Nature Table

The striking colours of a Sparrowhawk
There are currently plenty of delicately coloured Dog Roses in the hedgerows

August update:

Willows’ Warblings for August.

The 1st of August is Lammas Day.* Once a very important quarter day in the Celtic year. Payments and rents were often due this day and sometimes there were hiring or mop fairs as told by Thomas Hardy, although these were usually held at Michaelmas, another quarter day in September. Workers would stand in the marketplace holding an emblem of their trade. For example a shepherd would hold his crook and hope that someone would give him work for the coming year. One wonders what todays workers would hold aloft?

   The abundance of Buddleia this month takes me back to the bombsites of London. I am always reminded of the city after the war awash with these shrubs. Also the scent of feverfew transports me to the garden of grandparents when I was evacuated to the seaside where the feverfew grew profusely along the paths. I could only have been 4 years old but those memories still come every year.

  Our second brood of swallows have flown. Five more babies so that is ten they have reared this year. We saw great numbers of swallows around the trees in Kennel Lane this week and wondered what they were doing. About 50 or so wheeling and diving over the fields. It is a bit early for them to start migrating I would have thought.

   A few butterflies at last. Saw some orange tips on the honesty which is the food plant of their caterpillars but it is too late for laying eggs this year. Some holly blues and meadow browns along with the usual gang of red admirals, tortoiseshells and peacocks.

    In the garden the phlox are the largest contributors to the border. I favour the mauves and blues but don’t give room to the modern reds and oranges. They have the most glorious perfume. It has been described as nutmeg but I think it is sweeter than that. Shasta daisies are providing food for insects of all kinds and bumblebees are pushing their way into the penstemon and antirrhinum flowers. Japanese anemones are just starting here. I know they have been out for a while in other gardens but we are always a couple of weeks later due to being in an exposed valley open to northerly winds sweeping down from the A37. People often shy away from these anemones, thinking they all run about like anemone robustissima; the clue is in the name, but there are many very well behaved varieties. Indeed I am trying to establish the white variety Honorine Jobert in the borders but they have hardly grown since being planted; I don’t even mind the aggressive one either as it is so pretty. A visitor yesterday thought they were cosmos. And so they could be except they are much easier and very perennial. If they go too far; just pull them up. They are easily pulled out unlike some thugs that take years to eradicate. The other stars of the border coming out now are the crocosmias. If your memory only stretches as far as the common monbretia of the ’50s and ’60s take a look at some of the fabulous hybrids of recent years. Not always easy to grow, some are decidedly ‘picky’, but one that really shines out is called Limpopo{there are a whole group named after rivers} Fabulous salmon pink large flowers, not very tall, does well in heavy damp soil and a bit of shade. There are also bright scarlets and gorgeous yellows. If they like you they clump up quite quickly and make a good show, so worth the initial expensive outlay. I had tree surgeons last year assiduously avoiding a selfsown unwanted hypericum and tramping all over a clump of grassy looking leaves which I informed them cost me £20 and was very precious. So take a trip to the garden centre and see what beauties are awaiting to transform your late summer borders.

* Lammas Day celebrated the first harvest of the year as the new loaves were brought into church to be blessed. The word “lammas” comes from the Old English hlaf, “loaf,” and maesse, “mass” or “feast.” Through the centuries, “loaf-mass” became corrupted in spelling and pronunciation to Lammas. Much lore is associated with this day, including this proverb: After Lammas Day, corn ripens as much by night as by day.

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 July update:

I hope everyone is enjoying the chirps of the house martins as they visit their nests in the eaves of Markers and the terrace of cottages opposite. A close look will show how they have improved the man-made nests with little daubs of mud of their own. The swifts are still here, screaming about the rooftops at dusk, just before the bats come out… if anyone sees a spectral figure in the churchyard in the dark, fear not – it could be me with my bat detector trying to determine what species we have there. Watch this space for hedgehog updates – and meanwhile our gardens are teaming with wildlife in the undergrowth – over to Sue Willows for the gardens update….

Willows’ Ramblings, July

One of the most well known Saints days falls in July. St Swithin’s on the 15th. Tradition says whatever the weather on that day, so it will continue for the next 40 days. Apparently there is some logic behind this as the jet stream tends to stay put this time of the year and so the weather pattern remains settled one way or another. This year it was hot and sunny on his day so we shall wait and see.

Our baby swallows have flown! Five babies fledged successfully a couple of weeks ago and we think the parents are sitting on more eggs already. The tadpoles in the pond have turned into baby frogs and toads and are hoping out into the garden. I wonder how many will survive. Plenty do as we are always coming across quite large frogs when we are working. There is also a large toad living close by as we found him wandering about in the hall when we came down for a nocturnal tea trip. He seemed quite happy but I told him he would be even more happier in the lush damp undergrowth of the garden. (Since drafting these notes we have had the toad back sitting in the cats water bowl in the conservatory. Seems he wants to live with us!)

