It’s glow time!

At this time of year, there’s a female that shamelessly flaunts her figure and desire to attract a male for the night. She certainly doesn’t hide her light under a bushel and turns parts of Stroud into a ‘green light’ district with her unbridled desires.

But a one-night stand is all she craves and once that’s satisfied, her light is extinguished as she crawls away to lay her eggs and then die. She’s more like a tragic heroine in a Charlotte Bronte novel rather than a Jilly Cooper pot-boiler.

This flagrant display of nature’s reproductive drive I’m describing is shown by the female glow-worm. Firstly, let’s get rid of a misunderstanding here – the glow-worm is not a worm, it’s an insect – a beetle – but the female can’t fly and has a clearly segmented body making her look worm-like from a distance.

Glow-worm female - Nat GeographicThe male, however, can fly and virtually never glows. From late June to late July, he cruises around at night looking to mate with a female shining out in the darkness. He, too, dies shortly afterwards making this more of an ecological Romeo and Juliet but with less angst. Her light (which generally doesn’t break through yonder window) is created by a chemical called luciferin reacting with oxygen to create oxyluciferin which glows. The first glow-worm I ever saw was just next to a farm gate and I honestly thought it was part of a security system – the light was such a bright green, and I mean really bright green. It looks more like an artificial light than one that we’re used to seeing nature produce.

Glow-worms are usually found living in grasslands growing on top of limestone rock or chalk because the young beetles eat snails, and these need limestone or chalk to make their shells. The glow-worm young don’t eat nicely (mothers, look away now) – they paralyse a snail, pump enzymes into it which ‘dissolve’ the snail’s insides and then suck out the snail soup. And you thought the plot of ‘Alien’ was made up…

Senior citizens describe to me how road-side verges looked like ‘fairyland’ during July when they were kids because of the sheer volume of glow-worms around. Unfortunately, today this isn’t the case as glow-worms numbers have crashed in recent decades. Ecologists think it’s a culmination of a number of reasons: the amount of limestone and chalk grassland in the UK has dramatically declined during the past 50 years; an increased use of pesticides which obviously kills the glow-worms and snails, their food; and light pollution which means the females can’t be seen by the males.

In Stroud, there are two places where glow-worms can be found and I’m pleased to say both are easy to visit: Rodborough Common and Bisley Road Cemetery. The former is a Special Area of Conservation and the latter has recently been designated as a Local Nature Reserve.

When to visit: from late June to late July. Remember to take a torch with you!

Time of day to visit: when dusk is turning into darkness. A useful indication is when your clothes stop having any colour and look like shades of grey – that’s the time when the glowing starts.

How much time to allow: an hour or so as not all the females start glowing at the same time and more will start the darker it gets. If you’re not worried about ghosts or sleep, stay a couple of hours.

PLEASE NOTE! If you haven’t visited the Rodborough Common site before, I’d recommend you go whilst it’s still light so you can familiarise yourself with the path. It’s stony and uneven in places and it’s also possible to get lost. Plus, go with someone else to either site for safety reasons so you’re not wandering around in the dark on your own.

I saw 34 glow-worms last night (Saturday 11th) and 43 on the previous Monday (6th) on Rodborough common. Count how many glow-worms you see and then send this number to the Glos Centre for Environmental Records saying that your walk began at OS grid reference 854027 and finished at 848026, OS Explorer Map 168. They’re building up a massive database of what wildlife lives in the county, and so would be very grateful for your record but need the grid references to log precisely where wildlife is seen. Email your sighting to gcer@gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk.

BISLEY ROAD CEMETERY

After passing through the entrance gate, follow the path past the area of lawn and head for the lower part of the churchyard where the grass is tall. Then just stroll around looking for the tiny green lights – once you’ve spotted one and ‘got your eye in’ (as naturalists say), you’ll probably start to see lots. They really are bright green and impossible to mistake for anything else. But please keep to the paths as wandering through the grass will disturb them and other wildlife.

Terrain: the wide paths are surfaced with tarmac and the whole site is on a gentle slope downhill. There shouldn’t be a problem pushing wheelchairs or prams around, and the entrance gate is wide and usually kept open.

