Nature 2005 August

Sunny Spells, Summer Smells

“The air came laden with the fragrance it caught upon its way, and the bees, upborne upon its scented breath, hummed forth their drowsy satisfaction as they floated by”. – Charles Dickens

We have to go back to 1976 to find average temperatures for June / July that were higher than this year and the last seven months have also seen less rain than every similar period since 1976. If the weather in these two months was an indication of what to expect over August and September we would be looking forward to another summer like ’76. But despite temperatures in the thirties during July we can look forward to periods of cooler, but dryer weather in August. When we do get rain it will be in short but heavy downpours, the ones that produce that distinctive smell difficult to describe and unlike any other smell I know. The lack of ground water will take its toll. As trees give up the struggle and shed their leaves sooner than we have come to expect in recent years. it will bring an autumnal feel to September. Sadly I think for some trees, more often than not the younger ones, the falling water table will be too much for them and they will become casualties of the first storm or even a strong gust of wind in September. Meanwhile older trees such as horse chestnut survive by shedding a bough or two so take care and look out for fallen branches when driving on the lanes around here especially after hours.

By the way from this month you can check out the local weather live in the Hilltop Villages by visiting www.cholesbury.com and following the weather link. I hope you find it useful.

Last time I mentioned that one animal to look out for in your garden was the hedgehog. Since writing this, the Mammal Society has reported on its mammal population survey (undertaken by counting of road kills!) there has been a dramatic fall in hedgehog numbers in recent years. The main causes – that is apart from highway fatalities – are thought to be the obsession of tidying up gardens, replacing grass with decking and applying copious quantities of chemicals and in particular, slug pellets. The average hedgehog with its expert sense of smell, can sniff out and consume half a pound of slugs, snails etc per night. So instead of toxic slug pellets why not try protecting the hostas and other delicate plants with some bran scattered around them (as recommended by Monty Don on Gardeners World recently) and provide a pile of logs and leaves in an unkempt corner of the garden. Reports of sightings of hedgehogs or even their ink black ‘signatures’ on the lawn would be welcomed.

The lack or rain has had one small advantage though. It has restricted the growth of grass in our lawn and has given a chance for a whole variety of floral opportunists to make it their home. At last count we had 17 different flowering plants many of which are in full bloom. The perfume from summer flowers, in this case margaret daisies, yellow toadflax and self heal has to be profuse to compete with all the other aromas around at this time of year in order to attract the prime pollinators – bees – of which there over 250 species in Britain. Bees can hone in on the perfume of newly emergent flowers several kilometres away although the average garden will also have at least on small underground colony of bees.

A mild winter suggests the summer butterflies might be more numerous this year so August should be a good month to spot a few of the ones perhaps less familiar to you, such as the small or large skippers (deep orange/ochre) that scurry low down but at great speed from flower to flower like a miniature Harrier jump-jet. In contrast, the marbled whites (mottled brown/white) and a feature of this part of the Chilterns, have a chaotic meandering flight often retracing their steps again and again. They used to be known as the half-mourner a reference to fashion in Victorian times of wearing black and white as a mark of respect for the not so recently departed.

For a walk out and about this month choose a route with mature hedgerows. During August hedgerows are full of life. The hedge with its ripening fruits (berries) and seeds provides a vital larder ahead of a harsh winter for the smaller birds ( see below) as well as bank voles, harvest and wood mice. Dragonflies often patrol hedges in search of prey while speckled wood butterflies can be seen tangling with each other as they vigorously defend their territories from their neighbours. Whereas along with some patience, a keen ear or eye is what is needed with the foregoing even with a blocked nose its almost impossible to ignore the scent of the Stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus) a fungi which can frequently be located by its musty smell within the undergrowth of hedges in both August and September. Although somewhat malodorous to the human, the stinkhorn’s stench is irresistible to blow-flies which mistake it for carrion but it is so pungent it should enable you to locate its source and which will give me an excuse to omit an indelicate description embarrassing the fainthearted and probably giving the Editor palpitations.

If you watch the birds in your garden regularly you could not have failed to notice that the number visiting has fallen suddenly over the past month. Although you might suspect a visiting cat (one without a bell) such as the ones I referred to last time this disappearing act is not unusual at this time of year. The majority of younger birds have joined up in unofficial flocks comprising a variety of species, (e.g. tits, nuthatches and the like) and are hanging out in nearby hedgerows and woodland. Similarly older birds have also adopted a survival strategy at a time when they undergo a summer moulting and can be vulnerable to attack from not just cats but sparrow hawks which are more active at this time than any other. Not all birds are undercover. Swifts and swallows will be seen and heard above stocking up on the bounty of airborne insects until late August and mid September respectively when they depart for sub-Saharan Africa. Two of our more colourful birds, goldfinches and yellowhammers are more frequent visitors to our gardens these days. Until recently both birds have been in decline, but are beginning to make a comeback in this area with more sympathetic management of hedges and field margins. Both can be encouraged into gardens by providing wild birdseed and in the case of goldfinches allowing seed-heads such as thistle or teasel to remain until the seed heads develop.

This month’s house visitor is the black garden ant, the only native ant which regularly invades our houses. The kitchen or larder is their usual Mecca. They have a remarkable ability to detect by ‘smell’ or more correctly sense the chemical odours given of by any sugary substance vital for fattening up the young larvae. Often the first sign you have been invaded though is the emergence of the virgin queens in late August. As this swarming often coincides with the arrival of a thunderstorm, there is a belief in folklore that they are supposed to be able to foretell such weather. I think they are a damn sight better at it than I anyway!