The garden is awash with flowers. I hope this hot spell does not bring an early demise to their brilliance. Loving the sun are the herbs. They are a good family to include in the flower beds. Marjoram, or oregano makes a mound of purplish pink blossoms about a foot high always covered in bees, the same as thymes and mints. There is a lovely grey leaved mint with a mauve flower, a bit like a baby buddleia, called Bowles Apple Mint. It weaves through the borders about 2ft high giving a soft hazy effect and a subtle scent. Black African Basil, a great subject for bedding schemes and pots. Almost black leaves with that delicious taste and scent with dark purple flowers. Makes quite a large bush and a bit easier that the usual basil. Then blue borage, I also have the white version, but it is the blue flower that is the essential in Pimms, the ultimate summer drink. Apart from being useful these herbs are very decorative and very beneficial for bees and butterflies. If you happen to see a swarm of bees this month apparently it is not worth catching them according to the old rhyme, “Swarm in June worth a silver spoon, swarm in July let them fly!”

I sit in the evenings watching the bats coursing up and down the garden. The night air is saturated with perfume from Daphne, Regale lilies, Philadelphus and honeysuckle. These flowers give off their fragrance at night time to lure the moths to aid fertilization. They are all white or pale flowers as this shows up in the dark. And when the moths come, so do the bats to feed on them. With our French windows open and the lights on we sometimes get bats swooping round the dining room and on one occasion the bedroom. Bats and toads sharing the house, a really rural experience.


Sue Willows’ Garden Ramblings

Well, here we are in June. The month when we celebrate the start of Summer on 21st June and midsummer’s day three days later. Midsummer’s eve – a night of magick and faeries; and if you poultry owners see any little folk in your gardens have a serious word with them, as apparently it is the faeries that persuade the foxes to put foxglove flowers on their feet so that they can creep up on your chickens and eat them!

I am not fazed by any creepy crawlies, but this month I live in fear of the June bug or cockchafer beetle. They fly in the windows at night-time and drop like doodlebugs, usually in your bed. They are enormous. Your resident photographer wants me to catch one so he can take pictures of it!! Apparently in France they sometimes get great swarms of them, and they then feed them to the pigs.

June is all about flowers. The roses are coming out but not lasting long in the intense heat. The welsh poppies flutter all over the garden in yellow and orange. There are red ones and rare double ones which I have sown many times but to no avail. Not many butterflies yet but we saw one scarlet tiger moth this week. Usually with these day-flying moths dozens of them hatch the same day and the garden is full of them. I hope there are enough insects about for our baby swallows who hatched last week. The parents are extremely busy, in and out of the garage, but I don’t yet know how many chicks there are.

Two baby squirrels are eating all the bird food we put out. I don’t want to encourage them as we want the songbirds to breed in safety. It is bad enough with magpies turning up every nesting time and then the sparrowhawk who weaves his way up and down Kennel Lane gardens snatching youngsters from the bird tables. One year we had a Hobby around here. They feed mainly on baby swallows. A rare but unwelcome visitor.

   Another sighting which is becoming more frequent is a pair of kites who I see flying high above the garden. What impact on our wildlife they will have I don’t know. They are usually scavengers, once common in cities where they kept the streets clear of dead animals and offal from meat markets so perhaps they will not affect the countryside. I hope they will stay around and possibly settle in this area. How long will it be before that unwanted (perhaps) bird, the green parakeet makes it to Dorset. I am surprised it has not yet arrived. In South London it is everywhere and spreading at an alarming rate, so watch this space, as they say. 


Bee update! 30th May 2021…

Chris Slade, our local bee expert, posted this on his bee blog in mid-May. It is so interesting I thought it should be read more widely. The good news is that, as I write this (end of May)  David Orr has spotted bees in Cattistock church roof once more!…

Chris writes:

‘Fortunately, all my hives that went into winter emerged ok. Not so for the wild colonies around though.

‘There’s a ley line about 15 miles long passing through my village which has had about a dozen sites with long term wild colonies of bees. One end (possibly beyond but I haven’t yet done any searching) is at Evershot Church, where the bees have been occupying a gargoyle for years and the other end is at Upwey Church where they are in the tower, using a small crack in the stonework for an entrance. Plot these two Churches on a small scale map and stretch a thick piece of string between them and you’ll cover all the other sites.

