Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Why I love the Chilterns!

There are many reasons that I love the Chilterns, but mostly it's the orchids, fungi, butterflies, red kites, roman snails and beech trees. These were all covered in a great talk that I attended last night about the changing wildlife of the Chilterns. It was organised by the Chiltern Society and the speaker was John Tyler, who also leads glowworm walks on Brush Hill in the summer.

These are a few of the interesting things that were covered in the talk and are exactly why the Chilterns are such a wonderful place to explore:
  • Chalk grassland is one of the richest habitats in the entire country. It’s said that if you count the species of plants in a square meter of chalk grassland, you’ll find more species than any other habitat in Britain.

  • The Chilterns are one of the best areas in the country for orchids. Some love the chalk grassland and others grow in the beech woodland. Some are quite widespread, like the Common Spotted Orchid and the Pyramidal Orchid and others are extremely rare. The Military orchid is found in only 3 sites in the country and 2 of those are in the Chilterns.
Common spotted orchid
    Pyramidal Orchids
  • Red kites have been reintroduced to the Chilterns and are now thriving. Some people love them whereas others are worried about their impact on other wildlife. There were concerns that they would compete with buzzards for carrion, but in fact the number of buzzards in the Chilterns has increased as the number of red kites has increased.

    I'm firmly in the 'love them' camp, but you probably already know that if you've read this blog before!
  • The day flying moth called the 6 spot burnet (or the 6 spot Bernard, as Bug Mad Girl calls it) can fly around in broad daylight and not worry about predators as it is thought to be the most dangerous animal in Britain! One moth contains enough cyanide to kill 3 men.
  • Glowworms are declining all over the country, including the Chilterns. The females glow to attract the males (that can fly). When the eggs hatch, the larvae hunt slugs and snails. Bug Mad Girl and I tried to find some last year, but got a bit scared up on Brush Hill on our own in the dark! I think we'll try and go on one of the organized glowworm walks this summer, with somebody who knows what they're doing!
                              • Juniper has been around since the ice age and is very slow growing, taking 50 years to reach head height. It's still producing berries (as you can see in the photo), but these seem unable to create new seedlings. Nobody is really sure why. It means the Juniper is an aging population and in most sites the youngest bush you will find is at least 60 years old.
                                Juniper berries
                              • Juniper shield bugs were completely dependent on Juniper until about 20 years ago, when they learnt to love cypress. Perhaps they knew the Juniper was in trouble!
                              Baby Juniper shield bugs

                              • Roman snails are Britain's largest snail and were introduced (as the name suggests) by the Romans. In the spring, when it's nice and warm and wet, they come out and do a courtship display. They pair up and have a very slimy kiss and a cuddle, then they do a little dance and rear up for a few seconds and mate. They're both male and female, so will both go off and lay eggs.
                              • Robin’s pincushion is a type of gall. A small wasp lays an egg into the bud of a wild rose, then the egg or larvae irritates the plant and stimulates it to grow into the strange growth. The larvae lives inside, eating the walls of their chamber. In winter the gall dies and the larvae stays inside, then the adults, which all seem to be female, emerge the following year.

                              Robin's pincushion
                              • Beech trees used to be coppiced, where they were cut in the winter and new shoots allowed to grow. Coppiced trees allow much more light into the woodland floor, allowing primroses and heathers to thrive. Then at the end of the 18th / beginning of the 19th century, beech trees were needed for the furniture industry, so many of the coppiced trees were removed and new trees planted that were encouraged to grow tall and straight. These block out a lot more of the light, changing the wildlife in the woodland, in particular the plants that can grow.  
                              Coppiced beech trees at Coombe Hill
                              Straight, tall beech trees at Brush Hill
                              • The roots of the uncoppiced beech trees secrete a substance that kills off its competitors, including plants growing around it. This has had an impact on one of our most endangered and rapidly declining butterflies, the Duke of Burgundy. The females lay their eggs on primrose, which used to do very well under coppised trees but has been largely shaded out under the tall, straight beech trees.
                              • Some plants do very well under the dense shade of the beech trees. The roots of the white helleborine are connected to the roots of a fungus, which in turn are connected to the roots of the beech tree. This allows the plant to extract food out of the tree, through the fungus, so it can grow with virtually no sunlight. The flower of the fly orchid looks like a type of solitary wasp and produces a scent like the female wasp. The males then try to mate with the flower and inadvertently get the pollen stuck to their heads, which they then transfer to another plant when they make the same mistake again. This method of pollination only works because the female wasp emerges 2 weeks after the male, giving the orchid a small window of opportunity before the real female wasps are around and the males give up on the orchids.
                              • Beech woodland is some of the best habitat for fungi. Some aren't too fussy and will grow in many places, such as the Magpie Ink Cap. Others are very specific and will only grow in beech woodland or on specific parts of a beech tree. The Saffrondrop Bonnet will only grow on the fallen twigs of the beech tree and the Porcelain fungus grows on the trunk and branches of beech trees. 

                                The false death cap grows in beech woodland, but is best avoided in case you mix it up with a real death cap. If you eat a death cap, it will make you feel incredibly ill for about three days, then just as you start to feel better, you drop down dead because it's eaten away at your liver!
                              Magpie ink cap - Some people consider this
                              fungi edible, but it's supposed to taste like a
                              cross between creosote and mothballs!
                              Saffrondrop Bonnet
                              Porcelain Fungus - It has a sticky layer on the top of the cap
                              to protect it from the sun.
                              • The flint found all over the Chilterns was created 100 million years ago when the Chilterns were under a warm tropical sea. Small sponges died, their skeletons dissolved and the silica formed around the dead sponge making a case around it. If you find an unopened flint (looks like a hens egg with a hole in the end), crack it open and a perfectly preserved sponge could be inside. You'll be the first person to ever see that sponge and the last time it saw daylight there were dinosaurs walking around!
                              • Wooly mammoths used to be found in the Chilterns. They were about 8' tall and had a 3' long shaggy coat that they moulted every spring. It means there must have been wooly mammoth hair everywhere!
                               Thanks for such as interesting talk. Keep up the good work, Chiltern Society!

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