Bio-diversity Demystified – February/March 2021

View from The Wildlife Patch

Bio-diversity is a term which describes every living organism within a single ecosystem or habitat, including numbers and diversity of species and all environmental aspects such as temperature, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels and climate. Bio-diversity can be measured globally or in smaller settings, such as ponds. If that sounds complicated it’s because it is complicated. Symbiosis is the
working together of two organisms to the mutual benefit of both.

Bio-diversity describes all life on Earth working together in an interdependent fragile network. To unpack the term Bio-diversity further – The Sun shines on our Earth’s surface drenching it with energy in the form of heat and light. Green plants have evolved to convert this energy into sugars which are really “packaged energy” that plants use to sustain, maintain and increase their own species.

Over many millions of years life on Earth has developed into a complex web of life consisting of Animals, Plants, Bacteria, Fungi etc. All this life is interlinked on many levels to utilise the energy thus captured by plants to sustain, maintain and multiply their own species. This system is very complicated and involves the intake and release of energy whilst in the process, releasing chemicals. These are in turn taken up by plants which utilise them to maintain their own species in a never ending cycle. Each species has a place in this system that can be occupied by no other species. If any one species – however insignificant – is taken away, the whole system suffers or may even crash altogether.

Along with every other species, Mankind has a place in this complex web. We are ultimately dependent on this system to maintain our own species. Without biodiversity, the health of the planet and ultimate survival of all species including Mankind is at stake.

Right now the diversity of life on this planet is in danger as never before in many thousands of years. The greatest threat to the loss of bio-diversity is human activity. As our population grows, together with our need for food, water and home comforts, it takes over natural ecosystems and replaces them with unnatural ones. Even in these, other organisms can adapt and successfully reproduce, but the levels of biodiversity as compared to the replaced environment are significantly lower.

The two greatest threats to the bio-diversity of our planet are Climate Change driven by Global warming and Pollution.

Global Warming The burning of Fossil Fuels – Gas, petrol and diesel – releases Carbon Dioxide into our atmosphere which forms a layer around The Earth. This “layer” traps in the Sun’s rays causing the earth’s atmosphere to heat up. The effects of this Global Warming are well known and established.

Pollution Exists in many ways at many levels, Pollution from plastic is well known as is pollution from fumes released by transport and industry. We also have noise pollution which affects our own well-being as well as affecting wildlife in ways as yet poorly understood. There is also pollution from chemicals used in agriculture and other industries. In fact the list of pollutants and their effects is much too long for this short article.

The threat from invasive species: Most species have evolved to live in a very narrow ecological niche. In this niche there will be factors that limit their ability to pose a threat to other species’ existence. Some species, when moved from their native location, finding this natural limitation removed, go on to pose major threats to native species in their new environment. There are many examples of this. The introduction of the Grey Squirrel in the 19th century is one of the most well known. Since their introduction form North America, Grey Squirrels have all but wiped out our native Red Squirrels in most of the UK. There are too many other examples of this to name here.

Threat from over exploitation: Over Fishing is an example often quoted. Many would class our trend to turn farmland over to intensive arable farming as over exploitation. We have got so good at growing crops that in almost any local cornfield there will be more Bio-diversity in one metre of the hedge border than in the whole of the 50 or so hectares field that the hedge surrounds.

Are we seeing a loss to the bio-diversity in our area? Globally the number of insects has declined by around 80% since the year 2020. This loss is ever present in our area, and in our Parish. When did you last hear a Cuckoo? How many Swallows did you see this year? Both are insectivores. There are very many more examples of loss of Bio-diversity in this parish that I could quote. We all have a part to play in combating the current decline in this loss. Individually or corporately we need to consider our own practises.

In all that we do, we could ask if we are doing our best to reverse the loss of biodiversity locally or on a wider scale.

In the garden: Do I need to use insecticide? Could I plant flowers that attract insects? Could I cut my lawn less or leave a patch unmown to allow wild flowers to grow there? Are those ants doing any harm? Is there an alternative to using slug pellets, weed killer etc. Are there eco friendly alternatives?

Think about lighting, heating. These are carbon dioxide polluters. Could we be more efficient in their use.