‘I haven’t checked all the sites this year but Cattistock Church, where they’ve been in the roof for many years, is now without them, although a log hive hoisted into a tree in the churchyard a couple of years ago us still active. Chilfrome Church, where they’ve been in the roof for over a decade, is now without them. That will disappoint the churchwardens who consider that the bees keep the ‘little people’ at bay.

‘My nearby Church, here in Maiden Newton, was first occupied by bees in the tower in 1994 and they’ve been there ever since apart from a brief period when a warden, without consulting me, had them eradicated to enable work to be carried out. I always check before the swarming season that they’re active and not just reoccupied by a swarm but this year there’s no activity.

‘In the village, on the line, is a house with bees in the attic that sends out a swarm most years but they don’t seen to have survived the winter. Next is a large maple tree in the garden of the old Rectory of Frome Vauchurch. They’ve been flying ok.

‘A few miles along is Martinstown church where they come and go. They’ve gone now. Last that I know of is Upwey church where they’re currently active. I was told that there were bees in a church on Portland but I don’t know which one so that might possibly be an extension to the line.

‘If only I had more time, I’d use Tom Seeley’s method of hunting wild bees to see if there are any more sites along the line. Tom Seeley is a Professor of Biology at Cornell University. For many decades he has been studying the wild colonies in the Ithaca forest, New York state. First he traps foraging bees in a box that has a scented sugary bait. When the bees have eaten some he releases them and notes the direction they fly home. When they bring back some foraging sisters he traps them and then moves the box aside before releasing them, again noticing the direction they fly home. This is repeated until, by triangulation, he can locate their bee-tree. I have made a similar box but haven’t yet used it as, not having wild forest hereabouts, it would require trespass to do so.’

May in the streets… 

Late May Update! Now Maria’s housemartin’s nest is occupied! Which makes seven (and, indeed, maybe eight – I can’t find my binoculars!) pairs of merry housemartins plying the street. Moreover Ewen and Rose Cameron in Markers have got the bit between their teeth and are planning six more artificial nests. All credit to the Nelsons in Vine Cottage for starting the colony off…!

19th May 2021. The sun beats down whenever the rain isn’t beating down, and at last the Duck Street housemartins have arrived. Six out of the available eight artificial nests are occupied Two of the three at Markers, both of the Nelsons’ nests, both of Richard Winterflood’s. Maria’s not yet occupied, and another one on Markers still empty. This could change! Let me know if more arrive. The housemartins are flying back and forth enthusiastically collecting mud for their home improvements – and one very good thing about the current weather is there is lots of it around; sometimes it is in short supply at this time of year.

Moreover the church’s swifts are back, and also the ones which nest at the back of Markers – hawk-eyed Rose Cameron spotted them flying up and in to the fascia board, which they do in a flash, very difficult to see.

So summer really is here… hurray. And here’s a reminder to leave your shed, stable and garage doors open for swallows to nest in (see Sue Willows’s comment below) provided they are safe from cats. And to make your compost heap extra big, untidy and wildlife-friendly, ready for judging by the Midden Maiden during the Gardens Open Weekend… Fab prize for the best one, namely a bottle of Champagne and a bit of old carpet.

May in the garden

Willow Warblings… Sue Willows writes:

May Day – 1st May, a day of celebration, pagan and Celtic. Beltane, the pagan celebrations of awakening and new beginnings and the Celtic traditions of garlands and well dressing. The Upwey Wishing Well Café has always decorated the well in their grounds and is something we always go to see. But I doubt if there was much maypole dancing this year. It is so cold and windy, in fact the coldest May Day on record.

   The swallows have made it back. They entered the garage on 20th April having been flying over the fields on the 19th. The radio reported thousands had crossed the channel the weekend before and told everyone to be on the lookout for their arrival. Has anyone heard a cuckoo? I doubt it. A bird we always make a trip to hear is the nightingale. Here in Dorset we are at the furthest western edge to hear these birds but there are a few spots you can visit about the 2nd week of May and hear their glorious song. Last year was not so good but one year we sat for about an hour absolutely entranced.

The wild garlic is up and coming into flower. Do not do as I did and introduce it to your garden. It travels faster than any plant I know. I am now battling it every spring and I can’t even use it as I hate the taste of garlic. Apparently Rampisham is named after this plant – ramsons – and if you look at the roadsides through that village you will see why. The other wild garlic, allium triquetium, is also flowering in my garden. Again, do not plant it although it is widely advertised for sale. I don’t know when and where this thug originated but I read this week that nearly all churchyards in Devon and Cornwall must be full of it. A churchyard in fact was the first place I saw a beautiful blue flower that I had been unaware of. It was alkanet and is now in my garden and just now coming into flower. I was given it by a kind Cattistock resident who was glad to be rid of it, but again beware, it seeds everywhere. In fact the churchyard in which I first saw it was completely covered by it

Bluebells are now coming into bloom. How lucky we are to be surrounded by bluebell woods. Friends in London never get to see such a glorious sight. I have them growing in the garden, both Spanish and English but I know I never planted them. They are springing up everywhere mostly a cross between the two types and I must start digging them out. If you have ever tried you know how deeply they are rooted and almost impossible to eradicate. The leaves of the Spanish bells are massive and nothing can grow near them so again not really for the small garden.

