30 August, 2017

I got lost

A few weekends ago I nipped over to Aberystwyth to catch up with some old school friends. I got horribly lost on my home and ended up first at the Dyfi Osprey Project...

Then on the Minffordd Path heading up into the spectacular Cadair Idris mountain range. Nightmare!

Llyn Cau

Twin-spot Carpet 

Fox Moth

Parsley Fern

16 August, 2017

A night on the moors

Lulworth Cove is a popular tourist hotspot all year round but during the August summer holidays it becomes a whole new level of manic. The car park, over flow car park and back up overflow car park are filled by midday at the moment and the coast path to Durdle Door attains the kind of people traffic you'd expect along the Southbank in the run up to Christmas.

Walk anywhere off the beaten track (or up a steep hill) and you pretty quickly shrug off the majority of tourists, but the other weekend I opted for a complete change of scenery and took my tent down to Dartmoor for the night. I've been waiting for a chance to return ever since visiting for the first time back in June. The landscapes are entrancing and it's only an hour or so's drive from my base camp at Lulworth.

I parked up at Two Bridges, a secluded hamlet deep in the wilds of the Moor, and waved goodbye to the car. With tent, sleeping bag, tomato soup, tea bags, a stove and a pair of binoculars all crammed into my rucksack I set off off down a track and then onto a well-trodden path towards Wistman's Wood.

The sun was wavering just above Beardown Tor to the west as I reached the wood, gradually dipping below the hillside. I watched the shade line slowly creep up through the woods towards me and the dappled rays of sunlight on the moss-cladded oaks and boulders. I'd heard good things about Wistman's Wood, but this was magical beyond words. As much as I wanted to be able to say I'd kipped in such a bewitching spot, I've also heard creepy stories of pagan rituals and ghosts that encouraged the superstitious side of me to resist pitching the tent quite yet!

From the top end of Wistman's Wood I headed north-west up onto the moors. There was a Grasshopper Warbler singing somewhere amongst the tussocks of sedges and rushes, and a herd of testosterone-filled Dartmoor ponies were busy chasing each other around the hillside.

I set up the tent on a rocky outcrop which turned out to be Lydford Tor, so called because the ancient track that runs alongside it was used by 13th century residents of local farmsteads as a route by which to carry their dead across the moor for burial at Lydford church. Luckily I had no such processions pass by me during the night as far as I'm aware and I woke up at 5am to a positively freezing, misty and completely silent moorland landscape.

Amazingly there was an owl hunting in the distant gloom. It was too dark to make out any detail, but the size and flight pattern perfectly matched an Asio species. Short-eared Owls are strictly winter visitors in the south-west so one hunting over Dartmoor in the middle of summer would be unheard of. Long-eared Owl on the other hand does breed on the Moor in very small numbers, although it is strictly nocturnal and rarely seen.

Without decent views or a photo, the owl sighting will have to remain a mystery. An apt way to end an eerie, magical and atmospheric night on Dartmoor.

13 July, 2017

Cliff top light show

Head up to Durdle Door after dark and you not only lose the crowds of tourists, but you also have a chance of witnessing a magical light show. At this time of year, female glow worms light up like mini beacons along the cliff tops, shining to attract the gaze of males. They had to work extra hard last weekend to compete against the full moon.

08 July, 2017

Ivy Broomrape

Last Sunday I walked what is fast becoming my favourite part of the south coast, the ten mile stretch between Kimmeridge and Swanage. It has everything you could want from a coastline - dizzyingly high cliffs, secluded beaches, breathtaking sea vistas, fossils, seabird colonies, rare plants and Purbeck ice cream.

One of the weirdest things to be found along this stretch of the coast is Ivy Broomrape, a parasitic plant that gains all its nutrients from the root stock of its host Ivy since it has no chlorophyll with which to absorb its own sunlight. I stumbled across this flower by chance in a dingy overgrown corner of Winspit Quarry after I took a wrong turn along the SW coast path and ended up at the entrance to an old mine!

 Ivy Broomrape

Winspit Quarry

01 July, 2017

Black-a-tor Copse

A while back I booked the dates between 22nd and 26th June off work with a rough plan to head up into a remote part of north-west Scotland called the Fisherfield Forest. I'd drawn up a hiking route through the mountains, scouted out a few potential wild camping spots and charged up the batteries ready to run a moth trap in a place where no moth trap has been run before.

Last weekend began to approach and, inevitably, the weather forecast became progressively worse. Sunny spells turned to heavy cloud which turned to light rain, and to top it off gale force winds were being predicted. Not ideal! In the end I decided it best to postpone my northward travels until a nicer weather window, and instead I used the time off to head south-west and set foot on Dartmoor for the time.

I left the car in the tiny hamlet of Meldon on the north-west side of Dartmoor and skirted around the outside of the reservoir, following the West Okement River upstream and onto higher ground.

Just as it seemed like I'd advanced above the tree-line, up ahead loomed the outline of Black-a-tor Copse, a small patch of woodland nestled high on the slopes of Black Tor. I got closer and it began to take shape. Gnarled and tangled old oaks were growing up through moss-clad boulders, and nothing was stirring. I looked around it wasn't hard to get lost in the romantic thought that I'd been transported back in time 10,000 years to an untouched post-glacial landscape, as yet free from the effects of human disturbance.

There are three of these unique other-worldly woods spread across Dartmoor's high ground, each abound with stories of pagan rituals, ghosts and myths, which means I've still got two more to find...

