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Review of the year
Well as we say goodbye to 2021, for good or ill, it’s time to reflect on what the gardening group achieved this year. And looking back, it’s pretty impressive, especially if we factor in Covid and a bitterly cold late spring.
It was on one of those ‘finger- numbing’ days back in March that a group of us set about planting 1000 snowdrop bulbs. We chose the variety that grows wild in Britain, Galanthus nivalis. It isn’t actually native to this country, originating from mainland Europe, and having first been recorded here in the wild during the late 18th century. These beauties should be poking their heads above ground sometime soon, so look out for them around the far edges of the garden area.
No time to relax, because our next tasks were to create a wildflower meadow alongside the ramp (at the Brickfield Rd entrance) and start to clear the back bed in the garden. We had quite a run around trying to purchase some wildflower turf: it seems that everyone is creating meadows at the moment and it was flying of the shelves. In the end we decided we would have to buy some seed and be a bit more patient about achieving our goal. Then as Ian and Hilary arrived from The Hawthorns to help us out with the preparations, they said that SCC had some turf surplus to what was needed for their schemes. Well we didn’t need asking twice, we snapped it up and had laid it within a few days. All we needed then was a bit of rain to water it in and nurture it for the first few weeks. But from the end of March when it was put down, until the end of April, it didn’t rain once! That presented us with a real challenge as the meadow is some distance from the only water supply in the Rec. and the turves were definitely in need of a drink! You may have seen a slightly harassed looking man having to trail umpteen feet of hosepipe from the tap in Grosvenor Rd, all across the grassed area and over to the meadow. Well done Garth!.....and thanks to his persistence, with some help from others, the meadow flourished and attracted a healthy population of insects.
Having planted the meadow, we turned our attention to creating a small moth garden alongside the beech hedge. Garth, Jo and Angela raised a huge number of plants from seed; species that are known for their moth appeal. It has to be said, that we had mixed results. The stocks were a little underwhelming and the sweet rocket, being biennial, won’t flower until next year. But the tobacco plants made a stunning display in shades of pink and white and they had the most heady scent in the evening. It’s not hard to see (or smell) why the moths are attracted to them! We also sowed seeds of Evening Primrose and Sweet William directly into the ground, but neither ever saw the light of day. Growing from seed was hard work and with varying degrees of success, so I think it may be easier next year to go for the slightly more expensive option and buy plants…..budget permitting!
During the summer, we continued on clearing the back bed which was fairly overgrown and had a dense network of roots mainly from grasses and highly invasive mint. It was hard work but we did get some assistance from a group of geo-cachers on one occasion and the Community Payback Team (CPT) more recently. The plan is to allow a small copse of native shrubs and trees to grow on one side of the bed, and create a woodland style garden at the other. In the spring we had planted guelder rose, blackthorn and spindle whips, to supplement the birch, rowan, hazel and goat willow that were already there. And, once the group had cleared the area for the woodland garden, the CPT then dug in huge amounts of sand to help improve the drainage. This enabled us to plant the bed a couple of weeks ago, just ahead of the winter frosts.
The summer also saw the appearance of a number of large logs scattered around the garden area, to add to the log pile we’d already created. They were supplied courtesy of gardeners Bob and Rob, who kindly delivered and distributed the logs. A few of the smaller ones did mysteriously disappear, but the larger ones are still in situ. Decaying wood is an absolutely wonderful resource for various insects, which are vital in any healthy, functioning ecosystem.
Never ones to let the grass grow under our feet, (if you’ll pardon the pun), we set about planting 1000 purple crocus bulbs in November, ably assisted by Richard and the local Cub Scout group. The bulbs were a generous donation from the local Rotary Club, as a way of marking the organisation’s longstanding, international campaign to eradicate polio. The scheme is called “Purple for Polio’ as each child who’s vaccinated is given a small purple mark on their finger. Apparently there have only been 2 cases of polio recorded this year; one in Pakistan and the other in Afghanistan. A truly amazing result. So when the crocuses emerge in the spring, they will be a wonderful reminder of what can be achieved to combat viral disease and improve the lives of thousands of people.
Alongside all of this, we’ve had a Tree Dressing Event and a Greening the City event. The latter appeared briefly on South Today a couple of weeks ago in an article about Southampton’s bid to gain National Park City status. But we didn’t allow our moment in the spotlight to distract us as we carried on to reconfigure the central bed, moving some plants, lifting and dividing others, and adding lots more spring flowering bulbs. We also extended the existing meadow using wildfower seeds, as well as creating. another meadow on the opposite side of the ramp. CPT did the heavy work of removing the turves which was no easy task, given the gradient. We then planted 150 wildflower plugs which we’ll supplement with seeds in the spring. It will be interesting to compare the results obtained from wildflower turf, seed mix and plant plugs, having now used all 3.
Lastly you may have noticed various banks and hummocks appearing near the meadows...and no, they’re not illicit burial mounds as someone suggested!! The turves that were excavated to create the meadows have been used to build yet more insect friendly habitat, including our beetle bank. The greater the variety of microhabitat on offer, the greater the variety and number of species and that’s got to be good for all of us.
