Village Voices Nature Note: The End of a Season

Daniel Defoe is best known nowadays for his desert island novel Robinson Crusoe, but he also wrote an important work on social history, A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724). On his travels through Suffolk he records that he witnessed ‘infinite numbers’ of swallows gathering for autumn migration on the coast. We still see swallows and house martins (did Defoe know the difference?) gathering on the telephone wires here in September, often chattering communally as if to psych themselves up before take-off on their huge journeys south. It’s always a moving spectacle but it’s also an elegiac reminder that summer is drawing to a close for us too. Defoe’s birds weren’t on telephone wires back then of course, but were, appropriately, ‘congregating’ on Southwold church. They sometimes also use other buildings, as illustrated in this photo showing a host of house martins clinging to the Shingle Street Martello tower. The big difference, though, is that sadly we no longer see them in this abundance. Forget about Defoe’s ‘infinite numbers’ in 1724 – since this photo was taken in September 2004 the number of breeding house martins in Britain has declined by nearly 40%. Swallow numbers are down too, as are swifts, which have declined by a whopping 60% in the same period. Swifts are often confused with swallows but belong to a different family altogether – one called Apodes, literally ‘without feet’, because they only have stubby toes that couldn’t grasp a telephone wire anyway. All these delightful aerial acrobats are suffering from the same problem: a corresponding sharp decline in the winged insects on which they feed.

House Martins on the Shingle Street Martello Tower, photo: Jeremy Mynott.

We’ve all noticed that ourselves. Think of the ‘splatter test’ – the number of insects smeared on your windscreen and headlights today, compared to the ‘moth snowstorm’ we used to drive through at night a generation ago. And how we miss what Tennyson happily described as the ‘murmuring of innumerable bees’. But there’s also a new factor now – climate change – and that may cause other dramatic changes. As the world’s climate heats up, the swallows’ journeys back to Southern Africa over barriers like the fast-expanding Sahara Desert become ever more arduous. Suppose the costs of long-distance migration no longer prove worth the physical risks and effort they have to endure. Perhaps the swallows might never come at all one year. Or suppose they were to come and stay over, taking advantage of our milder winters now. If we had swallows at Christmas, what would that do to our emotional responses – to swallows, spring and autumn? Are we at risk of losing the seasons as well as the insects and the birds?

Jeremy Mynott
6th August 2023

Village Voices Nature Note: Seismic Pleasures

The film-producer Sam Goldwyn (a Polish Jew, born Szmuel Gelbfisz) was famous for his inventive use of the English language in pronouncements like ‘a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on’ and ‘I’ll give you a definite maybe’.  One quote that stuck in my mind today was Goldwyn’s formula for a good story, ‘Let’s start with an earthquake and build up to a climax’.  My day did indeed start with an event high up on the Richter scale of excitement for a naturalist, a shark at Shingle St.  No, not Jaws – no need to clear the beaches – but a moth of the same name, so-called from its sleek grey profile.  It’s a rare species though it once gained a certain notoriety from its appearance on a pub sign in Harlow when the New Town was founded in 1948 to accommodate London overspill.  The enlightened council of the time decided to name all the new pubs after moths and butterflies, so along with The Shark you got the whimsy of a Willow Beauty by the cricket ground and, for the more committed customers in town, The Drinker Moth (geddit?).

The Shark in Harlow
Oystercatchers. Photo: Cheryl Gray.

Anyway, my day ended with another thrill, involving a much commoner species of wildlife. Oystercatchers are one of the most easily recognisable wading birds on our coast, sporting that boldly pied plumage and striking orange-red bills.  I’ve been tracking the progress of a pair of them who bravely attempted breeding on one of the pools just to the south of Shingle Street.  They nested on an exposed little islet where they were very vulnerable to threats from dogs, foxes and predatory corvids and gulls.  I often sat on the sea-wall opposite watching over them like some proxy-grandparent, admiring the tremendous vigilance and courage of the two adults who would drive off crows by flying up like fighter-jets to intercept them and see them off with piping cries as shrill as smoke alarms.  After about three weeks they did to my relief eventually hatch four eggs.  The young birds were immediately very mobile, but I knew it would be another thirty days before they acquired the flight feathers that would lift them to safety when necessary.  The four youngsters were soon reduced to three and I feared the worst when I couldn’t see any of them today.  But then I found them again – a quarter of a mile further on  – and I realised they’d earned their wings and made their first solo flights.  Even if the earth didn’t move for me in quite the way Goldwyn hoped, I punched the air and enjoyed a strong shot of adrenaline.

