All in a small corner of Fineshade

Back in late March, Northampton botanist Brian Laney took a group of people on an excellent tour of plants, reptiles and amphibians, in just a small section of Fineshade.

First thing spotted was an area of Small Teasel (Dipsacus pilosus), rare in Northamptonshire.

You'll see it just on the left into the wood past the caravan site. Compared to the more buxom Common Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), Small Teasel has smaller globular/spherical flowerheads. It is happiest on calcareous soils, and this site sits just on the edge of the Fineshade plateau, where overlying boulder clay deposits give way to the underlying (calcareous) limestone.

Common Teasel, more widespread, is quite popular with gardeners for its architectural qualities – its tall brown stalks can 'stick' around for two years... and it has a more interesting way of blooming too, with flowers first emerging in a narrow ring around the plump waist of its egg-shaped dome (versus the globe shape of Small Teasel). The floral ring widens, and then splits – spreading both up and down the dome leaving the initial central area bare as the blooms there die off.

Nearby a good many Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula) caught Brian's eye – a good ancient woodland indicator. It was too soon even for this early flowering Orchid to be blooming but it's possibly the leaves that are interesting.

They're a deep green, festooned with purply-brown spots, and they hug the ground at the base of the plant creating a tight flat criss-cross rosette. It's possibly this leaf arrangement that lies behind its Latin name Orchis mascula (Mascula = mesh)?

Fineshade hosts the very rare Yellow Star of Bethlehem (Gagea lutea) which does flower this early, and the botanists network led us to the right spot – however it still took a few minutes and a very keen eye to spot them.

Easily missed amongst emerging bluebell plants were two or three posies of small yellow star-like flowers. They were pushing up through an area of branches and brash where the woodland had lately been thinned.

They may yet face a battle if brambles respond vigorously to the light coming into these newly cleared areas.

The leaves of Yellow Star of Bethlehem are distinctive; slender, with a tiny hooked tip and three to five ridges or spines that run the length of the leaf.

It took another 5 minutes during a return trip two hours later with some later arrivals, to find them again, even despite knowing 'exactly' where they were.

There was an intriguing discovery in the road, physically in the road, beneath a doggy poo bin. Emerging from the tarmac, inches from the wheels of caravans and cars was a single Small-flowered Buttercup (Ranunculus parviflorus).

Nevertheless eagle-eyed Brian spotted the thing, in one of those moments when you realise you are in the company of a true expert. This hitch-hiker plant really has the travel bug, as according to Wikipedia, it's been found in Australia and the US thriving in exactly the same roadside habitats.

And then on to newts.

Again, in another unpromising location – a puddle beside a track - Brian fished out.. err salamandered out.. several Palmate Newts.

You can see two females in the lower photo , indignantly upended to display their pronounced cloaca (the digestive and reproductive opening). You can also see the spotless chin which helps distinguish them from other newts.

Newts are classed in the Salamander family; they are not Lizards. They regrow lost limbs and tails (their own mainly) and even other body parts, and they make do with a maximum of four toes (Lizards have five).

Generally the extra toe seems to give lizards the edge, if you can catch it, it's a newt (Lizards are much better at scurrying away).

We were also introduced to a Devil's Coach-Horse beetle (Ocypus olens), which is a fully-loaded defensive machine – it has the armoured exoskeleton, an intimidating scorpion-like tail-raising trick, (although actually it has no sting), it can bite (it has strong jaws) and if that doesn't work it will emit a foul-smelling (and doubtless foul-tasting) substance from its abdomen.

We also spotted this beautiful small Slow worm (Anguis fragilis), a protected species (actually a legless lizard).

An Adder was also seen – but slipped into hedge cover before the paparazzi could whip out their cameras.

And finally a Glow-worm (Lampyris noctiluca) (actually a beetle), with its fiery orange tabs hinting of things to come.

And all this in one small corner of Fineshade.

Happy hiking!

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