Well I hope you’ll agree that’s not a bad year’s work! But the pinnacle of achievement for 2021 has to be that the Rec was awarded the prestigious Green Flag Award. We like to think we’ve helped to achieve that, alongside the Council and other significant contributions from FOPR, especially our Chairperson, Bev. Now that’s got to be worth a seasonal toast!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone!
Well, as Christmas approaches, there can only be one candidate for this month’s subject, Britain’s favourite bird, the Robin. This cheeky little chappie consistently comes top of the popularity stakes and in 2015 the public voted it as our unofficial national bird.
So what is it that makes the Robin so appealing? Perhaps it’s partly because its presence brightens up a winter day, when there seems to be little else around. And it’s actually one of the only British birds that sings at this time of year. In the spring it joins the chorus of other birds who are establishing their territories and vying for a mate, but it continues to sing throughout the winter as a means of maintaining it’s territory. Again, unlike most other birds, both the male and female sing and both sexes have the same plumage, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other. But either way, there is probably nothing more plaintive than a robin singing out its slightly mournful song as the winter light fades.
Robins are also quite comfortable around humans, at least here in Britain. They will join you when you’re gardening, in the hope you’ll turn over a tasty morsel and are sometimes tame enough to feed from people’s hands. Apparently, their continental cousins are much more shy and wary, possibly because small birds are hunted elsewhere. The robin pictured here was seeking out insects from amongst a log pile at the Rec and stayed for quite a while, allowing me to get within 3 to 4 feet of it.
But despite its endearing Christmas card image, these are feisty, highly territorial birds and if another robin encroaches on their patch they will attack it and have been known to kill a rival. We had to bear this in mind when we put 2 robin nest boxes in the Rec earlier this year. We made sure that they were buried deep in a hedge, and definitely on opposite sides of the park.
Unfortunately like many small birds, the robin is very short lived and few survive for more than a year. But during that time they will try to raise 2 to 3 broods, and will sometimes nest in quite wacky locations such as old boots, kettles or teapots that happen to be lying around, and all manner of objects; a further endearing trait…….at least if you’re not wanting to use the teapot!!
Robins feature quite strongly in folklore and in children’s nursery rhymes such as ‘Little Robin Redbreast, and ‘The North Wind doth blow, And we shall have snow, And what will poor Robin do then, Poor thing’. But the strangest of all is the rather macabre “Who Killed Cock Robin’ which has many different theories as to it’s origin.
But it is the bird’s association with Christmas that is probably what most people think of when they think of Robins. They appear everywhere and especially on greetings cards. This tradition dates back to Victorian times when the welcome sight of the postman, who was dressed in a red uniform, lead to them being affectionately nicknamed ‘Robins’. Some of the first Christmas cards featured actual robins carrying envelopes in their beaks, and so the custom was established.
There is also a Christmas fable about how the Robin acquired its red breast. It was said that whilst the Holy Family were gathered in the stable, a small brown bird flew down to fan the flames of the fire and warm the baby Jesus. In doing so, the bird scorched its breast which then turned red, and has remained so ever since
Thankfully our Robins seem to be one of the few species that are thriving and are not of conservation concern. And one or two of them have thankfully decided that the Rec is a good place to set up home.
Words and photographs by Denise Long
A number of visitors to the park have expressed disappointment that the meadow at the top of the ramp has now been cut down. Whilst it’s good to know that people notice and care about these things, we’d like to reassure you that it was a necessary part of maintaining the meadow into the future.
Meadow at the Rec July 2021
At the risk of repeating myself, having already written about wildflower meadows, I’d like to explain about the maintenance regime and why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Effectively we’ve tried to create what would have been a traditional hay meadow; a habitat that until recently had all but disappeared. These were used over hundreds of years to provide livestock with winter food. Prior to the Second World War, chemical fertilisers and pesticides were not in common use, having only recently been developed in the USA. Traditional farming methods meant it was difficult to eradicate wildflowers from the grass crop, and the absence of nitrogen rich fertilizers also favoured the native flora. The variety of flowers and grasses in the meadows supported a huge number of insects, which in their turn fed birds and small mammals. It was a thriving ecosystem that came about as a consequence of the need to provide winter fodder. Our focus is on encouraging wildlife, but in order to achieve it, we need to replicate the traditional methods of management.
Hay meadows were always harvested between July and September, whenever the crop was judged to be at its best, and the weather favourable. Once the grass had been cut, it was left to dry for a few days, regularly turned or tedded and subsequently gathered up. The drying process, necessary for the preservation of the hay crop, enabled the wildflowers to set seed. The removal of the hay prevented nutrients being returned to the soil and consequently favoured the conservation of the meadow flowers that flourish in impoverished soil. Usually the land was then grazed, when possible, through the winter months. This had the effect of helping to break up any matted grass (or thatch) that remained, opening up the soil to light and rain, and creating bare patches. All this activity would again have helped to maintain the diversity of the flora. The grazing animals were then removed in April to allow the meadow to grow, and for the whole cycle to begin again.