 A flower I would suggest you grow is the beautiful wood anemone. They are flowering all along the lanes at the moment. The wild form must be left in the wild but for the garden there are blue and pink and gorgeous double white forms. Look for anemone nemorosa when ordering and you will have a spring display without the risk of  being submerged in the undergrowth.


April update – and scroll down for Sue Willows’s Willow Warblings garden update:

After the Easter Day service in church, with many children screaming around us like swifts, looking for hidden Easter eggs, Alex Butler and I compared notes on what spring arrivals we had seen. The sun shone brilliantly, the churchyard was a carpet of primroses and celandines, and the chiffchaff – the first of the summer visitors to arrive – was calling out its name. Alex had seen both chiffchaff and blackcap whereas I had only heard them – the latter in Duck Street conversing in its quiet, meditative way. We had both seen brimstones – the yellow butterfly which is always first on the spring scene – and Alex had also spotted a peacock. The insect not the bird. Alex had noted various hoverflies – on which he is an expert – abroad already, and I heard and then saw two swallows flying north over Cattistock on April 1st.

So Spring’s great engine is revving up: stay alert for its beauties because it goes from 0 to 60 in a month, and it’s a shame to miss any one of its succession of delights.

And finally… please leave your shed, stable and garage doors or windows open, if you can, to provide nesting places for our swallows who will be returning from South Africa any moment now and looking around for somewhere cave-like to build their small mud nests. You will be rewarded with their lovely mellifluous calls all summer long, the very sound of warm days.

Ps: Alex Butler and Emily Newton live in Restawyle, over the road from the pub, and are wildlife experts. Alex has personally reared a baby weasel, and can name any hoverfly you care to show him.


April in the garden:

Willow Warblings…. April

It is snowing today, a real blackthorn winter. It is one of the country sayings that is usually true. It might delay the arrival of the swallows but the chiffchaff is here. Always our first summer visitor to arrive and lets us know that spring has sprung. We have opened the garage loft door in readiness for the swallows and I have done some running repairs to the nest that they have used for the last 25   years so all is ready. The earliest we have recorded their arrival is March 30th but it is usually about mid April when we hear them shouting ‘We’re back!’ from the telephone wires in front of the house. We have a blackbird sitting on eggs in our bay tree so I hope it warms up soon for their sake.

We have masses of frogspawn in the pond and even more of toad. At one time we had 8 pairs of toads croaking their love songs amid the green watery weeds

Did anyone see a mad hare in March? The only time I have witnessed the annual boxing match was here in Cattistock on land that is now covered with houses. We were told by an ‘old country boy’ last year that since the ban on controlling buzzards, the number of hares has tumbled as the babies always lie above ground. We could always see hares on Eggardon but not now and last year my friend and I stopped on top of the heath and tried to count  the number of buzzards in a newly ploughed field. We stopped at 40! And there were still more.

It is many years since the cuckoo was last heard in Cattistock. I was always gardening when I first heard it on an April day and couldn’t wait to tell John when he got home. I don’t know why another cuckoo hasn’t moved into this patch. Nothing has changed in the area where it flew up and down the bridle path. The farmland is exactly the same and the trees haven’t been removed so none of the habitat has been lost. Lack of cuckoos perhaps.

The garden desperately needs rain. We have had such a dry and hot March I am now watering newly planted shrubs and the tubs of tulips but the spring flowers continue to bloom in abundance. The ribes (flowering currant) is covered with bees of all kinds. A lovely little plant coming into bloom in the garden is the cuckoo flower or ladies’ smock. It likes a damp heavy soil and is spreading gently with us. It is a wild flower but in the garden we grow the pretty double form. I encourage it as it is the food plant for the caterpillar of the orange tip butterfly. When we think of plants to encourage butterflies into the garden we must also grow the food plants for their caterpillars even if they are not all as attractive as the ladies’ smock.

