Yellow Clouds and Purple Thorns – May 2018

Hello everyone! Following on from last month’s pontificating on the Great Game of survival played out by the Fauna and Flora in our part of the world, I can report that spring is in full swing now and our little reserve is overflowing with enough sights, sounds and scents to create the ultimate sensory trail. Fortunately, the so-called Beast from the East did not make another appearance during Ostara and we had enough rain to make certain that the growing season got off to a good start.

The rain ensured also that the Reserve pond has been close to being fully charged throughout the first third of the year, and it is teeming with life. The large clump of gelatinous frog spawn survived this year to become a seething mass of dark wrigglers; most of which are destined not to survive. Voracious newts, predatory beetles, ruthless dragonfly larvae and, Quarry Wood’s latest visitor, a sharp-billed Grey Heron (Ardea cinereal) will account for the vast majority of them (see The Amphibification of Fertility – April 2015).

Thus far, the three amphibian and reptile monitoring sites on the reserve have drawn a blank, though it is early days yet. However, the sites were not completely empty; two of the corrugated strips each hid a Wood Mouse, commonly known as a Long-Tailed Field Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus). It is estimated that there is one Wood Mouse for every two humans in the British Isles, so this was not exactly a rare find, but nice to see!

Sometimes one of the most natural aspects in the natural world is often the most difficult to accept, that of food-chains. Just like our Taddles, Wood Mice are an essential part of many other creatures’ diets. Foxes, weasels and owls are amongst those animals who would benefit from our two little mice, who were probably females creating their spring nests, having several successful litters throughout the summer. The breeding rate of Tawny Owl (Strix aluco), in particular, is directly correlated to the distribution of woodland rodents.

The woodland floor is transforming rapidly into a colourful carpet of many colours as Dandelions, Bluebells, Celandines, Wild Garlic, Wood Anemones and of course our Early Purple Orchids come into bloom. Footpaths and hedgerows are lined with impressive displays of Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolate) and dappled sunlight plays on the star-like flowers of Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) and Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum).

This year has seen a breath-taking increase in the number of Town Hall Clock (Adoxa moschatellina) plants in the Reserve, our little patch in the ‘Viking Camp’ has spread to such an extent that we have switched activities to the nearby ‘Enchanter’s Dell’.

However, in my humble opinion, the flower which has topped the bill, so far this year, is our ubiquitous Primrose (Primula vulgaris). A walk through QW in the morning was illuminated by glistening clouds of dew-soaked, soft-yellow flowers floating a few inches off the ground. A glorious native plant, the name Primrose denotes the first Rose of Spring and they have been cultivated for gardens since the 19th century.

Although they are available now in a startling array of colours, many of which have found their way into wild areas, you cannot beat the original. The pale-yellow bloom has been a subject in the study of evolution by our old friend Charles Darwin and the chief ingredient in various botanically-based remedies promoted by another old friend Nicholas Culpepper in his ever-popular tome The Complete Herbal (1653). Its medicinal use was widespread throughout Britain and Europe and maybe goes back even further to our very old friends, the Romans. We know that the Sandal’d and Toga’d Ones attempted to cure malaria with Primrose flowers; how successful they were, having not been recorded, remains a moot point.

The plant is deeply entrenched in our folklore and is associated with warding off evil spirits, the sighting of faeries and our passage through life itself. In Wiccan circles, a person’s time on this mortal coil is divided into five stages, Birth, Initiation, Consummation, Repose and Death, each of which is represented by one of the five petals of the flower. With such an easy link to the Bard, it is worth mentioning that he affiliated the flower with an easy, less than virtuous, journey through life. The best and most scathing example is given to us from the doomed Ophelia:-

Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

Hamlet (1602) – William Shakespeare

Primroses are important to several species of insect and are an essential early source of nectar for our bees and many of our butterflies including the Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) and Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae). Along with those of the Cowslip (Primula veris), Primrose leaves provide the main food source for the increasingly rare Duke of Burgundy Butterfly (Hamearis Lucina).

Many species of Moth are attracted to Primroses too, so it was right and fitting that the thirteen budding Lepidopterists who came to our moth spotting event last month were greeted by several yellow clouds lining the entrance to the reserve. The weather was cool with a fine mist overnight, but Ralph’s new light-box did not disappoint. Twenty-two different species were recorded that morning, taking our Reserve total up to 112 in four years. Moth names are always a delight to conjure with, but here are a few of my favourite from the Event, Frosted Green (Polyploca ridens), Hebrew Character (Orthosia gothica), Streamer (Anticlea derivata), V Pug (Chloroclystis v-ata) Twin-spotted Quaker (Anorthoa munda) and a spectacular Purple Thorn (Selenia tetralunaria). It was an enjoyable morning for adults and children alike, and we hope that we can entice Ralph over for another go in August; watch this space!

“Moths, and all sorts of ugly creatures,” replied Estella, with a glance towards him, “hover about a lighted candle. Can the candle help it?”
Great Expectations (1861) – Charles Dickens

Sometimes even the greatest writers get it wrong, ‘ugly creatures’ indeed! Enjoy the spring and the glory that is our countryside.

Put me right at

Paul Johnson


Image credits:
Original Quarry Wood photography: Lorna Neville; image 3: Wood mouse by Hanna Knutsson, used under Creative Commons License 2.0.