As we don’t have to consider producing a healthy crop of hay, we were able to leave the mowing until later to give the wildflowers the best chance to set seed. If we had just left the meadow to die back naturally, the nutrients in the decaying vegetation would have enriched the soil. This would encourage the growth of more thuggish species such as certain grasses, thistles, nettles and docks, at the expense of other wildflowers, which would eventually disappear.
In accordance with traditional management, the cuttings were removed after mowing. We now plan to scarify the surface, removing as much of the thatch as possible and creating bare patches. Unfortunately, we don’t have any meadow munchers, in the form of cows, sheep or horses, so we’ll have to set to with rakes and a good deal of muscle power!
A technique that definitely wouldn’t be practised by the farmers would be the sowing of yellow rattle seeds. It’s a native annual that is a partial parasite and obtains some of its nutrients from surrounding plants, especially grasses. It can reduce grasses by up to 50% and would be hugely detrimental to the production of hay. But this is exactly what makes it so good in creating space for the less vigorous wildflowers. So unlike the farmers, we will be sowing yellow rattle, which unsurprisingly, is also known as ‘the meadow maker’. Lastly, we will add a little more wildflower seed, just for good measure, and keep our fingers firmly crossed for next year!
Sadly, since the last war, thousands of miles of hedgerows have been grubbed up and the huge fields of monocultures that resulted, can only be maintained by the application of substantial doses of pesticides and fertilizers. Our green countryside is a ‘chemical green’ that has had a devastating impact on our wildlife. It is sobering to think that we’ve been rated one of the most nature depleted countries on the planet. But thankfully things are changing and, as we face the challenges of climate change and loss of biodiversity, we’re realising that the way we live and farm just isn’t sustainable. Conservationists, many farmers and other organisations are now working to restore degraded habitats, conserve those that remain, or even create new ones. So here at the Rec, we like to think that we’re bang on trend and doing our bit to help support our local wildlife.
P.S. If you would like to read a book about the power of nature to regenerate, please do read ‘The Running Hare’ by John Lewis-Stempel. He leased some land to attempt to restore it using traditional farming methods. And the wildlife soon came! Sadly, it was a short lived experiment but it demonstrates how quickly nature can recover if we only allow it the space.
Words by Denise Long
Photographs by Denise Long and Bruce Larner - Click any photo to enlarge
Opposite the top of the ramped entrance is a small tree which is covered in clusters of pale green, spiky pods, known as burrs. These stand out in marked contrast to the long, shiny, dark green leaves, with saw-like edges. This striking tree is a variegated Sweet Chestnut, a slightly smaller version of the standard Sweet Chestnut, which differs by having cream coloured margins to the leaves.
Photo by Bruce Larner - Click to enlarge
The Sweet Chestnut (or Spanish Chestnut as it’s sometimes known) is not a native tree and was commonly thought to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans. Although this is currently up for debate, it has clearly been here for many hundreds of years and has become naturalised, particularly in southern England.
It is a large, fairly quick growing tree that can get up to 35m tall (slightly less for the variegated variety) and live for as long as 700 years. As a mature tree it is very statuesque, with a broad canopy, the widespread branches sometimes almost reaching the ground. And whilst the bark of younger trees is smooth, as it ages, it develops deep fissures which spiral around the trunk and are covered with woody excrescences. The trunks themselves attain a massive girth relative to their height. To see examples of beautiful, mature Sweet Chestnuts, you need travel no further than Mottisfont, where they also have the huge, venerable Plane tree, (one of the largest in the country), and some very old Mulberry Trees.
Sweet Chestnuts and Horse Chestnuts are not related although there are similarities between the burrs and nuts. But whereas the Sweet Chestnut has a very spiny burr containing 2 to 4 nuts that are triangular in outline, being flattened on one surface, the Horse Chestnut, has a tough, thick- skinned burr with fewer spines and one or two much more spherical nuts. It’s the nuts of the Sweet Chestnut that are edible, preferably roasted to remove any bitterness, whereas those of the Horse Chestnut are toxic, but spot on for playing conkers!
The leaves and flowers of the 2 species are also very different. The Sweet Chestnut has long creamy white, catkins that mature in July. Some of the catkins comprise entirely male flowers and these mature first; others also have smaller female flowers at their base. The flowers give off an aroma, not thought to be very attractive, except to their essential allies, pollinating insects! Once fertilised, the female flowers develop into the clusters of green spiny burrs that gradually turn a yellowy brown as they ripen, and then fall to the ground and split open. This usually happens around December, which is why chestnuts are associated with the festive season.
Photo by Bruce Larner - Click image to enlarge
The leaves of the Sweet Chestnut are also very distinctive. They are long and lance shaped with a glossy surface and very jagged edges, as distinct from the palmate (5 lobed) leaves of the Horse Chestnut.
