Postcard from Tollesbury

Tollesbury sits near the mouth of the Blackwater estuary and is famed for producing great sailors during the golden age of the America’s Cup, reputedly because the testing onshore winds and biting cold made for the right stuff. The dilapidated, wooden granary at the edge of Woodrolfe Creek is a tangible reminder of a time when the port was busy with trade, yacht building and fishing for oysters; today the only inhabitants are swallows and pied wagtails. At dawn, low tide leaves the shallow channels empty of water. The cries and shouts of oystercatchers, redshanks and black-headed gulls travel far on the still air.

‘Estelle’ is a old Hastings lugger looking permanently moored in a narrow creek; a sketch by Turner offers an interesting comparison.

The great saltmarshes stretch east; dead trees tell of a time when sea walls pushed the farmland further out. The footpath on the current sea wall is bright with salsify, the purple flowers attract bees and other pollen-hunting insects. The freshwater ditches and scrubby margins are filled with the songs of whitethroats, reed warblers, Cetti’s warblers, yellowhammers, reed buntings and yellow wagtails. Cuckoos call but turtle doves, which hang on here in small numbers, remain elusive.

Farningham Wood revisited

Farningham Wood is renowned, botanically speaking, for its colony of Deptford pinks Dianthus armeria that hide amongst the wood sage Teucrium scorodonia on one short edge of the great woodland. But this is no wilderness; the M25 is just to the west, the M20 and the old village of Farningham to the south, and plastic acres of polytunnels filled with raspberry canes to the north with a distant view of the Dartford Crossing beyond. So, ignoring the traffic noise and the feeling that you are admiring a badly frayed masterpiece, this is a large and lovely ancient woodland on acidic soils that cap the chalk hilltop, decked with great English oak Quercus robur standards and sweet chestnut Catanea sativa and hazel Corylus avellana coppice.

Three years ago, lily of the valley Convallaria majalis was out in a corner of the wood and it remains in rude health today with various loose clumps in semi-shade under the tall hornbeam and beech; these are a long cricket ball’s throw from a small stand of Solomon’s seal Polygonatum multiflorum, a beautiful member of the asparagus family. Both are surprisingly easy to overlook and finding them in other parts of the wood has so far been fruitless. There are plentiful stands of woodruff Galium odoratum; another woodland species with dark green foliage and white flowers.

Adders on the meadow

There are just a handful of traditional lowland hay meadows left in Southern England. On a land use map of Kent, Marden Meadow looks like a short line of postage stamps stuck on a large, white envelope; a remnant from a time when the only implements to work the land were scythes, carts and barrows and the only inputs, the rich silt from the flooding stream and animal dung. At the time of the Penny Black, the large labour force cut the grassland for hay in July and grazed livestock in winter. The subtle beauty and rich diversity of the meadow flora, an ironic bequest from an era of brief lives and long days of hard, physical work. Back in the day, the classic English landscape was perhaps only appreciated by those detached from the exacting routine, such as country parsons and painters.

For a brief period through April and May, the meadows are transformed into a pointillist painting of green-winged orchids, meadow buttercups and yellow rattle with a well-hidden spattering of diminutive adder’s-tongue ferns; the grassland sward is dominated by meadow foxtail with patches of sweet vernal-grass. All are intolerant of the plough and application of modern fertilisers; hence why most lowland meadows have disappeared under a sea of rye-grass, rape and cereals

There are ponds on the edge of the meadow with a rich flora, one overhung with an old, wild service tree, decked in bouquets of white flowers. At dawn on a cloudless day in Spring, this is a dewy paradise; the adjacent railway line, a rude reminder of another rich heritage.

Today, conserving these relic habitats and expanding them through restoration projects within the modern agricultural landscape is the conservation zeitgeist; gardening on a grand scale. Such plans may have to be amended if the warming climate dictates otherwise and of course suspended for a time if the next glaciation descends to wipe the slate clean again. Thankfully, the consensus on the advent of the next glacial period suggests that we probably have many thousands of years to play but then again, no prediction is a confident one.

Adders on the down

A black and white male adder sunbathes on the upper slope of an old pile of fence posts and the chocolate brown female does the same on the lower slope. On another day, a darker male is on the fence pile tightly coiled as the cloud is over; he tastes the air then slides silently away.

There has been a long term study of adders on the chalk downs above the Darenth Valley and, on a hot cloudless day, one of the surveyors kindly explained a little about the work which has been going on between March and October every year since 2008.

Encounter rates are measured at or under reptile mats which have been distributed across the escarpment and individuals identified from unique markings. Some individuals have been followed on their seasonal travels and over many years. Declines in distribution may be due to the south facing downland becoming drier and hotter with numbers remaining healthy on west-facing slopes. Slow worms which are also monitored are also declining in the same habitat, which is less surprising as these rely heavily on molluscs for prey. Common lizards on the other hand are getting more common everywhere. Is this climate change in action? Probably. Long term studies, such as this one, reveal much that is insightful locally but also feeds into a an understanding of change at a continental scale, and with adders in decline across the UK, this is especially important right now.

The flowers of the chalk are also beginning to turn the green sward into a colourful patchwork including crosswort, trefoils and salad burnet. The early purple orchids are going over and man orchids on the way up. Crab spiders sit and wait for insect prey on tall plants; a successful strategy also used by adders that prey on small mammals, small reptiles and nestling birds. Adders will also actively pursue prey.