A Magpie, ever alert for the opportunity of food
Sue's nemesis, the harmless and beautiful Cockchafer
Red Kites, regular visitors to this area
Primroses and Celandines
A beautiful bed of Celandines
The churchyard has a good number of little Violets
A Celandine and Forget-me-not peep between the leaves of a Cuckoo-pint
There are one or two Bluebells in the churchyard
A hybrid False Oxlip on the bank, just inside the main gate
 The beautiful head of a Dandelion
A view across a bank of Primroses
Stand quite still and there is a good chance of spotting a Goldcrest in the undergrowth
Jackdaws busy finding nest building materials in the churchyard
A Blackbird with a bill full of food for its young
A wary Grey Squirrel on its way back from one of the local garden's bird table
A church wall, hosting Ivy and Primroses
And there are plenty of Daffodils amongst the wildflowers
Celandines and Primroses on the bank by the church path
Bradley preparing to install the new man-made Housemartin nest
Completing the installation of the new nest and plugging the entrance
A close up of the new nest, alongside last year's nest

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 merrily@harpur.org  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/

Sue writes:

Willow  Warblings

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?!!!!.

A White-tailed Bumblebee feeding
Red Pulmonaria attract early insects
Early chicken's eggs, including the first, very small egg
Male Common Hazel catkins, releasing their pollen before falling from the tree
The less familiar female flower of the Common Hazel, approximately 4mm across
The beauty of wild Daffodils
March and frogspawn is now appearing in home and countryside ponds

February update

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.

                                             

January 2021 update

Nature seems to be at its greyest in January. And yet, as the year imperceptibly turns, the heralds of spring come into their own… The robin will sing a complicated song under his breath to you if you are out gardening, while at dawn and dusk the song thrush begins to pour out an ecstatic effusion of song. In fact the word ‘song’ is too merry a description: there is an urgency and passion in those ingeniously inventive phrases, each usually repeated twice or thrice, that suggest a darker imperative. Have you heard one of our Cattistock thrushes? If so you will have heard one of the descendants of the thrush Hardy wrote about:

At once a voice arose among

      The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

      Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

      In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

      Upon the growing gloom.

 

So little cause for carollings

      Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

      Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

      His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

      And I was unaware .

From The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy, December 29th 1900.

                                             

Mid-November update

Mid November is the moment when nature naturally goes into lockdown – this year demonstrating what poets call the pathetic fallacy, because we are in lockdown too. But while the fallen leaves, the cold rain and dark skies mirror our gloomy state, there are still plenty of hidden natural joys if you know where to look for them…For instance, take the compost heap – always my favourite subject – which, if you turn it over carefully, will reveal a trove of scurrying, wriggling invertebrates living productive lives in its warmth and seclusion. If you are lucky a robin will magically appear to oversee your investigations and snap up a few of the heap’s denizens. A drift of dry leaves in your log store or shed, barn or stable is the ideal hibenaculum for a hedgehog so – always my favourite plea – don’t let your garden get too tidy!

Out in the fields you can see our winter visitors from Scandanavia, the fieldfares, and hear their clacking calls – with redwings among them. The birds of the high ploughed fields such as golden plover are difficult to spot, but not so the glamorous lapwings – and their big rounded wings make even their flocks identifiable in flight; so remember to take binoculars when walking on the downs and the fields around Eggardon. This is also the season to enjoy murmurations of starlings, while the weather is not too frosty. There is apparently a murmuration centring around the reed beds at West Bexington, although I have never seen it. If you spot it – probably sometime between 3.30 and 5.30pm (I’m guessing here) please telephone the Nature Table hotline – 320064! I’d love to see it.

                                             

Mid-August update.

The swifts – the first of the migrant hirundines to fly back to the southern hemisphere – have gone, but the house martins and swallows are still feeding (second broods?) and teaching their young to hunt for flies high in the upper air.

Rupert at Wallis Farm has sent this beautiful photo of a robin’s pincushion on a dog-rose bush – see above. He writes, ‘the Robin’s pincushion (also known as the Bedeguar Gall) is a gall caused by the larvae of a tiny gall wasp, Dipoloepis rosae. The gall is widespread and common, and can be found developing on the stems of dog-roses during late summer’.

Perhaps one of the great photos of the year so far is Liz Flight’s snap of a hedgehog which has taken up residence in their porch. She (as they believe) enjoys dog food and lots of available water in hot weather, and being a hedgehog of fashion likes to bunk down during the day in one of the children’s hats.

At night she rambles off to join the Churchyard Hedgehogs who have just been provided with a magnificent house to hibernate in when the cold weather begins… constructed by Phil Evans and put in place under the clippings pile by Cathy Evans and her team, it will be the snuggest of retreats from frost and snow, and help the little critters – regular visitors to the gardens near the churchyard and Meadow View – to expand their range.

Please do send me your wildlife news – merrily@harpur.org or phone 01300 320064.

