Our wildlife tour had taken us right up to page 107 of my Road Atlas of Britain, along the Kyle of Durness and into the awe-inspiring Smoo Cave on the north coast of Scotland. After slowly heading south over a few weeks, we suddenly jumped to page 2, the far south-west of Britain, exploring Cornwall. What better place to search for damsels and dragons?
In truth, spend any bright summer day near freshwater and you will soon be captivated by the jewel-bright flashes of damselflies and dragonflies as they dart across ponds and lakes, or skim along rivers and streams. You don’t even need to be near water to see some species, we often saw hawker dragonflies as we walked along woodland paths. But the days we saw whole rainbow selections of damsels and dragons were those we spent in the West Country and North Wales. I’d like to attribute this to some mythical link, but actually I suspect we were just lucky with the weather.
Making the most of the warm Cornish sunshine, and feeling optimistically energetic, we set out from Devoran on the coast to coast cycle trail. After just a couple of miles I was excited to come across a Cornwall Wildlife Trust reserve sign. Hastily abandoning my bike, I went to investigate Bissoe Valley nature reserve. Noticing my absence after a while (it’s not unusual for me to be lagging a bit behind, I stop to look at things and probably don’t make a very good cycling companion) Geoff cycled back to the reserve, picked up my bike and parked it properly, and came to see what the distraction was this time. Just as well he did, as he took some fantastic photographs. All the images in this post are his, please credit Geoff Woolley if you want to use any.
This common darter dragonfly was very obliging for the camera.
male common darter dragonfly
male common darter dragonfly
striking a pose
Metallic green emerald damselflies with sapphire eyes shimmered across the pools. It is easiest to photograph them when they are “in tandem”, the male clasping the female behind her head. This is part of the mating process, the female will curl her tail round (technically, her abdomen) to the male so that sperm can be transferred.
We saw several other species, but unless they stayed still for a few moments it was impossible to photograph them. You will just have to visit a reserve to see for yourself – it’s not too late, you should see them on any warm day over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, here are a few more from our travels.
Shropshire Wildlife Trust has a fantastic HQ, beautiful old restored abbey buildings surrounded by gardens, that once housed the Cadfael Experience, celebrating the books and TV series about a medieval monk with detective leanings, set in Shrewsbury. The garden still has an old-world, kitchen garden feel, with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees promising an abundant harvest.
I was there to meet Jan Mckelvey, Conservation Manager at Shropshire Wildlife Trust, to find out more about the work of the Trust, especially how it runs behind the scenes. They have a lot of great projects running at the moment. I met the incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic team running an extensive landscape restoration scheme, The Meres and Mosses, and had a very interesting chat with Pete Lambert who manages the varied work that the Trust is doing to improve Shropshire’s rivers.
Of course I couldn’t visit Shropshire Wildlife Trust without seeing a nature reserve, so in the afternoon, clutching a map and set of directions, we braved the rain and set off to visit The Ercall, little sister to that more famous Shropshire landmark, the Wrekin.
The changeable weather enhanced our experience of the reserve. The Ercall is covered with ancient oak woodland, with moss covered trees, lush green ferny undergrowth, open grassy glades and small ponds. As we walked through the trees, the rain pattered softly through the leaves and gave everything an emerald glow.
Rain pattered through the leaves
Striking patterns made by spore capsules on a fern leaf
The rain droplets on tufted hair grass turned this woodland glade into a shimmering silver sea.
Raindrops make ripples in a shady woodland pond, one of the group of pools known as the Dairy Pits
Pattern of oak branches
Just as we reached the top of The Ercall, the clouds parted and the sun shone through, lighting up the woods and wet landscape in glorious technicolour.
The Ercall is hugely important geologically, the scars left by quarrying reveal that the area was once under a shallow tropical sea just south of the equator.
