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Wildlife diary May 2017

1st May: Which elm is Wych?

We've all heard of the horrors of Dutch Elm disease, the fungal disease that was responsible for fundamentally changing the British countryside in the 1960s and 70s. It killed an estimated 25 million mature elm trees. 


What comes as something of a surprise is that there are still elms surviving in the wider countryside and there are certainly some in Fineshade. May is a rather easy time to find them because of their "samaras" - the thin oval shaped wings that are used to carry the seeds in the wind.  

Another key feature of elms is the shape of their leaves - unlike most trees they are not symmetrical near the stalk. They are rough to the touch, have toothed edges and and will grow quite large.

One particular elm, is growing below the old railway bridge on the road coming up to Top Lodge and its branches, covered in samaras, are hanging down towards the road at the moment. There are several more beside the track that runs north from the carparks downhill past the tree house.

Although there are many types of elm the ones most common species found in England are the native Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra) and the English Elm (Ulmus minor), which was apparently introduced during the Bronze Age. They are not easy to tell apart, though the English Elm's leaves and also the samaras are said to be smaller and rounder.  On the basis of that we think the ones in Fineshade' are Wych Elm - although we'd be happy to be corrected! 

The picture on the right shows a rather fine and quite mature Wych(?) Elm alongside a track in Dales Wood. This tree, so far, has withstood the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease: the bark beetles which are responsible for spreading the fungal infection do not seem to have found this particular tree yet.

Elms play an important part in woodland diversity: many birds eat the seeds and the larvae of various moths feed on the leaves. The caterpillars of one of Fineshade's special butterflies, the White-letter Hairstreak, eat only Elm leaves, so this species declined dramatically when Dutch Elm Disease struck.  If you want to see White-letter Hairstreaks later in the summer it's a good idea to look in the tops of the Elm trees, so it's worth looking out for these trees now while their samaras make them easy to spot.


9th May: The smell of Yellow Archangel

Following the Bluebells, the beautiful flowers of Yellow Archangel (Lamium galeobdolon) are beginning to appear in the Ancient Woodland areas of Fineshade.  It has leaves resembling those of Stinging Nettles but, although it is a member of the same family, its leaves cause no pain, so it is easy to examine the flowers. A close view is certainly recommended as each individual floret has intricate red lines which, apparently, guide pollinating insects towards the store of nectar. 

The derivation of its English name must be down to the appearance of the individual florets, but the Latin name is quite extraordinary: Lamium means dead-nettle, but galeobdolon means smelling like a weasel! So, if you want to know what a weasel smells like crush one of the leaves of Yellow Archangel.


11th May: Not Berkeley Square


Nightingale. Photo Bob Bullock

This is the first record of a Nightingale in Fineshade Wood since 2014 when one was heard singing in the southern part of the wood. 

Will this one attract a mate and decide to stay? We'll wait to see but if you are walking the Dales Wood trail you may hear it near the area where there's a blue cycle loop. It's a rare and wonderful experience in this part of the world. Do please let us know if you hear it.

Update 5th June 

After four weeks the Nightingale was singing, even more beautifully, near the original spot today. This probably means that the male has attracted a mate and they may well be breeding. 

It had been a sunny warm morning. Towards noon I was on the Dales Wood trail in the northern part of the wood when a warbler started up right beside me - apparently a rather excited song that, at first I couldn't place. Then there came three drawn-out low piping notes, before an accelerating, breath-takingly rich medley of phrases, interspersed by wonderful pauses.


It was, undoubtedly, a Nightingale, singing in the middle of the day. For a full ten minutes I stood transfixed beside the dense thorny scrub where the bird remained hidden. A garishly-clad cyclist sped by, oblivious to the aural treat. Then the Nightingale's was joined by a Blackcap's song - I could see this bird dashing around the bush and gradually the Nightingale song came to an end. A few minutes later the long piping notes, followed by the full exquisite song came again, but from about 100 yards further along the track. Three talker-walkers came by and seemed, mildy, interested. "But it's not night time... and it's not even Berkeley Square!"


