The dead and the living are mingling on the Downs


– Farthing Downs and New Hill, London, September 2012

The living and the dead mingle on the Downs this morning. Meadow brown butterflies kick up from the ruins of grassy tussocks and rusting bramble. They are as shed leaves moved by an autumnal breeze. Brown and orange, one white dot in their black eyespots, they sit in the tops of young, dwarfish oaks, or else are lost to the souring land. Workers have opened up more grassland with chainsaws and fire, stumps of ash are torn and splintered – a battle has taken place here. Jackdaws survey the new clearings, and the old ones, too, a strange officialdom about them, their calls back and forth, scathing blue-grey eye – are they coroners or corvids? This is their work, the image fits.

The yellow rattle has mostly turned, the wind pushing across the road and down the slope. But there isn’t the sound this parasitic plant is named for. There’s the drone of a biplane, probably from Kenley, there’s the teasing whir of a bicycle passing along the cutting, the sound of aging leaves stirring, sycamore yellowed by the changing season. Scabiouses and hawk’s-bits add punctuations of colour to the mushroom-drab Downs, the grey Sunday sky burnt by sun, puddles of blue appearing. In the long grass crickets click like a machine shutting down, the dead and the living mingling on the Downs.

Have you seen a stag beetle in London recently? You’d be surprised

This article was featured in the News Shopper

Growing up in Lewisham as a kid, the sight of a stag beetle on the pavement was not unusual. You can see where insects get the name ‘mini-beasts’ when you look at this particular creature: its huge mandibles give it a sense of outward aggression, as if it’s constantly spoiling for a fight. When you witness a stag flying around the impression is of a veritable thug who’s had too much to drink. But stag beetles are perfectly harmless and have, like much of Britain’s wildlife, suffered immense declines since the Second World War. Why is this? Stag beetles are dependent on rotting wood in woodland habitats. The suburban sprawl of the post-war period saw extensive loss of habitat, ancient woods were felled and grubbed out and the ensuing countryside tidy-up has been so damaging to our wildlife, particularly for our bees and butterflies. But, funnily enough, London is a great place to find stag beetles, particularly Lewisham and Southwark. In the past week I’ve seen three male stag beetles, two of them in flight looking for a mate and one dead on a doorstep. The heavy rain and summer break-outs have created good opportunities to view male stags flying around, as windy and wet weather is unsuitable for a cruising stag dude. London Wildlife Trust has launched a campaign to map the distribution of stag beetles in the city, and people have been sending in their sightings in the hundreds. It seems there’s a real affection for this mini-monster amongst Londoners, it’s ignited people’s interest in wildlife, rekindling memories of childhood, when stags were more common (and, apparently, treated very unfairly!). It’s also interesting a new-wave of wildlife watchers who can take the lead on protecting this precious species in the decades to come.

What can you do to help stag beetles after you’ve let London Wildlife Trust know about your sighting? If you have a garden, allow a wild fringe to evolve and create deadwood piles near trees to mimic a woodland habitat. If you have a tree that’s dead or been felled, let the part of the wood or at least the stump remain there. It’s all about keeping things messy. It’s a good idea to keep your cat in from dusk onwards, when the beetles are likely to be roaming. If you don’t own a garden why not join a local Friends of group for a park or nature reserve and help to create stag beetle habitat, or set an area aside for them in your community garden. Stags beetles need our help, and by finding out where they are today we can help to protect and promote them for the foreseeable future.

More information:

People’s Trust for Protection of Endangered Species (PTES)

London Wildlife Trust

BBC Nature

Hutchinson’s Bank butterflies

On Saturday (9th June 2012) London Wildlife Trust and the Old Surrey Downs Project held the annual Hutchinson’s Bank open day. With the Heritage Lottery Funded From Thorn to Orchid Project, Hutchinson’s Bank has been managed instensively by both local and travelling volunteers over the past 12 months to remove the encroaching scrub of young trees which, if left unchecked, will shade-out the foodplants of a diverse array of butterflies. Here are some of the butterflies encountered on the day, many of which will thrive thanks to the ongoing management of the 35 acre reserve. The small blue and dingy skipper are two butterflies suffering severe declines nationally.

Small blue (Cupido minimus)

Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

Green hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

Dingy skipper (Erynnis tages)

Small heath (Coenonympha pamphilus)

Common blue (Polyommatus icarus)