IT’S BEEN a month of making new acquaintances, small and large – from huge British white cattle at Burnham Beeches to tiny beetles, from inquisitive piglets to baby coots, goats, ducks and squirrels.
The largest livestock wandering our local commons are the cattle released each year to graze the vegetation at Black Park, Stoke Common, Burnham Beeches and Langley Park.
Perhaps the most intimidating, size-wise, are the British White Catttle at Burnham Beeches, although they seem docile enough when lying down or thoughtfully munching their way through the local vegetation.
The modern day breed of cattle can claim direct links with the ancient indigenous wild white cattle of Great Britain, notably from the park at Whalley Abbey in Lancashire, and have become regular visitors in recent years as grazing has become increasingly seen as a way of creating diverse habitats in such ancient landscapes.
Once such woodlands would have been grazed by red deer, aurochs, wild boar and beavers. As humans increased their influence on the countryside they seriously reduced the numbers of wild herbivores, but introduced their own grazing pressures in the form of domestic livestock such as pigs, goats, sheep and cattle.
Overstocking of woodland grazers can cause a loss of plant and animal species and prevent natural regeneration, but balanced regimes with appropriate grazing pressure can increase habitat diversity, support important wildlife populations and encourage natural regeneration. A lack of grazing often allows more aggressive plants to outcompete and dominate sites, one reason why the past decade has seen the wider use of grazing cattle across the UK.
The livestock’s dung decomposes quickly as there are many insects and fungi which have evolved to feed on it, making it an important part of the ecosystem.
Bugs and beetles, moths and butterflies are just as important to the local ecosystem but a lot harder to photograph. Thankfully local forums like the Wild Cookham and Chesham Wildlife facebook groups are awash with experts good at spotting, capturing and chronicling their movements, or pulling together useful photo montages of which species to spot – and when.
One of the smallest but most colourful discoveries in a Chalfont meadow was the red-headed cardinal beetle, a bright red beetle with black legs and knobbly antennae found in woodland, hedgerows, parks and gardens over summer.
But this glorious meadow was alive with insects, from crickets to marbled white butterflies: it’s just tricky to capture them on camera when they move so quickly.
Thankfully the experts in the Wild Cookham facebook group are able to come up with much better images of some of the butterflies I have failed to capture, like the marbled white, comma, red admiral and holly blue, along with an excellent guide to about three dozen of the most common local species; Butterfly Conservation also have a useful identification guide.
Apart from the insects, this is also the season for baby animals in all shapes and sizes. Living near water, we have several families of ducks among our regular visitors, although seeing the little family line dwindle as the weeks go past and local predators get to work can be a little disheartening, reminding us of our very special rescue duckling a couple of years ago.
Watching a family of young thrushes showering and playing in the birdbath was an unexpected delight, a reminder of just how many visitors dropped in during the dark weeks of lockdown to make our lives a little cheerier – from a flustered pheasant and partridge to tits, robins and blackbirds, dunnocks, magpies and goldfinches.
We were remiss in keeping a proper lockdown diary, but one weekly photographic record that is a regular source of delight is the photo-newsletter issued by the “Moorhens” from their base near Milton Keynes.
A couple of years ago we posted the story of the Battells’ transformation of a couple of acres of cow pasture into an impressive nature reserve and their weekly newsletter continues to chronicle the exploits of a vast array of bird, animal and insect visitors, from courting pigeons to hungry foxes and naughty young squirrels. Contact their Moorhens through their home page to sign up.
Baby coots, ducklings and goslings have been vying for visitors’ attention at Black Park, and similar scenes have been repeated in ponds and rivers across the Chilterns.
From bats and barn owls to moorhens and muntjacs, after those long weeks when the main highlights were the daily visitors on the bird feeders, it’s a delight to be out and about again, lucky to be alive and blessed to be able to enjoy the amazing flora and fauna on our doorstep.