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Enjoy a four-mile round nature walk from Wickham Hall to Farnham on the Hertfordshire and Essex border





Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop’s Stortford

Bank holiday Monday dawned bright so I set off for a Nature Notes wander. Somewhat optimistically I arrived at Wickham Hall for a pre-walk coffee dressed in just a T-shirt and shorts, trusting that the sun would continue to shine. It didn’t!

Once I finished my coffee I walked on the farm path past the grain silos. Here, a party of feral pigeons enjoyed the warmth, roosting upon the solar panels. No sign of the resident pied wagtails, but a community of house sparrows departed the nearby hedge and went to sit in a walnut tree. All very vociferous, as sparrows invariably are.

Latticed heath. Picture: Jono Forgham
Latticed heath. Picture: Jono Forgham

In the hedge that borders the Wickham Hall garden are some young elms. I checked the leaves here for the recently-arrived pest species Aproceros leucopoda, the elm zig-zag sawfly. Basically, the sawfly lays eggs on elm which hatch in a few days and the larvae munch the leaves in a complete zig-zag pattern. Very easy to spot.

Today none were found, but I have encountered the tell-tale patterns on other elms around the town. A reportable pest species that first arrived in the UK in 2017. Probably another example of poor checks at customs with imported elm trees, but when all the sightings are mapped in western Europe it does appear that they follow major road routes, so possibly hitchhiking lifts on cross channel vehicles too.

I wandered on, passing the vineyard, and took a left turn as I was heading for the path that skirts the western side of Bailey Hills. Swallows swooped low over recently-harvested lucerne fields. Here, many latticed heath macro moths as the crop here is their larval food plant. One of the most butterfly-like of moths, it rose from my footfall, occasionally alighting for a photo opportunity.

Common darter. Picture: Jono Forgham
Common darter. Picture: Jono Forgham

The birds and insects inform me that they are now in autumnal mode. Moths to my garden trap are ones that are coloured orange and brown as they require those colours for camouflage when the leaves turn brown. Birds such as blue tits and long-tailed tits are now in larger groups and many of the summer-based butterflies are now disappearing.

Also, the common darter dragonfly is to be seen in good numbers and will continue to be on the wing until the first frosts. Several were noted at Bailey Hills, one immature or female posing well on a twig. I set the camera to flash to highlight the colours whilst also making the background very dark.

Common blue butterflies were everywhere, all male with none of the brown females recorded. These insects are fairly easy to approach, offering reasonable photo opportunities. A comma butterfly was resting upon a tree trunk whilst a splendid red admiral nectared upon bristly oxtongue.

The field margins all along this walk held a wide variety of flora. In a stubble field before the Farnham to Upwick lane, both poppies and scarlet pimpernel were in flower. Mallow was a constant throughout the walk and always worth checking for pollen-feeding insects, as is field scabious. Upon this delicate plant a Bombus pascuorum, common carder bee, nectared, permitting several macro shots. Most of the photos were taken with this 70mm lens as my 150-600mm lens was in need of a service. A phone call from the repairers advised me to sit down for the quote! Should be as good as new when it is returned.

Common carder bee. Picture: Jono Forgham
Common carder bee. Picture: Jono Forgham

I crossed the lane and headed along a bridleway that is bordered on both sides by high hedges. I checked the amount of tree species here over a 30-metre distance and estimated the hedges were at least 500-600 years old. Goldfinches rose from these as Tilly, a friendly dog, came to greet me. A skylark rose from the stubble and overhead was the inevitable mewing of common buzzards.

More signs of autumn along here with elderberries hanging low from the tree and rose hips already turning red, whilst the brambles groaned with blackberries. I noted that many of the bunches of elderberries had been eaten. A favourite fruit for birds such as chiffchaff, whitethroat and blackcap before they head to sub-Saharan Africa in the next few weeks. I heard one blackcap along this stretch and plenty of the “wheet” calls of chiffchaffs. At one point the sun came out and a chiffer burst into its well-known “zip zap” call.

