Nature Table

An example of a local murmuration of Starlings
A Golden Plover calling
A Blue Tit on a Sunflower seed feeder

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 – 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





Ingress of worms and bugs





Slow-worm nursery










Decomposition efficiency





Number of bins





Bird larder
















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 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…


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?…

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…


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 ( using the free big-file transfer service We Transfer which is incredibly easy to register with and upload files to. Find it at

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.



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 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.



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 –

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.


Previous years Nature Table articles can be viewed below:

For 2019 enter here

For 2020 enter here


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
Matt Somerville preparing to raise the bee-kind log hive
The bee-kind log hive in place in the Church yard. The hive was funded by the Church and the CCF
A box being placed in position
A Hornet found in a pile of shoes
A murmuration of Starlings
A Robin
Tawny Owl boxes in manufacture
Owl boxes being made in Phil Evans' workshop