Meadow yellow

Meadow yellow
Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) in a Devon meadow

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The last White Rock-rose

With my daughters recently back to school I was keen to get out and do some serious birdwatching and try and spot a few summer migrants on their way back to winter quarters. Berry Head seemed like a good option, a headland jutting out beyond Brixham at the extreme tip of the southern arm of Torbay. I was pleased to see so many resident pebble-chinking stonechats, but not much sign of migrants. A solitary Wheater flitted discretely on the steep slopes.

It did not take long before my eyes were heading downwards rather than to the skies – the abundance of late summer wild flowers caught most of my attention. Berry Head’s thin limestone soils mixed with salty air have created a special botanical habitat. The last blue flowers of Viper’s-bugloss (Echium vulgare) clung to the tips of arching flower branches ending their summer show, whilst the tiny blue lily flowers of Autumn Squill (Scilla autumnalis) were in their prime scattered widely on the cliffs. Sea specialist, Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) was most abundant on less accessible rocky slopes providing late yellow warmth to the cliffs. However it was a nationally rare species that I was eager to find, the White Rock-rose (Helianthemum apenninum), a limestone specialist restricted to a few locations in the South West. It occurs on dry, rocky limestone grassland on south facing slopes (Countryside Trust, 2011), typical of montane Mediterranean habitats where is more commonly found. However the conditions provided by the Devonian limestone sea cliffs of Berry Head provide sufficient conditions for the White Rock-rose to prevail, although threats from scrub invasion, trampling and dog fouling put this at risk (Countryside Trust, 2011). In the UK it is at its northern European limit (Preston, 2007).

The White Rock-rose flowers between April & July (Rose, 2006), and so I was being rather optimistic to see it at its best. Just when I was giving up any hope of finding it, there was one last solitary flower already in decline having shed one of its petals. This contrasts with the small silvery downy leaves, strongly inrolled at their margins. Next year I will be visiting much earlier, perhaps to time in with the return of the summer migrants.

Countryside Trust (2011) [online]. [Accessed September 24th 2011]
Preston, C.D (2007) Which vascular plants are found at the northern or southern edges
of their European range in the British Isles? Watsonia (26): 253–269
Rose,F (2006) The Wild Flower Key – How to identify wild flowers trees and shrubs in Britain and Ireland. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Migrating south

Two harsh winters in a poorly heated woodland house would be enough to test most people’s resolve. Ice on the inside of the bedroom and puffed up like ‘Michelin’ marshmallows we held on each day for the allocated evening heating. My wife’s semi-Italian blood just found it too extreme, despite last Christmas’s present of an electric blanket. So with some regret about leaving the Pinfold’s peacefulness and woodland wildlife, I moved with my family over the summer from Nottinghamshire to Devon warmth. Of course it was not just the more amiable climate that pulled us South, but my desire to be part of a richer more stimulating landscape with greater biodiversity. Devon had always appealed to me with its mix of extensive coastline, moors and rivers.

We have moved to a cottage on the outskirts of Totnes within the wooded Gatcombe valley, with its rolling hills, high hedgebanks and gentle streams, views to Dartmoor and easy access to South Hams coastline. The wildlife experienced already has certainly not disappointed. An evening woodland walk was rewarded with a badger sighting. From our own home I was surprised by a darting Kingfisher slightly off track from its aquatic path. Three times I have seen a Sparrowhawk swooping through the cluster of cottages trying to take Sparrows by surprise. I even got a glimpse of a Peregrine soaring overhead as I painted a skylight, whilst the ever present buzzards glide by effortlessly, heralded by their mewing cries. Botanically the valley is rich in hedgebank & woodland plants and particularly noted for species of Crane’s-bill (see image of Long-stalked Crane’s-bill). Further afield I have treated myself to Cirl Buntings on the nearby coast and rock pool diving to see Blue-rayed Limpets and star ascidians amongst many marine species.
In recent weeks I have become aware of Nature’s more natural migration with swallows collecting on telegraph wires and family groups of House Martins’ collectively feeding on the roof of Butterwell Cottage. They too have to make decisions about climate and make the difficult journey south, whilst we hopefully will be enjoying our first comparatively warmer winter in our new cosy cottage.