This article is designed to raise awareness of and demystify the term bio-diversity as well as outline some current threats to this bio-diversity. It does not discuss how to measure bio-diversity or provide answers to the question of how to tackle the loss habitat and bio-diversity on a local or wider level.

Dave Musson

Community Wildlife Area – December 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

As we move into the last month of 2020 our thoughts are of the approaching Christmas and the New Year of 2021.

At “The Patch” we are planning for 2021 already. We agreed from the start that our goal is to provide a haven for what is now termed “Bio diversity” and to make it accessible to all residents of Nether Heyford.

This is being achieved by providing a number of “Mini Habitats” joining to make one larger habitat. Earlier in November our management team of four agreed this is still the best approach to achieve our goal.

At the narrow end of the patch there are some young Elms which have died after falling victim to Elm Bark Beetle. When these become likely to fall we will cut these into logs to leave in strategic places as seats and to provide cover for insects other invertebrates. There is a mown patch at that end with a bench. That area will be planted with a few trees to form a very small spinney. The bench will be moved to the pond edge where visitors can sit to enjoy the rich pond life. It is known that ponds act as a sort of “Insect chimney” attracting many species of insect. These in turn encourage Bats and insect feeding birds among others.

We have all enjoyed the rich Flora and accompanying Fauna provided by the “cornfield Annuals” wild flower mix.. We agreed to maintain an “annual patch” by removing the vegetation form the current patch. We will then cultivate the soil and plant new seeds each year. These will provide a rich and varied diet for flying insects whilst instilling a sense of well-being into human visitors who choose to spend time there.

Another plot will be managed as “Meadow” This has already been planted with a native Meadow Seed Mix of native grasses and broad leaved plants. We intend to mow this with a Brushcutter each August. The action of this should be “scythelike” causing little harm to any insect larvae etc. attached to the grass. After drying out, the “Hay” will be piled up close to the hedge where it will become haven to vertebrates and invertebrates alike.

We will try to maintain a very short, even bare, earth patch for some species of mining bee that need that habitat. The pond will sit in the midst of all this – as it does now – and we will continue to add native plants to the pond and the pond edge as these become available.

The remainder will be a “Tussock” type of habitat. That is mostly long grass, not cut at all on any regular basis. This type of habitat has the potential to be the most biologically diverse next to the pond. providing homes for Voles, Shrews, Mice, Large Ground Beetles and many more. These otherwise would not thrive on the patch. This tussock habitat will comprise several patches of ground joined up by narrower corridors to connect the whole into one larger habitat.

As now footpaths will remain cut into the sward to enable visitors free passage from habitat to habitat. All will converge at the pond.

We need to place bits of wood, bark,stone etc. lying around for insects, Woodlice, Centipedes, Amphibians etc. to hide under.

We look forward to seeing you there in 2021.

On behalf of the Team may I take this opportunity to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Mary, Mark, Pauline & Dave

Community Wildlife Area – November 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

As the Year moves further into Autumn much of our wildlife moves to winter mode. Most insects hibernate at this time either as adult, larvae, pupae or egg form depending on species whilst other groups of “Mini Beasts” remain active throughout the year. I like to look for easily observed species that remain active throughout the year.

Woodlice fall into that category and are a favourite group of mine. Last week I decided to hunt a few out on “the Patch. I was disappointed to find far fewer both individual woodlice and species than I would normally expect when grubbing about in a similar situation. Has anyone else noticed a decline in Woodlice?

Woodlice must be one our most familiar “Mini Beasts”. They are not insects but Crustaceans ( Crabs and Lobster family). Being one of only two Crustacean orders that spend their whole lives out of water. Science calls the Woodlouse order “Isopoda”. “Isopod” means “even footed”. This being because all species have similar feet.

Most people are surprised to find that we have over 40 Woodlouse species in The UK However only about 37 species can breed outdoors. Woodlice have featured prominently throughout history in recipes including one for Woodlouse Sauce, (it’s just a White Sauce with woodlice in) and in the past Woodlice were often carried in a leather pouch round the neck to be taken as cure for stomach aches and minor ailments.

All UK Woodlouse species are vegetarian. Despite their reputation as pests they rarely eat living plant matter or healthy wood. Preferring to eat vegetation which has already begun to decay. Woodlice play a very important part in the recycling of dead and dying plant matter into nutrients for reuse by other plants.