Mid July update:

A quick update for the middle of July – nature comes in a tsunami of events at this time of year…

The Nature Table’s official Hedgehog Correspondent, Cathy Evans, reports good news: “I have met two mini hedgehogs (about 4″ long so I am guessing this year’s brood?) as well as adults in South Drive, on the road and in our gardens. Other sightings have been in the churchyard, Rectory Gardens and Meadow View where Sheila has set up a feeding station in her garden and they come every night.” Thank you, Cathy, for spotting them, and top marks Sheila! On the downside Cathy reports a fatality on St Helen’s Lane of an adult hedgehog. Apparently it had been knocked on the head (blood present), but not eaten, so a badger was not the culprit on this occasion. But very sad! Might I once again ask everyone not to use slug pellets?! Hedgehogs eat the poisoned slugs and are poisoned themselves. It’s possible that this was the fate of the St Helen’s Lane one.

You might have noticed that Duck Street, for the first time in many years, is filled with the hoarse chirps of house martins feeding their young. There are five nest boxes up, the first two pioneered by the Nelsons at Vine Cottage, followed by Nunwell, and a pair on the eaves at Markers. All are occupied, though the Nelsons think that a pair of sparrows may have elbowed the resident martins out of one of the nests, to use themselves.

Relish, also, the screams of the swifts around the church and village – particularly as dusk falls. This is a sound we won’t be hearing for much longer as swifts visit us only to breed, and by the end of July or early August will have gone again. Our swifts have one of the longest migration journeys in the world, flying to and from Equatorial and Southern Africa, using largely unknown routes… a total of 14,000 miles every year. Enjoy these strange and lovely birds while we have them.

 

Mid June update:

Compost Heap Competition Results. Judged by The Midden Maiden.

What a lovely virtual stroll through the gardens of Cattistock Peter Farmer has given us, and well done to those who subjected their compost heaps to his camera and the scrutiny of the Midden Maiden for the Compost Heap Competition. The terms of the competition may have decomposed along the way, for the specification was for compost HEAPS – whereas the entries all featured compost BINS! A compost heap is the second most wildlife-friendly thing you can have in your garden – the first being a pond – thus a good compost heap should not only be efficient in its breaking down of garden waste into compost by means of naturally generated heat, but provide homes and food for a wide range of wildlife. The Midden Maiden was looking principally at this second aspect in the entries – all of which were beautiful and efficient in different ways… though all were regimented into bins, which somewhat reduced their utility as wildlife reserves.

No 1. The Orrs’ bins – characteristically beautiful and colourful, with evidence of assiduous dead-heading of roses, which is what we should all do more often. Slatted sides allow ingress for bugs, reptiles and amphibians such as toads – and ideally the slats should be wide enough to accommodate the latter. No.2 The Kays’ bins had louvred slats which seems an intelligent way to funnel rain into the heap thus avoiding having to water it – dampness being essential to the breakdown of plant matter as much as oxygen. They had also covered their compost with what looks like bits of carpet or similar – most important if you have slow-worms which rejoice in the darkness and warmth underneath, and will breed there. (In fairness the other heaps may have had coverings which they removed for the camera, but, alas, the Midden Maiden can judge only on Peter’s photos. When the real Open Gardens comes round again it will be a different matter…) Slow-worms, along with all the other wildlife your heap nurtures, are creatures which eat the bugs which eat your plants – they are your nocturnal pest-controllers. No.3. The Gregory’s bins look delightfully home-made, not to say slightly ramshackle – with good wide slats. A compost heap simply cannot be too ramshackle… both wildlife friendly and a delight to the eye. The fork is a beautiful item too… But!! Cruelly stabbed into the heap!! Whereas it should be respectfully laid on top for fear of stabbing a toad or some other creature. No. 4. The Lavans’ heap looked from the photo as if it had some sort of fabric enclosure to stop the compost from falling through the slats and which will greatly reduce the ability of wildlife to burrow into it… the Midden Maiden might be doing them a great wrong here as the photo doesn’t show much of it. From the look of it, though, it is a heap which gets turned regularly – a good way of oxygenating it and of ensuring dampness is evenly distributed throughout.

The Midden Maiden has also awarded points for the number of compost heaps/bins per garden – in her opinion the more the merrier, simply because the less a heap is disturbed the better the home it provides for wildlife, and having at least two if not three or four means that one can ideally be left undisturbed for a whole year to allow the fungal, invertebrate, and reptile lifecycles to complete. Again, the Midden Maiden might be being unfair – there might have been extra heaps not pictured. Finally, a damp, well-rotted compost heap is somewhere that blackbirds and thrushes can root in for worms when the weather is hot and dry and lawns too hard-baked to provide them. So an extra bin, uncovered in hot weather, will keep many a brood of nestlings alive in an unseasonably dry spring. Below are the marks, totals out of a possible 60.