Jeremy Mynott
3 July 2023

Village Voices Nature Note: Who Belongs Here?

Immigration is an emotive subject.  In the natural world, that is, never mind the human one.  People are rightly very keen to protect what remains of our natural heritage of native plants and animals – we’ve lost so much in the last 75 years or so, most of it through our own doing.  But that has also made us suspicious of foreign competition, particularly when it seems to threaten some favourite native species. It’s true that historically there have been some disastrous introductions of invasive species: whether accidental, in the case of the beetles in imported timber that gave us the Dutch elm disease which changed our landscapes for ever; or deliberate, in the case of North American grey squirrels that were released at Woburn Abbey in the nineteenth century and have since been displacing our native red squirrels (and hence get blamed, like the American wartime GIs, for being oversized, oversexed and over here).  

It gets historically and emotionally complicated, however, when we start to challenge the origins of anything we regard as a pest or a public nuisance.  Take the case of Alexanders, the wild parsley with the glossy green leaves and yellowish heads we see flourishing now on roadside verges in coastal districts.  I’ve heard the most xenophobic descriptions of it as a ‘foreign’ or even, on an ascending scale of hostility, an ‘alien’ plant, to be eradicated before it overwhelms all our hard-pressed natives.  And there are regular patriotic campaigns to decapitate all these unwelcome invaders.  

Alexanders. Photo: Laurie Forsythe

Hang on, though. The Alexanders came here with the Romans some two thousand years ago, valued as an all-purpose spring vegetable.  The leaves were used in salads, the roots roasted like parsnips and the black seeds ground as spice.  The monks used to cultivate Alexanders in their herb gardens in the medieval period.  And the name itself has nothing to do with Alexander the Great’s all-conquering invasions but is an English corruption of the Latin name Olus Ater (‘Black Herb’).  If you’re going to say Alexanders are non-natives that don’t belong here, how about our much-loved Brown Hares that arrived about the same time?  How about our glorious Horse Chestnut trees, which came from Turkey in the sixteenth century; or the cute Little Owls, introduced only in the late nineteenth century?  What about buddleia for that matter– imported from China in the 1890s – which nature-lovers actively plant to support our native butterflies?  It’s hard to be consistent. 

In deep history, the most invasive species of all has of course been Homo sapiens, populating the whole globe and continuing to displace its wildlife everywhere.  Who is the real menace?

Jeremy Mynott
6 June 2023

Village Voices Nature Note: Hoping for a Hummer

Is it a bird, is it a butterfly, is it a drone? What on earth is this exotic creature visiting your garden on a hot summer’s day?  It buzzes like a bee, zigzags rapidly from plant to plant, helicopters away and then zooms back again, hovers over flowers like a humming-bird … Ah, there’s the clue – it’s a humming-bird hawkmoth.  This super-moth defies all our preconceptions about moths.  It is active by day.  It can fly fast, with a top speed of 12mph. It migrates here from Europe, just as our summering birds do.  It has a proboscis (tongue) an inch long, which it inserts deep into flowers to sample their nectar.  And to do this with the necessary surgical accuracy it has to hover, immobile, in front of each bloom by beating its wings at an unimaginable 80 times a second.  You then also see its showy colours, with the orange flash on the whirring hindwings transformed into a glowing blur.  No wonder the novelist Virginia Woolf described this summer sprite as a creature of ‘tremulous ecstasy’.

Humming-bird Hawkmoth. Photo: Wikicommons.

The whole hawkmoth family is very striking.  Their caterpillars were thought to resemble the ancient Egyptian sphinx, hence their scientific name Sphingidae.  Among these, the hummer, as it affectionately known amongst naturalists, is one of the few moths familiar and recognisable enough to have garnered traditional folk names.  Their old country nickname in English was ‘merrylee-dance-a-pole’, while the French called it variously fleuze-bouquet (flower-sniffer’), saint-esprit (‘holy spirit’) and bonne nouvelle (‘good news’).  Hummers have in fact long been thought a good luck omen and there is a story one would like to believe that on D-Day, 6 June 1944, a small party of them was seen flying over the Channel from France heading for England.  In recent years they have been getting commoner and it is believed that a few of them now overwinter here, to emerge from hibernation in the spring.  A very welcome addition to our native wildlife, if so.

