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August 2014

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The summer months bring a pretty, yellow, daisy-like plant into flower on waste ground, road sides, railway embankments and other uncultivated land. This is Ragwort which, unfortunately, can be a problem when it grows on pasture and in hayfields. It contains a toxin which is poisonous to livestock, particularly cattle and horses and, in large quantities, causes liver damage which, ultimately, can be fatal. But a lot of the plant has to be eaten and, as it is not very palatable, there has to be a shortage of grazing for an animal to want to take it.

Ragwort, Sheila Sims
Ragwort, Sheila Sims

The main problem comes when it is accidentally included in hay, haylage or silage. You know when a recipe, which includes a fresh herb as an ingredient, states that if you are substituting the dried version, use half the amount? Well, that is because when a plant is dried, as when winter forage is processed, the constituents become more concentrated. In the case of Ragwort the drying also renders it more palatable and, for the main part, this is when poisoning can occur. But again, the animal has to eat a great deal.
There are many myths about this plant, due to panic and misinformation, including the one that states ‘all landowners, by law, must eliminate Ragwort from their land’. This is not true and only applies if the landowner is ordered to do so: the same applies for local councils and railway owners. However, it is good husbandry and considerate to neighbours to remove it when it occurs. The relevant department of your local council will gladly give you advice on the best method. Surprisingly, after all that, there is some good news about this plant. There are up to thirty species of invertebrates that rely entirely on Ragwort for food. Many moth caterpillars feed on the leaves, including the Cinnabar, which absorbs the toxins from the plant into its body, making it unpalatable to birds. It gives a very visible warning with its black and yellow striped body; birds know this kind of colouration means ‘no good for dinner!’

Magpie Moth, Sheila Sims
Magpie Moth, Sheila Sims

August is a good month for moths of all kinds. These insects often get a bad press because of the ones which produce caterpillars that chomp their way through our jumpers and fruit trees. Yet most, because they are nectar feeders, are beneficial pollinators. We all love butterflies for their beauty but many moths are just as lovely. The large Hawkmoths, the delicate geometers and many of the tinies, called micro moths, are wonderfully coloured. We tend to think of moths as being nocturnal, banging against windows and fluttering around lights, but a lot of species are day flying; the gorgeous Magpie and the pretty Burnet to name just a couple. Nearly two thirds of our moths are in decline but we can help by creating moth-friendly areas in our gardens.

HoneysuckleSheila Sims

Honeysuckle, Sheila Sims
Honeysuckle, Sheila Sims

Shrubs such as Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Honeysuckle, Bramble and Ivy are all good sources of nectar and also food for the caterpillars. Some flowers are night scented and will be appreciated by the nocturnal flyers; Stocks and Jasmine are two examples. Also, maybe try not to be too tidy and leave an area of long grass for some moth caterpillars to feed on and, dare I say it, no spraying!

Insecticides have been in the news a lot lately, especially the commonly used neonicotinoids. These chemicals not only kill pests but also bees and other pollinators and, because birds, bats, hedgehogs, reptiles and amphibians feed on insects, they too will certainly be affected. The poor farmer gets blamed for a lot, but if we want large amounts of affordable food, some artificial aids have to be used and this includes fertiliser which also can cause problems. Heavy rain will wash some into waterways and if the weather is warm this can result in a bloom of blue-green algae. It forms a bright green scum on the surface, starving the water of oxygen and consequently damaging fish and other wildlife. It is also toxic and if livestock or dogs drink contaminated water it can cause serious health problems, even death. There are many different types of algae and most are harmless but this one is to be avoided and it has been found in the Norfolk Broads.

Other invaders of our waterways are turtles (some are called terrapins). European Pond Turtles have been around for a long time and Red-eared Terrapins, originally from North America, were released in large numbers in the nineties.  They were bought as 50p sized pets for children during the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’ craze and those that survived got too big for their boots; these animals can grow to up to 30cm (12 ins) long. Babies have been found in some parts of the country, so it looks as if they are capable of breeding here in suitable conditions; the Broads certainly provide an ideal habitat for them. As well as some vegetation, they will feed on fish, frogs and also take small ducklings, so have not made themselves very welcome. They are able to withstand cold weather by hibernating during the winter.

Roe Buck and Doe, Nicki Dixon
Roe Buck and Doe, Nicki Dixon

The first week of this month is the peak of the rutting season for Roe Deer. Although they will mate now they will not give birth for another nine months due to a process known as delayed implantation; the foetus does not implant in the doe’s womb for four months and will then start to develop. The Roe is the only deer that does this, and it would be interesting to know why they have developed this trait. It does mean, though, that they avoid giving birth during the cold part of the year. This is a very pretty, small to medium sized deer and easy to recognise, which ever end you happen to be looking at. They have distinct, dark moustache markings on the sides of the nose, with a white chin, and a white or light patch on their bottoms. They appear not to have a tail but the female has a tuft of hair between her hind legs which can be mistaken for a tail; this is more obvious in the winter. The male (buck) has small antlers, with a maximum of three points, which he sheds during the autumn or in early winter. The summer coat is sandy or red-brown turning to grey-brown or darker in the winter.

They feed on a variety of plants and tend to be quite selective feeders, picking the most nutritious leaves; in the autumn nuts and berries are also taken. The spotted fawns are born May to June and twins are common but the doe will usually separate them and visit them several times a day, for a short time, to suckle; they spend most of the time on their own. (A-h-h-h!) The young stay with Mum until next year’s fawn is about to be born, then she will chase them away. We have a good population of Roe in Norfolk and they can be quite easy to observe. Although their sense of smell and hearing are both acute, and their sight is excellent for picking up movement, they are not good at detecting motionless objects, so if you are downwind and stay completely still they will often not see you.

The post mortem results on our peregrine chick showed a fracture to the neck; this most certainly would have resulted from a collision with a building; unfortunately, a second chick has also been found dead. These birds fly so fast that, when they are inexperienced, they often misjudge their stopping time; the two fatalities from last year’s brood showed similar injuries. This will also happen at their natural nesting sites on coastal cliffs.

Activities for this month include:-
• Magical moths & Earth walk (great for children) – both at Cley.
• Gardening with Broadland wildlife in mind – South Walsham.
• Sea dipping – Holme Dunes. or call 01603 625540.
• Many guided walks at Cley, Titchwell and Holkham Hall.