Heap owner

Orrs

Kays

Gregorys

Lavans

Ingress of worms and bugs

5

6

8

0

Slow-worm nursery

6

9

6

2

Picturesqueness

7

5

8

6

Decomposition efficiency

7

9

7

8

Number of bins

2

3

2

2

Bird larder

7

0

7

9

 

 

 

 

 

Total

34

32

38

27

 

Thus the Gregorys are the Compost Heap Competition prizewinners, and will receive a 2ft square piece of old carpet as a slow-worm nursery, and a bottle of Champagne. Congratulations to them!

Mid-May update:

Skylarks are singing on the downs – and Rupert Cake has sent me these two photos of a skylark’s nest – firstly with eggs, and later with chicks. Brilliant work, as they are very difficult to find. Let’s just hope the badger doesn’t find them too. Lovely to have a nature reserve at Wallis Farm although, troublingly, it must be about five years since I heard the cuckoo there. Or, indeed, anywhere – which mirrors the national decline in what used to be the signature sound of spring.

The swifts are back, screaming around the church as ever till quite late on warm evenings, while the large Serotine bat plies the gardens of Duck Street just after dusk. Where are our house martins? There are lots at Maiden Newton cross, but so far the Duck Street nests show no signs of re-occupation… I hope it’s not that Covid-19 has meant that the Continental marksmen have got nothing better to do than redouble their aim at migrating birds.

Become a Midden Maiden! DON’T take your garden waste to the tip! Pile it up as a big mixed compost heap somewhere in the garden and see it as a wonderful garden feature! It will host myriads of harmless insects, which in turn will feed birds, frogs, toads, hedgehogs. And if you put a big slate or tile, or piece of black plastic or corrugated iron on top you will provide a lovely warm hideaway for slow worms to bask beneath in the mornings – and you might be rewarded by a crowd of babies, like golden needles, as the summer progresses. All these animals are the gardeners’ friends, eating the bugs that eat our plants, so your compost heap does double duty in keeping our gardens both fertile and wildlife-friendly. In the eighteenth century landowners used to pay shaggy-looking hermits to inhabit the romantically ruined Gothic follies on their landscaped estates; well, that compost heap can be your version… something wild and shaggy in the corner to enhance the perfection of your immaculate borders. Send me photos of your compost heaps! They will be featured here, and the Midden Maiden Committee will award prizes for the best ones.

Hedgehogs have been reported once again foraging in South Drive and Vicarage Gardens – hooray! Let me know if you find them in your garden – or your dog does! BUT – here’s a plea – PLEASE try not to use slug pellets in your gardens and allotments. Hedgehogs eat the poisoned slugs and die. Now that the garden centres are open, I recommend investing in some of those harmless-to-wildlife slug pellets based on compacted sheep’s wool – I found that they work pretty well. If you have your own sheep then just try the wool around your best plants – slugs hate walking across it.

As ever, please let me know if you see or hear anything noteworthy in your fields, or walks, or gardens, no matter how insignificant it is welcome here! Tell me on merrily@harpur.org or 077993 77661

                                             

April 14th. COMPETITION RESULT! Nobody enterered except Rupert, who sent me two lovely photos of a sky-blue speedwell and a blackthorn in bloom on the downs. He therefore wins hands down! I will ask Peter Farmer to upload the photos to this page for all to admire.

Orange tip butterflies have been seen in the village, and a comma; the swallows are back, though not nesting yet. Look carefully in your compost heaps for a resident slow-worm – they are great friends to the gardener as they eat slugs and all the slow-moving insects that eat our prize flowers and veg. The chiffchaff is calling out his name in the hedges, and the blackcap is singing his quick, conversational, highly-inflected song in the gardens once again. Pipistrelle bats are hawking around the churchyard and lanes again, and that shadowy figure you see walking there at dusk is me – with my bat detector, trying to identify the species… Keep me posted with anything interesting you spot too… merrily@harpur.org

                                             

In 2015 the Oxford Junior Dictionary dropped the word ‘buttercup’. Despite protests from poets, writers and country people ‘blackberry’, ‘crocus’, ‘catkin’, and ‘clover’ went too… Our children are in danger of losing a vital connection with nature, with country words replaced by the language of technology and towns. On these lovely spring days perhaps we will be doing them a favour by teaching them to name a primrose, a daisy, a violet, cuckoo flower, stitchwort, celandine…. and the long-lost buttercup! And just for fun, and the competition, send their pictures to Merrily at merrily@harpur.organd they will go up on the website.

APRIL UPDATE: Rupert Cake has sent a lovely photograph of the new lambs at Wallis Farm – see above. He adds that all their sheep spend all their lives at the farm – even the boys.

