Extreme entomology at The Hollies

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Having travelled to Shrewsbury last weekend to speak at the excellent Darwin Festival, organised by Shropshire Wildlife Trust and partners, I took the opportunity to do some extreme entomology. Okay, so The Hollies (next door to The Stiperstones, near Shrewsbury) is a bit higher than where I live, 350 metres as opposed to 100 m, but the altitude can’t be said to be extreme. And although a cold, gloves-on February day might not be the usual choice for bug-hunting – the temperature records claim it was 7-8 °C, but with a biting wind it felt a good deal colder – that wasn’t really extreme either, although it did make it hard to keep the beating tray steady. No, the extreme thing here was the trees I was searching for signs of insect life: a range of ancient Holly trees, some believed to be about 400 years old.

The Holly trees at The Hollies are an extraordinary range of shapes. Many are individual isolated trees that have been sculpted by wind and time into gnarled shapes that stretch and lean. There is precious little shelter to be had, either for the trees themselves, or any insects that might live in or on them, or indeed for the visiting entomologist. This must be one of the few Holly populations anywhere in Britain where the Holly Leaf-miner fly (Phytomyza ilicis) struggles to gain a foothold – I found just a few mines on one of the slightly less exposed trees.

Pogonocherus hispidus on Holly bark at The Hollies

But a lot of insects clearly do make their home here, as testified by the peppering of beetle exit holes in the trunks and limbs of the trees. And in fact the first insect to fall out of a Holly and onto my beating tray was the Lesser Thorn-tipped Longhorn Beetle (Pogonocherus hispidus). Larvae of this small (5mm) but attractive beetle develop in the small branches of a range of trees including Holly. Do have a look at these two great close-ups by John Hallmén on Flickr.

An hour or so of beating and grubbing around the trunks of the the trees produced a small list of other species:

A modest list, but not bad for a very cold February afternoon, especially as all but two (Porcellio scaber and Anthocoris nemorum) of these invertebrates are new records for the Stiperstones area, according to the useful list compiled by Pete Boardman in 2010. I find it comforting that these many of these species have probably been happily living at The Hollies for many generations, over the centuries since the current hollies started growing.
The Hollies is a Shropshire Wildlife Trust reserve and SSSI, so thankfully its special character has been recognised and is being looked after. It’s a shame that so many of the hollies have had to be fenced off, making it look rather like a tree zoo – presumably this is to prevent the trees being damaged by grazing stock. But the ancient hollies still work their magic, redolent of centuries of human interaction with the landscape. There’s more about the history of The Hollies on Sara Bellis’s blog, where she comments that in the past small boys would have been sent up the trees to collect the higher, less prickly leaves, as livestock feed. Since I was accompanied on my visit by a small boy in the shape of Kitenet jnr it’s a shame I didn’t think to put him to gainful employment for once …

Putting wildlife on the map

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Last week I had the pleasure of teaching my first course for the fantastic Field Studies Council, at their Epping Forest centre. The day seemed to go well, and for me it was great to be out talking about wildlife-watching among the venerable old trees of the Forest.

I’ve added some of the materials from the course to a new biological recording section of my website, including information on recording, tips for photography and using keys, suggested surveys to try out, links to further resources and some field exercise sheets (downloadable). As ever, feedback welcome to improve what’s there and fill in any gaps I’ve missed.
While reading up for the course I went back to the late Oliver Gilbert‘s very enjoyable book The Lichen Hunters. Despite not being any sort of lichenologist myself I loved reading about the exploits of Dr Gilbert and his colleagues in tracking down unusual lichens in a range of habitats, from pristine rocks high in the Cairngorms to the ‘ancient tarmac’ of abandoned WWII airfields. Finding lichens in mountainous habitats requires impressive feats of physical endurance – anyone want to start a campaign for lichen-hunting as an olympic sport?
The book contains one of my favourite biological recording quotes, capturing some of the emotions that come from close contact with wildlife and wild places:
“You go to look for lichens and find in addition familiarity, beauty, companionship, laughter and the warmth of friends.”

to Otmoor for insects

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Saturday afternoon was spent in brilliant sunshine at the RSPB’s Otmoor reserve, for a BENHS field trip. Great to feel the warmth of the sun after the grey summer. The evening’s mothing was cooler – see photo of moth-trap in the mist.

Some leisurely bug-hunting produced a range of craneflies, snail-killing flies and other odds and ends. One of the really good things about going on group field trips is that you can see so much more thanks to others sharing their interests and knowledge, and my colleagues pointed out birds including lots of Snipe, a Barn Owl, Marsh Harrier and Cetti’s Warbler. A small number of moths braved the evening chill, including reedbed resident the Large Wainscot (photo).

The meeting was led by Paul Waring, whose enthusiasm is matched only by his expertise. Although we didn’t catch many moths, and those we did were nothing unusual, Paul still managed to give the impression that he was immensely pleased to see each species and each person he encountered. There’s a lot to be said for enthusiasm.

A final surprise when packing up the following morning was a bat roosting in an outbuilding – it hadn’t been there the evening before so must have flown in while we were mothing. Not yet sure of the species, but always a thrill to see.