At last I’ve made it to the Gower. An invitation that popped into our inbox for a day’s course on managing land to help our native invertebrates caught my eye. Particularly since one of the tutors was the naturalist Steven Falk who has spent a lifetime studying, photographing and drawing in exquisite detail many of the different invertebrate species which, for now, live in the UK.
Click here for Steven’s website – well worth a look to see the quality and diversity of his work, and his journey from a very precocious commission at the age of 15 to provide illustrations for a book on British Hoverflies. In 2015 he co-authored with illustrator Richard Lewington the excellently reviewed Field guide to British bees. Probably most readers will be able to identify honeybees, and a maybe a few of the 26 species of Bumblebees, but Steven’s book covers the huge range of other solitary and cuckoo bees which most of us will never have seen, but which contribute vital pollinator services to our native flora and commercial food crops. Click here for a review of the book’s contents.
Part of the theme of a day like this was to flag up just how much such animals are threatened in today’s world, and how landowners can make a real difference by how they manage any land they own. Which includes all the extra features which may exist – ditches, banks, hedges, trees, ponds as well as any pasture or agricultural land. Not just providing nectar and pollen food resources for them, but also suitable habitats for them to breed.
In addition to Steven Falk’s talk, Emma Douglas from Pont (click here) gave a brief resume of this grazing NGO’s work, and the varied characteristics of different animal’s styles of grazing.
(Sheep don’t just graze differently, they have a brilliant head still, feet fixed, body shake to shed heavy rain from their fleeces. Not sure how they manage it without ricking their backs, but it certainly flings off the water.)
Finally Clare Dinham of Buglife, (click here) explained some of the work that this charity is doing in helping to conserve our invertebrate fauna. More later in this post.
After a delicious lunch featuring a home made cawl based on the beef from the farm’s own organic grass fed Devon bullocks, we had a walk round the fields of the property to reinforce some of the ideas discussed in the morning.
A really worthwhile day out, though sadly the short day-length meant I had no daylight or time left to nip down to see the fabulous world renowned Rhossili beach which was just a few miles further down the road (click here for a panoramic view!). We clearly must return on a sunny day sometime soon…
One of the bugs mentioned by Clare, was the Oil beetle, which has a number of different species in the UK, but which is not very frequently recorded. The tiny larvae sit inside early yellow spring flowers like celandines, and then hitch a ride on solitary bees visiting these flowers, to be taken back into the bee’s nests where they devour the bee’s larvae. So yet another insect with a complex life cycle centred around a carnivorous juvenile and a vegetarian adult.
The adult beetles are usually found during the day in March to June, but there is a rare nocturnal species, the Rugged oil beetle, which tends to forage at night in the autumn. Click here for Buglife’s guide to Oil Beetles, and their survey project for them in Wales.
Inspired by all this, and with a very mild damp evening on my return home, I set off torch in hand to do a garden patrol – it’s often surprising what you find even at this gloomy time of the year when much of nature is shutting down for winter proper. Sadly no Oil beetles, but certainly a small number of slugs around the garden, and about a half dozen on the mown meadow track. So no signs of any real recovery in numbers. Yet!
However the low angled torch beam highlighted a small black vertical club shaped fungus on the mossy croquet lawn. Then another, and another. Returning in daylight confirmed that these were indeed Earthtongue fungi – probably Geoglossum cookeanum, though possibly Trichoglossum (hairy tongue!) hirsutum. Apparently they’re quite tricky to differentiate.
However both are new finds here, and in the same small space of mown moss and fungus filled “lawn” that the Cordyceps mushrooms were found about 6 weeks ago. Indeed I did find another pristine Cordyceps at the same time as the Earthtongues.
Such fungi are the highest scoring in the CHEG system of assessing how special a site is for grassland fungi, so finding them at Gelli – albeit on regularly cut grass in the garden – is a real delight. However, unlike the Cordyceps militaris, Scarlet Caterpillar Club fungus, these fungi are thought to be simply saprobic, and so moth caterpillars are probably safe from their hidden underground mycelial networks.