One tiny white species of woodlouse lives exclusively in Ants Nests. With the unsurprising name of “Ant Woodlouse” it is common in this area and lives on our Wildlife patch.

The outer shell of a woodlouse comprises a series of segments. The lower part of this shell is described as the Skirt. In one my older woodlouse books “The Painted Woodlouse” is described as having Black eyes, two lemon coloured lines down it’s back and a pink skirt. Disappointingly it does not look very different from our most numerous woodlouse species.

There is one pink Woodlouse not surprisingly called the “Rosy Woodlouse” that lives in dark moist places and is present in this area.

Woodlice live 2 to 4 years and are predated by Centipedes and one species of spider that specialises in hunting Woodlice exclusively.

All woodlice lay eggs which are retained in a pouch under their shell. The young hatch inside this pouch and stay there until they are big enough to care for themselves. When these young are ready to leave the shell the female contorts itself in a move which has been described as turning itself inside out. I have never observed this so can’t comment. A female may breed up to 4 times in it’s lifetime depending on species and living conditions.

Woodlice can be encouraged into a garden by leaving bits of old wood, roof tiles and slates etc. lying around in areas not too wet and not too dry.

Dave Musson

Community Wildlife Area – October 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

The late summer has become a quieter period on the wildlife patch with fewer butterflies about other than the ubiquitous small and large whites. The recent warm dry weather may bring a late emergence of several species, red admirals, tortoiseshells, and peacocks in particular, and also a few small coppers perhaps.

We have cut down the spent flowers and other vegetation on the meadow patches. The dead stems were left for a few days to release their seeds then raked off to avoid increasing the fertility of the area which would encourage coarse grasses and weeds. We shall plant a few native perennials in these areas to reinforce those in the seed mix we sowed in the autumn.

I mentioned last month that dragonflies had been seen laying eggs in the pond. Since then we have spotted little groups of the dragonfly nymphs stalking about at the pond bottom. So far those seen were nymphs of the emperor which are identifiable by their large size and long narrow shape.

Ivy Bees
A recent surprise was the discovery of a large colony of ivy bees on a nearby allotment patch. These are a species of solitary bee which dig burrows in loose sandy soil, and apparently rather like allotments. They aren’t disturbed by the allotment holders’ cultivation and luckily they are stingless. Although classed as solitary bees they appear to like making their burrows in close proximity to each other producing large groups. They are notable for only being active in the autumn, unlike most other species of bee, as they prefer to stock their burrows with ivy pollen, which only flowers at this time of year. Ivy bees are a recent arrival in this country from the continent and are gradually moving across the country.

Mark Newstead

Community Wildlife Area – September 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

Our second summer on the wildlife area has been interesting. The hedge plants that were put in in the autumn have survived the dry spring and summer and are growing well. The seeding of the meadow area was less successful as the winter was so mild there wasn’t enough cold weather to promote strong germination of the wild flowers. Hopefully another winter may help. The corn flower annuals did much better and made a colourful show as well as being a resource for the bees and butterflies.

The pond initially filled with life; newts, frogs various beetles and other aquatic insects soon moved in. However after the drought in April things seemed to go a bit flat. We had to constantly top up with tap water and maybe this didn’t suit the pond life. However recent heavy showers have brought the water level back up and it seems much livelier again. Interestingly I noticed a large tadpole swimming around in August, long after most have already turned into frogs and left the pond.

The pond has proved a great draw for dragonflies. At least four different species have been seen. In the early summer there were broad bodied chasers, the males of which are light blue. Then we saw four spot chasers, which are more sober coloured. Later on an emperor dragonfly turned up, and we were excited to see that this was a rare variety where the female is blue like the male instead of green. However she still has a green head and eyes. Now in late summer there are common darters there, a smaller species where the males are red. All these different species have laid eggs in the pond and it was fascinating to see the different methods of egg laying. The emperor perches on a plant stem and carefully places its eggs well below the water surface, whereas the chasers just place them onto weeds on the surface only briefly coming to rest. The darter just flicks its eggs onto the surface as it flies across above the water.

The larvae (nymphs) of the dragonflies will now be in the pond for a year or two before emerging as adults. During this time they will be fierce predators and will eat any of the other pond life, including no doubt each other!

