Monday, 17 January 2022

A case of missing orchids and discovering one culprit (the council)

A case of missing orchids and discovering one culprit (the council)

AT 6am our cat Cilla jumps in through an open bedroom window and proceeds to bounce up and down on me before biting Rosemary’s welcoming finger, yowling like a harridan. She wants breakfast and knows how to get it.

Rosemary gets out of bed, steps downstairs and obliges. Thank God we turned in early last night

As usual, I’m not up and about until after 7am, having listened to the news headlines on Radio 4. After her shower, Rosemary joins me for our daily tour of the back garden.

The weather has been better than predicted and Cilla leads, as ever. After the occasional hold-up, where the cat stubbornly blocks our passage to munch on grass, we choose our usual circuit.

Rosemary stops abruptly, tells me to wait and trots back inside to grab her camera as she has spotted a Jersey tiger moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria) on one of our Japanese maples.

The insect is a beauty, quite large with black and white patterned forewings and orangey hindwings. Common in the Channel Islands, it is scarce on the British mainland and limited at the moment to the South. The larvae feed mainly on common nettles, among other herbaceous plants.

Over breakfast, we agree to revisit the crossroads between Wyfold Lane, Nippers Grove and Rumerhedge Wood to seek out the violet helleborine orchids (Epipactis purpurata) that I showed Rosemary last year. It is an important colony that I have known for more than 40 years.

When we get there, there are no orchids showing. I wonder what has happened, where have they gone? This is not good.

Otherwise everything else looks as perfect as on our last visit. The large-leaved lime trees (Tilia platyphyllos), from old to young, look content and seem to be aware of our presence. Cherry trees, hazels and oaks seem to lean towards us in recognition. Spooky but lovely.

A silver birch grows cheek-by-jowl with a young lime.

We feel welcome and smile upon this all-enveloping natural caress.

Underneath the trees, vast spreads of dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis) and enchanter’s-nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) occupy the ground, oblivious of the miasma of fallen twigs and more.

Hart’s-tongue (Asplenium scolopendrium) and male ferns (Dryopteris filix-mas) fill the roadside ditches.

A handsome fungus, a bolete that I cannot identify (I am not a qualified mycologist), stands proud. Later, I send a photograph of it to my friend Professor Richard Fortey, who leads the Fungus Survey of Oxfordshire, to name it.

This is good country and we are having a whale of a time. We love all the lifeforms that surround us, from the mosses to the flowering plants and trees.

It is so quiet here, with no motorbikes, aeroplanes, or chainsaws, only the passing cyclist and occasional car.

Such bliss, with only the distant chattering of chaffinches, yellowhammers, wrens and various titmice, the cooing of wood pigeons, the mewing of red kites and buzzards and the yaffles of green woodpeckers.

We move on through Splashall Bottom and Busgrove Lane into Stoke Row through the most beautiful beech woods with stunning, deep dips, crying out to be explored.

We will investigate as Rosemary thinks that we may come across a ghost orchid here. It is possible.

On reaching Stoke Row, we turn left, drive past the village shop, petrol station and famous Maharajah’s Well and head on towards Three Corner Common.

This is part of the Ipsden Heath Complex, which is mostly owned by the Woodland Trust, of which we are members.

Before we search for orchids, I lead Rosemary into part of the trust’s land as I want to show her a pair of oak trees in a glade. Both are multi-trunked, mossy specimens and seem mysterious.

We return to the roadside, which is full of lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor).

There was once a cracking colony of violet helleborine orchids on every road verge here. Today, we find only two plants in flower. So sad.

They can be easily missed due to their colouration. The ones that we find are set well back so were missed by the council’s roadside strimming operation. I presume the verges are cut back to help drivers’ sightlines but there are no obvious problems here. If this expensive and stupid policy continues we can all abandon books on botany.

On one of the roadsides we come across some golden scaly male-ferns (Dryopteris affinis) with their bipinnate, light yellow fronds. They certainly glow and Rosemary is entranced.

On one of the grassy corners of the crossroads we stumble upon a few betony (Stachys offinicalis) plants, which are totally unexpected. A very handsome plant, it’s a member of the dead-nettle family with reddish-purple flowers that remind me of those of marsh orchids.

We retire into the embrace of the Black Horse pub at Scot’s Common, near Checkendon. I order a couple of pints and two bacon sandwiches. As usual, the fare is delicious. We love this pub, which is one of those timeless places that is worth a visit whatever the season.

It will be my birthday on Tuesday. I will be 62 but still feel 17.

Rosemary, who is slightly older than me and much more sensible, has bought me a present of two trees, a red maple (Acer rubrum) and a sugar maple (Acer saccharum). I love them both.

I admired the shape and autumn colours of acers in Nova Scotia when I was in Canada in October 1993.

It is a wonderful part of the world with many unspoilt, untouched areas with sparkling, stony, boulder-strewn, salmon-filled, tannic tinged rivers.

We have found great spots to plant these two and will protect the large “whips” with wire guards as we have a problem with deer and will nurture both until they can look after themselves. Thanks, Rosemary.

Meanwhile, I have recently taken delivery of a bat box made by a company named Wildlife World. It is made from “untreated, solid, high quality, durable, FSC certified timber which provides longevity and excellent insulation” and can accommodate up to 40 bats.

The instructions tell me that under the Wildlife Act bats are a schedule 1 protected species and it is illegal for any member of the public to disturb a roost, handle or kill any bat, so bat boxes may only be inspected by a licensed bat worker.

Let’s see what happens. I’ll secure the box to one of our largest trees in our back garden facing south-east where we can keep an eye on it from our “tree-house bedroom” or an outside bench.

Cilla will be joining us in our observations, I’m sure. I’ll keep readers informed.

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