In the summer of 1979, I approached a stonechat nest on the Surrey heath where my old friend Frank Blackburn had put up a hide to photograph the comings and goings of the adults. All the nestlings were lying dead and an adder was sitting by the nest devouring one of the brood; the other half-feathered corpses each had a neat double puncture mark in the breast. Presumably he or she was going to swallow the lot.

The downland is covered in dingy skippers which seem to be having a good year; grizzled skippers are here too but much less abundant. Small heaths are just on the wing and pairs chase each other low over the slopes for long periods in frenetic dog fights. On the scrubby edges, where the hawthorn is in flower and dog roses are coming out, green hairstreaks sit on prominent branches and chase off all comers with a rapid dash but often returning close by; the undersides have the most brilliant emerald green colour; the upper wings are hardly ever revealed.

Luddesdown

In January 2015, the stone church and old manor that make up most of Luddesdown were surrounded by winter cereals and short-grazed pastures. Today, the hamlet appears to have been transported to southern France being enveloped by a freshly planted, organic vineyard. The last time that vines were grown in such quantity was probably during the Roman occupation in the first century, after which the climate cooled and the Dark Ages descended.

In early April, the new vines are dwarfed by grey metal stakes and an early growth of arable weeds leaving the bare chalk soil as bright white, flinty stripes across the slopes. A month later and the charlock drowns the fields a bright yellow. The view to the village of Cobham on the top of the hill to the north is across vineyards, fields and woodlands; only the pylons kill the beautiful pastoral landscape as only pylons can.

The woodlands above the slopes are ancient hornbeam, beech, ash and oak, with coppiced hazel and sweet chestnut. Scot’s pines and firs have been planted in some compartments and today stand tall. The ash trees appear to be dying back providing a rich time for woodpeckers and nuthatches. The rides are surrounded by dense bramble but a few rare plants survive on the edges, including half a handful of white helleborines that will be flowering in May along with the more abundant bluebells, woodruff and sanicle.

Spring butterflies

The early butterflies are nearly all widespread species including orange tips, brimstones and ‘cabbage whites’, the exception in southern England is the Duke of Burgundy fritillary and the nearest colony is near Canterbury. Peacocks and small tortoiseshells are also out and both common this year. The hedge garlic and lady’s smock are the host plant of orange tips. Brimstones feed on anything full of nectar and lay on alder buckthorn. The whites lay on brassicas and hence why many gardeners net their young broccoli, swede and cabbage plants. Now there is a job to do.

Red kite mobbed by a carrion crow

Red kites are renowned nest predators especially of rooks and crows. In mid April, most carrion crows pairs have a nest on the go, probably with with four blue speckled eggs in a stick nest lined with wool, and if a kite approaches then the male will climb vertically out of the woods to harry and chase the bird away. When a red kite decides not to move on but to carry on circling lazily, low over the fields, then the level of aggression will build and the interaction develop into an angry dogfight. On a sunny evening on the North Downs, this carrion crow was all claws and contorted wings as it twisted and turned to attack and evade the long yellow talons of the inquisitive and persistent intruder. The aggression eventually worked and the kite ambled away. This was likely to have been a single bird as it is going into primary moult early with a distinctive notched wing; breeding birds tend to hang on to their flight feathers until later in the season.

Early Spring woodland flowers

Spring in the ancient oak, ash, beech and hornbeam woodlands of the North Downs is announced by wood anemones, sweet violets and celandine but quickly followed by a flurry of others. Moschatel, colloquially known as townhall clock or five-faced bishop is a diminutive and uncommon plant found in small colonies amongst the much showier swathes of bluebells and spikes of yellow archangel. A small number of toothwort are emerging in an old hazel coppice; these are parasitic plants, lack chlorophyll and look sickly and dangerous. The ancient woodlands are at their best in early Spring just as the fresh green leaves appear on the trees; and none hereabouts is complete without an abandoned, burnt out car.

Nuthatches and woodpeckers

An old ash tree probably suffering from ash dieback, has three woodpecker holes in its dying wood. The middle hole is occupied by a pair of great tits that carry in beakfuls of moss. The other two holes are being inspected by a pair of nuthatches but also, from time to time, a pair of green woodpeckers. There is more than a hint of competition but, whilst the nuthatches seem unflustered by the watcher on the steep bank of bluebells opposite the upper hole, the woodpeckers are clearly put off; so the story is not straightforward to tell.

The male, well I presume the male, nuthatch is very active and vocal and on one occasion carries a huge dead stick, but for what purpose is not clear as it is not ideal nest material. Maybe he is simply showing off?

The male nuthatch appears on and around the tree with the three holes with great regularity in the early morning and calls persistently. Some of the louder calls involves throwing his head back and, as described a century ago, serenading the sky.

After which, both holes are inspected by one and sometimes both the pair. This involves peering in, entering and then checking the entrance. Sometimes the male tries the top hole then scuttles down and does the same to the bottom hole. The top hole is much bigger and possibly preferred but the choice is not yet fixed. On one occasion, the woodpecker chases the nuthatch from the upper hole during the briefest of flypasts, resulting in a bout of frenetic nuthatch calling. The woodpeckers are shy and only visit briefly, staying high in the trees or hiding on the far side of the tree trunk; their presence always causes the nuthatches to start calling.

The male nuthatch works the branches around the nest tree and quickly finds grubs under bark and from beech buds and proffers them after a brief and dizzying chase around a branch to the female.

A day later and on a bright evening of quiet calm the nest holes are deserted. Will the nuthatches succeed or will the woodpeckers, or will neither and the great tits be left in peace?