The Ercall Unconformity – what it’s all about
The Ercall Unconformity, reclaimed by green
A trilobite, inhabitant of the area millions of years ago
I loved this poem carved into stone, reflecting the site’s geological history.
Upon my shore you stand
A mark in time I am
And older yet than that
And under the sea I’ve seen
The birthing of this land
By pick and blast made now
It ripples on through me
A scar reclaimed by green
My secrets held in folds
Of quiet eternity
On that reflective note, I have to leave you with a gorgeous Shrewsbury sunset, one of the most fiery skies I saw on the whole trip.
Keen to try out another top UK wildlife experience, we headed to Cemlyn Bay, a North Wales Wildlife Trust reserve, seeking out one of the UK’s largest nesting tern colonies. Wear a hat for terns, the Wildlife Trusts’ website suggests, as terns are very protective of their nests and will dive bomb suspected intruders. No hats were needed, however, as the terns had just finished a busy summer of raising chicks, and most of the birds had dispersed.
Even one tern is worth watching though, and we stood spellbound on the beach as the few terns that were left wheeled and turned effortlessly, their finely pointed wings slicing through the air. Every now and then they paused to hover before folding back their wings and plunging into the water.
There were still plenty of birds to see on the islands in the lagoon that lies behind the long shingle spit, including a few more terns, oyster catchers and ringed plovers. A heron stood like a statue in the shallow water whilst a little egret stalked through the water. On the way round the circular walk that we explored, we saw a heron, possibly the same one, flying low over a field with long slow beats of its huge wings. The hedgerows were glowing with red campion, which seemed to grow more thickly along Anglesey lanes than anywhere else, intermingled with the softer purples of black knapweed and devilsbit scabious.
The long curve of the shingle ridge, Esgair Gemlyn, lies between the sea and a shallow lagoon
Shingle at Cemlyn Bay
Behind the lagoon at Cemlyn Bay
Small white butterfly on devilsbit scabious
Red campion in the hedgerows
Another place to add to my list of reserves to revisit then, but next time I’ll come a little earlier in the summer.
I was struck by how many of the sites I’ve visited during this trip have been reclaimed from industry. Of course most Wildlife Trust nature reserves are habitats that have taken hundreds of years to establish and are now saved for the future, but something the Trusts are very good at is bringing wildlife back to areas that have been used for quite different purposes.
Gwaith Powdwr, at Penrhyndeudraeth, is one such site. In the 1970s it was the most sophisticated nitroglycerin manufacturing plant of its kind in the world. Production stopped in 1995, and it was decontaminated before being donated by ICI to North Wales Wildlife Trust, Ymddiriedolaeth Natur Gogledd Cymru, in 1998.
Due to the security requirements of the site, nature survived undisturbed in parts of the site, the heathland in particular has remained mostly ungrazed and is a haven for species such as adder and nightjar.
Wildlife started to reclaim the rest of the site once the factory was closed, bats moved into the buildings and structures and the site is now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its importance for bats, especially the rare lesser horseshoe bat.
At the end of July, we joined Rob Booth, Living Landscapes Officer at NWWT, and his volunteers for their lunch break. They were busy getting ready for Party Penrhyn, an annual event at the site. Rob told us about the wildlife on the reserve and the work that is being done to encourage more wildlife.
The reserve provides ideal conditions for four kinds of reptiles. We saw lizards basking on old wood and bare patches of ground amongst the heather, and were given permission to peak under some reptile monitoring sheets, where bronze-sheened slow worms glinted in the sun before slipping further into the thatch of grass and old bracken. Adders are also to be found in the heathy parts of the site, but sadly not by us, although we searched carefully. In the midday heat they are far too quick for mere humans and would have been off as soon as they heard us coming. (Although snakes don’t appear to have ears, they can in fact hear, by sensing vibrations, including sound waves, which are passed through their jaw to an inner ear.)
