Woodland & Scrub
Only about two percent of the area Is covered with native trees, so woodland plants such as bluebell, wood anemone, wood sorrel and early purple orchid, which are common elsewhere, can be quite difficult to find. What woodland we have got is important for birds such as woodpeckers, treecreepers, nuthatches, Jays tits, buzzards and owls. Summer visitors still include the nightingale which seeks out the thickest areas of scrub from which to sing.
Badgers, foxes, roe deer and even dormice use our wooded areas, which on the sides of the valley, are usually composed of oak and ash, giving way to willow on the valley floor.
Almost one third of our landscape is used to grow crops of one sort or another Fields of cereals, maize, potatoes, beans, linseed and root crops provide little for wildlife.
Roe deer can be a nuisance grazing early stages of cereals and later, together with other mammals, make use of crops as cover. Birds such as finches and skylarks search for seeds and other food on stubblefields during winter.
Built Up Areas
Nearly a fifth of the three parishes is covered with houses and other buildings, gardens, farmyards and storage areas, motorway, railway and roads. Older buildings provide shelter, nesting and breeding sites for birds such as swallows, swifts and martins, and for bats. Many people feed birds, put up nestboxes and build ponds in their gardens.
The contribution made by those people in the area who manage their land with an eye to wildlife must be immense. Churchyards too make a contribution, and motorway, road and railway verges provide strips of rough grassland where interesting plants such a pyramidal orchid and built up areas grass can be found.
Trees, Hedges and Lanes
Since losing our magnificent elm trees much of the landscape Is dominated by willows on the flood plain giving way to ash and oak along the valley sides. Two very special trees in our area are the rare black poplars with their magnificent red catkins in early spring, and the equally Interesting wild service trees, a handful of which grow along one or two older parish boundary hedges. Stretches of blackthorn hedge, away from the flail, support small colonies of the scarce brown hairstreak butterfly. The closely related purple hairstreak is found associated with large, old oak trees. Some stretches of more ancient hedges, particularly those on the parish boundaries, contain fourteen or more woody shrub and tree species.
Most local grassland has been Improved in one way or another over the last hundred years or so to provide high quality grass for silage and hay. A few fields still contain wild flowers and meadow plants which have long since disappeared from elsewhere.
Alongside the river on the flood plain we can still find lady’s smock, ragged robin, wild grasses and sedges. On some drier slopes centaury, selfheal, knapweed and stemless thistle provide colour and a source of nectar for butterflies and other insects.
The river and the canal, small streams, ponds, rhynes and ditches provide one of our most important habitats, giving a distinctive character to the area. Common waterside birds such as mallard, moorhen and mute swan are nearly always seen on the water, and amongst the reeds and willows. Kingfishers. herons and water-rails can also be watched by the careful observer.
The water holds a variety of coarse fish, from tiny minnows, sticklebacks and bullheads to large pike, perch and carp. Eels are one of the favourite foods of otters, whilst insects and small aquatic animals are hunted by water shrews. Dragonflies. damselflies, water beetles, butterflies and moths all depend on the many different plants growing alongside water and in wet places. Purple loosestrife, yellow flag iris, flowering rush and bur-reed line the banks in summer.
Birds are to be seen almost everywhere. Common birds in gardens Include robin, blackbird, house sparrow, blue and great tits, greenfinches and chaffinches, Along the river and the canal moorhens, mallard, mute swans and kingfishers are regularly seen. Look for common sandpipers in the early spring and autumn when they pass through on migration and keep your eyes open for water rails creeping through bankside vegetation in the winter months. Buzzards and kestrels are often seen soaring and hovering overhead. Crows, rooks, magpies, jays and the occasional raven search fields, hedgerows and copses for food,
Chiffchaffs and willow warblers are our two commonest summer visiting warblers. Skylarks and yellowhammers are declining but the nightingale can still be heard on a quiet night if you are really lucky. The Barn Owl is only rarely seen nowadays but the more common little owl and the better known tawny owl nest here. They are occasionally seen at dusk and are frequently heard calling at night.
