Monday 27 October 2014

Bioblitz at Chester Zoo

I had the good fortune to attend the Bioblitz at Chester Zoo this year on Saturday 6th September.

The idea of a Bioblitz is to involve as many people as possible in recording native species with the help of experts in their field. The first task, a botanical recording session, was led by our own expert Dr. Hilary Ash and I then opted for the fresh water invertebrate recording. The staff of the zoo had collected water samples from different water habitats around the area and we keyed out the different aquatic life from these samples, finding dragonfly nymphs, water boatmen, water slaters, daphnia, freshwater shrimps, great diving beetles and mayfly nymphs. Interesting to compare the samples and identify which samples had the greater diversity and species richness.

A look at terrestrial invertebrates saw us heading to the elephant compost pit. Lots of beetles and other insects exploit this habitat of dung. Surrounded by the zoo life this bioblitz seemed rather demure concentrating on our small indigenous species compared to the lions, pumas, jaguars, giraffes, flamingos etc in their respective enclosures.

Later in the evening we were out again in the zoo grounds on a bat walk with detectors. It seemed rather incongruous passing the lions enclosure with their roaring, feeling more like being in Africa than Cheshire. We picked up Noctule, Common and Soprano Pipistrelle and then Daubenton’s over the ponds. It was a very enjoyable time experiencing the zoo in a different way and meeting many other like-minded people.

Paul Greenslade

Sunday 26 October 2014

Cutting With The Best

In recent years Wirral Countryside Volunteers have been expanding their activities with more tasks being organised and a larger number of volunteers attending these events. The group has had an increase of 50% in participation and was starting to be short of hand tools for those who turned up to help. The award of a Voluntary Community Action Wirral Community Grant meant two pairs of professional quality loppers could be purchased. The loppers will be used throughout the winter season for hedge trimming, scrub removal, pond clearance, hazel coppicing and hedgelaying projects at various sites in Wirral. These professional loppers will hopefully last a long time and give a clean cut. 

There has been expansion of interest in all the volunteer activities but especially in hedgelaying. Twenty-five plus have turned out to the last few free hedgelaying training events which aim to let the public have a go at hedgelaying and to gain some new recruits to the group. Several of the group members already have considerable hedgelaying skills, reflected by two first and two second places being awarded in local hedgelaying matches this season.

At this year’s free training event, in addition to the group’s in-house skills, support will come as usual from the Cheshire Ploughing and Hedgecutting Society, who keep us to the local Cheshire style and some professional jobbing hedgelayers from the National Hedgelaying Society. So it’s a real chance to cut with some of the best.

“Since the Wirral Countryside Volunteers started in 1985 they have restored over two miles of Wirral’s hedgerows. They are becoming more proficient at the job and gaining confidence in tackling trickier hedges.” said Paul Loughnane the group’s honorary secretary. “There is something very gratifying and satisfying in untangling the hedge stems, selecting the right ones and giving them a clean cut to bend over to create a living and self-renewing fence.

In October, Liverpool John Moores University Conservation Society brought a small group of students to New Ferry Butterfly Park. They enthusiastically under took a broad range of projects including scything the calcareous grassland, pond clearance, removal of rough vegetation and weeding the lengths of hedge they planted last year.  A few even had a go at hedgelaying, christening the loppers. Emma Heneghan, Social secretary, said “It was great to get involved in the different jobs that were being done. We learnt new skills and techniques and it was great to get involved in hedgelaying.” The new loppers made the job easier giving a professional finish to the hedge.

Further details of the free Cheshire style hedgelaying course on Sunday 2nd November at Barnston: contact Paul on 07527570471. Visitors and cutters welcome.

Saturday 25 October 2014

Dragonfly encounter

We are grateful to Ruth Dann for these interesting photographs of a dragonfly taken in her garden. Her grand-daughter took the photographs while the dragonfly obligingly posed on Ruth's son's hand.

Ruth thinks it could be a Southern Hawker which she hasn't attracted to her pond before.

The Good, The Bad and the Unusual


Henbane. Photo: Wikipedia

In July, Frank Cottrell and Elaine Mills were walking along the new cycle track at Burton Marshes, when they came across a spectacular and unusual plant. Elaine suspected Henbane, but since this had not been recorded locally for years, she asked for someone to confirm. Expert local botanist Eric Greenwood paid a visit and reported:

"I usually have a trip to Burton Point so I was intrigued by the possible record of Henbane. It was a surprise to find that there is indeed a nice colony of henbane up against the sandstone wall. I also found one young plant on the marsh side of the road near by. Also in the field there was a magnificent display of Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans). Both were new to me at these localities. De Tabley (Flora of Cheshire 1899) records Henbane at Burton Point where he says 20 or 30 plants are scattered over say a hundred yards of beach. For Musk Thistle he says "in an excavation whence gravel has been taken for the embankment, about half a mile to the north of Burton Point, some half dozen plants, doubtfully native". This was not De Tabley's own record but he adds a footnote saying that after further investigation he thinks it is native. Today the plants in the field looked well established and the field does not look as if it has been ploughed in the past.Also at Burton Point there are a few plants of Carduus tenuiflorus (slender thistle), which I don't think I know elsewhere on Wirral."

Henbane has only been recorded in Cheshire a handful of times since de Tabley, none of the records at this location. Musk thustle and slender thistle are both very uncommon, with only about 30 finds recorded by RECORD, the Cheshire biological record centre ( and very few in Newton's Flora of Cheshire (1971, 1990). So the new cycle track is obviously a good place to go plant-hunting.

But if you find the Henbane - look but do not touch. All parts of the plant are highly poisonous.