Facilities: none, but there are some good pubs nearby such as the Crown and Sceptre on Horns Road, just below the cemetery (in the current situation, you’ll have to book a table in advance if you want to have a drink before heading to the cemetery).

Directions: at the roundabout on the Waitrose end of Dr Newton’s Way where it joins the A419, turn left and then almost immediately right into Field Road. Follow this road past Stroud hospital on the right hand side, then at the cross-roads, take the second turning on the right – Horns Road (where the Crown & Sceptre is) and Bisley Road join the cross roads here to form a V-shape. Bisley Road is the upper road. Drive approx a mile up Bisley Road and then look out for the cemetery on the right. There’s no parking in the cemetery itself, park nearby on Bisley Road. There’s very limited parking space so parking in Stroud and then walking would be better, if possible.

RODBOROUGH COMMON 

On the main road running across Rodborough Common away from Stroud, there’s a small layby on the right hand side just before the Bear at Rodborough hotel and the road junction down to Bear Hill. Park here if you can, otherwise park near Winstones ice-cream parlour and walk to the layby (it’s only a short walk).

From the layby, walk over the grass away from the road (there are obvious paths in the grass so please keep to them) with a house on your right-hand side. Although this isn’t a main area for glow-worms, I have seen some here so keep an eye out. The path will head off to the right along the top edge of the common with the slope of the common on your left-hand side. You’ll be walking alongside the garden walls of some big houses for a few hundred yards. Keep a careful look-out for glow-worms as I have seen a few along this stretch, and in past years there have been lots in the area around the wooden seat (which is on your left hand side).

When the wall turns sharp right and the common stretches off to your right, keep to the path that heads off to the left (almost straight-on really). It’ll continue to run along the edge of the common with a slope down to the road (which is Bear Hill) on the left hand side, though it goes through a bit of trough further on with small slopes on either side. Follow this path until it reaches a wooded area and then turn back. I’ve never seen any glowing beyond here as glow-worms prefer to be in short-ish grass.

Terrain: the path is generally flat with a few small up and down bits between the layby and the start of the path running alongside Bear Hill, and then runs downhill though it’s not a steep slope. The surface grass-covered in some stretches and stony in others. On the whole, it’s not good for wheelchairs but all-terrain buggies or tough prams should be able to deal with the terrain OK.

Facilities: none and at the moment, the Bear of Rodborough isn’t open. When it is, it’s a great place for a drink and a meal before you head out.

Directions: from the A46 heading from Stroud to Bath, turn left shortly out of Stroud onto Rodborough Hill. Keep on going past the Prince Albert pub, head out of Rodborough and the road takes you onto Rodborough Common. Drive for half-a-mile or so and at the T-junction, turn right and after a few hundred yards, you’ll see the Bear of Rodborough Hotel on the right-hand side. The layby is just before the hotel, on the right. Alternatively, after the T-junction, turn almost immediately left onto a little road with grass either side and you can park at the side of this road. Walk back to the road you’ve just left, and walk carefully on the common alongside this road to reach the layby a few hundred yards on your right.

Happy glow-worm hunting!

Look out for woolly bears in your garden (or even flying tigers)!

Beware of what could be hiding in the undergrowth: they’re black, very hairy and large – well, by caterpillar standards anyway. Woolly bear is the nick-name given to the caterpillar of the garden tiger moth because, as the name suggests, it’s covered with hairs – lots of them. It looks black but in reality the hairs are a mixture of colours – shorter black ones and ginger ones nestling amongst long white-coloured ones.

These hairs are a pretty effective means of protection – they contain a chemical that causes irritation to anything that touches them. This, though, doesn’t seem to bother the cuckoo one bit which can eat it as part of its balanced diet. Unlike parasitic flies which are just longing to use the caterpillar as an incubator for their eggs, but don’t seem to be able to deal with the hairs.

Woolly bear - credit Butterfly Conservation

However, predators don’t know what they’ve let themselves in for if they eye up the caterpillar when it’s grown up:  the caterpillar turns into the garden tiger moth which is a black belt in self-defence with not one, but three ways, to fight back.