Our native British mammals are good at hiding, and usually all that we see are footprints or other signs of their presence. Roe deer and rabbits can be seen In fields or alongside hedges, hedgehogs are all too often seen squashed on the road. Signs of moles are easy to spot but the otter’s tracks and signs are mare difficult. Badgers and foxes are still fairly common, the water shrew is scarce and the water vole may well have disappeared altogether since the American mink appeared on local waterways.
Bank voles, short-tailed voles, field and house mouse, common and pygmy shrew provides prey for stoats and weasels as well as for owls and domestic cats. The dormouse and the harvest mouse are still here but rarely seen. Hares too are not common. Many of our bats have disappeared in recent years but the pipistrelie, long-eared and occasional larger bat perhaps serotine, noctule or daubenton’s are still worth looking for, it is perhaps surprising that we have recorded 29 species of mammal in the area over the lasts 3 years.
Fish, Reptiles and Amphibians
One of our most Important and characteristic fishes might be said to be the common eel, which provides the main prey hunted by Somerset’s rare and endangered otters.
Anglers concentrate more on pike, carp, roach, rudd, dace and chub, whiist kingflshers seek out smaller prey like minnows, sticklebacks and bullheads. More of a curiosity is the sunbleak or ‘motherless minnow a tiny introduced fish from continental Europe, which has been recorded in the canal. Common frogs and toads, common and palmate newts are regularly recorded spawning in garden ponds in springtime, but the larger great-crested or warty newt is only rarely encountered.
Slow worms are frequent and common lizards are still found in dry places. The occasional grass snake can be seen, usually by water, but the less common adder Is only encountered very infrequently.
Dragonflies are large, strong flyers and settle with their wings outstretched. Damselflies are smaller, more dainty and settle with their wings folded aver their backs like a butterfly. Both dragonflies and damselflies spend most of their lives as underwater nymphs and we only usually see them during their brief adult life. The Inky-green banded demoiselle is frequently seen along the river and the canal, together with the bright blue azure and common blue damselflies.
The nationally rare white-legged damselfly is less common but has one of Its strongholds here and can be seen most years by the careful observer. The most abundant dragonflies are the fast flying common species of hawkers and darers. The spectacular green and blue emperor and the smaller skimmers and chasers give us a total of seventeen species altogether.
Whilst some flowers are disappearing from hedgerows, woods and meadows others spread along river, canal and roadways. Lady’s smock or cuckoo flower, and ragged robin still grow in some wetter flood meadows and drifts of bluebells in one or two of our wooded areas. Banks of hogweed and the more delicate Queen Anne’s lace line roadsides in early summer, and The occasional pyramidal orchid may be discovered In rough, grassy areas, Water plantain, flowering rush and arrowhead grow along the waters edge and yellow ‘brandy bottle’ water lilies and duckweeds float on the canal and river.
The seaside plant ‘scurvy grass’ with small pale purple flowers grows along the dual carriageway perhaps due to winter salting. Oxeye daisies, poppies and buddlela colonise waste places. in all, some 600 or so different flowers have been recorded In the three parishes.
Nearly thirty different butterflies are found In the three parishes. The brimstone, the small tortoishell, orange tip and holly blue are usually the first to appear in the spilng. Later, along our hedges and amongst trees hedge browns, speckled woods and ringlets seek out sunshine and dappled shade. In gardens, large and small whites, peacocks, red admirals and commas are commonly seen.
The scarce brown hairestreak is occasionally encountered near blackthorn, whilst you need to look carefully towards the tops of oak trees to see the closely related, more common purple hairstreak. Later in the year we may be visited by clouded yellows and painted ladies both of which come from the continent and are unable to survive our cold, wet winters. One of our largest and most spectacular butterflies - the silver- washed fritillary is only rarely seen in sunny glades in scrub and woodland where its food-plant, violet grows.
Research, Photography & Text by Russell and Sara Gomm. Original Design & Illustrations by Kirston Light & Carmen Watson - The Arts Institute at Bournmouth.