Nature Notes

Welcome to chXout’s Nature Notes, a miscellany of topical nature facts and stories where we will drift through the months and seasons of beautiful Co. Durham, highlighting our discourse with a generous smattering of cutting edge nature science from the Durham Genome Centre.  

In Co. Durham we are blessed with some extraordinary countryside and interesting ecosystems – no need to go on an African safari – interesting nature is all around us and it is often right under your feet!

So many humans focus on “big animal stuff” often as a barometer for eco-health, but we prefer to start with the tiny, from the bacteria and fungi which make up the plethora of microbiomes and biofilms that occupy every surface around us, to the plants, invertebrates and eventually the iconic vertebrates we all love to see.

Each of course, garner their livelihoods from each other.  Delicate, balanced and flowing with the seasons and weather, but oh so easy to disrupt and sometimes permanently, with those rarely beneficial invasive species.

We hope you enjoy our anecdotes…

March 2020

Ok. Plastic is a wonderful material, don’t get me wrong, we use it for many important things in our lives and we probably couldn’t survive very easily without it but as we all know, our apparent obsession for it and its uses are getting a bit out of hand. The legacy of around 100 years of plastic production and pollution is coming back to bite us. Our oceans are literally drowning in the stuff!

Hosepipes inside sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), plastic bags eaten by unsuspecting green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and even shotgun cartridges inside a True’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon mirus). The reality of the situation is (I feel) known but no action is being taken.

Now why am I telling you this? You have probably already heard this all before, but the reason is that – it is up to you. You are the only person in the world that can take full control of your actions and therefore it is up to us all, as individuals, to make a difference.

We may share heart-breaking videos of sea turtles having straws pulled from their nostrils on Facebook and you may believe that sharing these stories are enough to make someone notice. Enough to make someone make a change. But it isn’t.

Though I am sure that most turtles would prefer to be a social media star for eating plastic bags mistaken as jellyfish. We need to make real change happen. Turn some heads. Make people notice.

We are so used to having everything packaged in plastic and yet each piece of plastic we throw away will not go away for many years to come so it is time to think about the consequences of our actions. Think of one item you buy regularly in handy packs like yoghurt pots, tissues, individually wrapped crackers, Haribo mini bags and even the small plastic bags you put your fresh vegetables in. These products are designed more for convenience than being friendly towards our planet. In the end, all these empty single-use containers are going straight to landfill and ultimately the ocean.

At this moment, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to cover an area of around 1,500,00 square kilometers, which is around 60 times the size of the UK’s land mass.

In 2017, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated that by 2050 there would be more plastic in the sea than fish.

Also, back in 2010, National Geographic reported that 8 million tons of rubbish ends up in our world’s oceans each year. I would just like to state that that number has risen significantly since then.

Plastic is persistent, it doesn’t biodegrade and therefore doesn’t disappear. It becomes brittle over time and degrades into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics (yes, very imaginative). In fact, every piece of plastic ever made is still lurking and there is a great possibility that it may well be for the next few thousand years whether it be in our oceans or ever-growing landfills.

Plastic can make its way into our oceans in numerous ways. It washes down from rivers from cities, blown from inland or dropped overboard from ships out at sea. But the fact is that 100000% of marine litter is from us, humans.

February 2020

As the sepia hues of autumn and winter start to fade away leaving behind a vibrant carpet of rich amber gold leaves, the soft flattened body of the adult stonefly becomes a common appearance inhabiting our streams and rivers. They belong to the order of the ‘Plecoptera’ which comes from the Greek – twisted wings. Despite this, they are named after their former-nymph selves, living under stones in streams and rivers. Stonefly eggs take around 2-3 weeks to hatch and are covered in a sticky substance that helps them adhere to the rocks of fast- flowing rivers. When they hatch in the summer, they emerge as nymphs and undergo several ‘molts’ before fully emerging as adults. Nymphs are present all year round whereas adults emerge between April and June.

Stonefly are usually found near the streams where they emerged as nymphs. They are a great bioindicator of water-quality and condition as they require cold, fast-flowing rivers with pristine water quality. Polluted and high-water-temperature streams reduce the oxygen intake that stoneflies need to be able to survive and reproduce, threatening the chances of this species survival. Because of this, biologists use stoneflies to asses the success rate of stream restoration projects. For example, in 2015 a project was set up testing the water quality of the Beck just North-East of the Cow Green Reservoir by testing the abundance of stoneflies in the area.Sadly, the adults are short-lived and fly poorly so they can’t stray too far away from the stream where they emerged as nymphs.

Some could say that they exhibit unusual courtship behaviour. The male adults do press-up like movements (drumming their abdomen) to send sound signals to potential female mates. If a receptive female drums her response, the pair continue to drum and move closer to one another, eventually meeting and mating.