Although originally from the mountainous regions of Southern Europe, the tree has been grown here for centuries, for it’s nuts, timber, medicinal properties and for tannin and charcoal. It was cultivated extensively in Kent and East Sussex until quite recently, where it was regularly coppiced to provide, amongst other things, fence palings, roof shingles and hop poles; the latter being essential to the brewing industry. A significant area of Chestnut coppice was found to have existed around Canterbury Cathedral by the 1200s. The tree was reputedly made popular in Scotland by Mary, Queen of Scots and it did become fashionable for large estate owners in the seventeenth century to plant Sweet Chestnuts in their grounds.
The Sweet Chestnut flowers are very attractive to bees and other pollinators and over 70 species of moth have been found to feed on the tree during their larval stage, although it isn’t necessarily their primary food plant. The nuts are much appreciated by red squirrels, sadly no longer a part of our local fauna.
As with so many of our trees, the Sweet Chestnut is now at risk from an invasive ‘pest’. The Oriental Gall Wasp was first discovered in the UK in 2015 and was thought to have been introduced on imported plants. The galls appear on buds and leaves and can weaken, and eventually kill the tree. The RHS is running a citizen science project alongside Coventry University to try to save at-risk Sweet Chestnuts. If you’re interested in helping to protect these magnificent trees, please log on to the RHS website to find out more.
Words by Denise Long
Photos by Bruce Larner
A few weeks ago whilst we were digging over one of the borders, we inadvertently disturbed an ants’ nest. They were black ants (Lasius niger) the most common of over three dozen species that occur in the UK
The ants that were urgently rushing around in order to move the pupae to safety, were working ants. They are all sterile, wingless females who are responsible for general housekeeping within the colony as well as feeding its occupants; the single queen and the growing larvae.
Click image to enlarge
It is the worker ants that are most often seen above ground, but on warm, humid evenings anytime between June and September, thousand of flying ants will emerge from their subterranean nests and take to the skies. These are known as nuptial flights and occur in many colonies simultaneously when local weather conditions are suitable. The swarm comprises male ants and unmated queens. Mating takes place on the wing and the queens can store enough sperm on these nuptial flights to enable them to lay thousand of fertilised eggs for the duration of their lifetimes. Any queens that aren’t predated during these flights can live for many years, the record being 29. But the male ants having served their purpose, only live for a day or two after mating.
Once mated, the queen seeks out a suitable place to create her nest and having first discarded her wings, begins to tunnel into the ground. She then seals the entrance to the tunnel, and at its base, creates a chamber in which she lays her eggs. In this new colony, the queen has to rely on fluid created from the breakdown of her own muscles, including the now redundant flight muscles, for all her nutrition. By the time the eggs have hatched and metamorphosed through
their pupal and larval stages to become worker ants, the queen will have lost up to 50% of her bodyweight.
The worker ants then set about expanding the nest and going off in search of food. They eat a number of things including nectar, fruit small insects and honeydew produced by aphids. When an ant locates a suitable food source it will leave a scent trail to the nest for others to follow. Amazingly, they have two stomachs of which the larger, or social stomach, is used to feed members of the col with a priority being to restore the condition of the queen
From now on the population of worker ants will continue to grow and the individuals will become larger and stronger having co-workers to feed them as they develop. After several years, with the colony well established, the queen will then lay unfertilised eggs which will develop into males, and some of fertilised eggs, in receipt of more protein, will become new queens. These individuals will then emerge on their nuptial flights to start the cycle once more
Ants generally divide opinion, with many people disliking them and resorting to chemical means to destroy their nests. But black ants are completely harmless and can be deterred from seeking out sugary treats in the house by using substances such as citrus fruits, coffee grounds, peppermint oil and many others
And ants play a really important role in the environment. They aerate and enrich the soil through their tunnelling activities and the release of nutrients from the organic matter they digest. They help to spread pollen and seeds, consume a number of garden pests and in their turn become part of the food chain, providing a tasty snack for birds, frogs and other animals. So let’s give them a break and choose to live alongside these industrious and remarkable little insects
Words by Denise Long
Picture by Bruce Larner
Of all the insects at the Rec, the butterflies are surely the easiest to spot and their beauty and fragility reminds us of their fleeting existence. Some, like the Blues and Hairstreaks live for only four or five days, others two or three weeks; just long enough to ensure the propagation of the next generation
Butterflies belong to the group called Lepidoptera, which comes from the Greek meaning ‘wings with scales’ and it’s the exquisitely patterned wings that are the their most distinctive feature. The wings are formed by thousands of tiny scales made of chitin and incorporating photonic crystals. It isn’t pigment that gives the wings their colours and iridescence, but the extent to which these crystals reflect or absorb light from different parts of the spectrum. The colours perform a variety of functions. They can be used to attract mates, as a means of camouflage, or to fool predators.
