A Shiny New Wildlife Year

We have had an assortment of different weathers over the festive period. Storm Bella raged across the meadows one wet and wild night and, the next morning, there were lots of these long Earthworms stretched out across the grass. They were alive but we didn’t understand what they were trying to do.

We realised that we knew next to nothing about Earthworms, and yet they have such immense importance to the ecosystem here and everywhere. Charles Darwin spent forty-four years studying Earthworms and carrying out experiments in his garden in Kent and he published a book on them a year before he died which is apparently very readable even now, after all this time.

Worms break down organic matter into substances that plants can use and their burrows allow air and water into the soil, vital for soil health as well as providing space for plant roots, fungi and microorganisms. And, of course, the Worms themselves are an important part of the diet of all sorts of birds as well as Badgers, Foxes, Moles and other animals.

Before long, we ended up at the website of The Earthworm Society of Britain. There are twenty-nine species of Earthworm in the UK and, given how vitally important they are, they are desperately under recorded. So little is known about the distribution of the different species and one of the reasons for this is that they are tricky to identify – many of the species need to be killed first and then put under a microscope to do it properly.

That is something that I do not want to do myself, but I can tell you that our worms, spreadeagled on the grass on the morning after the storm, are probably Blue-grey Worms, Octolasium cyaneum.

Blue-grey Worms are in the Endogeic group – worms that feed on the soil itself and don’t usually come to the surface. Their burrows are horizontal to the ground and not particularly deep down.

But, as I understand it, when conditions are really wet, it is suddenly much easier to move across the surface of the ground rather than tunnelling through the soil below and so they come up to grab that opportunity to disperse quickly and easily. However, they should definitely have ensured that they were back below ground before it got light – once the sun came up I think a lot of them were left exposed and were hoovered up by Seagulls.

I have now joined The Earthworm Society of Britain, watched some of the educational videos on the site and am now much more informed about what is going on out there under the soil and it is fascinating.

Another thing that interested me recently were these next two photos. Here are a Woodpigeon and a Stock Dove having a bath in the wild pond:

Once they had left, there was a slick of dust floating on the surface of the water:

Perhaps we are all familiar with the print that a Pigeon makes on a window if it flies into one by mistake:

This white dust on Pigeons and Doves comes from their soft down feathers which have fine barbs that crumble away to form this feather dust. The bird then preens itself to spread this waxy dust all over to make itself waterproof.

Most other birds have a preen gland which produces an oil with which to waterproof themselves but Birds that use feather dust either have no preen gland or a very much reduced one. Bathing is especially important for these feather dust Birds, to wash the dirty dust off so that they can replace it with new to keep them properly waterproof and well insulated.

Our general strategy is to cut both meadows once a year and remove all the cut vegetation, thus gradually reducing the nutrient level of the grassland. But we do always leave areas uncut so that some long grass habitat still remains each year. Most of this retained long grass is in the second meadow, but the first meadow does have a few patches as well.

A couple of days before Christmas, we spotted a flask-shaped Wasp Spider egg sac in one of these patches of long grass in the first meadow.

Now that we had got our eye in for them, we instituted a search of all uncut areas and ended up finding three. One was very close to the Wasp Spider webs we were watching back in the autumn and is almost certainly the egg sac of one of those two Spiders.

How fantastic to have moved another step forward in our understanding of their lifecycle. The next stage now is to see if we can spot the Spiderlings coming out of these egg sacs next spring.

All round the hedgerows now there are Woodpigeon eating Ivy berries.

It is only Woodpigeon I have seen taking them at the moment but there are still a few Hawthorn berries left on the bushes. Song and Mistle Thrushes, Redwing, Blackbirds and Blackcaps do also eat Ivy berries but only when all other options have gone. Presumably they are not as tasty, but they have a high fat content and so are great fuel for the Birds when they do get round to them. The RSPB says that the pith of an Ivy berry contains nearly as many calories as a Mars bar, gram for gram.

During the first lockdown, flour was in severe shortage for several weeks and in desperation I bought some coconut flour but never used it. Now, as it is about to go out of date, I made some rock cakes with it. Unfortunately these cakes really lived up to their name and were indeed much like stone. We didn’t want to eat them and so they went out with the peanuts one evening and I am pleased to see that at least the moth-eaten old gentleman Fox appreciated them:

All the expected Birds of Prey have been sighted over the festive period:

In the wood, our coppicing work has been continuing slowly:

Christmas Day was unusually quiet for us as I’m sure it was for many people. We walked the dog up on the high chalk cliffs before breakfast which was a really memorable way to start the day:

I got two interesting-looking natural history books as presents. I must make more time in my day for reading:

On New Year’s Eve, it all went very cold here. A lot of the country had a fall of snow and even we potentially had some forecast, but none arrived.

On New Year’s Day, the Autumn Stream quietly came alongside and dropped anchor. She had taken seventeen days sailing from Peru and was loaded with a cargo of bananas and other exotic fruits. Dressed as we were in double coats, scarf and gloves and standing by a frozen pond, it was impossible not to be imbued with a little bit of tropical sunshine and warmth by her presence.

1066, 1666, 1914 – some years stand out from all the others and maybe 2020 will be one of these, but it is behind us now. We are embarking on a shiny new year with light flooding strongly in from the end of a long and dark pandemic tunnel. It will be wonderful when we get there but, until then, we here will be focusing on Earthworms and other wildlife to get us through.

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