Last few weeks at Arne

June is a glorious month!

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Southern marsh orchids at RSPB Arne

It’s prime time for orchids and they seem to be everywhere I look now. We’ve got a lovely crop of southern marsh orchids on the reserve near the Shipstal ponds which are lovely to see there and very popular with the visitors.

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A closer look look at a southern marsh orchid

I went to another of the RSPB’s reserves in Dorset for the first time a few weeks ago, with the estates team. Garston Wood is an area of ancient woodland near Shaftsbury, it’s famed amongst those in the know for spectacular displays of bluebells in the spring. When we went, they were all over but we did find some lovely early purple and common spotted orchids.

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Common spotted orchid in Garston Woods

We were there to tidy up some logs left behind, following some clearance work to the rides through the wood. As part of the management of the wood, some areas have been cleared to allow more light in and provide more varied habitats for plants and other wildlife. Greatest biodiversity is often found on the edges, where one habitat merges with another so it’s important to manage the land in a way that will promote diversity.

During our work a very lucky palmate newt was spotted on one of the damp logs that had been piled onto the trailer. Very lucky to have avoided being squished!

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Palmate newt at Garston Woods

As well as seeing other parts of the Dorset Reserves, I’ve also had plenty of opportunities to explore Arne and find out what each week brings. On an early morning walk, I spotted this labyrinth spider web. These are a kind of funnel-web spider but unlike their more famous Australian cousins, they are (mostly) harmless. The web was easy to spot in the morning dew but there are loads of them about now and easy to find if you are looking out for them!

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There is someone at home!

Another seasonal sight on sunny days on the reserve are clouds of dancing male Nemophora degeerella. These are a longhorn moth whose caterpillars feed on leaf litter in deciduous woodland. They are beautiful moths with distinctive gold bands and striped patterns on their wings.

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Nemophora degeerella in woodland at Arne

The moth traps have also yielded plenty more fascinating moths in the last few weeks. The contents of the traps have been becoming more numerous and varied with impressive hawkmoths being present most weeks too!

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Treble Lines (Charanyca trigrammica) 

A fairly common moth with three distinctive lines across its wings. The photo shows two colour variants.

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Oak Hook-tip (Watsonalla binaria)

Hook-tips are named as a group because of the curved tips of their fore-wings. The oak Hook-tip is fairly common in the south and found in oak woodland where the larva feed on oak leaves.

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Peppered Moth (Biston betularia)

Probably known to a lot of those who studied GCSE biology as the classic example of the success of one genetic variant over another due to local environmental conditions. This black and white patterning is the typical form but an all black melanic form can also be found. In the big industrial cities of the north during the 19th and 20th centuries, the dark form became dominant. The simple explanation is that during the industrial revolution, the factories were pumping out huge amounts of smoke, leading to soot blackening of the tree trunks that the moths rest on. The dark forms were effectively camouflaged and avoided predation. The lighter speckled forms, while very well hidden on the light lichen covered trunks of unpolluted trees were very visible on the darkened trees. Since environmental standards have improved, the typical form is now dominant throughout the UK.

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Small Square-spot (Diarsia rubi)

A pretty little moth. Common in the UK and particularly associated with damp marshy areas.

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Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi) and eggs

This is a very tatty example of a fox moth. As they get older, their wings become more ragged. A freshly emerged moth has very bright clear markings on its wings and sharp crisp edges too.

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Puss Moth (Cerura vinula)

Looking a (very little) bit like a fluffy white cat, the adult moth is very attractively patterned. It’s fairly common throughout the British Isles.

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Iron Prominent (Notodonta dromedarius)

Presumably so-called because of the rusty red colouring on the patterned wings.

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Eyed Hawk-Moth (Smerinthus ocellata)

Although I didn’t manage to get a picture, this moth has a dramatic blue and black eye pattern on its hindwings.

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Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi)

Unusually, this moth rests with it’s hindwings forward of the forewings giving it a very distinctive shape. It is very well camouflaged on tree trunks as you can see in the photo!