A decision made over a year ago to agree to put together a slide based talk on snowdrops for a number of showings this spring has meant a huge amount of time and effort expended on this recently. Both in roughing out a talk text, mustering and ordering images, and then the first trial run throughs and realisation that radical editing and tweaking will be necessary. Always worth allowing lots of time for such a project!
However in the process, much fascinating new information has come to light, and my challenge is to be able to condense this into an interesting presentation. I would hate it to be a drone from a tedious galanthobore. Hopefully barely suppressed enthusiasm and passion!
In pondering just why I’m so fascinated in snowdrops, a new thought occurred to me. Just how many snowdrops might we now have growing here in the garden? There were none at all when we started, but we’ve been adding to their numbers now for about 25 years. As well as simple lifting and division of many clumps annually, numerous additional cultivars have been added.
In addition there’ll be quite a few seedlings, though frankly given the big issue with natural pollination in our winters, this won’t add up to a huge number.
But a look at the Fibonacci sequence which, very simply, describes in theory how a vigorous form of snowdrop might be expected to multiply in numbers, arrives at an extremely conservative estimate of over a million bulbs now growing here.
Given that snowdrop bulbs are in essence a concentrated store of carbohydrate – mainly starch and fructose which are themselves polymers of the simpler sugars glucose and fructose, that’s potentially quite a lot of stored carbon (C6 H10 05 multiplied by perhaps 100, of these glucose units per starch polymer molecule).
But how much carbon is that?
As a simple experiment I dug up some of the ordinary G. nivalis bulbs which always get pushed to the surface throughout the year, and picked out a random sample of 50 bulbs of variable size, washed, and weighed them.
The weight was 90 gm, or an average of 1.8 gm per bulb with, right now, small shoots and roots emerging. Consequently the (probably conservative) total of 1 million snowdrops would represent a biomass of perhaps around 1.8 tons! To double check whether this is anywhere near a realistic statistic within a modest garden, it’s interesting to note that potato yields are typically quoted within the (albeit wide) range of 10 to 30 tons per acre, clearly varying with variety and conditions. Click here. Though of course all of this stored potato starch is dug up and consumed every year! Clearly potato tubers are much larger structures than snowdrop bulbs, but snowdrops can produce almost complete carpets of bulbs over wide areas, rather than the spaced out plantings typical with potato cultivation. So a weight of snowdrops approximating to 10% of potato biomass doesn’t seem too far fetched. Of course the snowdrop bulbs include quite a lot of water as well as carbohydrate, but this calculation does indicate how much additional organic carbon can be stored beneath a relatively small area of garden soil – about an acre in our case – over and above the garden or land with no snowdrops. And that excludes the associated carbon which will be stored in the tissues of the mycorrhizal Glomales species of fungi which will be associated with all those snowdrop roots. Let alone all the other spring bulbs – Crocus, Cyclamen, Narcissi, Scilla, etc. which we’ve added over the years.
The great thing about snowdrop bulbs, is that if you’re growing a vigorous form, and most of the ones we have are, they’re a very resilient bulb, so escape any predation and disease. The bulb is formed from the swollen bases of the previous year’s leaves and hence in theory has a very long lifespan, whilst it continues to throw off offsets which develop into more bulbs. Which means that the weight of carbon captured and stored in bulbs in this sort of environment is likely to stay there for a very long time, (allowing for annual waxing and waning as the bulbs produce new leaves and flowers, then enter their annual resting phase again). Through the sort of vegetative multiplication outlined above, numbers should increase in quantity year on year, by anything up to 60%. So perhaps carbon capture and storage in snowdrop bulbs is a perfect natural aid to atmospheric CO2 reduction, in addition to all the aesthetic benefits they bring to the garden or landscape, when they’re in bloom.
Click here for the latest terrible progress on current industrial techniques in the UK for such carbon storage. Maybe something will get built within a decade???
To quote from the report linked above:
Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is seen by experts as a vital technology for tackling climate change, and reducing emissions in hard-to-treat polluting industries.
Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said: “Without CCUS as part of the solution, reaching our international climate goals is practically impossible.”
It’s interesting to speculate just how much impact, over a 25 year generational span, there would be if everyone who reads this piece opted to plant 13 extra snowdrop bulbs this winter. And then lift and split the clumps every 3 or 4 years…
There are of course a whole host of other reasons for enjoying snowdrops, and thanks to my Welsh Historic Snowdrop Hunt and what that has recently turned up, their inter-connectedness with human history and culture over centuries is what now interests me most.