A Gatekeeper butterfly in the garden at the Rec
click image to enlarge
For example, some butterflies have spots that give the appearance of large eyes suggesting a much more formidable opponent, whilst others use bright colours such as red or orange, to mimic the effect of species in which those colours signal the presence of toxins. Male butterflies also have special scales on the upper side of the forewings that produce pheromones to attract females
However, when they first emerge from their chrysalis, the butterflies’ wings are crumpled and useless and this is when they’re at their most vulnerable. The wings are expanded by pumping body fluid (haemolymph) through the veins, a process that can take up to an hour. Before flying the butterfly also has to allow the exoskeleton to harden, and adjust the proboscis, which is a long, hollow coiled tube that uncoils to reach nectar deep within flowers.
Large White photographed in the meadow at the Rec
Click to enlarge image
Once the butterfly is ready to take flight, its short life is entirely devoted to producing the next generation. Fortunately it is equipped with all the sensory apparatus to maximise its chances of finding suitable mates and appropriate food plants for the caterpillars, on which it lays its eggs.
Butterflies have compound eyes, which give them a wide field of vision and enables them to see more of the visible light spectrum than humans, including ultraviolet. Their antennae are clubbed at the ends and are used for smell and balance, and their feet are equipped with taste sensors. These combined senses
are vital for locating suitable sources of nectar, which supply the energy needs of the butterfly. Butterflies don’t put on any growth and are unable to chew food, but their proboscis acts like a straw to suck up nectar, sap and juice from rotting fruit, to power their flight. They also need salt and minerals and may be drawn to muddy puddles to satisfy this need.
The sense of sight and smell is again essential in enabling them to identify suitable mates, which is imperative given their short life span. Having mated, the female butterfly is able to seek out plants on which her caterpillars will be able
to feed, and for some species their requirements are very specific. She will drum on the leaves of the plant to get it to release juices and then chemo receptors on the back of her legs will be able to detect these chemicals and ‘identify’ the plant’s suitability. The female then lays her eggs to begin the life cycle of the next generation
There are about 60 species of butterfly in Britain, the majority of which are permanent residents. Although there are a few species that don’t overwinter well in our climate, and migrate here from mainland Europe, such as the Peacock, Clouded Yellow and Red Admiral; a remarkable feat for such small creatures. Those who are resident, enter a dormant phase as the colder weather approaches and each species overwinters either as an egg, caterpillar, pupa or adult. The butterflies that spend their ‘lockdown’ as adults are the first to be seen on the wing when the spring arrives, such as the Brimstone and Small Tortoiseshell.
Ringlet butterfly photgraphed at the Rec
Click to enklarge image
Many butterflies are now scarce and others only seen in colonies in very specific habitats, but amongst the species you are most likely to spot in the Rec are: Small White, Large White, Brimstone, Gatekeeper, Small Tortoiseshell, Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Comma, Peacock, Ringlet, Small Copper, Common Blue and Holly Blue.
So why not get yourself round to the Rec to take part in the Butterfly Conservation Trust’s ‘Big Butterfly Count’ which is held annually, and this year runs until 8th August. It will only take 15 minutes of your time and the results, whether you see butterflies or not, will provide valuable information about how these beautiful ephemeral creature are faring and the wider state of our environment. For more information about identification and recording, please visit the Butterfly Conservation Trust website………and don’t forget to post any sightings on FOPRs Noticing Nature Facebook page as well.
Words by Denise Long
Photos courtesy Bruce Larner
If you enter the Rec from Grosvenor Rd, you may have noticed that the area along the base of the fence (opposite the beech hedge) is not looking quite as manicured as elsewhere. That’s because we’re working with the Council to try to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, the routine use of herbicides within the park.
The council has already gone some way to achieving this and we’ve contributed, by not having used any chemicals in the clearing and planting of the garden.
The one area that’s still sprayed is along the base of the fencing around the central zone. The main reason is because the mower can’t get in tight to the fence which leaves a strip of uncut grass and ‘weeds’. Strimming would be one answer to the problem, but unfortunately the council no longer have the time or resources to be able to do this. Another option is to leave that strip just to grow and do its own thing. But that requires us to examine our expectations of how parks and gardens should actually look and be managed.
Untreated fence line
Fence line treated with herbicides
Having grown up in the 1950s and 60s, I recall the era of crazy paving and pristine square lawns neatly edged with straight borders containing bedding plants such as French marigolds and begonias. Not a thing out of place and any native species, be it flowers or insects, were peremptorily dispatched. It was the start of the chemical revolution in our gardens and the pesticides and artificial fertilisers that proliferated helped our lawns achieve that ‘Bowling Green’ look with minimal effort. There were herbicides to remove any daisies or dandelions that might presume to invade the area, a bit of moss killer to add to the mix, and then some insecticide to kill any leatherjackets or other beasties lurking in the lawn; never mind that the starlings would remove them free of charge, given half a chance. Then the final chemical onslaught was the application of artificial lawn feed. The result, a very green, very neat lawn that was an ecological wasteland.
Clover growing along the untreated fence line
Thankfully since then we’ve adopted a more relaxed approach to our gardens, generally preferring an informal look and being much more mindful of the wildlife that shares our space. But, despite that we often still expect that public spaces such as parks and roadside verges, should be kept looking neat and tidy. And more often than not, the way that’s achieved is through the use of pesticides, including the most widely used herbicide, Roundup, whose active ingredient is glyphosate.