Japanese Knotweed

Japanese knotweed. Photo: Wikipedia

I regularly get asked about Japanese Knotweed on public land and where to report it. The answer if you live in Wirral Borough is "to Streetscene" - email or telephone 0151 606 2004. Wirral Borough Council is, of course, very short of money, but at least it can go on the list for eventual treatment.  I know of patches in Walker Park, Prenton and at Poulton Lancelyn that are being tackled. At present, the only way to get rid of it is a 3-year programme of herbicide treatment. A biological control agent (a weevil) is being trialled, but that takes some time to make sure it is safe to release into the wild. 

Japanese Knotweed can push out all native vegetation, so CWT is busy controlling it in our nature reserve Intake Wood, Dibbinsdale. "JK" does not seed in this country (thank goodness) but does spread from root and stem fragments. The patches in our wild areas are mostly from people illegally tipping garden rubbish, but it is spread down streams when winter floods erode the banks.

Wirral Horsetail

Wirral horsetail.
Photo: Wildflowers of the British Isles

Readers may remember an article about the rare hybrid horsetail that grows at Red Rocks. This plant, easily overlooked, has recently been re-identified as Equisetum x meridionale by Peter Jepson and colleagues. We now have his permission to call it "Wirral Horsetail". It is known from a few places in continental Europe, but the only occurrences in Great Britain are on Wirral and Anglesey. The main Wirral populations are at Red Rocks, along the southern half of the boardwalk and in places on the yellow dunes. It stays green all year, so can be spotted on a winter walk, in between watching the birds feeding on the Dee Estuary.  However, it also grows at Roman Road, Meols, on Wallasey Golf course, and a few other places across north Wirral. This year it was spotted in Dunraven Road, West Kirby, by Mathilde Baker-Schommer, and at Hoylake Court by Eric Greenwood. So, residents and visitors to north Wirral who  have sandy gardens - please keep an eye open for more sites! I do not advocate planting in any garden, though - like all horsetails, it can take over. One day, it will probably double its chromosomes and become a proper species - but horsetails take their time. They have been around for 300 million years already. Meanwhile, while doing a botanical survey of Red Rocks this year, we found the main colony has expanded all the way down the boardwalk to the base of the steps. A rare plant but abundant where it likes the conditions!

Hilary Ash

Small Tortoiseshell Does a Mysterious U-Turn

Small tortoiseshell butterfly. Photo: Jorg Hempel, Wikipedia

The number of small tortoiseshell butterflies has increased dramatically at New Ferry Butterfly Park, from being in the doldrums during 2005-2012. This reflects the national trend, picked up in ongoing surveys by Butterfly Conservation, including their high profile Big Butterfly Count. This was carried out for 15 minutes at various locations 19th July - 10th August 2014. This year the big count involved nearly 45,000 people who spotted 560,000 butterflies, a tremendous recording effort. Look out for next year’s count and join in!

Richard Fox, surveys manager at Butterfly Conservation, said “The small tortoiseshell had a good year in 2013 and this seems to have acted as a spring board for the species enabling it to increase massively again this summer.”

Number of Small Tortoiseshell Butterflies Recorded Annually at New Ferry Butterfly Park 2003-2014

The small tortoiseshell butterfly is classed as a habitat generalist, that is, it is not too exacting in its habitat requirements. It is a strong flyer and is able to colonise new areas of suitable habitat. Their larval food plant, the common nettle, is abundant and expanding due to human activity. It is a mystery why the small tortoiseshell declined previously.

One factor was probably the arrival in UK in 1998 of the parasitic fly Sturmia bella, which looks like a hairy looking house fly. Sturmia bella has been able to survive recent milder climatic conditions and has had a role in reducing the survival rate of caterpillars.

Sturmia bella lays its eggs on nettles leaves and the grazing caterpillars inadvertently consume the parasite’s eggs. These eggs hatch out inside the caterpillars’ bodies and grow inside, avoiding the vital organs until they finally kill the caterpillar and emerge just before the caterpillar is due to pupate. Survival rate of infected caterpillars is reduced by 25% to 48%. Perhaps in the last few years there has been a re-balancing in the parasite/host populations; if the parasites kill too many potential hosts they reduce their future life chances too.

However, the small tortoiseshell has been declining further north in Britain where Sturmia bella has yet to colonise. Small tortoiseshell butterfly populations on the European continent, where Sturmia bella has been endemic for a long time, have also diminished further, so there are other unknown contributing factors to this recent decline.

It is difficult to tease out what factors affect a butterfly population with so many factors involved. These include weather at particularly critical times, habitat quality, influx of butterflies from elsewhere, predator and parasite population cycles.

All we can do at the Park to help the species is to provide plenty of large stands of nettles in sunny positions, which the caterpillars can feed on, and a host of seasonal nectar sources for the adult butterflies to use, and hope they take advantage of these. It is wonderful to see a recovery in this popular and readily recognisable butterfly.

Thanks go to all the volunteers who have worked at the park to increase nectar and larval food plants, and those who have added to the collection of butterfly records. These let us see what is happening to each butterfly species at the park over the long term.

Paul Loughnane

Friday 3 October 2014

Wirral Wildlife AGM and Quiz - 10th October

A reminder that our AGM takes place next Friday. It will be followed by a wildlife themed quiz.

Friday 10th October
AGM and Quiz

Room B, Heswall Hall, Heswall.
7.30 p.m.
Admission free but donations welcome.

You can download the agenda here:

as well as the Chairman's Annual Report:

If you would like to attend the AGM and would be interested in helping Linda serve refreshments, please let us know in advance by email, or on the day itself when you arrive at Heswall Hall.

Hope to see you there.