Unless you live beside a river, in which case snowdrops might literally have been washed down from upstream, if there are snowdrops in your garden or “naturalised” nearby, almost certainly someone will have moved them there at some point in history. They’re very unlikely to have got there any other way.
My researching has also recently led me to discover more of the fascinating history of the links between Candlemas(s), witches, taper burns and the nearby site of Wales’ principal catholic shrine in Cardigan, with its mysterious, or miraculous, origins. But if you want to hear whether I can join up all these possible dots, (or woodworm holes) you’d better come and listen to my talk sometime…
(Taper burn, found after all these years, right beside my side of the bed, on an A frame beam!)
I was interested to discover, just a few weeks before I met Clare Dinham, the Welsh officer for Buglife, of the charity’s quite recent project to develop a series of invertebrate friendly corridors, called B-lines, to help colonies of invertebrates move around the countryside. Very sadly many different species of rare invertebrates now hang on in quite isolated island communities, usually focused around appropriate habitat. Such populations are really vulnerable if for any reason their local habitat is suddenly threatened by some significant adverse change, or more generally by changes in climate.
The plan is to create a nationwide system of 3 km wide corridors which cross the countryside. Motorways for invertebrates, if you will. In Wales the map has been completed, and you can view it above. You’ll see that as well as a corridor right around the coast – and coastal habitats are particularly rich and varied – there are a few corridors that cross the country internally. I was quite excited to see that one of these 3 km wide corridors tracks up our valley before then heading back towards the coast. Click here for more details on the Buglife website.
Just how these bands of habitat are promoted and managed in the future remains to be seen, since the charity is small and is largely dependent on external funding, but already they are beginning some projects to raise awareness of the concept. With increasing amounts of (probably monoculture) forestry planned for upland areas, it will probably become a vital network in an increasingly fragmented landscape.
Apart from the final garden tidy up which we always try to complete before Christmas, since huge numbers of bulbs are already shooting, the vegetable growing area has had a major reworking this autumn.
Based on Big Bags which were filled with topsoil and subsoil shifted from levelling a site for our PV panels many years ago, the area was looking frankly tatty as the bags had settled and sagged over time.
Our local gardening club had booked Terry Walton, the media allotmenteer, with regular radio slots on the Jeremy Vine show and BBC Radio Wales to name just a couple, to come and give us all a talk. Since Terry and his wife Anthea were travelling up from the Rhondda valley to be with us, we offered to provide them with B& B accommodation after the talk. Such was Terry’s enthusiasm and knowledge he sold out of copies of his book “The Allotment Almanac”. Click here for a preview, to which I can add my personal endorsement – lots of practical tips and humorous stories. So this anticipated visit was the necessary incentive I needed to revamp the bags.
Side and end panels have been cut off and replaced with 8 inch treated boards, and the pathways raised with extra layers of home generated wood chip. Once more it’s a safe, and now aesthetically improved environment to grow not just vegetables, but also hold our trial areas of different daffodil cultivars.
Quite a bit of final work is needed including annual top ups with wood chip which is laid onto a weed proof membrane should move us towards a more conventional deep bed, mainly no dig system. For now some autumn fruiting raspberry canes have been added, and the whole area given a mulch of my composted chopped leaf mould.
By the way. Why Deirdre after Diana?
I thought Eric or Ernie should have followed.
In fact it is indeed due to be Erik, after Deirdre, with a K apparently. As to Diana, although I heard a female BBC Radio 4 weather forecaster come out with the memorable line of “Diana is bearing down on us”, this name must have been filched from the Portugese weather forecasters, who chose to name this last storm for us, and presumably, them. Although it caused major wind effects and damage here, our own Met Office had officially opted to leave that last storm unnamed.
Just go back to the scene of this week’s Brexit discussions then, for some other European cloud based nebulous confusion which surfaced this week….)
But with a spurious link to the ghosts of Christmas past mentioned above, “Bring me Sunshine” really would be a good song for today …
I wish anyone reading this before, a very Happy and Peaceful Christmas and beginning to 2019.
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