The Little Things

You may have noticed by now that I have a particular passion for birds and in recent weeks they have taken up a lot of space in my edgeland posts. Another huge passion of mine are Butterflies, Moths and Bees but as we draw into November their season is coming to a close. Not to worry though, as pleasure can still be found in the little things…

October is a good time of year to go hunting for fungi as the fruiting period for a good number of our species is from late summer to early winter although there are plenty of species that crop during the spring too. Keeping my eye out whilst in the edgeland last week I did manage to find a few species knocking around although some I have yet to identify (so if you think you know what they might be, let me know!).

From left to right: 1. Stubble Rosegill (in newly ploughed field), 2. Shaggy Inkcap (plenty beneath bramble in the small scrub), 3. Scurfy Twiglet (in cattle pasture), 4. Yet to be identified (in cattle pasture), 5. Possibly Common Bonnet (in cattle pasture) though I may be wrong.

The other small pleasure in abundance last week was the humble snail, often the enemy of the gardener (myself included!) our countryside species are often more colourful and interesting than the common Garden snail we find munching away on our annual and perennial borders in spring.

The first I came across was the Brown-lipped snail, a very attractive gastropod. Scaling the long grass in river meadow it was the warm yellow shell that caught my eye although this species can vary in colour anywhere from light yellow to dark brown and even pink to orange. In the past studies have been undertaken to ascertain why there is such variation in the shell colour and although there was no thorough conclusion it is widely accepted that camouflage is an important contributor. The shell would for example take on a darker, browner hue if the snail was accustomed to woodland living and the lighter, yellow variation would be where the snail is accustomed to open grassland living. This is quite a common snail and it’s no wonder as their range of habitat is quite extraordinary and they will happily thrive in grassland, hedgerows, wasteland, woodland, sea cliffs, sand dunes and gardens to name just a few. Unlike the Garden snail, Brown-lipped snails prefer to feed on dead or decaying vegetation so have very little impact on the garden, in fact you could even consider this snail the gardeners friend.

The next snail I encountered was a very close relative, the White-lipped snail. Looking at the two pictures below you would be forgiven for thinking they are the same snail but look again. The Brown-Lipped snail has a dark band right at the very opening of the shell. The White-lipped snail, you guess it, has a white/cream band at the opening. In almost every other way this snail is the same as the Brown-Lipped snail. They inhabit the same areas and feed on the same plant species (Nettle, Ragwort, Hogweed). Besides the difference in ‘lip’ the only other noticeable difference is size, with the White-lipped snail typically 5mm or so smaller at maturity.

Left – Brown-lipped Snail, Right – White-lipped Snail

The final snail I came across is a particular favourite, the Kentish Snail. Introduced by Roman farmers this little gastropod grows to around 15mm in shell diameter and sports a gorgeous creamy white shell with dark mottling. This little beauty is from the Hygromiidae family meaning ‘hairy snails’ and the young do have hair around their shells but these fine hairs rub off as the snail matures.

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It wasn’t just snails and fungi though, there were a couple of other little pleasures too. It might be the end of the moth and butterfly season but there are still caterpillars around. I found this Buff Ermine caterpillar feeding on some Ragwort by the river and although it doesn’t look particularly glamorous in its caterpillar form, the Buff Ermine moth is a beautiful, large specimen with a pretty glamorous fur shrug-like collar.

Last but not least was a gorgeous (In my opinion at least) and an underrated pollinator, the Yellow Dung fly. In this case a male fly making the most of a late flowering wild carrot. The mature fly will take nectar in lean times but as actually an accomplished predator with the majority of its diet made up by other invertebrates and flies. As the name suggest, this fly lays its eggs in horse, cattle or sheep dung which help incubate and later feed the larvae. The dung fly may like to spend much of its time foraging and frolicking in poo but they serve a unique purpose in pollinating some valuable grassland Orchids.

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It is always nice when on the edgeland to pay attention to the birds and mammals that make their presence so felt but it is the little things like snails and insects that are invaluable to any sustainable ecosystem. Without those creatures at the bottom of the food chain going about their daily lives in abundance then there would be no rich bird life to wonder at. Without the pollinating insects that pass from wildflower to wildflower leaving meadows in their wake there would be no rich grassland or fruiting hedgerows on which the rabbits and small mammals feed. Without those small mammals there would be no deep bronze-eyed foxes gaze in which to become entranced in moments of heart-thumping delight. Today I thank the little guys.

It’s barely autumn and yet already my heart warms at thoughts of spring when the buzz of Bees, Butterflies and the many alien-like bugs, beetles and insects once again invade my senses. Together they are the engine house of the entire edgeland and I’ll be keeping eyes to the ground as well as to the skies next time around.

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