Clearly there are strongly opposing views about this substance. The manufacturers, Bayer, who obviously have a huge vested interest, maintain that glyphosate is safe, effective and doesn’t persist in the environment. Others strongly disagree and on the basis of independent research, a number of countries have taken steps to either ban or seriously restrict its use. And certain authorities in the UK are starting to question the use of glyphosate on grounds of its safety and its environmental impact and are implementing similar measures.
Recognising these concerns, SCC is working to try and reduce its reliance on Roundup and look for alternative methods of weed control where necessary. So we decided, in agreement with the council that we would run a trial to leave a section of grass that would normally be sprayed, to ‘go wild’. In environmental terms this has a number of benefits, which if rolled out across the park would be greatly amplified. That strip of grass would allow a highway for insects, a food source for birds and maybe even a safe refuge for creatures like hedgehogs.
A ladybird feeding on blackfly in the untreated area
The deal at the moment is that the Friends gardening group will cut the grass down in the autumn but committing to do the whole fence line might be a bit too ambitious for us. So perhaps next year, if people get used to the slightly unkempt, casual look, we could actually try leaving the long grass to overwinter with a view to extending its reach further around the park……….I know the bugs and beetles would be grateful and thank us if they could!!
For more information, check out Pesticides Action Network UK.
Please share your thoughts on this issue by posting comments on our Facebook page. It’s your park and we’d be interested to hear your views.
Click any photo to enlarge
Article by Denise Long
Photos by Bruce Larner
The magnificent stag beetle is our largest beetle and being nationally scarce is a UK Priority Species for Conservation. Stag beetles are predominantly found in the south east of the country and we’re so lucky to have found them, or at least their larvae, whilst gardening at the Rec. We inadvertently dug up one while we were preparing the central bed and two during the course of laying the wildflower meadow (See photos): All were safely returned!
Photo courtesy Bruce Larner - Click to enlarge
Male stag beetles can be anything from 5 to 8cms long. They have formidable looking, antler-like jaws which despite their appearance are really quite weak, and possibly, being so large, prevent them from feeding. Throughout their short adult stage they therefore have to rely on fat reserves laid down as larvae. The main purpose of these impressive mandibles is to fight off rival males and display to females. Males can be seen on the wing, on balmy summer evenings, from May onwards. They fly with their bodies almost upright and their wings out behind them, making a faint clattering sound. The flight appears somewhat erratic and comical and crash landings aren’t unknown. But the males are using their brief lifespan to fly out in search of females with which to mate.
Photo courtesy of Bruce Larner - Click to enlarge
The female stag beetles can fly, but rarely do, spending most of their time crawling along the ground. They are smaller than the males, up to 5cms long and have much smaller, but more powerful mandibles. Both male and female beetles have the same colouration, which is a black head and thorax, with chestnut wing cases. It’s these that distinguish the female stag beetle from a lesser stag beetle, as the latter is entirely black.
Stag beetles have a fascinating lifestyle which is mostly subterranean and entirely dependent on a supply of rotting wood. Having mated, the female prepares a suitable place in which to lay up to 30 eggs. The eggs hatch into larvae after about 3 weeks and they then set about the business of feeding and growing. The larvae shed their skin at least twice to enable this, as they munch their way through decaying wood for up to 3 to 5 years. The larvae can get up to 8cm long, with white translucent bodies and orange heads and legs. When they have finished growing, the larvae prepare a cocoon in which to pupate and complete the metamorphosis into an adult. The cocoon which takes about 2 months to prepare, protects the vulnerable pupa, and it can be as large as an orange. Several months later, usually in May, the adult stag beetles will emerge and burrow their way to the surface. Their short adult lives are devoted to producing the next generation, and having mated and laid eggs, they will all have died by August.
Photo courtesy Jo Bailey - Click to enlarge
Stag beetles have a number of colloquial names and in the New Forest they were known as ‘Devil’s Imps’. Being far more common in the past, they were blamed for crop damage and pelted with stones by indignant locals. Hopefully we have a more enlightened attitude now and have the understanding to be able to help these amazing creatures. Sadly they are in steep decline across Europe and are actually extinct in some countries such as Denmark. One of the main causes is thought to be loss of suitable habitat, partly through development but also because of the tidying up of gardens, parks and other public spaces. Dead trees, tree stumps and rotting wood are perceived to be messy and are cleared away, removing an absolutely vital resource for the stag beetles. So let’s adopt a more relaxed style, embrace a bit of untidiness and give some space back to nature!
For more information on identification and what you can do to help, please check out the PTES (The People’s Trust for Endangered Species) website. And do let us (and PTES) know if you spot any stag beetles in or around The Rec, by emailing email@example.com and please attach a photo if possible.
