lid down tight, then bury the whole thing in the ground with the spout sticking up. A sheltered spot under a hedge was suggested. Bumblebees can’t resist apparently!!!!Now where can I find a teapot?!!!!.
Last month I mentioned the hysterical outpourings of the song thrush even – or specially – during the bleakest of winter days, and now in February his optimism becomes visible – snowdrops starting up under the beech at Meech’s corner and by the cricket pitch, and in our hedges and gardens.
Poet Laureate Ted Hughes wrote a verse to the snowdrop. In just eight lines he echoes the darkness – literal and spiritual – of Hardy’s poem, and yet in the words ‘brutal’ and ‘heavy as metal’ he speaks of the ruthless inevitability of spring along with the cycle of the stars, of its universal power behind its individual fragility.
The Snowdrop by Ted Hughes
Now is the globe shrunk tight
Round the mouse’s dulled wintering heart.
Weasel and crow, as if moulded in brass,
Move through an outer darkness
Not in their right minds,
With the other deaths. She, too, pursues her ends,
Brutal as the stars of this month,
Her pale head heavy as metal.
THE WILDLIFE OF CATTISTOCK, OVERVIEW:
Most Dorset villages offer diverse habitats for native flora and fauna, but Cattistock offers more than most. Almost every dwelling has a garden, and many of them are managed for the benefit of birds and insects as well as us humans. Interesting rarities often visit – a nightjar was photographed taking its ease on a sun lounger in a garden at Duck Street! And an otter was recently snapped making its way down Mill Lane past the village shop.
The contingent farmland is mainly pasture, dotted with copses and criss-crossed with footpaths – plenty of scope for the now-rare farmland birds, and the opportunity to spot them. Our valley, Lankham Bottom, is a noted butterfly reserve, with glow-worms on its chalk escarpments too.
At the heart of the village is the church and churchyard, a central green space seething with wildlife if you know where to look. On summer evenings at least five species of bat whirl above your head, while the swifts which nest in the church buildings speed shrieking around the rooftops as dusk falls. Some of the churchyard’s most famous visitors are the hawfinches which flock in winter to the magnificent row of hornbeams which border its south side, and following them the flocks of bird-watchers from all over the county. Dog-walkers sometimes encounter the now rare hedgehog foraging among the graves at night. In spring and summer the graveyard is a carpet of wild flowers, and the church’s programme of grass cutting is managed to ensure that they continue to proliferate.
The Friends of Cattistock church aim to implement a scheme to increase habitats for wildlife of all kinds around the church, perhaps in time to acquire a gold medal for conservation from the Eco Church Foundation.
In the wider village other steps are afoot to enhance the presence of wildlife. Tawny and barn owls boxes, made here in the village, have gone up this autumn, under the auspices of the Dorset Owl and Bird Box Society – a Cattistock-based initiative. Boxes for swallows and house martins were added to many of the houses, sheds and stables of the village this spring.
Plans to help slow the disastrous decline in honey bees are also underway… Matt Somerville, the brother of artist Liz Somerville, sometime of this village, will visit next year to explain how to do this – beekindhives.uk
Wildlife is more than ever dependent on us humans – to notice it, to include it, and most of all to enjoy it. We need all the observations we can get to form a picture of the wildlife in Cattistock, and thus to help it all thrive. Such information also goes to form a nationwide picture, though such agencies as the Dorset Wildlife Trust. So, if YOU have noticed anything unusual – more or fewer than usual insects or butterflies for instance, or variations in migratory species of birds, hedgehog encounters, the odd unexpected wildlife visitor or wildflower… or just anything that has attracted your attention – please contact the editor of this page Merrily Harpur, on 01300 320064. We will flag it up on this page – (named after the special table where we used to put our wildlife finds at primary school) and also pin it on the web’s News & Notices.
NATURE TABLE ARCHIVES
Previous years Nature Table articles can be viewed below:
For 2019 enter here
For 2020 enter here
For 2021 enter here