Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham admires the biodiversity at Bat Willow Hurst in Bishop's Stortford and spots River Stort water voles
For his latest Nature Notes column, Jono Forgham is joined by snapper Richard Stead for a stroll around Grange Paddocks and Bat Willow Hurst Country Park, with a bit of 'celebrity spotting' getting things off to a good start...
After over two months of venturing no further than Little Hadham I decided upon a visit to Grange Paddocks, the River Stort and the Red, White & Blue meadow before planning on visiting the awkwardly-named Bat Willow Hurst Country Park and concluding in Birchanger Wood. Beforehand, I contacted ace photographer Richard Stead who joined me at 7.30am at the car park that can be found at the end of Cannons Mill Lane off Rye Street.
A blackcap posed for a photo by the car park before we headed off along the wide footpath towards the swimming pool. Our target was the colonies of water voles that have taken up residence here. At one site a photographer had already set up base so, after a brief chat, we moved a little further along. Soon, holes in the bank were evident and it wasn't long before one of these splendid mammals popped out and swam across the river. Others were seen, washing, feeding and generally coming and going from their bankside burrows.
Water voles were becoming an endangered species in the UK, especially in southern England where escaped and released mink were devastating the population. A release scheme at Thorley Wash some years ago has helped re-establish them along with the eradication of the mink. Absolute success story to find they have re-colonised the Stort as far as Grange Paddocks. They appear to be local celebrities with lots of walkers stopping to enjoy watching them.
We retraced our steps in the hope of seeing a kingfisher, but none were about so we entered the Red, White & Blue meadow and followed one of the paths around the perimeter. Mistle thrushes flew by as jackdaws searched the long grass. Red and white campion were in full bloom as we approached the kissing gate by the road. Here was a nettle patch where we stopped for a quick bug hunt. So much to find: Nettle weevil, harlequin ladybird, a long-jawed orb web spider (Tetragnatha extensa), soldier beetles and scorpion flies. Plenty to keep us busy, but the path here is narrow and other walkers were wishing to get by, so we moved over the road. Much more social distancing opportunities.
The country park here has, over the last couple of years, come on in leaps and bounds. Many native species have been planted, both wild flowers and trees, so it was a bit of a surprise to encounter Eschscholzia californica (Californian poppy) which, whilst a lovely shade of orange, really doesn't belong here. Maybe it was in the seed mix of Papaver rhoeas, our traditional red poppy which has done exceedingly well here, especially in the north-west corner.
We put down most of our camera equipment and went searching the grasses, nettles and thistles. Plenty to discover. A small micromoth, Agapeta hamana, clung to a grass stem. Colourful damselflies propelled themselves over the ground like mini airships, all appearing to be common blues. Field grasshoppers and dark bush crickets hopped forwards upon every footfall. A small white butterfly refused to stop for a photo and, by one of the pools, a grey wagtail patrolled the water's edge for insects, before heading off with a beak load to its nearby nest. All fantastic to watch and discover.
By now the sun was climbing, as was the temperature, which meant more insects would be on the wing. The sky was constantly full of raucous juvenile starlings but little else on the bird front.
We checked around the area under the A120 where more insects could be found. One particular damselfly landed and I lay down on the ground for a photo. Such was my enthusiasm to get the shot I omitted to check where I was placed but it was soon apparent I had chosen a thistle and nettle patch! Itchy and scratchy to say the least. At one site there are plenty of small spindle trees establishing themselves. On these were, what look like at first glance, cobwebs, but upon closer inspection are the webs to protect the spindle ermine moth caterpillars (Yponomeuta cagnagella). These yellow larvae will pupate and emerge in late June as small moths, white with black spots, hence the name. This got me thinking that in high summer it would be worth a nocturnal visit with a moth trap, head torch and net to see what has already moved into this habitat.
We carried on towards the new housing development where the poppies were magnificent. A small heath butterfly winged its haphazard flight in front of us as we took more time to stop by the balancing pools nearest the houses. Here, several dragonfly and damselfly species were evident. First noted was the fast flying black-tailed skimmer; the male blue, female yellow with the last part of the abdomen a dull black. These often return to the same rock on the ground and can be 'easily' photographed. A mating pair landed nearby, permitting a few shots.
The warmer temperatures were encouraging more insects onto the wing and soon a larger, yellow dragonfly began to appear in good number: four-spot chasers. These, again, have a habit of returning to the same flower stalk, so relatively easy to sit and wait for it to return for some pleasing shots. Large red damselflies and plenty of the common blues landed on some water mint leaves, wary of the larger dragonflies that will happily catch these in mid air as they predate upon them.
The grey wagtail returned and led us a merry chase around the pool. It was occasionally seen to be flycatching, hovering momentarily just above the surface, grabbing an insect and then returning to the bank to get a firm hold before heading to the nest. Several rather distant shots were taken before we decided to head back to the meadows. At this point a pied wagtail arrived, so we remained for another half hour, taking even more snaps of the dragonflies. By now it was getting on for 11am so I thought that I would leave the Birchanger Wood visit until the next article as I had plenty to report upon. Chaffinches and great tits called from the willows by the entrance.
For those with mobility difficulties, the paths here are perfect for motorised scooters and there is a well-placed car park on the right along the Manuden Road.
Back into the meadows where there were plenty of walkers and joggers. The longhorn cattle wandered towards us for a closer inspection, reminding me of the time a few years ago when they got out and wandered into town. I recall a superb photo of one large beast outside what is now Humphrey's butchers and seem to remember them being rounded up into the Kwik Fit tyre centre! The gates appeared to be more secure today.
Back at the car park, (note there is a 6ft 6in height restriction here) a wren burst into song as we searched, unsuccessfully for treecreepers. It had been great to have Rick along and his fantastic photographs were soon posted on the Stortford Nature Facebook site. It has been wonderful to be part of this group and to see just how many people are posting photos for others to enjoy and/or for identification purposes. Some really unusual creatures have been found by locals in their gardens: grass snakes, slow worms and a variety of insects and spiders.
I returned very much impressed with the country park's biodiversity. It is now in need of a little management and I hope, as happened in Southern Country Park at St Michael's Mead, a group of residents on the new housing development set up a 'friends of' group to draw up plans for improving the habitat even more and to begin recording all the wildlife that can be found.
I for one will be keen to keep an eye on this site through the summer as I am sure there will be good discoveries to be made. On a warm sunny day I recommend a visit to admire the dragonflies and wagtails.