Dazzled by a Golden Shield

Golden Shield lichen

It can be pretty bleak at this time of year, waiting for the season to change and the buds to burst but look closely and there are still dazzling sights to be seen. This lichen caught my eye recently, clinging to a hawthorn. In fact, you will see this lichen on almost any hawthorn and many other trees and shrubs too. It is called Golden Shield, Xanthoria parietina, so named due to the golden, shield-like protrusions you can see in the photo.

Lichens are an incredible symbiosis between two separate organisms; a fungus and an algae or cyanobacteria. The two organisms form a mutually beneficial association with the lichen fungus creating a stable structure and the algae or cyanobacteria producing simple sugars through photosynthesis with which to feed the fungus.

No one really knows who benefits the most from this relationship. Is the fungus farming the algae for its own benefit, or does the algae gain more by being able to colonise a far greater area with the help of the fungus it clings too? It is a fascinating question with which lichenologists are still grappling.

Equally as interesting, especially to ecologists and conservationists, is the fact that lichens are excellent environmental indicators; they tell of current conditions and also how an environment may have changed, or not, over time.

In areas affected by atmospheric pollution such as acid rain, the communities of lichens surviving are likely to be severely impoverished. Species that may have been typical in the past are no longer present because lichens are sensitive to atmospheric composition. This is one reason why the Golden Shield may be found in hedgerows all around the UK; it thrives in nitrogen-rich environments like heavily-fertilised farmland.

Similarly, lichens are excellent indicators of ecological continuity. The presence of certain or groups of lichen can be used to help grade the conservation status of woodlands; a woodland that has been clear-felled at any point in its history is likely to have lost the original lichen flora that inhabited it. On the other hand, the lichens in an ancient woodland receiving minimal human intervention may be vanishingly unique.

Whether common or not, lichens are there to be enjoyed if we just take the time to look. Their often bright colours and small forms make them jewels of nature but their fascinating biology make them even more amazing.

More information about lichens can be found on the website of the British Lichen Society.

 

Butterflies and botany

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Small Heath – Havannah nature reserve.

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Peacock – Havannah nature reserve.

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Speckled Wood – Havannah nature reserve.

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Red Admiral – Holywell.

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Scarlet Pimpernel – Holywell.

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Harebell – Holywell.

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White Melilot – Backworth.

Just a few photographs taken over the last few weeks of summer. I was especially pleased to find the White Melilot growing between Earsdon and Backworth – a new and unusual species for me.

All quiet at Holywell

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Waders and Wall Brown butterflies were my hoped-for species at Holywell pond this morning but despite fine weather and oodles of suitable mud, neither were to be seen.

Holywell can be a frustrating place for the easily disappointed but luckily I am not that kind of person and I was pleased with a smart pair of Red Admirals at the end of my morning.

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Disappointingly the farmer appears to have destroyed the small area of marsh in the centre of the field immediately east of the pond, no doubt with the intention of ploughing in this area for next year.

Though it was a relatively small bit of habitat it was great cover for Snipe and Grey Partridge and doubtless home to much else besides. It seems a pretty pointless act of destruction given that the area will surely flood again as soon as winter arrives.

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The farmer had also trimmed the verge in one of the fields on the other side of the bridle way, just where I was hoping to find my Wall Browns…d’oh!

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It’s been a while

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So here is a very nice Small Skipper. I haven’t seen too many so far this year, although one flew through the garden the other day, which is a first!

There has been some talk  that the weather has made it difficult for butterflies in 2016, which I guess is possibly true, although from my own observations I would say it depends upon the species.

There have been plenty of whites on the wing lately as well as the second generation of Small Tortoiseshells. I have spotted loads of Ringlet butterflies this year too so the conditions must have suited them, whilst there have been far fewer Speckled Wood than in 2014 which seemed to be a bonanza year for all lepidoptera.

Plenty of time left for some nice weather however, so I look forward to many morebutterflies over the coming weeks.

July Butterflies

What with the weather and work and various other obstacles I have not seen so many butterflies of late…still no Skippers this year and I think I have missed the first generation of Wall Brown butterflies that are normally on the wing from late May in this part of the world.

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However, Ringlet and Meadow Brown are now out in force, including these two beautiful insects which were at Havannah nature reserve last week.

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Roll on some warm sunny weather and there is sure to be plenty more butterflies on the wing…perhaps in time for the Big Butterfly Count which starts this weekend?

Small Copper

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I spent some time in Gosforth Park nature reserve at the beginning of last week while the weather was still good. The bird life was fairly quiet, with the birds getting on with the breeding season but insects were abundant, especially mosquitoes!

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It seems that the butterflies may be a week or two behind where they were at this time last year and that goes for some of the flora as well. However this Small Copper was a nice find amongst the buttercups and hawkbits by the screen hide.

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A few orchids were thrusting their way up too, like this Common Spotted Orchid. I also managed to see the single spike of Coral Root Orchid which is currently showing…nice!

A disconcerting walk

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What’s wrong with this picture?

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Or how about this one?

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Perhaps it has something to do with this?

These pictures were all taken last weekend close to where I live, in the fields which separate Monkseaton and Murton. What was disconcerting was the almost complete lack of invertebrate life, either on the tracks which bisect the fields or above the crop itself.

Both the venerable old crab apple and the swathes of yellow dandelions that line the track were devoid of life, despite the warm spring sunshine and the fact that these plants should act like beacons to insects at this time of year.

This isn’t the first time I have noticed the lack of biodiversity on my immediate doorstep but it was perhaps the first time the sterility of the local environment really sunk in.

That’s not to say that Murton Gap, as the fields are known, supports no wildlife: Skylark can still be heard over the fields, one or two farmland birds can be unearthed if you look hard enough, Curlew – Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List – sometimes form winter roosts here and foxes rove between Shiremoor and Monkseaton after dark.

But the farmland is a shadow of what it must once have been, of what it could be if it was managed with more sensitivity, or even left to its own devices.

This was the second time in three weeks that I have seen the field being sprayed. This may not have been insecticide but when a crop is often sprayed more than a dozen times with insecticides, fungicides and herbicides, one has to wonder about the effect on the environment.

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The two large fields closest to Monkseaton form a large part of the area likely to be developed for housing under the North Tyneside Local Plan. Whilst it would be defamatory to suggest this area were being willfully damaged because of this, it is clear to see this farmland could be far better managed for wildlife than it currently is.

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It pains me to look out onto green space that has been so needlessly degraded and whilst perversely, conversion to housing may eventually result in some recovery in biodiversity, by then so many species will have vanished from here forever.