The favourite food plant of their caterpillars is lady’s bedstraw, while the adult moths are especially drawn to flowers like lavender, verbena and above all red valerian – all common here.  When they find a flower-bed they particularly like they exhibit another remarkable ability known as ‘trap-lining’, after the practice of trappers visiting their line of traps at regular intervals and in a fixed sequence.  The hummers return to exactly the same patch of flowers at the same time each day, demonstrating an excellent visual memory for particular colours, routes and locations.  Check it out yourself. You may have heard of song-lines and ley-lines – let’s plot our local hum-lines. 

Jeremy Mynott 
4 May 2023

Village Voices Nature Note: The Book of Spirits

I have in my hands a wonderful book.  It was a treasured possession of long-time Shingle Street resident, Tricia Hazell, whose life and memory we recently celebrated.  The book is rather battered and weather-beaten (like the rest of us), but has been honoured by years of constant and loving use.  Over twenty years use, in fact, as I can deduce from the spidery annotations in Tricia’s hand over lots of the pages.  It’s her moth book, a field guide with her dated records of the many moth species that visited her secluded garden at the southernmost end of Shingle Street. 

Tricia’s moth book. Photo Jeremy Mynott

Tricia would often invite over local moth expert Nick Mason and myself to set up an overnight moth-trap and then early next morning inspect the host of bejewelled beauties that had taken refuge there, before releasing them safely into her garden again. Sometimes we’d invite over a larger group of residents to share the experience and the event would take on the character of a moth-séance, with an attentive circle of devotees gasping reverentially at each new winged spirit summoned up and announced by Nick as our moth-medium.  Thinking of them as spirits isn’t a bad analogy, in fact.  In the ancient world moths were thought of as ‘souls’, which were released from one’s body at the moment of death to flutter away and disappear into thin air. They continue to be magical creatures of the night, whose presence amongst us feels like an epiphany. 

Moth séance at Shingle Street. Photo Jeremy Mynott.
Small elephant hawkmoth. Photo: Jeremy Mynott.

One thing that impressed me about Tricia was that she wasn’t, like some naturalists, just interested in identifying the moths and keeping a tally of them.  She asked other sorts of questions, too. Whenever we extracted a new specimen from the box she would carefully note the date we’d seen it, but then insist that we pause so that she could discover in her field guide what specific habitats it was found in, what food plants it preferred, and what time of year it would typically emerge.  For example, we’d learn that the gorgeous Small Elephant Hawkmoth we’d just caught could be expected ‘between May and July’, was ‘largely coastal’, had a particular liking for ‘heathlands and shingle beaches’, and was attracted to ‘viper’s bugloss, valerian and honeysuckle’.  ‘Well, that all fits perfectly’, she’d conclude cheerfully.  Although she’d be amazed to hear me say it, Tricia was an ecologist.  The word ecology literally means the study of wildlife in its ‘home surroundings’ – that is, in its relationships with the whole web of life on which it depends.  And the mark of a good ecologist is not how much you know but in asking the right questions. 

Jeremy Mynott

Parking Restored for 2023

All parking at Shingle Street is permissive parking on residents’ land. An area of this parking at the southern end of the hamlet, providing c10 parking spaces, was damaged during the dry summer of 2022 and visitors’ cars were becoming stuck in the shingle, requiring the spaces to be closed.

A Sustainable Development Fund grant from the Suffolk Coasts and Heath AoNB has supported residents to repair the damaged area and reopen the land to parking again.

The work was undertaken by 8 volunteer residents and involved: digging to prepare the ground, the supply and manual raking out of 18 tonnes of aggregate material and, finally, car-rolling to bind the material. It was a good workout for all involved, young and old alike, and, once finished (!), all said they enjoyed completing a great job together.

Preparatory digging
Raking Out

With our thanks to:

Suffolk Coast and Heaths

Background: Shingle Street receives in the order of c30,000 – 70,000 visitors every year yet it is one of the most fragile and sensitive areas for biodiversity within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AoNB. Visitors highly value their experiences at Shingle Street which provides significant wellbeing and tourist public value. Most visits (anecdotal >c95%) are made by car which are only possible thanks to parking areas provided by the residents’ community.

