16 June 2010

Corn spurrey

There are quite a few plants of corn spurrey (Spergula arvensis) currently in flower on the area south of the orchard that was cleared of dense Norway spruce last summer.

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The plant is an ancient introduction, a so-called archaeophyte.  It was once widespread on arable and disturbed ground but is now in rapid decline due to agricultural improvement.  Some of its seeds, however, are thought to remain viable for a very long time and the plants in the former spruce plantation have almost certainly come from a pre-conifer seed bank.

It requires acid, sandy soil and does not grow on chalk or limestone.  It was once a problem weed and is a sign of poor ground.  In Shetland where it is called 'meidi' any quantity of the plant was regarded as a sign that the ground needed more manure.

As well as meidi there are many other country names, a sure sign that the plant was important from the way it indicated soil deficiencies.  These names include beggar-weed, bottle brush, cowquake, dother, farmer’s ruin, franke, granyagh, lousy grass, makebeg, make-beggar, mountain flax, pick pocket, pickpurse, poverty weed, sand-grass, sandweed, spurry, yarr, yarrel, yawr and yur.

The leaves of the plant are very distinctive being arranged in whorls and rather widely spaced along the stems.  They are also quite sticky from glandular hairs.

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14 June 2010

Celery-leaved buttercup

Today I found a small plant of celery-leaved buttercup, Ranunculus sceleratus, in an open area to the south east of Austford at TQ789204 beside the path running south from the footpath crossroads.

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This seems to be the first record for Brede High Woods.

The plant is filled with an acrid juice that raises blisters better, it seems, than any other buttercup.

The Reverend John Lightfoot in his Flora Scotica (1777) described it as having a "most acrimonious quality" adding that "Strolling beggars have been known sometimes purposely to make sores with it, in order the more readily to move compassion."

Haven't seen many strolling beggars in the woods lately.

6 June 2010

Cloaked Pug moth (Eupithecia abietaria)

A couple of days ago I spotted this rather large pug moth on a conifer trunk in the Austford area of Brede High Wood.

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It looked to me like a cloaked pug (Eupithecia abietaria) and Colin Pratt, the Sussex lepidoptera recorder, has confirmed, subject to the size of the moth, that this determination is correct.

One was caught in 1986 about five miles from this location, otherwise this is only the second record for East Sussex in the past 100 years.

Apart from some scattered records, this species seemed to die out in Britain in the early 20th century, but has since been rediscovered in some places, maybe as a result of immigration from mainland Europe.

The caterpillars feed on the cones of Norway and Sitka spruce as well as noble fir.  There were several of the first two trees in the area where the moth was found so, hopefully, it is breeding there.

5 June 2010

Giant ichneumon egg laying

Today I was lucky enough to spot a female giant ichneumon, Rhyssa persuasoria, laying her egg on some hapless grub deep inside a pine log near Austford in Brede High Woods.

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It is one of natures wonders how the insect manages to drill her ovipositor down through often quite hard wood to locate the host larva with great accuracy.  You can see in the picture how she has to curve her ovipositor up, then round in a circle to get it pointing directly downwards.

Having caught her in the act, it was not particularly difficult to photograph, but after a few shots she spotted me, gave me a glare and flew off at high speed.

I often wonder about the evolutionary history of creatures like this - is this really an easier way to survive than the innumerable alternatives, like eating mud, that other insects have evolved?

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