As the reserve is so important for bats, much of the management is aimed at improving conditions for them. Lesser horseshoe bats use the tunnels and there are up to 30 hibernating on site but they don’t seem to breed there. The Trust managed to get a grant to re-roof one of the explosive storage sheds, and are hoping it will become a maternity roost. Since the work was done, brown long-eared bats have bred in there and Rob said that lesser horseshoe bats are already checking it out. The Trust is also working to make the bunkers more homely for bats, putting new doors on to prevent disturbance, reduce light levels and draughts and make them safer from predators.
The woodland on the reserve is particularly good for moths, the Trust found 130 species in just one night. Where a stream runs through the woodland, the damp, shady conditions are ideal for ferns and mosses.
Clouded border moth
Woodland at Gwaith Powdwr
Speckled wood butterfly
Ferns and moss in the damp woodland
Ponds were part of the industrial legacy, providing water to help keep the explosives cool (and therefore stable) and also allowing contaminants to settle out of the water. These settling ponds are now a wildlife haven, we saw lots of tiny toadlets setting off on their journey into the big world of dry land, stragglers from the great toadlet exodus that happens during July. The grass snakes that have been seen around the ponds proved elusive, which is probably fortunate for the toadlets. Dragonflies and damselflies darted across the water, rarely settling long enough to have their photographs taken, except by the most patient of photographers. Fortunately I had one with me.
Toadlet coming up for air
Male and female emerald damsel-flies (these ones from Gwaith Powdwr)
Settling pond at Gwaith Powdwr
This male southern hawker dragonfly was flying along a woodland path at Gwaith Powdwr, a North Wales Wildlife Trust nature reserve.
This common hawker dragonfly at Gwaith Powdwr had recently emerged from its larval skin.
We had such a brilliant time exploring Gwaith Powdwr, everywhere we looked there was interesting wildlife. It is a fantastic example of how a site can be restored after such intense industrial use.
This is our home for three months. (For those, like me, who aren’t good at car taxonomy, it’s a Mazda Bongo.)
The Bongo is 20 years old, and needs a bit of TLC. We have had three garage visits so far, one overnight. I think of it as Bongo B & B.
We did have an awning, but pegging it down on granite in the rain each time we moved sites was less than fun, so we posted it to Ellie (thanks Ellie, hope it’s not in the way) and now we are footloose and awning free.
Rain has accompanied us around the UK, but on the plus side, we have seen some fantastic rainbows.
Rainbow over the Fleet, Dorset
A Shropshire rainbow
Rainbow over the west coast of Scotland at dawn
The living space in the campervan measures 2 x 1.5 metres, some of which is taken up by the cupboards, fridge, cooker and sink. The rest of it is multipurpose.
Ten tips for sharing a living space of 2 x 1.5 metres for three months.
1. Take turns to move, carefully.
2. Even though there is nowhere for them to go, you will lose things constantly. Don’t worry, you are camping, almost everything is optional. Except the keys. They are here somewhere.
3. Herd any stray wildlife off your pitch before parking.
4. Always check how much water is left before you start cleaning your teeth.
5. You think you know all your travelling companion’s little habits. Believe me, you don’t! You will discover some new ones that you never noticed before. Breathe, pretend you are still blissfully unaware.
6. You will laugh ’til your sides hurt more times than you can remember doing in the past year. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate your life.
7. Be restrained with the souvenir shopping.
8. If you’re blogging in the Highlands, you’ll need to visit a lot of cafes. It would be rude not to eat cake.
9. Take your phone to the loo, even in the middle of the night, in case there is some interesting wildlife.
10. Relax, pour yourself something cold, and watch the sunset.
The dunes of the Northumberland coast are like no others, driven by the strong sea winds into tall, narrow mounds of sand and constantly changing. “This could look different tomorrow” Steve Lowe, from Northumberland Wildlife Trust told me as we stood beside the dune system along the seven mile stretch of sand that forms Druridge Bay.
