Nature 2003 August

Balance is everything but its also good to be a bit untidy sometimes

Looking back to June a steamy 28.9°C was clocked up on the 16th and July temperatures hit circa 30°C. June also managed to contribute 44mm of rain, including just shy of an inch (23mm) in a mere 7 hours on the night of 22nd. Only January has seen more precipitation and my farming guru Nigel tells me that this sporadic rainfall will mean some lower crop yields this year. Ironically, the seeds for this were sown (excuse the pun!) during last year’s wet autumn. He tells me this encouraged ‘shallow rooting of 2nd year wheat’ which has then suffered during the very dry Spring. It is probably a certainty that debates over the pros and cons of GM crops, ‘Set Aside’, the EU CAP and the future direction of farming itself will ebb and flow for some time yet. Amidst all this though, the unpredictability which climate change brings also serves to increase the risk that making the wrong choices now, for the future of agriculture will similarly upset the delicate balance of nature overall.

Butterflies provide one such barometer of this interrelationship. August is their high season and the second generation of Small Tortoiseshells, Commas and Red Admirals are hunting out their favourite food plants. So leave some nettles in a sunny location in your garden. Adult Peacock butterflies, like their cousins, hibernate and survive almost a year, emerging next May! 2003 has been a record year for the Painted Lady. The last was 1996. The first generation made their way here from southern France or even the North African coast, attracted by the scent of abundant nectar. They have a lazy flight, not surprising given the distance travelled! Sadly, the second-generation adults emerging in September do not usually survive our winter, but some are thought to successfully complete the return journey south in autumn. Makes commuting to London sound a doddle!

Meanwhile the Speckled Wood – brown and yellow-spotted – enjoys woodland glades and shady paths. The males are fiercely territorial. They lie in wait for passing rivals to enter their area and take instantly to the air and engage in a dog-fight, each trying to outperform the other and impress the females with their tight spiralling manoeuvres, made possible because one wing is smaller than the other. You may find they follow you down the path until realising you’re not a threat! Perhaps because most moths are drab and fly at night they get bad press, but there is a distinguished band of day-fliers, resplendent in their striking costumes, such as the Cinnabar – black with crimson – advertising that it is one of the most poisonous moths in Britain. The rare but spectacular Hummingbird Hawkmoth, is another French tourist, bee-like and fast flying.

Of course one of the major reasons today why we have less butterflies, moths and other invertebrates has been the indiscriminate use of insecticides and herbicides enabling monocultures to dominate and squeeze out weaker, valuable species. In turn this means less birds, and insectivorous mammals, particularly noticeable after a hard winter. When these interrelationships get out of balance we all suffer. So why not encourage some individuality of style, some untidiness. Resist the urge to edit the countryside and introduce a metropolitan like symmetry to our village life. Put off cutting back that hedge for a second year encouraging more fruits to form. Allowing roadside hedgerows to grow taller also ensures that the barn owls patrol the verges slightly higher up as they hunt those small mammals thus avoiding collision with vehicles. We are blessed in the Chilterns in having an abundance of hedgerows and herb-rich verges. They encourage variety and serve to conserve that all-important balance.