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Bishop's Stortford Independent Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham has an encounter with a red signal crayfish on a walk around Cuckoo's Parlour habitat in Stansted

After a weekend of torrential rainfall and a disappointing forecast for most of last week, I checked the weather predictions carefully. I noted a dry spell last Monday morning, with rain forecast from noon, so I set out early for my five-mile wander. I had decided to spend a little more time in a strange area that appears to be seldom visited, the habitat between the railway line that heads off to the airport. Here there is a lake and very much overgrown vegetation to explore before continuing on to Alsa Wood and the superb Aubrey Buxton Reserve.

Having parked by Stansted Castle I picked up a footpath I have never used before, accessing it immediately after the railway bridge in Stansted. Very quickly it became apparent that this was a path not frequently used as it was overgrown with nettles, all soaking wet and hanging low. In shorts, my legs took a pounding from these stingers.

The path runs adjacent to the railway line. As I approached what the map told me was called Cuckoo’s Parlour, a strange creature was noted on the muddy path: a large red signal crayfish. I presumed it to be dead but, as I approached closer, it reared up waving fearsome pincers at me and clearly was in no mood to let me proceed without a fight. Excellent photo opportunity for my first record of this arthropod on an Indie wander. The scene of it waving the large pincers at me as the camera lens encroached too closely reminded me of the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I resisted the chance to slice off the pincers as they would have just been a flesh wound, offered it a shrubbery and was on my way! Great start.

He really was an aggressive little chap, about the size of a medium lobster. An introduced species from North America and another example of poor thinking. It was brought over to Europe to cut down the plague of North European crayfish who were carrying a disease that was affecting fisheries. Unfortunately, the American crayfish also carried the disease. Brought into the UK in the 1970s, it promptly ate our native white-clawed crayfish which is now an endangered species and extinct in Herts, burrowed into banks causing bank erosion and collapse which meant muddy sediment covered the important gravel beds of chalk streams. A disastrous error!

I entered Cuckoo’s Plain where there was a swanky new bridge over Stansted Brook and was greeted by a superb habitat. Ponds overgrown with sedge, reed and bulrushes. I put down my camera bag and took a wander around. A sedge warbler darted for cover whilst a reed bunting popped up, moorhens cackled and sheep in nearby fields bleated chirpily. Overhead, jackdaws and carrion crows called and a common buzzard mewed in the distance. I checked the brook for more crayfish but no luck so I moved on, taking a tunnel under the railway line.

I hadn’t gone 100 yards when the recognisable cronking of a grey heron from where I had just been had me heading back to see if I could get a photo. However, the heron was clearly feeding in the middle of a particularly dense mass of bulrush, so I returned to the path and continued north. Soon after I got glimpses of my first target, the large lake which could be seen on my right. A turn in the path took another tunnel under the spur line and deposited me by the lake. Mallards, coots and moorhens were all that I found on the water, along with large fish, probably carp species rising to the surface. The trees here are damp, moss-covered and unmanaged and tracks head off in various directions. I presumed they were made for the construction of the railway when the airport line was built some 20 years ago.

A juvenile dunnock sat in the shade of a tree, not yet in full adult plumage, a whitethroat and a blackcap sounded their clicking alarm calls and a bullfinch squeaked its plaintive call. None, apart from the dunnock, were photographable due to the density of the foliage. From here it is a short stroll for those who may wish to include Turner’s Spring reserve on their walk. I had visited this reserve only last month, so continued towards Elsenham.

I had covered a short distance and my clothing had been dictated by the forecast. However, the sun was shining as I removed my thin sweater. Autumn was certainly in the air. The damp mustiness of an autumnal morning, dew clinging to spiders’ webs, ripe blackberries, the small tight cones on alder trees, red hawthorn berries and the green, soon to be black, berries on dogwood. Also, it was clearly autumn as my old and faithful hat was back on my head. A hat that is too warm for late spring and summer, and to be honest, too warm for this wander!

I strolled up an incline past some horses and emerged on to the Stansted/Elsenham road, crossed and headed to Alsa Wood. Along here, a good stand of ragwort and greater knapweed. Super flowers for attracting bees and this was certainly the case here. The majority of the bees were Apis melifera, the western honey bee but a little closer inspection gave up views of bumblebee species such as Bombus pascuorum (common carder bee), Bombus terrestris (buff-tailed bumblebee) and Bombus lapidarius (red-tailed bumblebee). I got somewhat damp as I lay down to attempt some macro shots of these splendid insects.

Soon afterwards, I entered the Aubrey Buxton Reserve, a dark and dank habitat on this morning as the clouds were beginning to mass. I checked the full ponds but little to report before I noted a very strange fungus emerging from a mossy, dead tree stump. The stinkhorn fungus, a very phallic-shaped structure. When new, the head of this mushroom is covered in a sticky brown excretion called gleba. This has the spores of the mushroom in it and proves irresistible to fly species who eat it and, in the process, get the spores stuck on them which they then transport away to a new site. A clever seed-type dispersal system. By now, all the gleba had gone, leaving a honeycomb pattern. In Victorian times men would go out early in the morning to break these up so that when they went for a country stroll with ladies they would not be embarrassed by seeing this fungus!

I crossed the boardwalk and came to a bank covered in more knapweed, offering the opportunity for more bee photography. Seven-spot ladybirds trundled along the plants and my footfall flushed several fast-flying moths, the migratory silver Y moth. Several goldfinches chatted from the top of a conifer, more mewing buzzards and both great spotted and green woodpeckers could be heard over the screeching of several jays. A holly blue butterfly passed by.

By now I was becoming aware of two pressing needs. One, it was certainly going to rain in the near future and, two, my parking ticket was not too far from expiring! I headed off along the fallow field footpath where a few skylarks rose and yellowhammers flew in front of me and disappeared into the hedge. I passed a few cottages and found myself in an open space where hawthorn bushes abound and mallow flowers stood tall. A nuthatch burbled and both great and blue tits flew by. A flash of orange attracted my attention as a small copper butterfly alighted upon some rabbit droppings to extract moisture and minerals. A very late ringlet butterfly posed whilst several small white butterflies had a territorial dispute.

I pressed on along the drive to a house which emerges near the traffic lights in Stansted. In the dappled light, sun rays caught the interest of hoverflies who either hovered in the light or rested on the wooden fence, making the most of the last sunshine of the day. I fired off a few shots of these, Episyrphus balteatus or the marmalade hoverfly.

I arrived back at the car and within five minutes there was a downpour. Great timing and I still had eight minutes on my parking ticket. A wonderful walk and really pleased to have discovered Cuckoo’s Parlour, a habitat I shall visit more often, certainly in spring and on a hot summer’s day to see what dragonflies may be present.

The highlight, however, was the crayfish and upon getting home I posted a photo on the BBC Springwatch site which gained many comments including one in reply to my mentioning its aggressive behaviour which just said, “Crayfish have zero chill”. Thought that summed the creature up perfectly.

If you fancy following in my footsteps as this was indeed a fascinating walk, I highly recommend trousers!! My legs are still itching.

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