Round one: a flash of its brightly coloured orange -with-blue-spots hindwings. Normally, when sitting on a plant, the wings are folded over the moth’s back so only the black-and-cream upper wings can be seen. If a predator gets too close, the moth quickly spreads out its wings to create a sudden splurge of orange. In the natural world, red and orange colours signal poison or danger and are a message to keep away.

If this hint isn’t taken, round 2 is a high pitched grating noise made by rubbing the wings together rapidly. Bats are particularly susceptible to this tactic given their hearing is tuned into high pitched noises, and they probably link the sound with a distasteful meal. A handy tactic when you remember that this moth flies at night when bats also do.

And if the predator is really determined (and hungry), then the final round is a distasteful yellow fluid squirted from just below its head. And should all that not work –  well, the predator then deserves its meal for sheer tenacity.

The adult moths look spectacular with cream and brown-coloured upper wings similar to the pattern on giraffes, the brilliantly coloured orange hindwings, and its abdomen (‘stomach’) which is orange with black stripes – who says moths are all brown and boring?!

The caterpillars are around in May, June and September feeding on a variety of different plants like nettles, dock, burdock, lettuces and many garden plants. They finish growing by end of June and turn into a chrysalis, emerging as these stunning adults in July and August. Fascinatingly, these are one of the few kinds of tiger moths which don’t have a tongue – so all that time developing into a grown-up and then they can’t even have a tasty meal. Seems a rough deal.

The fifty or so eggs laid by the female garden tiger moth hatch in August and September but after feeding themselves up, the caterpillars over-winter and appear again in spring ready to start the whole cycle all over again.

Unfortunately, garden tiger moth numbers seem to have crashed by up to 98% in the past 50 years. ETD (Ecological Tidyness Disorder leading to neat gardens, parks and open spaces, and the liberal use of pesticides and herbicides) is one of the reasons, and climate change is another. This moth needs cooler climates like ours, and  certainly wouldn’t be donning its sunglasses to head to the warmer ones of southern Europe. But climate change is leading to more January’s being milder and wetter, followed by sudden temperature drops in February.  This combination seems to be causing lots of caterpillars to die and, therefore, fewer adult moths around in spring and summer.

So, embrace ‘untidiness’ in your garden! And help not just the garden tiger moths but lots of other wildlife, too.

Garden tiger moth - credit Iain Linsay pixabay
Garden tiger moth by Iain Lindsay

Queen Anne’s lace: stomach calmer and insect feeder.

Image by Jasmine777 Pixabay

Queen Anne's lace with hoverfly - credit Jasmine 777 Pixabay

I guess you’ll have recognised this flower straight away – and maybe you call it by its other common name, cow parsley. I prefer the lace one as I feel it fits the beautifully delicate and intricate flowers so well.

What is surprising is the large number of other common names it’s had over the centuries: fairy lace and spanish lace are understandable, kecksie and Grandpa’s pepper seem somewhat odd, but rabbit meat and step-mother are just plain weird! It was also referred to as ‘mother die’ and it’s thought this was to frighten children away from picking it so they didn’t pick the poisonous hemlock by mistake. Hemlock has purple-coloured spots on its stem which is also solid not hollow, otherwise it looks very similar to Queen Anne’s lace to the non-expert eye.

Queen Anne’s lace is related to carrot, celery and parsley – all are members of a family of plants called umbellifers. In past times, if you had stomach or kidney problems, breathing difficulties or a cold, you’d have been given remedies containing Queen Anne’s lace as an ingredient. It’s also been used as an insect repellent but, in seemingly complete contrast, has also been used to sweeten puddings and other foods as its tap root contains a lot of natural sugar. Crush the leaves between your fingers, and the fragrance of aniseed hits the nostrils.

It’s easy to dismiss this plant as unremarkable simply because it’s so common and grows everywhere from roadside verges and edges of playing fields to gardens and nature reserves.  But it has great wildlife value as it feeds so many insects thanks to the large number of flowers on each plant and its sheer abundance.

And when you see a long swathe of it flowering during May alongside a road, looking like the frothy crest of a wave about to crash down onto the passing cars, how can your heart not be gladdened by the sight of it?