Perhaps the best-known lines of poetry on the month of April are Chaucer’s – his invocation of that month as the time ‘than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.’  Why not spend a merry hour delighting in his Middle-English spelling and his wholly contemporary observations?… https://www.bartleby.com/40/0101.html

And although we are enjoined not to go on pilgrimages just yet – here’s a competition to add piquancy to your solitary rambles or family walks in our area…

APRIL WILDFLOWER COMPETITION!

Rules: 1.) see how many wildflowers you can spot, photograph and identify in the fields, verges and hedges of our area over the week running from Saturday 5th to 8pm on the Saturday 12th April. The person or family who spots the most will receive a mysterious prize and feature on the website. 

2.) Send your photos to Merrily Harpur (m@harpur.org) using the free big-file transfer service We Transfer which is incredibly easy to register with and upload files to. Find it at https://wetransfer.com/

3.) Add a note to say what each flower is (common names are fine, latin if you must) and where you spotted them.

4.) Wildflowers only, or flowering wild shrubs or trees. Nothing out of a garden please…!

5.) Check back here on The Nature Table for a roundup of all the flowers photographed, and announcement of the winner.

5.) In the event of a tie, the best photos will win.

HAPPY CLICKING!

                                             

MARCH UPDATE:  Here’s something to cheer us all up – Rupert Cake rang me yesterday to report seeing a brimstone butterfly meandering amongst the new blackthorn blossoms on Wallis Farm… Spring is here! Thank you Rupert.

The very first butterfly to appear in the year, the brimstone is bright yellow, like dappled sunlight, and unlike those of other butterflies its wings are in the shape of leaves. Let me know if you spot one in your garden – 01300 320064 or merrily@harpur.org The larvae feed on leaves of buckthorn, or purging buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), which suits our calcareous soils, and alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus), which is found on moist acid soils and wetlands – so do be sure to include one of these two species when planting a new native-species hedge, and you will be rewarded with some flying primroses among the terrestrial ones.

Today is St Patrick’s Day – the day when Irish people traditionally sow their potatoes, and rooks start building their nests – only if it falls on a Sunday the rooks piously defer the job till the Monday. In four days time we have the spring equinox, equal hours of darkness and light, with its high tides, and the start of the glorious bird-song season. Open the window on a quiet, sunny morning at about 5.30am and see how many different birds singing you can count – and if you feel like it, let me know! There is a lovely little app you can download to your phone called Chirp! which plays the songs of every British bird – so you can identify what you think you might be listening to.

FEBRUARY update: The first of February was Imbolc to our ancestors, the first day of Spring in Ireland, St. Brigit’s Day. The birds know it: the blackbirds, which have been practising their song under their breath all January (if you can stand near one in a hedgerow you can hear it) have now started to practise out loud – but still quietly. The beak of the cock bird starts to turn from brown to yellow now, and both beak and song reach their climax at the end of March. Meanwhile Chris Slade reports in his blog that a bluetit is eyeing up his nestbox…

The snowdrops have appeared under the beech tree at Meech’s corner – thank you whoever planted them – and under the trees at the cricket pitch, and primroses and crocuses in gardens. The Christmas box – one of the most scented winter flowering shrubs – is in full flower in the Willows’ garden – you can smell its intoxicating fragrance walking up Kennel Lane long before you get near their house. 

I saw a field full of lambs and their mothers in Somerset yesterday. The weather is weirdly warm – can’t remember more than three proper frosts this winter, let alone this year; and weirdly wet – let’s  hope the sun dries up Back Lane soon, and we hear the descending trill of the chaffinch in the fields and gardens – the first bird to announce that Spring is really here.

 

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

 

A Robin rummaging in the leaf litter
A patch of John and Sue's garden, with a rich mix of Snowdrops, Celandines and domesticated flowers
A close up of some of the hellebores found in amongst the wild flowers of Sue's garden
The remnants of a Thrush's meal of snails
Common frogs will soon be seen in our gardens
Common toads only visit ponds to breed
The inquisitive Grey Squirrel
The eggs of a Skylark (Alauda arvensis) at Wallis Farm
A rare view of a young Skylark chick at Wallis Farm
One week on and the skylark chicks are growing fast
Common milkwort (Polygala vulgaris)
A beautiful Spring display in the churchyard
Spring Primroses in the churchyard
Snowdrops at sunset in the Cricket Club's grounds
Primroses in the hedgerows
Blackthorn blossom along the verge of the A37
Nature Table competition: Rupert Cake's Blackthorn in bloom
Nature Table competition: Rupert Cake's Sky blue Speedwell
Bees also live in a nest in the church
Close-up evidence that bees are using the bee-kind log hive