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Fri 24th August 2012 11:07 by Graham Smith
Hedgehogs, Ladybirds and depleted wildlife
Peter - you are lucky to have regular visits from Hedgehogs as they are very thin on the ground in the Ingatestone area. Twenty years ago it was nothing to find 30+ squashed on the road during the course of a summer but I seldom see them nowadays. It would be nice to think that they had read the highway code since those days but somehow I doubt it! The only one I have seen this year had obviously been clipped by a car. It was huddled up against a garden wall and some kind person had put out saucers of food and water for it but I fear that it was unlikely to recover. Have found droppings in the garden on a couple of occasions lately so one may have taken up residence. If so, then it should be nice and fat by the time it needs to hibernate as there are hundreds of slugs for it to feast upon. Incidentally, I have found that the only way to preserve my runner beans is to go out at dusk with a trowel, gather up all those heading for the poles and then deposit them at the far end of the garden. It takes them all night to walk back again, by which time they have to hide up for the day. My theory is that after three nights of this they get so fed up that they stay put and eat something else! It seems to have worked as I have had a fair crop of beans - very tasty ones - but as usual I cannot remember the variety I planted!

Also present at dusk on these long overdue summer evenings has been a couple of Pipistrelle bats. A friend brought a bat detector one evening and this suggested that they were Soprano (as opposed to Common) Pipistrelles. Brown Long-eared Bats also occur in the garden as my neighbour once brought me one that he found clinging to the wall of his house during the day. Another was handed to me by someone who - bizarrely - found it clinging to one of the old type granite kerb-stones in Ingatestone High Street. On 12th, on Michael's advice, my bat watching extended into the early hours - it is usually far too warm to sleep much before midnight anyway on these sultry evenings we have experienced lately - and was rewarded with the sight of several shooting stars, there being only patchy light cloud. Thanks Michael.

As for the lack of insects, wasps are certainly very low in numbers. There were lots here in the early spring, presumably all Queens, and they seemed to be feeding on the sap oozing from the buds of the Norway Spruce. Have hardly seen one since. Sometimes they can be a real nuisance when moth trapping as they enter the box in search of prey, mostly the little grass moths that can occur in hundreds in midsummer, but occasionally larger species. They clip the wings off the latter before carting them off to their nests. Neither have I seen a single Hornet this summer. A couple of years ago, whilst helping with a 'moth night' at Epping Field Centre, I brought the trap inside at the end of the evening to open it up and around 30 Hornets flew out! Fortunately, they are not as bolshy as wasps. I was once stung on the tongue by a dead wasp while eating a home made mince pie that had been baked the previous day. Feeling your tongue swelling inside your mouth to a size that feels akin to that of a tennis ball is not a pleasant experience but a jab in the backside soon put me right. My grandfather was not so lucky as he was stung in the throat as a young man and nearly died, spending several days in hospital. Had he succumbed then I would not be here writing this. What a sad thought!

It is not just insects that have fared badly this wretched spring.The BTO reports that for many species it has been the worst breeding season they have records for - and they were founded in the 1930s. However, now that better weather has arrived in south-east England (but not in the north and west) a few insects have picked up in numbers, including moths; the equally beautiful Sallow Kitten and Gold Spot, below, being caught in my garden and at Blue House respectively.

Sallow Kitten Copyright: Graham Smith

Gold Spot Copyright: Graham Smith

Hoverflies have also responded to the warmer weather, including this Drone Fly Eristalis tenax, photographed in the garden; another was snapped up and eaten by a Southern Hawker, photographed at Fryerning Churchyard a couple of days later.

Eristalis tenax Copyright: Graham Smith

Southern Hawker Copyright: Graham Smith

Finally, no invasive plants in the garden this year apart from Ragwort, which I encourage as it is the food plant of the Cinnabar moth, a caterpillar of which is pictured below. There was, however, a fine display of Thorn Apple (formerly knlown as Apple of Peru) beneath the bird feeders outside the Bird Observatory at Bradwell.

Cinnabar moth caterpillar Copyright: Graham Smith

Thorn Apple Copyright: Graham Smith

This species originates in South America but has successfully accompanied man on his travels throughout the world. Wikkipedia informs me that it is used in herbal medicine to relieve asthma symptoms and as an analgesic during surgery and bone setting. It is also a powerful hallucinogenic and produces intense visions. I did think of using to conjour up visions of a countryside where Turtle Doves, Spotted Flycatchers, Cuckoos, Tree Sparrows and the like abounded once more but the tropane alkaloids it contains, which are responsible for both the medicinal and spiritual properties, are fatally toxic when imbued in even tiny amounts above the recommended level - so perhaps not!

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