We have clearly now got healthy colonies of several species of butterfly; the tortoiseshells are breeding on the nettles. The grass areas are being used by ringlets, meadow browns, skippers and gatekeepers, there are common blues on the medick and clover, and small coppers on sorrel and dock. This year however there have so far been no painted ladies despite our leaving some thistles for them.

Mark Newstead

Community Wildlife Area – July & August 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

Dytiscus marginalis (Great Diving Beetle) is a large and voracious predator of underwater life in both larval and adult stages.

Pauline and myself were watching life in the pond and spotted a Newt trying to shake off something that had a hold of its neck. When the newt eventually managed to shake it off, we could see it was a nearly full grown larvae of the above species. At around 50mm long it was maybe half the length of the newt. As we watched it became evident that there were a number of these larvae who were mostly attacking tadpoles but would try for anything that was moving underwater. Always grabbing from underneath with strong jaws around the neck area. I was watching the pond with Mark and watched one of these larva rise from the shallows to grab a good sized tadpole then swim across the surface to hide, with it’s prey under a lilly leaf, no doubt to consume it’s prey out of sight. That pond may look peaceful but underwater it’s a “proper jungle”.

My own first experience of this beetle was when at the age of about 7 years I caught a adult whilst collecting frog spawn. I put it on an old white enamel bowl along with the spawn. By the next morning the beetle had eaten around half of the centres from my Frog spawn. I remember it well as I told my parents that it was eating the yolks and leaving the whites of the eggs. Both adults and larva of Dytiscus are said to deliver a painful bite. Mine did not bite me despite much handling.

On the rest of the patch Mary found and photographed a lovely Scarlet Tiger Moth. This is another large, showy moth that is gradually moving its territory Northward. We found one there last year so could have a breeding population of these. We would love to find Garden Tiger Moths there. Their larvae are the once common Woolly Bears that people over a certain age remember from their youth. They have sadly declined drastically -possibly due our warmer winters. I have not found a Garden Tiger or a Woolly Bear since moving back to England in 2015.

Despite the drought we are seeing some fruits from earlier sowings. New species of Grass, Yellow Rattle (which could be important to our plans) and other plants are gradually showing their heads. Unexpectedly, a few specimens of Night Flowering Catchfly are growing on last years “Annuals Patch”. This is member of the Campion family that was introduced to the UK sometime in the past. It looks quite insignificant in daytime but comes into it’s own when the sun sets, showing intense, almost luminescent, white blooms that fade with the dawn. Undersides of leaves and stems are covered with sticky hairs, hence the name “Catchfly”. We did not knowingly sow this plant and did not see it last year last year. It is an annual and very easily overlooked in daylight hours so it may well have been among the Wildflower Annuals planted last year.

Dave Musson 07942 674867


Community Wildlife Area – June 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

It’s hard to believe that the year is nearly halfway over. I am still waiting for the spring rains to bring the Patch into life. Of the wild plant mixtures sown, some seeds have germinated but many are still awaiting the right conditions before raising their little green heads. This is a bit disappointing but not a disaster by any means. These are wild plant seeds and adapted to survival in adverse conditions. They will come up sooner or later, sometimes after laying dormant for years.

The pond now has its full compliment of plants and is looking good. Tadpoles are growing and the Smooth Newts are eating tadpoles and laying eggs which will duly develop into “Newtpoles” which are like frog tadpoles but a bit slimmer with external gills. My Wife Pauline, and I were there today removing blanket weed which is a type of algae. It is surprising how many invertebrates are in the pond already. Many like the Great pond snails and Water hog lice – a close relative of Woodlice – and others will have been introduced with the plants. Some insects including several Water Beetle species, Pond Skaters and Water Boatmen have flown in attracted by the sight and smell of the pond.

Whilst we were there, Dragonflies and Damselflies were landing on the water plants. These lovely insects must surely be familiar to everyone. Dragonflies are the large, often huge and colourful four winged insects that sometimes visit gardens, especially if there is garden pond around. Damselflies include the smaller, often brilliant coloured insects that look a bit like bits of blue of green straw floating on air around water margins. There are also larger, often blue bodied damselflies that often have a black band on their wings. These latter are often in abundance on the River Nene in the height of summer. It’s safe to say that Damselflies rest with their wings along the back in parallel with the body, whereas Dragonflies rest with their wings sticking out, often at a right angle to the body also Dragonflies are usually larger.