Druridge Bay has been shaped by change – the elements, nature and human activity all play a part in creating this fascinating area. Humans have been driving that change for more than 5,000 years. Human footprints found in post-glacial deposits and other evidence, much of it uncovered in a recent archaeological project in which the Trust were partners, date human occupation from the Mesolithic period.
Over time, people changed the landscape from wilderness to farmland. Then the increasing need for coal led to the creation of an industrial landscape with underground and open cast mining. Ironically, this has eventually led to the creation of new wildlife habitat, formed by the subsidence of old mining areas, and restoration of open cast mines.
Steve was showing us round some of the five Northumberland Wildlife Trust reserves that form the core area of the Dynamic Druridge project, which aims to continue the theme of change, restoring, recreating and reconnecting habitats and improving people’s access to the wildlife of the area.
East Chevington nature reserve was restored to create wetland habitats after opencast mining and passed to the Trust in 2003. In their care it has become one of the best birdwatching sites in Northumberland, with huge numbers of birds using the lakes and especially in autumn and winter. A newly planted woodland area provides an ideal place to run Forest Schools, where children can develop confidence through outdoor activities.
Steve took us to the Hauxley reserve next, which is temporarily closed while Northumberland Wildlife Trust constructs the greenest building in the North East. As well as being very environmentally friendly, the amazing thing about this building is that it is being built by volunteers.
The Trust secured a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to replace the previous visitor centre, which had been burnt down, with an iconic sustainable building. The project employs a site manager and the Trust staff manage the project but most of the work is done by volunteers. There was a huge sense of camaraderie among the volunteers and the work that has already been achieved was inspiring.
I donned a hard hat and high-vis so that I could go on site, and Ducan Hutt, Head of Estates management at the Trust, showed me around the building. It is designed to minimise its impact on the environment. No concrete is used in the construction, the walls are straw bales rendered with a lime based plaster, timber is obtained locally, much of it from Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s own reserves.
I’m immensely grateful to Steve and Duncan for taking the time to show me what the Dynamic Druridge project is achieving and am already looking forward to coming back to see the completed visitor centre and the rest of the reserves in this beautiful area.
A huge window looks across the surrounding landscape
Steve Lowe and Duncan Hutt
Bloody cranesbill, Northumberland’s county flower
The Lake at East Chevington Reserve
Seven miles of sandy beach
Edited 25.8.16 to correct an embarrassing mis-spelling of Druridge.
Clouds of gannets rise up from Bass Rock and fill the air with raucous cries, slicing effortlessly through the air on snow-white, black-dipped wings.
We bounced on top of the water beneath them, heads tipped back to gaze in awe at the graceful circus of gannets above our heads, holding on tight as the RIB (Rigid Inflateable Boat) met the waves with rather less grace.
Although they nest in dense colonies, gannets are highly territorial, each making it loudly clear to its neighbour that this is my patch. Gannets return to the same patch each year form long-term pairs, often for life. Bill fencing is a form of greeting behaviour that strengthens the bond between pairs.
The dagger-like bill of the northern gannet is used to catch fish. The gannet folds back its wings and plunges vertically from a height of up to 40 metres, disappearing under the water to capture its target.
The gannet colony has increased hugely since the lighthouse has been unmanned so that the island is now uninhabited.
Shags breed on the nearby rocks. In the breeding season they develop an iridescent green sheen to their feathers and a spiky quiff, giving them a somewhat surprised look.
Gannets breed in tightly packed colonies, despite being highly territorial.
Swirling clouds of gannets
Cormorants on a nearby island. They don’t have as much oil on their feathers as other seabirds, and have to stretch them out to dry off from time to time.
This is the closest we’ve got to guillemot. They breed on a nearby island.
The snowy white plumage and creamy yellow head of the gannet is unmistakeable.
As a wildlife experience, this was one of the best, plus being fun going out in the boat. Can’t wait to do it again next time I’m in Scotland.