Nature 2005 June

Bum barrels, bells and whistles

The weather in April and May has meant a cooler and dryer Spring than usual. Daytime temperatures were on average lower than in the past two years. Meanwhile despite the heavy downpours in Mid May neither month managed to contribute more than around three-quarters as much rainfall (about 4ins) compared to Spring last year. With only 10ins of rain over the past 6 months its no surprise that our well has only 6 foot of water. Compared to 14 feet last year so the water table is desperately low with no chance or recovery until next winter.

Looking ahead neither weather lore nor meteorology are optimistic when it comes to rainfall either. With the oak out before the ash this year the trees are predicting ‘a splash’ rather than ‘a soak’ and some long-range forecasters are suggesting we will be in for a scorcher this summer it looks like being a tougher season with uncertain results for farmers and gardeners alike. Its time to take action to avoid your lawn turning into the prairie lands of Illinois. Raise the blades on your mower and maybe leave the cuttings to act as a mulch to conserve moisture. Order a rain barrel or two from the water companies who have them on offer. We are getting close to having acquired almost as many barrels as George Galloway (allegedly!) And don’t forget the wildlife. The lack of ‘casual water’ around as golfers call it presents a problem to birds and other animals so leave a bowl or two for them too.

For astronomers and for insomniacs in search of a bit of night-time walking the Full Moon falls on June 22nd and July 21st.

First some good news! The Brown’s have several new additions to the family! Well to be honest the long-tailed tits I mentioned last time who took up residence in the nearby hawthorn hedge have a large brood of chicks and have been working from dawn to dusk to provide a steady stream of caterpillars and the like. Obsessed with finding out more about this bird I have discovered that it is not related to the other tits we are familiar with. The powers that be in the bird world are looking to correct this anomaly and are deciding on a new name. More precisely they are trying to choose which of the many traditional regional old English names to use. The trouble is they have a good few to choose from including: long-tailed chittering; poke pudding; hedge jug; mumruffin and last but not least my favourite bum barrel!

So what’s about over the next two months? June is one of the best months for the larger insects with the second broods of peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies emerging, marbled whites in the meadows and red admirals arriving from the continent. Just time to invest in one or two flowering shrubs with butterfly appeal to your garden. If butterflies represent the light aircraft of the natural world the hoverflies are the helicopters removing those unwanted garden pests and meanwhile the ‘jumbos’ must be the dragonflies which patrol the hedgerows and pond edges in search of insect prey. Many of the larger species are migrants from southern France. Cleaner waterways and lakes and warmer winters are improving the conditions for these larger varieties resulting in more sightings year on year.

We tend to think that autumn is the only time to see fungi but a chance meeting with fellow HN contributor and ‘mycological gourmond’, Clive Carey put me right. Despite the warmer and drier conditions there are plenty of every-day and more exotic fungi to be seen both in woodland and the commons at this time of year. Of all species I think fungi have some of the most imaginative and descriptive of names. Just as well. There’s no mistaking what might happen if you choose to take a bite from a death cap, satanic boletus or the destroying angel. Clive reeled off a long list of the safely edible ones. Personally without such expert supervision I think I will stick to looking rather than eating and have always been a fan of those large bracket fungi that which often look as old as the tree they are on and put on a spurt of activity with new growth in fresh shades of purples, yellows and greens at around this time. So for this month’s outing try the woodland and commons and see how many different species you encounter. But take advice from the likes of Clive and co before indulging or it may be the last walk in the woods you take.

From the end of May and into June it is the mating season for hedgehogs. So if you hear grunting and snorting during the evening coming from the undergrowth or a hedgerow this may be the reason. Unsurprisingly it can be a somewhat noisy and prolonged affair lasting several hours. The amorous male has to perform a nifty dance as he encircles his mate to encourage the reluctant female to flatten her spines. ( I am tempted to add a comment at this point but the Editor would no doubt censor it!)

We tend to associate owls with the night-time. Hearing an owl hoot during the day is unusual but especially at this time of year tawny owls are out and about almost as much during the daylight as at night. Their nest of owlets become increasingly ravenous and at least one if not both adults will be out after their prey typically fledgling birds and the young of small rodents both being as yet unfamiliar with the hazards their parents have had to learn about to survive.

Along with magpies and other members of the crow family perhaps the other major predator of garden birds is the domestic cat. In rural areas a typical two year old cat, allowed the freedom to roam, will kill on average 18 birds per year. Mainly our familiar garden visitors although some have even leant how to pounce on swallows swooping over ponds. Their diets are also enriched by around 5 mice 2 voles, 2 harvest mice, 2 rabbits and one shrew plus a smattering or frogs, toads newts, lizards and even grass snakes. Cats don’t kill that many rats apparently, – only one between every four cats). Cats wearing a bell kill less birds but more mice than those without a bell so it might be worth a small investment next time you pass the pet shop. The warmer evenings bring our first sight of bats. One of our most widespread examples of bat is the Pipistrelle. Recent studies with bat detecting devices that pick up the sonar the bat uses to catch insects has discovered that there is in fact a new species using a distinctly higher frequency (the bat equivalent of whistling to its pals which has consequently been nicknamed the ‘soprano pipistrelle’.

Just space to mention the house guest for this month. Probably one of the most intimidating and least endearing of all fellow inhabitants, the Devil’s Coach Horse. These are the large black elongated armour-plated beetles that emerge without warning and scurry across the carpet or along the skirting. In fact they do you a favour by feasting on many of the other unwelcome insect house guests. Despite this as they look like a creation out of the ‘Hammer House of Horrors’ its hard to feel any great affection for them, I’m afraid.