After a few turns, this path heads into a woodland. A nuthatch burbled unseen and plenty of wood pigeons departed with their familiar wing claps. On the stubble, a noisy collection of jackdaws, rooks and a few carrion crows before I came to a gravel track that is the end (or, in my case, the beginning) of Thrimley Lane.

Elderberries. Picture: Jono Forgham
Elderberries. Picture: Jono Forgham

I turned right by Farnham Village Hall and Thrimley Hall. Linnets darted for cover whilst, overhead, three more common buzzards circled effortlessly upon the thermals. By now it was a little more breezy and overcast which had me wishing I had brought along a thin jumper.

Common blue. Picture: Jono Forgham
Common blue. Picture: Jono Forgham

More flora in the grass verges along here: white dead-nettle, yarrow, knapweed and more mallow. Also, field bindweed and the large bindweed. All flower heads were checked for feeding insects, but the sun was behind heavy cloud so very little was apparent. A small, well-marked hoverfly evaded my camera, a Sphaerophoria scripta, showing shining yellow and black bands. One of the easier hovers to identify as the abdomen is longer than the wings.

Comma. Picture: Jono Forgham
Comma. Picture: Jono Forgham

I continued downhill as a red kite went by. At the sharp left turn I moved onto a path that heads towards Walnut Tree Cottages. Here, a splendid garden with flowers that attract several bee species. Bombus lucorum (white-tailed bumblebee) and Bombus terrestris (buff-tailed bumblebee) were both feeding on the flowers.

Ripening conkers. Picture: Jono Forgham
Ripening conkers. Picture: Jono Forgham

I passed the cottages and onto another grassy bridleway that leads the walker back towards Wickham Hall. A large horse chestnut was covered with conkers and this reminded me of when we lived in Cheshire and myself and primary school friends would be out, throwing sticks into the tree to dislodge the nuts so we could play conkers in the playground. I recall all sorts of tales of how to make the conker stronger, such as soak it in vinegar overnight. Not sure it really made any difference, but it was an enjoyable pastime during school playtimes.

Holly blue. Picture: Jono Forgham
Holly blue. Picture: Jono Forgham

I came across a large ivy-covered hedge. Here, a holly blue butterfly and, lower down, a spider in the centre of her web. An Araneus diadematus (garden spider) which was guarding a prey item that had been rolled in silk. Looked to be a bee or hoverfly species.

Araneus diadematus with prey. Picture: Jono Forgham
Araneus diadematus with prey. Picture: Jono Forgham

I returned to the elm hedge and checked once again for the zig-zag sawfly, but, again, was unsuccessful. However, upon one leaf a 3cm and colourful caterpillar sat on the upper side. A grey dagger moth caterpillar which can often be found on elm at this time of year. It didn’t appear to be feeding, so maybe just on the move to find a crack in the bark where it will overwinter as a pupa, before emerging as an adult moth next June.

Grey dagger macro moth caterpillar. Picture: Jono Forgham
Grey dagger macro moth caterpillar. Picture: Jono Forgham

I arrived back at the car park and noticed I had a passenger upon my windscreen. An angle shades moth was enjoying the warmth of the glass. A superb dead leaf mimic, but rather obvious in its present situation. It remained upon the windscreen all the way home, actually turning around so it could see where it was going. It hopped off as I parked the car.

Angle shades. Picture: Jono Forgham
Angle shades. Picture: Jono Forgham

A splendid four-mile wander along some ancient tracks. Maybe my last wander of the year in summer clothing? By the next walk my bank account will be decimated but I shall hopefully have my large lens back for bird photography as well as capturing insect shots from slightly further away. I have had this lens for a few years now and it probably gets used more in one month than many use it in a lifetime. I use it just about everyday, so no wonder it was in need of a good service.

Speckled wood. Picture: Jono Forgham
Speckled wood. Picture: Jono Forgham
Rose hips. Picture: Jono Forgham
Rose hips. Picture: Jono Forgham
Gatekeeper. Picture: Jono Forgham
Gatekeeper. Picture: Jono Forgham
Red admiral. Picture: Jono Forgham
Red admiral. Picture: Jono Forgham
Scarlet pimpernel. Picture: Jono Forgham
Scarlet pimpernel. Picture: Jono Forgham

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