Making the most of it…

Over the last few weeks we have been utilising our willow crop, making the most of the many withies our osier bed produces. Sometimes referred to as basket willow, common osier has traditionally been coppiced or pollarded for its withies: thin, pliable rods used for making baskets or hurdles, screens or sculptures.

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Willow withies, cut and ready to be woven!

Willow is of value to wildlife, with the caterpillars of a number of moth species feeding on the foliage, the catkins providing an important source of early nectar and pollen for bees and other insects and the branches making good nesting and roosting sites for birds.

Our volunteers were busy harvesting the willow over the winter months. Some are left to grow for longer, producing large poles which can be used for fencing stakes or den building poles, whilst our main bed is pollarded each year, providing us with toasting sticks for cooking food over the campfire, bundles of willow we can sell to willow weavers and Forest School leaders for willow craft activities and lots of withies we can use ourselves.

At their February meeting, our Young Naturalists had a go at constructing a living willow dome to the side of the Education Centre. Although it may not look living now, the willow rods pushed into the ground will hopefully take, producing lots of side shoots we can then weave into the basic structure.

We began by pollarding the last few willows in the osier bed and rummaging through the piles of cut withies to select a number which were nice and long and straight.

Using a piece of twine tied to a stick pushed into the ground, we measured out our willow dome and pushed a number of withies into the ground in a circle. We then pulled in the tips of those rods and tied them together at the top before adding some horizontally part way up the structure to pull in the shape and create a dome.

Megan had made willow hoops on a Natural Wellbeing session in January whilst with us for work experience and shared this new found knowledge with Mollie and Will, producing a number of hoops we could use as windows.

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Making willow hoop windows

We added in two archways for doors and our willow hoop windows then, having run out or time, admired our creation.

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Our willow dome

Hopefully the willow will grow and over time we will be able to strengthen our structure with the new growth, giving it more shape and definition. I know it will be a welcome addition to the area by the Education Centre, our Wildlife Tots in particular loved the structure when they joined us at the start of the month. Thank you to volunteers Geoff and Roma for your help, and to volunteer placement Sarah who has added in more willow over the past week to fill in some of our gaps!

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Our willow dome with a few more willow rods – thank you Sarah!

We have also used the willow to make hedgerow baskets on an adult workshop and simple platters with children from Moyles Court School as part of their Global Development Day.

On our hedgerow workshop we harvested the willow on day one, using it to create the framework of our baskets before foraging for other materials on day two, including bramble, holly, ivy, sedge, rush, broom, birch and larch, experimenting with these materials when weaving the body of the basket. Here are some of our participants finished creations:

At Moyles Court School we made simple willow platters with the children as part of their Global Development Day, introducing them to the material and discussing the many uses of willow. They really enjoyed their willow weaving experience and everyone went away with a willow platter they had expertly woven:

Whilst we’ve used a lot of last year’s willow growth, we still have plenty left for other creations, projects and campfire cooking – and there will always be more of this wonderful natural material to harvest next Winter and use in the Spring!

The drunken, merry god of the woodlands.

It now really seems as though summer has arrived.  The rise in temperature and bright sunlight are encouraging a bit more insect activity, although not yet as much as I would have hoped. On the butterfly front I’ve recently seen red admiral, meadow brown, speckled wood, small white and large white.

Three out of the first four visitors today were asking about dragonflies on the reserve. Good numbers of damselflies including azure damselfly, common blue damselfly, blue-tailed damselfly, red-eyed damselfly and large red damselfly are out at the moment.  Emperor dragonfly and scarce chaser have been seen and a female broad-bodied chaser was seen hanging up on vegetation around the small pond behind the education centre.

Female Broad-bodied Chaser

Female Broad-bodied Chaser

I always think of dragonflies as being superb aeronauts with almost magical powers of flight to hover, dart and even fly backwards or upside- down, so it was a bit of a shock to find a golden-ringed dragonfly floating in the water in a ditch, looking as though it had met its end. Rescuing it was relatively easy and it crawled off of my finger onto a tree stump,where it slowly dried out before flying off.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly  - drying out after being rescued from a puddle in a ditch

Golden-ringed Dragonfly – drying out after being rescued from a puddle in a ditch

The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the poor weather last year is responsible for the dearth of butterflies and moths, this year.  Whether (weather?) this is the case or not, there has been a decline in the numbers of moths coming to the light trap.  Last night there were some 24 individual moths representing 16 different species, not a large catch for what is probably the peak time for moths. Among the catch were a  privet hawkmoth and an eyed hawkmoth.

Privet Hawkmoth  - Sphinx ligustri

Privet Hawkmoth – Sphinx ligustri

Probably the most eye-catching of the rest was this buff ermine

Buff Ermine  Spilosoma luteum

Buff Ermine  – Spilosoma luteum

A constant fascination, to me, is the way that all animals and plants have an instinctive, in-built knowledge or awareness of the passage of time and the changing of the seasons. Only by this mechanism are they able to co-ordinate the synchronisation of, say, all plants of the same species  coming into flower together.   As I was wandering around earlier, opening up the hides, I chanced upon a fine display of flowers on several groups of sedges – I think!! ( Some of you will know that  my botanical knowledge is somewhat selective and when it comes to ‘grass-like’ stuff rather suspect!) Well whatever they are their flowers, although only yellow-green are really quite delightful in close-up.

sedge flower(?)

sedge flower(?)

Much of the vegetation on the reserve is of the green variety, so it’s always nice to see a splash of colour. Today one of the more obvious plants ‘on parade’ were the flowers of red campion, with their characteristic swellings behind the petals, they are almost unmistakable.  But, having been caught out recently on plant names, I thought I’d check. It’s only when you bother to look up some of these things that you find that even some of our common plants have interesting connections in folk-lore and fascinating biology. The scientific name for red campion is Silene dioica. Silene comes from Silenus, in Greek mythology,  who is the ‘drunken, merry god of woodlands’. The second part of the name dioica, refers to ‘two houses’  and refers to the fact that each plant has flowers of only one sex so that two plants are needed for pollination and seed production.

Red Campion - Silene dioica - the drunken, merry god of the woodands

Red Campion – Silene dioica – the drunken, merry god (goddess?) of the woodlands