Notes from Wonderland: A Year of Britain’s Wildlife, Day by Day by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss

p. 23 18 January “the hedgerows in local farmland golden in the afternoon sun. An idyllic rural scene perhaps, but things are not as they seem. .. each mawthorn and elder twig is barnacled with yellow lichen, related to the species twhose paintball splashes enliven old tiled roofs and add thousands to the value of country cottages. These are Xanthorias, and, in common with all lichens, are a symbiotic partnership between a fungus and an alga: the alga makes food from sunlight for the fungus, which provides the alga with a stable substrate. … Lichens are well known as pollution watchdogs. Many species are sensitive to sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere and so are scarce around heavy industry and in city centres. In recent years, cleaner air has brough many species back… But .. the yellow hedgerows… seem to be a sign of improved air, but are not. Xanthoria lichens are very tolerant of high levels of nitrogen dioxide, which derives partly from the nitrates used in agricultural fertilisers … a jaundiced view of an over-fertlised landscape.”

p. 62 18 Feb “Balloonwort is an annual liverwort, which is most conspicuous in winter. It grows on arable land that isn’t over-distrubed and which hasn’t been exposed to herbicide. For this reason, it’s now quite rare and mainly found in places such as market-gardens or the bulb fields of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly… Each plant was made up of hundreds of minute inflated pods, which protect the male and female liverwort’s sex organs. … in a few weeks, the plant’s tiny balloons would dry out and release their spores, unseen and largely unappreciated.”

p. 82 4 March “The mole … it’s thought there are about 30 million of them in Britain .. they did play a small but significant part in English history when in 1702 King William II (William of Orange) died following from a fall from his horse, which had stumbled into a mole barrow. His rivals, the Jacobites … reportedly toasted “the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat”.

p. 95 17 March ” “Oxfordshire isn’t alone. Adders have also gone from Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire and are on the very brink in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Greater London. In my own county of Worcestershire, they are disappearing so fast that even in their remaining hotspot they are in grave danger…Male adders emerge from hibernation in late February to soak up the sun’s rays and mature their sperm in preparation for mating in April and May. I’ve even seen them basking while snow was falling: their ability to harness the warmth of the sun is so well developed that they are the only European snake to live within the Arctic Circle… Human persecution is part of the problem, as is simplification of habitat: too much shading can force the snakes into less suitable areas and, because they hibernate communally, a forestry bulldozer can easily wipe out large elements of the population.”

p. 136 18 April

“out smallest terrestrial mammal, the pygmy shrew… while a blue tit has to eat about one-third of its body weight each day, the pygmy shrew must gorge on an astonishing one and a quarter times its own weight. If it fails to do so, every single day of its life, it will die.. can weigh as little as two and a half grams 0 less than a penny … long pointed snout typical of shrews, which it uses to sniff out prey such as beetles, woodlice and spiders… a tail that may be almost as long as its body… they have to use existing burrows, and hope that they don’t come across any of the permanent residents … typically live for just a few months, and rarely much longer than a year.”

p. 140 “Adult lampreys are indeed primitive creatures armed with large sucker mouths ringed with rasping teeth. Their lack of a jawbone, or indeed any bones – they are cartilaginous, like sharks – and the presence of a pineal eye on the top of their heads, which registers only light, has led from biologists to wonder if lampreys should be classified as fish at all… lampreys pre-date the dinosaurs by hundreds of millions of years, but are now in decline over much of the UK.”

p. 165 A friend of mine advises me to ‘never go on a picnic with an ecologist’ because all ecologists do is point out how good things used to be.”

p. 193 cuckoos’ decline “likely reason is the massive decline in the availability of the cuckoo chick’s main food, the caterpillars of our larger moths, which have suffered catastrophic declines in the south of Britain.”

p. 388 “the water shrew … nearly 2 million of them inhabit Scottish, English and Welsh, although not Irish, waterways … tail is fringed with stuff hairs, which act as a keel when it dives underwater and dog-paddles after invertebrates. To subdue its prey, it uses venom. Poisons in its saliva can affect the nervous system of creatures as big as frogs and shrew bite can cause a burning sensation on our own skin.”

p, 400 18 November “Lemon slugs .. a rich glowing canary yellow offset by delicate lilac grey tentacles…are secret connoisseurs of ancient woodland: that is woods that date back to 1600 or earlier in England and Wales and 1750 in Scotland… feed on forest fungi… but seem especially fond of those that match their colour such as ochre brittlegills or buttercaps.”

 

 

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