Both groups are carnivorous in all active stages of development. Dragonflies patrol a “beat” catching insects on the wing whilst damselflies mostly catch smaller prey by sitting on a fixed object and rising to catch small flies etc. All lay eggs in water or on plants above water. I remember watching one of the banded Damselfly species at an old stone quarry in South Warwickshire. They flew joined in pairs. Both would land on a rush sticking out of maybe 4 feet of water. We could watch the female in the crystal water, as she descended the rush stem to it’s base, then deposit an egg there whilst the male waited, sometimes flying a short distance before returning to collect the female as she reached the surface to repeat the process on another stem. Maybe we will eventually see this in our pond. All have highly predatory larvae that develop underwater often taking years according to the species. Some Damselflies were seen last year laying on plants in the area where the pool now sits. Maybe they had a premonition.

Dave Musson 07942 674867


Community Wildlife Area – May 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

2020 is proving to be a strange year in the Musson Household. We are all “locked down” and somehow, time seems to standing still whilst we wait for life to return to “normal”. Regardless of personal feelings the year is moving on quite rapidly. On “The Wildlife Patch” grass is growing slowly. The Seed mixtures that were chose with care and sown in anticipation are looking a bit sparse and patchy. Maybe now that we have had a ½ day of rain, a bit of warm sun will bring them on a bit.

With early butterflies in evidence I realised that I did not have decent photo of a Male Brimstone Butterfly. -The common name comes from the old name for Sulphur, alluding to the yellow colour of the male. These large, leaf winged, pale yellow/green butterflies can be seen visiting flowers from early April till middle or late May. Females are white with similar, leaf shaped wings. They emerge later in the season than males and can still be on the wing in early June. These Females can be mistaken for Large White (Cabbage) Butterfly to which they are not related. To my mind Brimstones are one of our most beautiful butterflies. There is something very special about the delicate leaf shape and colour, especially the underwing which even has an imperfection by way of a small spot on this “leaf”. Really, this is winter camouflage which enables them to hibernate whilst clinging to the underside of Ivy leaf clusters unseen. If you want to find one hibernating, you will need to take a torch to Ivy plants on a winter night. If you shine your torch on the underside of the Ivy leaves, the butterfly’s wings will reflect the torchlight whilst Ivy leaves stay dull.

Eggs are laid on Buckthorn (which we have in the Watery Lane Hedge). The Caterpillars grow quite large and lie along the centre of the food plant leaf. They are almost impossible to see as the colouration gives the effect that the larva is no more than a bit of extra shadow along the leaf midrib. We have both Buckthorn and Ivy on the wildlife patch so as long as early spring flowers persist we should have Brimstones for a long time. To go back to my photo, I found a really large Brimstone male, lined my shot up and pressed the shutter button. That is when the camera auto focus failed so I still need decent picture of my favourite butterfly.

Elsewhere, the Wildlife Pond is looking good; plants are being added as they turn up on walks or from donations from garden ponds. (no visiting aqua culture centres this year). We have bought some oxygenators and one Lily online which should arrive in May and some money was donated which was used to buy two marsh marigold plants. There are Tadpoles of Common Frog in the pond. These are preyed on by water Boatmen. There is also large round version of Water boatman. This is a species that usually lives in white water rapids (must have got lost). This one swims manically around and also catches tadpoles. We also have a few Pond skaters and some Whirligig Beetles that have flown in. If you have never seen this latter just go to the pond where it will swiftly become evident where they get their common name.

Dave Musson 07942 674867

Community Wildlife Area – April 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

I was looking round the patch today. It is wet, cold and at first sight inhospitable. Yet there is lots going on really.

We have 4 Blue Tit boxes on the patch and at least one is occupied. The prospective occupants were twittering angrily at me as I took a close look at the box. This indicates they have decided to take up residence there again. These Birds almost entirely depend on the larvae of the Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata).