Wildflower meadows are definitely ‘of the moment’ and so, not to be left out, we’ve created our very own version at the Rec. Take a look at the top of the ramped access from Brickfield Rd and you’ll see an area alongside it that frankly looks a bit bare and scruffy; that’s our wildflower meadow! Admittedly, not much to look at right now but hopefully, come the summer, it will be full of native flowers and grasses and buzzing with all sorts of insects.
The meadow was created by the Friends of Portswood Rec gardening group about a month ago, using wildflower turf sourced from SCC. First of all, we had to clear and relocate the existing turf. Native flowers grow best on impoverished soil because they find it hard to compete with certain grasses that will thrive in nutrient rich soil and crowd them out.
photo Bruce Larner - Click to enlarge
Having cleared the site and created a reasonable tilth, the wildflower matting was cut, laid edge to edge and tamped down. Unfortunately since it’s been laid, we’ve not had any rain to speak of, so we’ve got a system requiring 3 hoses and quite a lot of effort, to get water from the standpoint to the meadow. Once established, we’re hoping that it will be self sustaining, other than receiving an annual cut in the late summer. We’re told that SCC has a special type of mower that not only cuts the meadow but also removes the cuttings to further reduce soil fertility. Sadly, they can’t stretch to a scythe wielding Ross Poldark!
photo Bruce Larner - Click to enlarge
So what is a wildflower meadow and why are they so important? A meadow is a field where grass is cut in the summer, and the name comes from the old English word for ‘mown’. They have a long history going back to when humans adopted a pastoral lifestyle. There was then a need to provide feed for the animals during the lean winter months and the management of meadows to create hay, provided the solution. Naturally occurring grassland was allowed to grow once grazing animals had been removed in March or April. The grass and wild flowers it contained was then harvested and dried, usually in July, before being stored in barns and hayricks. The repeated tedding (turning) of the scythed crop over 3 to 5 days was to ensure that the hay was properly dried but also helped to spread the seeds across the field. And subsequent removal of the hay ensured there was nothing to enrich the soil which became increasingly impoverished, to the benefit of the wild flowers. Harvesting was often followed by aftermath grazing, which co-incidentally also led to a greater diversity of wildflower species. The livestock created areas of open soil allowing seeds to germinate as well as limiting the regrowth of grass.
And it is because these traditionally farmed meadows were so rich in biodiversity, that they are of immense value within the environment. The best examples could contain up to 45 species of grasses and flowers per square metre, supporting a huge diversity of insects, birds and mammals. But sadly, traditionally managed, unimproved meadows have declined by 97% since the 1930s, and there have been similar declines in dependent species.
During the 20th century a lot of meadow was ploughed up and used as arable land, especially to increase crop production during the 2 World Wars. For winter feed, farmers turned from hay to silage which is predominantly made from high yielding rye grasses. Nitrogen rich fertilizers and pesticides are routinely used to further increase production; the former discouraging wildflower growth and the latter keeping any troublesome ‘weeds’ that do appear in check, as well as killing off innumerable invertebrates. But unfortunately, all of this came at a huge cost to the environment and our biodiversity, everything from pollution of the waterways due to chemical run-off to the decimation of insect populations and its wider implications.
Click to enlarge Plantlife Coronation Meadow No copyright infringement intended
Now hopefully, the tide is beginning to turn. Many farmers are interested in moving to more environmentally friendly methods and the UK Government is proposing to incentivise this by replacing the discredited Common Agricultural Policy with subsidies based on Environmental Land Management. Plantlife, the wildflower charity is dedicated to preserving the few ancient meadows that still exist and creating 120,000 hectares of new species rich grassland throughout the UK. They’ve already made a good start having planted 90 Coronation Meadows across the country since 2013 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. And now various charities, local authorities and other public bodies are all joining in and creating their own little patch of insect paradise. At Portswood Recreation Ground we hope to have made our own small contribution!
Words by Denise Long
March 2021 - Goat Willow
There are 2 shrubs growing in the garden area of the Rec that earlier this month were resplendent with woolly catkins along the length of their twigs These are Goat Willows (Salix Caprea) but are much more commonly and affectionately known as pussy willows, and they put on their very best show at this time of year.
Click image to enlarge
The specimens at the Rec are both male, bearing the familiar woolly grey catkins (a cluster of flowers with tiny or absent petals) which soon become covered in a dusting of yellow pollen. This gives the tree a very distinctive golden mantle making it a familiar and striking presence in the spring landscape. The female catkins are found on separate trees and are long and green. As their seeds ripen they develop fine, silky hairs which carry them on the wind and enable them to disperse widely. The name pussy willow came about because the male catkins are thought to resemble kittens or cat’s paws, according to your fancy. And the word catkin is derived, from the Middle Dutch ‘katteken’ which means kitten.
Click iimage to enlarge
The goat willow can grow as a large shrub or tree and it occurs throughout Europe and northern Asia. It can get up to 10 metres in height and prefers damp ground but will tolerate drier conditions than other willows. The leaves which emerge after the catkins are oval with wavy margins, downy white undersides. and a sideways twist to the pointed tip. The foliage was once used as winter feed for cattle.
