Counting buttterflies because butterflies count (and so do moths)

One of the great joys of summer for me is the arrival of colourful butterflies, damselflies and dragonflies. We get fantastic numbers here. While Winnie the Pooh might consider that ‘nobody can be uncheered with a balloon’ ( and I agree with him whole-heartedly) for me the cheeriest thing has always been the sight of a butterfly, beetle, damselfly or moth on a sunny day.

With that in mind ‘Big Butterfly Count’ time of year is always one of my favourites. This is the 5th year that Butterfly Conservation have been running the programme and last year over 44,000 people took part and submitted their results. Hopefully this year there will be even more. Butterflies are a particularly good indicator of environmental decline or issues. Their short lifespans and fussy eating habits mean that any problems are quickly shown up in a reduction of numbers in particular species or groups of species.

In my busy days of often noisy pursuits, taking the time to spend 15 minutes counting butterflies quietly in the sunshine is a joy. Granted it was partway through a litter pick of mostly beer cans and filled doggy bags making me smell like a brewery, and worse, but taking the time to focus on the wildlife despite the mess we humans make can only cheer my day. Feel free to do the same, I thoroughly recommend it! The counting finishes this Sunday (9th August) but they give you plenty of time to submit your results which you can then take a look at online when all the data has been collated. You can go old school (-ish ) by printing the sheet from the website www.bigbutterflycount.org/idchart and input your results when you get home or download the free android or apple apps so you can complete the whole process on the go.

Poplar Hawk Moth visiting my trap

If you are a moth person ( or just a general bug-hugger like me ) you are very welcome to join me on Sunday September the 13th to see what my trap has attracted overnight. Counting moths on national Moth Night is obviously a little more involved than counting butterflies in a field in broad daylight, but my home-made Skinner trap usually gets good results ( weather permitting ) and I can pretty much guarantee that you will be surprised what turns up. Moth trapping provides a fascinating insight into what goes on in your gardens in the middle of the night and the visitors you get that you probably never see. Poplar Hawk moths, like the one in the picture, are regular visitors and one of the most spectacular with a wingspan of over 7cm. If you fancy coming along just give the office at Dapdune a call to book your place ( 01483 561389 ) so I know how many cups of tea and slices of cake I need to prepare. I think  we are asking for a donation of a couple of pounds  to cover baking supplies but they can fill you in on the logistics when you call. The more the merrier!

The aliens have landed

Summers by the river brings many fabulous things, but also some unwanted floral visitors. There are several alien invasive species that we have to battle. They were brought to this country for their decorative properties and have been causing havoc almost ever since.

Floating Pennywort is a water plant that you could buy from British garden centres until depressingly recently to cheer up your garden ponds. It has now made the move to wild watercourses and made itself very much at home, and is taking over. The problem is it likes it too much. Just one small sprig or even leaf can soon proliferate into a huge dense mat that shades and smothers everything else.

Pennywort Newark

Another of our alien invaders is Himalayan Balsam. It was brought over from the Americas in the 1830s and was much prized for its beautiful pink flowers. The problem is that the explosive seed pods, when ripe, can catapult 1500 seeds over 7 metres. As you can imagine, the odd plant soon becomes a dense, rapidly expanding patch and it can colonise areas downstream of the original plant very quickly. A single plant can grow over 2 metres high and once they have taken hold, all native vegetation is shaded out and over-run.

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While that might all seem like doom and gloom, and the presence of both can be a serious problem, the solutions are happily low-tech and chemical-free.

If you get to it early enough, Floating Pennywort can be removed with wellies and a 3 pronged cultivator. The trick (as I’ve found through a great deal of trial and error) is to get a good hold on the raft of weed and pull gently. If you are too vigorous or  impatient you will invariably find you separate a small portion from the main raft and spread the problem. If you loosen things enough, some will float away and start a new colony somewhere else. If you take it slowly however, you are usually able to coax the whole raft to the bank. Rather than transport it, and potentially cause a whole new problem somewhere else, it is best to let it sit out on the bank in the sun where it soon dries out and dies quietly in a corner.

With Himalayan Balsam the best tool is person-power … as much of it as you can muster, cajole or bribe into service. I was lucky enough this week to have a dozen or so volunteers to help me clear a couple of sizeable patches for the price of an ice lolly and a beer. In my book that is fantastic value for money, if I was on my own I’d still be there now! It is a very fleshy plant that spends all its energy creating height (and the best chance to distribute its seeds), not roots. That means that individual or small groups of plants are fairly easy to pull up, roots and all, there are just soooo many of them. Again a day or two in the sun sees them wither into a mass of innocuous dry leaves. The seeds only remain viable for a couple of years usually, so a couple of brave seasons of Balsam bashing can see pretty good results.