Village Voices Nature Note: Trees of Character

Birdwatchers often talk of identifying a bird at a distance just by its ‘jizz’, its characteristic outline and behaviour.  We can all do this with people, too – you can recognise a friend or family member a long way off, just by their profile and the way they walk.  Most trees have a very distinctive outline as well.  When I was a child my parents tried to distract me on what then seemed to me interminable car journeys by playing a game of counting the different trees we could identify on the way.  Once you got your eye in it was easier than you might think and we’d usually get quite a good tally in the ten miles or so before I asked, ‘Are we nearly there yet?’.  Try it next time you drive children to Woodbridge or Ipswich, as a green alternative to electronic toys.

Anyway, once you know the common trees any strangers start to stand out and I’ve seen some unusual tree species this month.  One was in a scruffy churchyard with some Yews and Ash and it flummoxed me at first.   But when I got close I could see some of last year’s leaves and shrivelled brown fruits on the ground and I noticed the smooth trunk was peeling away in chequered plates.  Ah, Chequers, the old country name for a fine but now rare native British tree, the Wild Service.   

We also visited the Gainsborough Gallery in Sudbury last month, which has a charming little garden at the back, once a herb garden or a domestic orchard, I guess.  They have a trio there of ancient trees of great distinction – a large spreading Mulberry, propping itself up with twisted limbs bent down to the ground like elbows; a quince, famous in classical times for its ‘golden apples’, which make superb quince jelly (perfect with cheeses); and thirdly a Medlar, the fruit that famously goes rotten almost before it is ripe, but is delicious if you can catch it just right.   None of these three is native to Britain, but they are now long-established residents and add great character to our treescapes. 

Black Poplar. Photo: Jeremy Mynott

My final encounter was the best, though.  I unexpectedly came across a magnificent tree standing almost alone in a field near Butley.  And this time I did recognise it straightaway.  It had a very characteristic tilt to it and deep corrugations in the corky bark.  A Black Poplar, once common in East Anglia and a familiar sight in Constable’s paintings, but now endangered following the drainage of our water meadows for ‘development’.  I couldn’t resist it.  I gave it a hug.

Jeremy Mynott
4 March 2023

Village Voices Nature Note: a Confusion of Seasons

The exciting thing about this time of year is that one keeps seeing the ‘first’ of various things for the year: the first butterfly (usually a floppy yellow brimstone butterfly gliding along a hedge), the first chiffchaff (freshly in from Africa), the first frog spawn (in your garden pond – you should have one if you don’t already), the first bumblebees, the first shoots of green on the hawthorn, the first cowslips in the banks, and so on.  I still feel a jolt of adrenaline when each of these appears again, a reassurance, as the poet Ted Hughes put it, ‘that the world’s still working’.  More than just a reassurance, though.  It’s a joyful sense that the dark days of winter are soon to be replaced by light, warmth and growth.  A feeling of abundance and renewal.  Who wouldn’t feel the emotional sap rising at such a time?

Brimstone butterfly

But it’s getting more complicated, like the rest of life.  This ‘spring’ we had the first sticky buds on the chestnuts in January, and the first aconites out in December; there’s been a chiffchaff flitting around all winter; and I’ve just seen my first brimstone, like a floating piece of detached sunlight.  Isn’t this good news?  It can’t be bad to enjoy the pleasures of spring a month or two earlier, can it?  But suppose we are losing the familiar distinctions between the seasons altogether?  These are deeply ingrained in our history and culture, and give us our bearings in the natural world.  I wouldn’t want a bland, uniform climate in which the cycles of growth and rebirth had been flattened out, even if it was a bit more comfortable. 

We’ve got used to this kind of thing in our eating habits, of course.  You can now eat fresh raspberries all the year round. And you can buy exotic fruits like avocados at any supermarket or corner store.  I don’t suppose I had ever eaten an avocado until I was 30, and if you had asked me as a boy what the word ‘Avocado’ meant I might have guessed at some sort of Church prayer or Mexican board game; but at this rate we may one day see avocados growing in our own back-gardens. 

Perpetual spring would actually mean no spring at all.  No autumn either, perhaps the loveliest of seasons with its bitter-sweet associations.  It was once all so simple in Genesis. ‘While the earth remaineth, seed-time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’  But if you read it carefully, that was both a promise and a warning.