Flower of the day: green alkanet

Green Alkanet – credit Pete O’ConnorGreen Alkanet - credit Pete O'Connor Flickr

Yes,  I know what you’re thinking – it’s blue. So why is it called green alkanet? The second part of its scientific, latin, name (Pentaglottis sempervirens) means ‘always alive’ or evergreen, possibly because the leaves start to appear in late winter or early spring, adding a splash of green to the last grey tendrils of winter. Plus the plant hangs around until well into the summer, so quite a while even though it’s not technically evergreen. Another common name for this flower is ‘evergreen alkanet’.

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Insect of the day: the May bug

Cockchafer front view - credit Dave Skingsley Flickr

Cockchafer, May bug, spang beetle and Billy witch are all names for what used to be a common sight at this time of year. pening the curtains and switching on the living room lights after dusk to attract the cockchafers was wildlife watching made easy. But sadly, they haven’t appeared for many years now.

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English v Spanish bluebells: Spot the difference!

English v Spanish: the native, English bluebell is on the right, and the Spanish one on the left

The bluebell wood is a phenomenon particular to Britain – believe it or not, 80% of all the world’s bluebell woods are found in the UK! The sight of the glorious violet-bluey haze which carpets many woodlands (especially beech woods) begins in late April and lasts until late-May depending upon where you live. The flowering season starts earlier in Cornwall and gradually spreads up the country with Scotland’s flowers being last to the floral party.

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Insect of the day: red mason bee

Red mason bee - Brian Valentine FlickrI guess it’s a safe bet that you know what bumblebees look like and you’ve probably seen them cruising around flowers if you’ve a garden and, like me, you’ve been outside impersonating a lizard by basking in the recent, lovely sunny weather.

If I asked you what bees are vital for pollinating a third of our food crops and most of the UK’s flowers, I’m sure you’d say the bumblebee and honeybee. However, they’re not the only ones – there are around 270 types of bee in the UK and one of these is almost 200% more efficient at pollinating flowers than even the honey bee.

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Flower of the day: garlic mustard (or jack-by-the-hedge)

Garlic mustard flower from above - g8lakesscamperblog

Here’s a flower that doesn’t know what it wants to be – so it’s both! It’s name comes from its edible leaves which taste both of garlic and mustard (weirdly!) and it’s been used as a flavouring for centuries. In fact it’s one of the oldest culinary ingredients used around Europe: some tiny remains of this plant have been found in pottery dating back thousands of years ago in what we now call Denmark and north-eastern Germany. Wow – that fact blows me away and I look at this plant with a new fascination.

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Flower of the day: cuckoo flower

OK, so we’re in lockdown right now but the sun is shining and the silver lining to the current situation is that’s co-incided exactly with when nature hits the accelerator pedal – forget June busting out all over, from now to mid May is when nature goes from dormant to wide awake. So for the next few weeks, I thought I’d focus this blog on some of the wild flowers, birds and animals that you may see when you go out for your ‘once- a-day-for-exercise’ walks, or even see in your back garden, to help answer those ‘I wonder what that is?’ questions.

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Coaley Peak – the perfect place for evening picnics, sunsets, and wild flowers

Coaley Peak - sunset July 2018 C Aistrop
Sunset over the Severn Estuary seen from Coaley Peak picnic site. credit: C Aistrop

Coaley Peak viewpoint and picnic site is one of my favourite wild places around Stroud and most evenings it offers an added bonus – a wonderful cooling breeze blowing off the Severn Estuary. After another day of delightfully hot weather (I’ve vowed not to complain about the present heatwave given how much English people moan when it’s raining, cold and generally miserable), an evening’s stroll here not only offers a wildflower spectacle but also the opportunity to cool down and take in an impressive view and sunset. There are picnic benches dotted around the meadow, and my family has enjoyed evening picnics there – much cooler than a lunchtime one as some of the benches are in shade from early evening onwards. This keeps my husband and daughter happy as they dislike strong sunlight (I sometimes wonder if I’m living with vampires, though I haven’t noticed them staring intently at my neck yet).

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