Perhaps this male bird was still seeking an unoccupied territory and perhaps the Blackcap's reaction had moved it on. This area is shown of the OS map as "Peter's Nook" - certainly it's a rich piece of shrubby coppiced habitat - far more suited to host a Nightingale for the summer than to be transformed into a sewage plant - Forest Holiday's appalling intention here.


18th May: The importance of Dormice

Dormouse box Fineshade Wood

Freshly constructed Dormouse nest in nestbox

Wild garlic Fineshade Wood

These are probably the only Ramsons in Fineshade and are near the Dormouse nest. Perhaps Dormice like the smell of garlic?

Dormice are very elusive creatures and there probably aren't many surviving in Fineshade Wood - but more evidence emerged this week that they are hanging on in this northern part of Rockingham Forest. 


Since the rediscovery of Dormice in Fineshade in 2014, volunteers working for the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust (with FC approval) have erected over 70 dormouse nest boxes in an attempt to find out just how widespread this rare and endangered mammal is in the wood. These boxes are checked for nests at monthly intervals by volunteers with the appropriate licence issued by Natural England. Earlier this week one of the boxes was found to contain the recently completed dormouse nest shown here. Below the loose leaves at the top of the box was a ball of woven strips of honeysuckle bark with a dormouse-sized entrance tunnel. There was no animal at home at the time, but we are hopeful that this nest will be used as a home for young Dormice as the summer proceeds. 

There could be Dormice throughout Fineshade Wood and the most likely-looking area, near where the Nightingale is singing, was surveyed in 2015 by Forest Holidays' contracted ecologists. Dormice are one of Fineshade's rare species that currently enjoy the highest level of protection at the European level. Therefore the presence of Dormice makes it impossible to develop in the wood unless there are "imperative reasons of overriding public interest".  There is more here about the European-level protection of Fineshade's Dormice.

The results of Forest Holidays' survey have still not been made public and we continue to press the Forestry Commission to get the results from their partners, but Richard Palmer of Forest Holidays has said they are not in a position to confidently release the data which is now 2-years out of date.  You can read more here about the ongoing battle to get hold of the data collected by Forest Holidays in this part of the Public Forest Estate. 

24th May:  Westhay's wide rides

Fineshade Wood Bugle

Bugle grows in profusion alongside one of the main tracks.

We have commented before (here, and here) on the Forestry Commission's ride widening in Westhay Wood (the southern part of Fineshade).


It is certainly having a beneficial effect on the landscape of that part of the wood and, after the rain earlier in the week, it was a particularly beautiful place for a walk.  The Cuckoo was calling persistently, both butterflies and bees were busy. and the vegetation almost seemed to be growing as one watched.

Fineshade Wood Wild Service

Wild Service Tree in one of the widened grassy rides


30th May:  Cockchafer or May Bug

This splendid creature was attracted to a light at Top Lodge this week.  Over an inch long, its size was the most obvious feature, but then, up close the strange fan-shaped additions to its antennae were quite stunning.  

A look in the trusty insect book (Paul Brock's "Comprehensive guide to Insects of Britain and Ireland") soon revealed that this was a Cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha), one of the Scarab Beetles. Since this one had seven branches on the fan, it was male and had spent the first 3 to 4 years of its life in the larval stage below ground. There it will have grown into a fat white grub up to 4cm long, before pupating and emerging as an adult this spring.  Now it has just a brief period, about six weeks, to enjoy adult life, detect a female's pheromones with its curious antennae and mate.


Both grubs and adults can be highly destructive to crops and trees, and until the widespread use of pesticides they were extremely common. Now they are seen much less frequently but are quite widespread throughout the country.

They are sometimes known as May Bugs or Doodlebugs - their noisy buzzing flight gave rise to the nickname for the WW II flying bombs that made a similar sound.

Fineshade wood Cockchafer
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