This moth is an interesting species in itself. The sexes differ in that only males have wings, the females being entirely flightless. As the name would suggest adults are only active in winter having developed means of generating heat from inside their bodies. The female hatches from the pupae in Late Autumn/Early Winter. She emits a Pheromone (aerial hormone) which wafts through the cool air to attract an eager male. After mating she lays eggs at the base of the buds of many species of deciduous trees. The Larvae hatch in early spring. They feed first in the expanding buds, then on the leaves of the same plant. They pupate in Late May to hatch in Late Autumn. These are the Small Green Caterpillars that are often seen hanging from mature trees and shrubs in Late Spring.

Being unable to fly could mean that these would struggle to distribute their species to new locations and areas. These caterpillars overcome this by a means of Aerial distribution. They let out a silk thread from their tail end. When this becomes long enough to be caught by a breeze, the caterpillar lets go of earth to fly as if on a parachute. Of course they have no means of steering or governing height but it works for them.

Many species of invertebrates use this form of Aerial distribution. Spiders, mites as well as Lepidoptera all “fly” in this manner. So many in fact that different species accumulate in the air to form a sort of “Ariel Plankton”. A reduction in the volume of this Plankton Layer must surely be a factor in the shortage of Swallows, Swifts etc. we are experiencing today.

Now back to Blue Tits. In Late Winter/ Early spring these birds can be seen in parties of 6 or more pecking at the Buds of deciduous trees. When they do this they are thought to be searching for Winter Moth Eggs. It is believed that the amount of eggs consumed by the birds has an effect on the amount of eggs the Tits lay in that the more moth eggs the birds eat, the more eggs the birds lay. Moreover, it is thought that Blue Tits are so closely tied in with Winter Moths that they react to a substance in the developing Moth egg that stimulates the birds breeding behaviour. This enables the birds to have an abundant source of food timed to feed the hatchlings at the right time.

One more thing. If anyone fancies making a couple of Hedgehog Hotels (plans on the internet) we can find good home for them on The Patch.

Dave Musson 07942 674867

Community Wildlife Area – March 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

I have never really explained the underpinning belief that provides our framework for planning development of The Wildlife patch. Before Spring “springs” and there are many other subjects waiting to be aired I will now attempt to remedy this.

You will already know that as a team we seek to recreate local habitats (often “micro habitats”) that existed on this site in past times. In doing this we try to provide as many ecological niches as we can in the available area. Before doing this we consider likely species and their lifestyles. We know that each species needs its` own unique conditions in order to thrive. They need to eat and to drink, they need to be safe night and day, winter and summer and they need to perpetuate their species. Each species needs to do this without competing with other species.

We narrow our search to seeking to attract sustainable populations of insects and invertebrates. Some would ask “Why focus on these? Why not try to attract Birds or Mammals? Or a really varied flora maybe?”

The answer is that Invertebrates (insects are invertebrates) underpin the entire Ecosystem of life on Earth. Life on Earth depends on Invertebrates thriving. A recent study measured the effect of restoring neglected farm ponds. This demonstrated an increase of insects due to this restoration which led to an increase both in numbers and in species of Farmland Birds feeding nearby. They attributed this rise in birds to the rise in insects numbers stating that these creatures (invertebrates) are “at the very heart of nature’s food web) (Waterlife Magazine, Spring 2020).

We believed this when we put the wildlife pond on the site but it is gratifying to see good research supporting this belief. The same report found that active ponds can act as “insect chimneys” pouring vastly greater numbers of insects into the surrounding countryside. We decided to put our pond in as there had previously been a brook flowing alongside the patch. We could not recreate the brook so a pond is the next best thing. In addition to the pond we have piles of logs-and are hoping for more. We have a pile of dry grass mowings with a hedgehog nest box inside. It is used by something, maybe not hedgehog. We are intending to create and maintain a bare earth area for Mining Bees, maybe a sandy patch as well. We already have 4 or 5 bird boxes ready for occupation.

The area is just entering its second year as a Wildlife Patch so is still in its infancy. Necessarily we have destroyed some good habitat in creating the pond and reshaping that area generally to provide better habitat. It will be interesting to find at the end of next year if we still have our 19 species of butterfly etc. on the site. Our hope is that due to work completed in this first year the count will rise and continue to rise in following years. That will be the measure of our progress to an ideal species rich local habitat.

Dave Musson