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Brown Silver-line (Petrophora chlorosata)

This is a common little moth which is often seen fluttering up  during the day if you walk through bracken.

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Ichneumon Wasp

We also occasionally get other insect life in the moth traps. Cockchafers  are common as are the smelly Black Sexton beetle. This Ichneumon wasp was a bit more unusual. Ichneumon wasp are a group of long this wasps that tend to parasitise other insects, particularly butterfly and moth caterpillars. The eggs are laid in the host and when they hatch, the host provides the larvae with their first meal!

It’s been pretty challenging to fit everything I wanted to into this post, so I’m hoping from this week on, I will be able to stay up-to-date by writing a weekly post on what I’ve learnt and what’s going on at the reserve.

I’m planning to move things around on the blog a bit to give all this non-making stuff a place of it’s own and will try to get back to making things soon!

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Sheep pigs

Lowland heath is one of the most threatened habitats in the UK, with a decline of nearly 85% in the last 200 years. Here in Dorset the RSPB manages and helps to manage many areas of lowland heath which are sadly very fragmented. One of the most biodiverse habitats, it is also home to some very specialised species such as the Dartford warbler – Arne’s poster bird – which would not survive were its habitat to diminish too much. Lowland heath is also important for other scarce birds such as nightjar as well as the nationally rare sand lizard and smooth snake and a whole host of dragonflies, beetles, spiders and plants.

Well managed heath on the public reserve
Well managed heath on the public reserve

A lot of the RSPB’s work in Dorset goes on away from  the main public reserves at Arne, Radipole and Lodmoor. A few weeks ago I went with the estates team to Grange Heath, near Creech.  Historically, most of southern England would have originally been lowland heath until the land was developed for another purpose. Until relatively recently, Grange was given over to forestry but under RSPB management, it is being returned to valuable lowland heath. Apart from the odd scots pine, most of the trees have been felled.

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Looking over Grange

Once gone, the heathland can regenerate from the seeds and other plant-life that have remained dormant in the ground. As the photo above shows though, after years of softwood plantation, the ground is left covered in a suffocating layer of pine needles and other debris. For healthy heathland to develop, this layer must be removed.

The conventional way to do this is to use diggers and other machinery to scrape the top layer away. However, for this project, a more environmentally friendly alternative is proving pretty effective!

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A friendly and curious bunch of hard working piglets

Grange heath is home to a lot(!) of Mangalitza pig. They belong to The Salt Pig in Wareham and live free range in certain areas of the heath. By rooting around as they forage for food, they turn over the earth and clear the way for the new heathland plants to take hold again.

The work all done by hardworking pigs
The work all done by hardworking pigs

As the picture shows, apart from trees and gorse, the ground is completely bare earth now. The pigs are rotated around different areas so that the whole area will eventually be systematically cleared. Now, these are just piglets. I titled this post sheep pigs, and now I’ll show you why!

Teenage mangalitzas, still wearing their woolly coat
Teenage mangalitzas, still wearing their woolly coat

These pigs are a few months older than the other piglets and have a thick curly winter coat which they are still wearing. While at Grange, I was also lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the newest arrivals to the group. When they are born, these piglets are stripy, like wild boar!

Only a few days old!
Only a few days old!

The younger pigs tend to get very excited at the presence of a human – I suppose they think they might be fed! The adults in their pen though are much more laid back and definitely enjoy a good back scratch.

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The grown-ups take it easy

Ostensibly, we were at Grange to move some fallen trees and repair the fences that they fell on. Unfortunately it turned out that the task was a bit bigger than had been realised…

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Bitten off more than they could chew?

Which happily left some of us with a bit of time to look around at the wildlife. We went for a bit of a walk through the bog, spotting plenty of sundews and seeing a newly emerged dragonfly among other things.

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Common toad
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Striped ladybird
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Mystery caterpillar – if you recognise it I’d love to know!

Hopefully from now on I’ll manage to maintain a weekly update of goings on at Arne. I found the use of the pigs as a land management tool fascinating so had to finish off this post but I’ll try to keep more up to date now!