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

Rudge Hill – can you resist a ‘Sound of Music’ moment?

Rudge Hill - view from the site June 2018 C Aistrop
View from Rudge Hill to the far hills. C Aistrop

It’s the last flourish of orchids right now and Rudge Hill near Painswick is an ideal place to enjoy this. The flowers of fragrant orchids and common spotted orchids were starting to finish when I visited the site the other day, but pyramidal orchids are in their prime and looking sooo perky. It’s also peak time for meadow flowers and there are more flowers than you can shake a stick at showing themselves off in the sun with the accompanying butterflies dancing around. Added to all this is a fantastic 180 degree view from the top, taking in Painswick, the church, Sheepscombe and into the distance along the Painswick valley. It’s such a sublime site, especially on a sunny day, that I dare you to not to break into a ‘Sound of Music’ moment: you know the one – the opening scene where Julie Andrews runs through the meadow on the mountainside, arms outstretched singing ‘The hills are alive….’. And then you can recover your composure in the fabulous Edgemoor Inn just across the road. So this is 4 star wildlife watching!
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Pyramidals: the last of the orchid spectaculars

Pyramidal orchids Rudge Hill - C Aistrop

The Stroud district is sooo fortunate in having a wealth of different orchid species growing in lots of places around and about, and in having some that occur in great profusion. There are certain ones which are solitary souls, for example the frog orchid certainly doesn’t copy its namesake as a party animal, but others are real show-offs making everyone a winner in the game of ‘spot the orchid’. The end of June and beginning of July is the last time during the flowering season when you can enjoy one of these spectaculars as the pyramidal orchid livens up grasslands with splashes of its cerise pink flowers.

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Coaley Peak – meadows, marvellous views and possibly ice-cream, too.

 

View down Severn Vale from Coaley Peak - C Aistrop

When it’s a warm, sunny day at this time of year, one of my favourite places to go for a picnic and to enjoy being in the great outdoors is Coaley Peak viewpoint. The 180 degree view over the Severn Vale is stunning, there are plenty of interesting wild flowers to admire, lots of space for kids to run around and, if you’ve got young kids who are Harry Potter fans, you can entice them with the idea of visiting the Forbidden Forest, too. It’s also a place where people with restricted mobility, and possibly even those in wheelchairs, could enjoy being outdoors and seeing some wildlife. Add into this mix the ice-cream van that’s usually parked there at weekends during the summer and what else could you ask for?!

Continue reading “Coaley Peak – meadows, marvellous views and possibly ice-cream, too.”