The bark of the pussy willow is a greyish brown and becomes fissured with age. The timber is too soft for most uses and too brittle for weaving, although travellers would use it for making clothes pegs and also rods for their ‘bender tents’. It does burn well and makes good charcoal. But the greatest benefit to humanity was the discovery of the pain relieving property of the salicylic acid found within its bark. This is true of all the salix (sallow) species and this herbal medicine, in use since antiquity, formed the basis for the development of aspirin.
Click image to enlarge
Whilst the goat willow may have limited uses for us, it is invaluable to many forms of wildlife. Its early flowering provides a much needed source of pollen when few other flowers are out. It supports a great number of insects, most especially moths such as the sallow kitten, the sallow clearwing and the dusky clearwing. It is also the favoured foodplant for the caterpillar of the beautiful purple emperor butterfly. Our resident willows at The Rec, host a few interesting galls which according to the British Plant Gall Society (Yes, there really is one!) is probably caused by an as yet unknown virus.
Click image to enlarge
Goat willow or sallow as it was also known, features in our cultural and literary heritage. There is a history of ‘wearing the willow’, usually to mourn a lost lover, as in the 19th century song ‘All around my hat, I will wear the green willow’; a song popularised in the 1970s by the folk rock band, Steeleye Span. The flowering shoots of pussy willow were also traditionally carried into church on the Sunday before Easter, when Christians celebrate Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. The willow was used as a local substitute for the palms which were said to have been scattered in his path. Literary references to sallow include the poem by W.B. Yeats, ‘Down by the Salley [sallow} Gardens” and a mention in John Keats evocative poem ‘To Autumn’ which he wrote in 1819 during a visit to Winchester.
For most of the year pussy willow is a rather unassuming shrubby plant, but it really comes into its own in February and March when it proudly takes centre stage!
With thanks to Denise Long for the Nature Notes and Bruce Larner for the photographs
February 2021 - THE CROW
One of the most obvious birds to visit the Rec is the magnificent Common, or Carrion Crow. This large jet black bird can often be seen strutting across the grass whilst probing for insects, or perching in one of the trees and calling out with it’s harsh, guttural kaarr-kaarr-kaarr.
The crow gives its name to a family of highly intelligent birds of which there are 8 representatives in the UK. Namely, the Rook, Raven, Carrion Crow, Jackdaw, Magpie, Jay, Chough and Hooded Crow. But it’s the Magpie and Carrion Crow that are probably the most ubiquitous and adaptable, and the ones most likely to be seen at the Rec.
Crows, unlike rooks which are highly sociable, tend to occur on their own or in pairs and are thought to mate for life. This is one way to distinguish these two very similar birds. As the old saying goes: ‘A Crow in a crowd is a Rook, and a Rook on its own is a crow’. But non- breeding Crows do occasionally flock, in which case they’re known collectively as a Murder of Crows. This assignation reflects their longstanding reputation as being birds of ill repute, symbolic of darkness, death and all things macabre. Their colouring and their liking for feeding on carrion, have secured these beliefs in the folklore and mythology of many cultures, and sadly resulted in a great deal of persecution.
But Crows are extremely adaptable and intelligent birds, and perhaps too successful for our liking. They occur throughout the UK in a range of different environments and are very eclectic in their tastes; they will eat scraps, insects, invertebrates, grains, eggs and carrion……along with more or less anything they can get their beaks on! And their intelligence has been well studied and documented. Members of the crow family can use and adapt tools, count up to 30, and problem solve to an astonishing level. Besides which Crows apparently have an uncanny memory for human faces, and can recognise and remember people, and their behaviour towards them. So please be nice to them!!
Photo courtesy Bruce Larner Click image to enlarge
Next time you’re round at the Rec take a look at the pair of crows that are frequently feeding there. They are black all over but if you catch them in the right light, they have a greenish, purply sheen to their feathers. You generally see them strutting with long strides, and intermittent hops, as they probe the grass for worms and insects. If you look closely, you can see that there is a small patch of bristly hairs at the base of the upper beak. Their flight is fairly slow and deliberate and the feathers at the end of the wings look like extended fingers. They are truly impressive birds.
Photo courtesy Bruce Larner Click image to enlarge
Their nests however, are bulky and untidy looking, being constructed mainly of sticks bound together with mud and lined with whatever material is available, such as bark, grass and sheep’s wool. The female will lay only one clutch a year between April and May, which comprises 3 to 5 eggs. Both parents feed the birds regurgitated food when they first hatch and amazingly, it’s not unusual for the previous years offspring to help rear the new hatchlings.
Members of the Crow family do feature quite regularly in folklore and literature throughout the ages and in many cultures. There is Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’, Ted Hughes book of poems called ‘Crow’ (by no means bucolic!) and more recent references in the popular novels and TV series ‘Game of Thrones’. But I think my favourite depictions of crows are in works of art. Do check out Friedrich’s “The Tree of Crows’, Van Gough’s ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ and the beautifully tender ‘Woman with a Crow’ by Picasso. These birds really are deserving of our respect.
By Denise Long