NATURALLY THINKING

By Margaret Waddingham

Articles published in the Caundler Magazine

I’ve been watching the hogweeds

After drifting along with the clouds for most of August, we suddenly found ourselves trying to find some cool, shady spot for three whole days just when the schools returned, and then, just as abruptly, we were again under cloud canopy.

At least these clouds produced some welcome rain otherwise we would all have been crying ‘drought, drought’. It has been recognised as a wet summer so I wonder why it is that the water table seems so low. Surely, in days gone by gardens didn’t flag and fields didn’t crack so quickly after a wet season? I suppose it’s all due to climate change.

Down Rowden Mill lane, I’ve been watching the hogweeds because they remind me so much of the moor when we lived in Hatherleigh.

I had at that time become particularly interested in why different insects seemed to prefer different parts of the plant and so I searched back through my notes of the time to compare them with what I saw now. Sure enough, in August 1991, I had recorded how one hogweed plant had played host to a variety of insects and which particular bits they were interested in. On the top of the flower head there were half a dozen yellowish red soldier beetles and two little yellow striped hoverflies that hovered on or just above it. Below that were several elongated beetles with scarlet wings and a black head, later identified as click beetles, and below that was a very large web stretching from one of its leaves to a nearby gorse bush. At the very base were three small black slugs. I was intrigued by the part that the hogweed was playing in the lives of all these little insects. The soldier beetles are carnivorous so presumably they were snapping up all those harmful little bugs that might drop by and eat the flower. The hover flies feed on aphids amongst other things, so presumably they caught anything that the soldier beetles missed and, in addition, pollinated the flowers. The click beetles enjoy a good feed on rotting vegetation so they help to keep the plant tidy, whilst the spider grabs anything else that is foolish enough to fly too close. Little black slugs are omnivores and I suppose eat anything left over by the others. Their menu can include fungi, little earthworms, rotting vegetation, dead plant material and dung, in other words, they would protect the plant from quite a lot near its root. With all those sentinels protecting it, it’s small wonder that the hogweed is one of the successes of the plant world. It still doesn’t explain why each seemed to keep to one particular territory
though. Down Rowden Mill Lane, I did see a couple of soldier beetles on the top of one, together with some large flies and a few bees round several but if any had that same army looking after them, I missed them.

I have been entertained by the families that gather round the bird feeders.

As soon as the querulous adult goldfinches flock in, their offspring arrive too, usually sitting on top of the feeders looking pathetic and hoping their parents will remember that they are still not able to work out how to cling to the feeders. They never do. Fair enough, they have to learn how to fend for themselves and ignoring them is the probably a bird’s best way to do it. After a while, the youngsters, their backs well coloured in their goldfinch livery but their fronts still fledgling pale, line up under the feeders gathering up what falls down. This is the signal for other families of ground feeders to join them – chaffinches, sparrows and the occasional young robin, not yet red waist-coated. The tit families are much kinder to their youngsters. They seem to feed them until they can hang on upside down themselves.
There are still some late nesting house martins under my gutters that haven’t yet managed to coax their offspring away from their nests, though every morning I see bigger and bigger numbers of them circling round, feeding on the insects that will help sustain them on their journey to the warmer climes of Africa. The swifts, of course, being the first to arrive, were first to leave and did so long ago leaving the church tower strangely silent.

About Margaret

Margaret WaddinghamI was born in Middlesex in 1935 and educated at a convent in Rickmansworth. In 1954 I moved with my family to Cranleigh in Surrey where I met and married Brian. We have two daughters and five grandchildren.
For 21 happy years we lived on the outskirts of Guildford, moving to Hatherleigh in North Devon when our children had fled the nest to get on with their own lives.

My love of writing goes back many years but it was not until I retired from RHS Rosemoor Gardens in 1995 that I was able to devote more time to this and my other favourite pursuits, gardening and the countryside.

For many years I was a regular contributor of short stories, poetry, nature and other articles to three women’s national weeklies, periodical regional magazines and local newspapers. I also had a book of the history of a neighbouring village and a couple of books of poetry published.

One day our daughters phoned to suggest, very gently, that they couldn’t get to us quickly in an emergency and that’s how we ended up in Stourton Caundle.

We couldn’t have chosen a better place and although Brian sadly passed away in 2018, I have come to appreciate the village more and more.

Genevieve (my mobility scooter for those who haven’t met us) and I wander the local lanes, drinking in all that is around me and when I can no longer do this I will still have a small, peaceful garden to sit in where nature comes to visit me.