A bed amongst the boulders

20 June, 2017

World's sharpest moth

On Sunday evening I parked up at Whiteways Viewpoint and went for a long walk through the army ranges towards Mupe Bay. It was a super route that took in dreamy views towards Worbarrow Bay, remote empty beaches, steep clifftop strolls and rolling countryside vistas towards Poole Harbour. It also led me to stumble into the gorgeous Cynaeda dentalis, a rare moth of calcareous grassland and cliffs along the south coast that has an unusual arrangement of scales that actually make it look spiky and jagged. Perhaps, maybe, possibly a visual defence against predators, or am I just being silly?

 Cynaeda dentalis

 Pyramidal Orchid above Worbarrow Bay

 Bee Orchid growing on the Flower's Barrow, an Iron Age hill fort on the high ridge above Worbarrow Bay

 Field Mushrooms were growing in odd clumps along the cliff tops

15 June, 2017

Early Gentian counting

There was an air of excitement in the ranger's office this morning. It's been a busy week of early morning birds surveys, teaching and coasteering, but today Dom Price from the Species Recovery Trust was over at Durdle Door to survey Early Gentian, and we'd all left the date free in our diaries to head up there and help him count them.

In typical Lulworth fashion, no sooner had we pasted on the suncream than the sun disappeared and the sea fret drew in, but the thought of a day spent looking for a rare UK endemic plant on the slopes above a wondrous limestone arch was enough to extinguish any bad feelings about the weather (which got better again as the day went on!).

With the help of Dom's keen eye and a trusty handheld GPS, we found healthy populations of Early Gentian at several grid references where they've been seen before in similar surveys back in 2008 and 1998. These plants grow in only the very shortest turf where they don't have to compete with taller grasses, so to find them in the same spot over consecutive surveys is proof that the livestock grazing regime up there is working.

Quadrat sampling with a view 

 Red pegs were used to mark the locations of clumps of plants

Despite growing in very short turf, it's an inconspicuous plant

Interestingly, some of the largest clusters were growing immediately alongside the steps on the South West Coast Path where it leads down to the Cove, in an area that they haven't previously been recorded and that isn't often grazed. This busy route between Lulworth and Durdle Door is walked by thousands of tourists every summer, and the constant footfall has effectively done the same job as grazing cow - kept the grass short! Footpath erosion isn't usually something to rave about, but in this case it seems to be beneficial!

 Ideal Early Gentian habitat alongside one of the busiest footpaths on the south coast

A couple of dazzling Cistus Forester joined in the fun

Pyramidal Orchid

13 June, 2017

Rhubard and custard by the sea

One of the habitats I've been most eager to sink my teeth into since arriving in Dorset are the undercliffs that have formed in various spots along the coast where soft rock has slumped below a sheer cliff face, creating a slope down to the sea. These are constantly changing landscapes dominated by erosion. Crumbling scree and rock falls constantly expose areas of bare ground which in turn opens up niches for pioneer plants and insects to colonise, including such mouth-watering rarities as Morris's Wainscot and Cliff Tiger Beetle.

The undercliffs that stretch between Lyme Regis and Axmouth are easily accessible and their potential to support some cracking wildlife has well documented, but they're a long drive away on the other side of Dorset. Much closer to home are the secluded, remote and wholly unstable undercliffs nestled deep within the army firing ranges near the abandoned village of Tyneham that can only be accessed at low tide - a much better option for an afternoon invert hunt!

A quick check of the tide times and I was off to Kimmeridge Bay, where I headed towards the undercliffs via a long walk along the fossil-filled rocky shoreline of Brandy Bay, dodging a constant shower of tumbling scree as I went. The jumble of undisturbed odds and ends along the strandline indicated that I'd strayed beyond the reaches of the average tourist, with small fossils, fish bones, wayward buoys, fridges, rubber ducks and even a rotting Harbour Porpoise interspersed amongst piles of plastic, old rope and driftwood.

"Let's see how far I go"... not very far

Sea junk

 An adventurous fridge

 Rock fall had exposed lots of small ammonite fossils imprinted in the shale

Does anyone know what animal this belongs to?

Up ahead the undercliffs beckoned so I snapped out of beachcombing mode and back into wildlife mode. Yellow Horned-poppy was growing on the shale where the undercliffs met the beach, and it was here I found Enoplops scapha, a scarce bug of coastal habitats. A very hyperactive micro moth flying around the shingle nearby eventually settled on vegetation and I had my first rarity of the day, the stunning tortrix Selania leplastriana. What a moth!

Yellow-horned Poppy

 Selania leplastriana

Enoplops scapha

I left the beach and clambered up the slopes to reach a grassy area with some huge boulders that must have come down from the huge precipice of Gad Cliff at some point. Platytes cerussella flushed with every few footsteps, and amongst the turf Macrotylus paykulli was loitering around its foodplant Rest Harrow along with Rhinocyllus conicus on Spear Thistle.

Platytes cerussella

Macrotylus paykulli

Rhinocyllus conicus

Everything else suddenly became much less interesting when a striking pink moth shot flew my face and headed on up the slope. I leapt after it, but it was travelling fast and flying over rocky ground. I considering activating my mountain goat mode but quickly figured it would end in tears if I did. Luckily, the moth dropped down and settled on a grass stem not too far away and I was treated to up close views of Oncocera semirubella, a georgeous sea cliff & chalk downland specialist that I've wanted to see for a long time.

Oncocera semirubella in-situ


A fantastic couple of hours -  I think a return visit is definitely on the cards later in the summer. Might even have to bring a moth trap.