Nature Notes June 2021

Life in and Around the Soil

Spiders without Webs

This flower crab spider has a globular abdomen, sometimes with spots or lines. They can change their colour to match their surroundings but often appear white.

This photo was sent to me by my friend Jillie Fry who lives in a town house in Bristol with a small garden.  She tends to do most of her gardening in pots and amongst the pots was this little spider. I checked with our local ecologist who said that the spider was difficult to identify just from the photo but he confirmed that it is some kind of crab spider possibly a flower crab spider. I had never seen one before

Unlike many spiders, flower crab spiders don’t spin webs to trap insects. Instead they ambush their prey, often laying in wait on foliage for unsuspecting bees, moths and other insects that come to feed on flowers. The male is smaller than the female and, unlike the female, cannot change its colouration to match the surroundings

Their front legs are longer and stronger than their back legs and like crabs they can move sideways and backwards. Primarily daytime feeders, these spiders are easiest to spot outdoors between April and September.

Incidentally despite being small and in the city wildlife thrives in her garden so confirming that size does not matter just content. For example frogs frequent the garden even though she has no pond though there is access between the gardens in the street which is very important.

Good news (at last) for our natural peatlands

Sales of peat based compost to gardeners will be banned from 2024 the Government has said. Ministers will also give £50 million to help the restoration of 35,000hectares of peatland by 2025 about 1% of the total. This is of vital importance because the UK’s peatlands store 3 times as much carbon as its forests so helping enormously with the problems of climate change. The planned use of peat based compost for commercial growers will be by 2030

 Even more. The carbon in peat when spread on a garden or fields quickly turns into carbon dioxide so adding to greenhouse gas levels. The peatlands have a unique biodiversity as well so that rare birds, butterflies, dragonflies and plants so these too have more hope for the future.

Destroying peatlands

Peat forms at an incredibly slow rate, accumulating on average only 1mm a year – that means it takes 1,000 years for one metre of peat to form! The key component of peat is a moss called sphagnum, which forms multi-coloured carpets across the landscape and breaks down very slowly under the waterlogged conditions.

The Somerset Trust (www.somersetwildlife.org/peatland-solutions) is involved in restoring several areas that are no longer worked commercially examples being Westhay Moor and Shapwick Heath

Westhay Moor National Nature Reserve is one of the jewels in the crown of Somerset Wildlife Trust’s Nature Reserves and is situated in the centre of the internationally acclaimed and award-winning Avalon Marshes area on the Somerset Levels.. It is reclaimed from the remnants of industrial-scale peat extraction, and home to the largest surviving remnant of lowland acid mire in the South West. 

It is a mecca for wildlife all year round but particularly in the spring when Bittern can be hear booming, and where tens of thousands of overwintering birds make it their home. It is home to 7 of the 9 UK breeding herons and has fabulous resident populations of wading birds, wildfowl and is home to otters, huge numbers of dragonflies and also raptors such as hobbies, Marsh Harrier, Peregrine and the odd Hen Harrier.

Leave it to the experts!

As shown in last month’s nature notes the soil itself is a wonderful but complex ecosystem probably the Cinderella of ecosystems rather ignored and yet the one on which all other life on earth depends. The realisation of this is beginning to come to the fore as we realise how much damage has been done to this ecosystem especially how soils have been degraded of their nutrients and life by digging, ploughing and the relentless use of chemical ‘aids.’

As gardeners we can help the soil and our backs by simply not digging. Digging utterly disturbs the life that abounds in the soil about which we still know very little. There is a particularly intricate relationship between plants and fungi which is destroyed every time digging takes place

The alternative is to let the unseen myriads of invertebrates, fungi, bacteria, micro organisms and especially earthworms do the job and we can help by adding organic matter  and mulch just on the surface. It will be drawn down into the soil by various creatures. so increasing its fertility. By breaking down organic matter earthworms loosen the soil and so increasing water holding capacity.  Underground tunnels help soil drainage especially during heavy rainfall. Water can drain through the soil more easily so reducing the risk of flooding and soil erosion.

Earthworms themselves are an important food for plenty of creatures such as hedgehogs, foxes, badgers, birds, moles and amphibians.                                                                                                                                                                           

Still hanging on!

This relatively rare plant is Herb Paris .it is an indicator of ancient woodland. I have recorded them since 2015 when there were just 2 plants but now there are 4 still hanging on to life despite growing very near to the lower north path that goes through Sand ford Woods and being more and more surrounded by garlic. They grow very much in the shade.

They flower from late April to early June, producing just one blueberry like fruit as seen above which is poisonous. With just one seed it is slow and lucky to germinate and is pollinated by flies and midges. There are several colloquial names such as four leaved grass, herb true love, leopard’s bane, one berry and true love.
With its whorl of four egg-shaped leaves, it is known as the ‘herb of equality’ because all of its parts are considered equal and harmonious. This symmetry appealed to medieval herbalists, so it was used both in marriage rituals and to guard against witches.


Book Recommendation

Gardening with Woodland Plants by Karen Junker

   This is a wonderful book just to sit and read and to glean ideas for a woodland garden no matter how large or small. Even better Junker’s Nursery is quite near by at Millerton near Taunton though at the moment it is not open for visits just mail order. Karen Junker runs this 50 acre nursery,  She is clearly passionate about the plants that are grown and very knowledgeable too since she grows many within her own woodland and so it is possible to see the plants chosen in their natural setting and if you book to visit to draw upon her experience.


End piece

It is worrying that I have not seen any swallows, house martens or swifts this year in Sandford. The swallows have not come back to two of their traditional homes and it is now very late for them to arrive. Has anyone else seen swallows at all? It is very sad not to see swallow particularly swooping through the pastures in search of insects which are also few a far between because of the recent very cold weather.

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