Even if you think you have ‘won’, I’m afraid that vigilance is the key with both of these and complacency is not an option. The fight goes on.

Fluffy firsts

  

Just an excuse for a nice picture really….

These 3 little ones are the first mallard ducklings of the year at Walsham. They are about 4 days old. They are 2 or 3 weeks younger than the first on the river this year which hatched near Shalford.

Today’s sunshine has also brought the butterflies out. The brimstones and peacocks have been out of hibernation for a few weeks but today I saw my first red admirals and large white. No photos of those though, I only managed to take pictures of where they were a few seconds before….

Wild timing

This was going to be a post about finally finishing painting my 3 lock sides ( which I now have … Hooray! ) As you can see the lovely new white lines aren’t the main thing you see when you look at the picture I’ve just taken.

Following weeks of early starts, late finishes and lots of hard work to spruce up my locks for spring, the last splosh of paint hadn’t even dried before the local wildlife decided things were looking a bit too tidy. The mole hill started off as a tiny bump but has been growing throughout the day. The scuff marks you can see on this side of the river are from a badger’s search for worms, insects and leatherjackets ( the cranefly grubs not 1970s cop show attire ). 

While I can’t lie, I am slightly annoyed by the impeccable timing,  it’s great to know that I’m sharing my bit of river with some beautiful creatures. I’m hoping it also means that there are some mole pups and badger cubs being well sheltered and fed by their (clearly) active parents nearby. In the last few days as well as the evidence of badgers and moles I’ve seen. weasel casually crossing the path, rabbits enjoying the lock side grass, roe deer giving me ( and my dog ) a distainful look, foxes and squirrels in abundance  and something else small and fluffy has definitely found my bird food stash! While I appreciate that I’m very lucky where I live, I can guarantee that wherever you are you are sharing your space with more than you realise, if you only take time to look and read the signs.

 

Searching for Spring and springing a leak

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It’s true to say that no two days as a lengthsman are alike and yesterday was no exception. It started off peacefully, getting myself organised for a guided walk. The plan was to have a nice sedate walk looking for horticultural, ornithological and entomological signs that spring was ( or wasn’t ) upon us in the week of the equinox. All went to plan with the sun kindly coming out and making our celandine, catkin and bumblebee hunting a pleasure on a beautiful Sunday morning.

My happy mood was overtaken by a rapidly sinking feeling ( if you’ll pardon the pun ) on hearing that we had a breach in the bank above Papercourt Lock. Working on a Navigation that is the one thing you don’t ever want to hear. The implication if it is a major breach is that boats could be damaged and that there is not enough water left to get our repair equipment easily to site. That is before you even consider the issues for wildlife.

I rapidly made my way back to the start of the circular walk with my very supportive walkers in tow and put out boards to warn boaters that they wouldn’t be able to travel above Newark Lock. By the time I made it there the potential disaster had been averted so all there was left to do was help with a few more barrow loads of soil to level the surface and deliver some hastily grabbed mars bars. The Maintenance Team had been mobilised and with the help of Chris the Lengthsman stemmed the flow with clay, soil and some carefully placed skill and brute force. It turned out the water had made its way through holes in the piling and scoured out some of the bank underneath the surface and suddenly forced a way out. Having the luxury of an in-house team who can deal with these issues at a moments notice means we can get to these situations before they become major incidents and operational and financial headaches.

Like I say no two days are the same. Today it’s back to painting and mowing, if all goes to plan, but I know better than to count on it.

Happy (owl) Boxing Day!

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Thanks to the ‘Operation Owl’ and Woking LA21 we are the proud owners of a new Little Owl box. It seemed appropriate to put it up on Boxing Day. The fact that it was a dry day without too much activity from the weirs and having willing volunteers in the form of Christmas guests made it seem like a sensible choice.

We managed to find the perfect tree, overlooking the right sort of grass and hunting territory and the preferred North Easterly direction. Luckily I managed to find a row of trees pointing the right way and away from the water, which can be a real hazard for the fledging owlets. The plan is that this will be the first of many Little owl, Barn owl and Tawny owl boxes up and down the river. I have seen or heard all 3 species on the Walsham length so hopefully it is only a matter of time before the first inhabitants move in!