You may know that I did request people to write a guest blog to help keep everyone's spirits up in the current situation and for people to help me out a little, well here is the first blog from our neighbour Andrew who felt inspired to put 'pen to paper', a fascinating blog which I myself have learned a thing or two - I do hope you enjoy it as much as I did and hopefully it will inspire one or two of you, it doesn't even have to be about Blacktoft.........

Nature at Home

Reading Pete’s comments about how attractive Mallards can be when you look at them properly encouraged me to have a look at a couple that I knew were nesting in our garden. We’re lucky enough to live close to the reserve and to the river, and we find several nests each year near the house. 

We knew where the first one was, because from the kitchen window we could see the duck jumping up on to the top of a rainwater tank. She’s sort of hidden under a tangle of Cotoneaster that arches over the tank. In this picture, you can just about make her out, facing left (but the head’s invisible folded into her back plumage), and with her tail pointing up towards the right.

Can you spot the mallard? she's well camouflaged 


The other nest is in the vegetable garden, and we didn’t find that until starting to clear the green manure off the potato plot. So the potatoes are having to wait, and we built a screen from planks and bricks to protect her from cold easterlies. She only moved a few feet from the nest during this commotion! She is visible in the picture just over the brick, facing right.


Part of the reason we get these Mallards nesting here is that we also have free-range hens, and the ducks all come to take advantage of the grain dispensers. Mostly the two species ignore each other, but there is a bit of argy-bargy when there are chicks or ducklings around. Here are some of the hens, together with the magnificent Harlequin II. In the current circumstances, watching this lot counts as birding, I think.


Wandering about the garden and the hen’s enclosure, it’s great to see spring developing by the minute. The weather for the last few days has been just great, with flowers and insects appearing in force. While it’s hardly brilliant being confined to barracks, it does provide an opportunity to slow down and enjoy the small things in life that are all around us, but so often get ignored. How many people bother to look at Daisies properly (unless they are under ten and making a daisy-chain)?


Day’s-eye indeed – the name apparently goes right back to the Anglo-Saxon and it’s not surprising that it has stuck. I see there is a tiny beetle on the second flower from the top – I have no idea what species it is.

 Daisies flower through much of the year, but one favourite restricted to spring is Common whitlow-grass, not a grass but a diminutive crucifer (i.e. related to Cuckoo-flower and Cabbages!). This appears every year from February onwards on our driveway (well, track, really), flowers profusely producing vast numbers of tiny seeds, then by the end of May has vanished completely until next year. Its scientific name, by the way, is Erophila vernaverna referring to the spring as in vernal equinox, which we have just passed. It is too small for my diminutive camera to cope with, but this picture should give you an idea.



Colt’s-foot is another plant that flowers early in the year, pushing its dandelion-like bursts of yellow up through the soil well in advance of the dull-green circular leaves which remain through the summer to make you wonder why you thought it was so attractive in the spring! This is a plant that specialises in disturbed ground, and is quite common in places at Blacktoft Sands, growing on material excavated from the lagoons, and I see in a recent blog that it has found its way into Horseshoe Meadow. By the way, I see another shiny beetle on the top right flower. It would be good to know what it was, and why, but perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Even if I could identify it, that still wouldn’t give me much insight into its life, and how it perceives the world. I’m pleased that there are people who devote themselves to the identification and ecology of particular groups of animals and plants, but my view is that one person can’t expect to know everything. Let’s just enjoy these small things.



Yet another early-flowering species is Field speedwell, a common weed of fields and gardens. With its flowers as blue as the bluest eyes, it is more eye-catching than the Whitlow-grass and brightens up the task of weeding the garden. It’s a shame to have to pull up such a pretty flower, but don’t worry, they’ll be back soon! This is a common plant throughout much of Britain, yet it’s not a native species. It is thought to originate from the mountains of the Caucasus and northern Iran (thus its scientific name of Veronica persica), and possibly arose through the hybridisation of two other speedwells. It has clearly found Britain to its liking, though.



While the ground is at last dry enough to crawl about on, admiring these tiny plants, there is also plenty to look at a bit higher up. We have various willows and sallows growing in the hen’s area, and they too are now in flower. This particular bush was noisily full of honey bees collecting pollen. Needless to say, every time I got the camera pointing at a bee, it buzzed off. I’m not certain which species it is: it looks pretty much like Osier but I suspect it could be some sort of hybrid, which Salix species are particular prone to.



Another favourite for insects at this time of year is Blackthorn, and that looks good at the moment.



One of the trees we planted when we arrived almost twenty years ago was a Walnut. It’s impressive how large the tree has grown, and how much lichen has grown on it. I suspect the crusty orange stuff is Xanthoria parietina, which goes by a variety of common names (including common orange lichen), but – again – it doesn’t matter too much to me, so long as it’s there. Presumably forty years ago, I wouldn’t have seen so much lichen in this area, but the reductions in power station and industrial emissions especially of sulphur dioxide have altered air quality enough for the improvement to take place. There is more that can be done, because we know that lichen communities are still affected by other pollutants including nitrogen compounds derived from industry, agriculture and traffic, but it shows that it is worth keeping on trying to make things better.





Having lain under the tree for a while, thinking about all this, I recalled the old saying: “A woman, a dog and a walnut tree, the more you beat them, the better they be”. This reminded me that the government suggest I take some daily exercise, so I did by trotting off to my computer to find out what on earth it really means. It seems to have begun, in written form, with one of Aesop’s fables, where a nut tree complains that people are hitting it with sticks to obtain the nuts it freely provides. The saying was thus originally ironic, and illustrated our ingratitude to those we love.

Time to get back to enjoying the simple things, I think. I know we’re lucky, having some space to get out into, but hope that wherever you’re confined, you’ll find some small aspect of nature to keep your spirits up.

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