Without stoneflies, fish species like rainbow trout and brown trout would not survive as easily as they would have before. Being their main source of prey, stonefly hold quite an important role in the food chain. Being highly sensitive to water quality, stonefly help biologists greatly as I said before. Could we cope well without them?

The common stonefly (Diura bicaudate), one of 34 species of stonefly in the UK, can be seen all year round from January to December. All 34 species are hard to tell apart but if you see an abundance of stoneflies flitting around your stream, GOOD JOB!  You have a great stream with pristine water-quality. But if not, time to roll up your sleeves and put your waders on, it’s time to save the stoneflies!

Daisy Sullivan

January 2020

Now is the time for a good audit of the garden for “habitats” and to make ready for the Spring, when nature really comes alive.  In fact, that is what we have been doing over the holidays!  Firstly, if you are like us and have been rather derelict in the leaf picking duty, then don’t worry. Piles of leaves are providing welcome shelter for all sorts of creatures and the motto is “untidiness rules”! So please leaf what you can (…intended) until the weather warms up or at least, make a pile in a corner of the garden.

The next job is bird boxes. If you have bird boxes, remove old nesting materials if possible, but not this is not as essential and making sure they are in the right place… a decent height from the ground to avoid the cats, 4-5ft is good or indeed higher if it is safe to get up there. Blue Tits often need a little help, so one of the standard boxes that can be found in garden centres are good – 25mm holes, about the size of a 10p piece. They don’t like the prevailing wind howling through their front door, so point the hole east or north east. A slightly bigger hole 28-30mm will encourage the Great Tits. Please make sure the bird boxes are firmly fixed… nobody likes a wobbly house!

Bird feeders are helpful to our little friends at this time of year, so any mix of peanuts, suet balls or seed containers will do. A particular favourite of ours is the Nyger seed feeder, which brings greedy goldfinches.

If you can, please also take the time to construct insect hotels from bits of brick, twigs, logs, bamboo and stone. This is helpful to mammals, spiders, bumble bees and a host of other creatures.  We even have a toad hibernating under ours in the Durham Genome centre.

My own favourite is the rotting wood pile that I have stuffed between a lime tree and a wall – it is covered by a large Hebe (good for butterflies) and surrounded by Hostas and blackberry – who knows what lies beneath…

Last year we dug and populated a pond – if you have the space please have a go… it does not need to be big, but whatever size, it will rapidly bring a completely new dimension to the wildlife in your garden. Frogs, toads and newts will soon find it!

While of the subject of toads, you can make a toad hole if you like…. dig a hole 50cm diameter and about 25cm deep and loosely fill with rocks, branches, moss, bracken.  Toads will love it, hiding by day and coming out at night to munch on slugs.  Make sure it is a little protected though, we don’t want any cats snuffling about there!

The other point to mention is trees. We don’t all have the opportunity to do this, but if you do have the space, plant a tree!  It does not have to be a towering oak, but any of the smaller shrub like trees will do, Rowan, Hawthorn, Apple, Cherry, Holly. They all provide habitats and food for a host of creatures.

There is plenty of advice and help on the internet for improving your garden for wildlife, so please do have a look and have a go. If we all do something extra this year it will be a great help to the diversity of plants and animals in our gardens. 

November 2019

It is at this time of year, when the myriad of tawny browns and gingers cover the garden that we turn some of our attention to the wellbeing of very welcome winter feathered visitors, in our case, the redwings and fieldfares that come to feed on the scarlet berries of our deliberately unkempt Cotoneaster.

These redwings, a relative of the thrush, migrate from their breeding grounds in Iceland and the Faroe Islands, fleeing from those autumn cold arctic winds that traverse the planet north to south in defiance of the warming South Western winds. They search for the plentiful supply of berries on the moors of Northern England, where rosehips, rowan and hawthorn abound every year. Around now, the hawthorn hedgerows lining the fields are alive with the chaotic flocks of redwings, nervously “chitticking” (for it is not a chirp) and burst skywards when our dog scampers past. They will stay until the weather warms and when our attention is diverted by the joys of spring, they are gone.

Our redwings are most likely Turdus Iliacus coburni, a darker version of the Eurasian nominate form Turdus Iliacus iliacus, first described by Linnaeus. Large flocks of upwards 100 birds (it is hard to count them!) can be seen in Co. Durham at this time of year.

Often flying with them are their palearctic friends the Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris), which although they are present in smaller numbers (indeed solitary), seem to remember very well the locations of the berries in our garden!

So please, if you have the space, grow a cotoneaster, hawthorn, wild rose or a rowan and you will, in time, encourage these delightful birds as winter visitors.