Jeremy Mynott
8 February 2023

Village Voices Nature Note: Songs of Love

It was Chaucer who gave St Valentine’s Day its romantic associations. In his poem, The Parliament of Fowles, he imagines all the birds coming together on February the 14th to declare their passions and choose their mates. Florists and card manufacturers have been grateful ever since. But hang on, why mid-February? Wouldn’t you expect the mating season to begin in Spring? Well, like all the best-loved British traditions the history is rather murky. Chaucer actually wrote his poem to celebrate a royal wedding on 3 May 1381 between Richard II and Anne of Bohemia and he borrowed the name of a minor Italian saint called Valentine whose feast was by chance celebrated on that day. It was only much later that all the lovey-dovey stuff was cheerfully transferred to the February date, which was itself originally an ancient Roman fertility festival that happened to coincide on the calendar with the death of a quite different saint also called Valentine.

Song Thrush. Photo by Elizabeth Dack.

Never mind, there is truth even in literal error. The birds really have started to sing in the early mornings now and for just the reasons Chaucer supposed. Two of the easiest songs to recognise in the February dawn chorus are those of the great tit and song thrush, each of which relies on repeating a few basic phrases loudly and often. The main great tit song is a ringing double note, which is usually represented as teacher-teacher, though they do also have a large repertoire of different calls (up to 80 variants have been separately counted). The song thrush, on the other hand, tends to sing in longer phrases like did-he-do-it, did-he-do-it; too-true, too-true. Or as another poet, Robert Browning, puts it:

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over
Lest you should think he could never recapture
The first fine careless rapture!

Bird songs are in fact getting both earlier and louder, for reasons Chaucer could never have foreseen over 600 years ago. Earlier, because of climate change, which has advanced the breeding season by some weeks for many birds. And louder, for the sad reason that traffic and other urban noise has now reached levels where courting great tits, for example, have to turn up the volume to press their suit if they live in towns rather than in the countryside. Moreover, some birds with softer and less penetrating voices are now quite unable to hold territories and nest successfully by motorways, even though there are suitable nesting-sites in all those bushes on the verges, because they simply cannot make themselves heard to prospective mates. Now that really is a fable for our time.

Jeremy Mynott
4 January 2023

Village Voices Nature Note: a Good Start to the Year 

What better way to start the New Year than a walk along the coastal path at Shingle Street. You might start something else new.  You might start a hare.  Since parts of the beach grassed over in the recent years we’ve been blessed with regular visits from these lovely loping creatures.  They were always common in the fields at the back but you can often now put one up near the front of the houses and watch it streaking away in a trademark mazy run, zigzagging to confuse any potential pursuer.   You can forget about any pursuit yourself, though.  The scientific name of the hare is Lepus, which comes from the Latin Levipes meaning ‘light-footed’. And so they are.  They have a top speed of about 50 mph and can jump ten feet in one bound.  Unlike rabbits, they live their whole lives above ground, usually on open fields, so they depend on their rapid acceleration to escape natural predators like foxes and stoats.  They also have eyes set so far back in their heads that they have almost 360-degree vision and can spot trouble a long way off.  They’re about twice the size of rabbits and have those distinctive long ears, black at the tips and pink velvet inside.

What with climate change you may soon be seeing mad March hares dashing about in January, and you might even catch sight of a couple of them ‘boxing’.  This isn’t, as you might suppose, an all-male event, but is more likely a female fending off an amorous male.  They’ve long had a reputation for lechery.  In classical times the hare was sacred to Aphrodite, goddess of erotic love, and the Roman author Pliny tells us that eating a hare could enhance your sexual attractiveness for nine days.  Only nine days?   Well, it’s another kind of start, I suppose.  Anyway, there is some truth in the old folklore because hares are certainly very fertile.  They have up to four litters a year and the females can even get pregnant again while they are still pregnant the first time around.  But there’s a reason for that, too.  The young leverets are born fully furred and with open eyes, but they are still very exposed and vulnerable at first and to avoid advertising their exact whereabouts the mother (the ‘jill’) only visits them once a day to feed them milk, usually in the evening.  They remain easy prey, however, and there’s a very high mortality rate.

We used to be enjoined to ‘go to work on an egg’.  I think ‘start a hare to start the year’ is as good a slogan.

Jeremy Mynott
25 November 2022